The 1987 film offers an examination of Australian attitudes to class through the lenses of cinema and society. How does this lie of classlessness inform our national identity?
Sometimes I wonder what’s keeping me in Australia, and then I see something like Kangaroo (1987) and I remember. A buried tale of politics and ‘red-hot treason’ by director Tim Burstall it is not a great film, but it made me wonder about the place of class in Australian cinema and in Australia itself. This is because the film plays with one of the most seductive of fictional premises: alternate history, this time, one in which an Australian fascist uprising fails in the wake of a world war.
Kangaroo takes place in the very city I’ve grown up in and is based on a genuine paramilitary cult that operated in Sydney’s underground in the 1910s and 1920s. Pop culture is obsessed with these kinds of set-ups at present. We love to watch the end of the world, societies that are properly alive (even to regressive change) and films that restructure nations. If nostalgia for the apocalypse is peak, the one in Kangaroo is not ecological but political.
In the world of Kangaroo it is 1916, and World War I has made the Somers family political refugees from England. Richard (Colin Friels) is an anti-war writer with a typically English reserved intensity, and his wife Harriet (Judy Davis) is a fierce, sharp German unafraid to assert her rights in the face of heightening discrimination against activists and Germans. The couple land in Sydney and are immediately bewildered by the chaos and apparent classlessness of the new country: their Europeanness means nothing here.
We come to understand that their snobbery comes from their status as outsiders: bewilderingly for them, Australia has reinspired their identification with the continent that rejected them. That old world is dead and they are searchers in their new one. Sydney is a lonely, nowhere place – London in miniature, fastened to a wild harbour. The bush seems forlorn to them, the suburbs crass, the streets empty and the people uncouth and apparently unstructured by class. ‘Aren’t they vile!’ flashes Harriet.
The idea that we live in a classless country is an odd Australian dream. Along with the myth that Indigenous history and sovereignty is something neatly compartmentalised in the past, it is one of Australia’s enduring foundational ideas. It defies common sense, let alone sustained political inquiry – how could a settler colony founded on the destitution of its original inhabitants and the exploitation of imported convicts have ever been classless?
Perhaps myths are inevitable in this down-is-up context. Both these groups of people were disenfranchised and used as raw labour power to build a new world – victims of a twin captivity. Of course, Australia is a place as old as the world, as are its culture and people: its hundreds of Indigenous tribal nations. But, to shamelessly paraphrase crime writer James Ellroy, Australia was never innocent. Paranoid Australia – certainly. Mad Australia – maybe. But classless Australia? No, not yet.
The OECD has found that poverty (defined as people who live on less than half of the median income) and income inequality are higher here than the OECD average, and that ten per cent of Australians report they cannot afford to buy enough food. The OECD’s data also shows that a massively disproportionate level of economic growth has been flowing to the richest one per cent. That is a class issue. The lie of classlessness is a statistical fail and a reality fail. We even say the word ‘capitalism’ more than the word ‘class’. The word ‘privilege’, now well and truly in the public conversation, comes close but falls short.
In Kangaroo, our European brethren Richard and Harriet become fast friends with their neighbours, Jack and Vicki Calcott, who are classically Australian: unassuming and rough around the edges, welcoming and hard-drinking, proud of their cultured overseas friends. To them, Richard confesses he believes that Australia has no ‘inside life’ – nothing going on beneath the surface, no soul to connect to – and his introspections fuel his writing with fresh zeal. ‘You don’t take to the Aussies at first sight. Bit of a collision between their aura and yours,’ observes Jack neatly.
With their new friends, and in trying to figure out the nature of Australia, Richard and Harriet become increasingly invested in the place as well as increasingly confronted. But they remain trapped in their European ways, seemingly incapable of being fully engaged by both heart and head. Though Harriet is undoubtedly Richard’s intellectual equal and life partner, as a couple they are essentially British in their lack of hands-on warmth and affection for one another.
Secretly, one suspects they see more than vulgarity in Jack and Vicki’s very public embraces: they see the black hole at the centre of their own partnership. While Friels’s Richard is drawn to Vicki’s open, honest face and girlish demeanour, Davis’s slim, jumpy frame (so much nervous energy!) and angular features can hardly hide her character’s disgust with Jack’s advances towards her.
Unlike her husband, Harriet is consigned by her historical period to mere womanhood. And unlike Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981), another film in which passion and politics unfolds against a real historical backdrop, Kangaroo is not a portrait of a great love or a tragically marred relationship. In Reds, the revolution really happened in Soviet Russia, the love story in the couple’s two-person world was just as tangible as the political shake-up, which then took years to devolve. In Kangaroo, the revolution is loveless, and it fails instantly.
Before they become wrapped up in the failed far-right revolution, Harriet and Richard are terrified and seduced by the Australian landscape. In the novel by D.H. Lawrence from which Kangaroo was adapted, the bush comes literally to life in the literary tradition of the Australian Gothic: it is an active and thoughtful force that watches, judges and condemns our outsider protagonists:
the vast, uninhabited land frightened him. It seemed so hoary and lost, so unapproachable. The sky was pure, crystal pure and blue, of a lovely pale blue colour: the air was wonderful, new and unbreathed: and there were great distances. But the bush, the grey, charred bush…the terror of the bush overcame him…there was something among the trees, and his hair began to stir with terror, on his head. There was a presence. He looked at the weird, white, dead trees, and into the hollow distances of the bush. Nothing! Nothing at all.
Here it is again: land, belonging, and an especially Australian form of terror. Unknowable, alien, classless Australia – empty and only definable against society in England. Here, the falsity of terra nullius is bound up with the falsity of Australian classlessness. The cruellest irony is that class was only introduced to Australia with colonialism: Indigenous societies were entirely free of its structures.
Through his new friend Jack, Richard comes upon an underground political group named the Diggers, led by a charismatic eccentric dubbed Kangaroo (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who has quietly made a career out of playing political madmen: Toecutter in Mad Max and Immortan Joe in Mad Max: Fury Road). The Diggers hijack the language of socialism but employ the tactics and militarism of the far right. Kangaroo believes they are the chosen ones – the true inheritors of the new world of Australia, training and awaiting a moment of upheaval to capitalise on and take power.
The scene in which Richard stumbles across these Australian blokes, gunned up and preparing in the wild Hanging Rock-like bush, is quietly terrifying. Of course, it is German Harriet who first sees the Diggers for what they are: fascists, disastermen. Richard is just happy to be wanted. He wants an ideology as well as a country to call home, he wants action, and starts considering Kangaroo’s offer to edit their newspaper. The Diggers need a voice and Richard needs an outlet. He has one more thing in common with the paramilitary group: a view of Australia as a vast, ancient country with no history, no culture, no political depth and scarcely any society to speak of.
Through Kangaroo’s cult, the film suggests an alternate political history without ever actualising it, an almost parallel universe in which Australia is pushed towards the brink of a Third Reich. It’s a cinematic premise as magnetic as it is disturbing, entertaining our gravest fears and fascinations with the prospect of totalitarianism.
Kangaroo connects with this failed alternate history through the clear lens of drama and the past rather than science fiction and the hyperbolic future – Lawrence’s original and partly autobiographical novel was based on his brief few months in Australia in 1922 with his German wife, Frieda.
An entire field of scholarship has sprung up around Lawrence’s resulting Australian novel, speculating as to the trails and characters that led him to formulate the secret army plotline, and retracing his and Frieda’s footprints. Did Lawrence meet underground leaders in his brief days in Sydney? Is the whole story an elaborate thought experiment, a veiled depiction of reality, or was it intended as an ominous projection of things to come?
The D.H. Lawrence Society posits that, in his novel, Lawrence ‘made use of the diary technique to turn reality into “fiction”, or at least to explore the fiction-form that “reality” might be turned to’. From the vantage point of 1975, one of the society’s avid researchers wrote:
The other day we made quite an interesting discovery about Kangaroo [the novel]. For some time we were puzzled by a curious paradox about the book: how was it that Lawrence wrote so perceptively and with such knowledge about Sydney and the political scene when he spent such a ludicrously brief time there? Then, as we delved into the period, curious facts began to emerge. For example, research by Rawson and others has shown that much of the political doings in Kangaroo were in fact going on in Australia in the post-1918 period. The events in Kangaroo and the real events in Australian politics coincide most closely in 1921 – almost a year exactly before Lawrence arrived. In particular, a riot in the Sydney Domain on May Day 1921 is quite obviously the model for the ‘Row in Town’ chapter in Kangaroo.
That chapter marks the peak of the film’s political and emotional troubles, and the tangible dangers the very literary and rather passive Richard has naively immersed himself in. How far the Domain of that era is from the place where I attended my first Homebake festival in the late 1990s, the place I have passed through so many times to reach the Art Gallery of NSW. Despite the widespread disaffection and cynicism among the public towards politics, a riot there seems inconceivable. How much hidden Australian history is buried beyond the national conversation and the public eye? What else did Lawrence and Frieda see?
Kangaroo connects this alternate history with the search for an Australian identity through the eyes of new immigrants. Though I wince at the dryness of the phrase – the search for an Australian identity – as I write it, I think it expresses something many of us have wondered at some point: what the hell is going on in this country?
If Australia is truly as classless as Richard and Harriet believe, what is fuelling the outbursts in the trade union, socialist and fascist movements in the world of the film, and what fuelled the riot in Sydney’s Domain in the 1920s?
This is the paradox at the film’s heart that is never really dealt with as well as being, more broadly, Australia’s paradox. The film’s own logic doesn’t follow, and its themes play like an unfinished thought, betraying a raft of conflicting loyalties to opposing fields.
In that way, it’s like life – life in Australia, at least. For a film about displacement from Europe, there’s nothing to be seen or heard of Aboriginal people’s displacement and categorisation as non-citizens – the very definition of a class society. It’s kind of like Neighbours, Australia’s most enduring television export and picture of itself to Britain: it’s decidedly white. There are, however, two Chinese characters in Kangaroo that are (noticeably) servants.
What’s even more illuminating is that the same media myopia remains today. For instance, despite its theme of British settlement, the 2015 television series Banished shows no Indigenous people. It is the repetition of the lie of classlessness in media that helps the myth become its own reality.
Perhaps most strange about Australian stories like Kangaroo and Banished is the way in which they shrink history – the small scale of thinking they present. In conceptualising Australia as the closest place to nowhere, history is imagined as being not more than a couple of hundred years old. What might happen if we thought of history as hundreds of thousands (even millions) of years old, as Aboriginal societies do? The fact that this short view of history prevails in Australia today suggests that Kangaroo’s time is not yet over.
While a few notable contemporary writers such as Tim Winton and Jeff Sparrow have contributed to the conversation surrounding class, the word remains absent in the discourse of even progressive parties such as the Greens, and in most of the press. The latest ‘issue’ in which the myth is breaking apart is housing affordability: a generation of youth are beginning to realise the economic and structural odds stacked against them and their lives may not be better than those of their parents. Naturally, both major parties’ rhetoric around this issue is designed to obscure the very issue of class: to paraphrase former Treasurer Joe Hockey, Just work harder! It’s the classic capitalist, classless fantasy.
What remains truly seductive about Kangaroo, what still resonates today, is the possibility of social change, and the equal possibility of it being thwarted or, in Kangaroo’s case, misdirected towards extremism. The lie of classlessness continues, as the political class grows richer and more estranged from its working constituency.