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Bitter Springs (1950)


Main image of Bitter Springs (1950)
35mm, 86 minutes, black & white
DirectorRalph Smart
Production CompanyEaling Studios
 The Rank Organisation
Associate ProducerLeslie Norman
ScreenplayW.P. Lipscomb
 M. Danischewsky
CinematographyGeorge Heath
MusicVaughan Williams

A pioneer Australian family take their livestock on a 600-mile trek to reach their government-leased farmland. But their need for water brings them into conflict with Aboriginal tribes.

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The third of five Australian-set features from Ealing Studios, Bitter Springs was the first cinematic attempt to examine the contentious issue of Aboriginal land rights and the dispossession of native Australians by white settlers. Partly sponsored by several government departments as a means of promoting current Aborigine assimilation programmes, the film generated much publicity from the large numbers of Aborigines who were employed to portray members of the Karagani tribe.

Nevertheless, the Aboriginal point of view is largely expressed through the white, Scottish character Mac, who serves as the voice of liberal conscience in opposition to the intransigence of the white settlers, personified in the film by John and Wally King. Wally's contention that "just because a few blacks have been scratching around here for a thousand years doesn't mean they can keep it" encapsulates not only his family's colonialist stance, but the widespread historical and continuing hostility held towards the Aboriginal population as a whole.

However, the film's critical position and its realistic tenor are compromised by two serious errors of judgement, rooted in politics and the box office: the unconvincing, rushed denouement and the casting of Tommy Trinder as comic relief.

Trinder was assigned to the production against the wishes of director Ralph Smart, and it is easy to understand the latter's objections. Trinder's constant barrage of wisecracks is not only tiresome but seriously undermines both the film's serious intentions and its realistic integrity - more Shepherd's Bush than Australian Bush, as one critic remarked of Trinder's presence.

The original ending, as envisaged by Smart, is reputed to have featured a massacre of the Aborigines by the settlers. Such an uncompromising ending would have had greater historical veracity and, indeed, have been more in tune with the overall tone of the film. Instead we are presented with a crude assimilationist message, rendered via a clumsy dissolve that unconvincingly effaces all of the conflict that has gone before, showing Aborigines in 'western' dress now happily working on the Kings' farm. Assimilation for the Aborigines, as presented here, obviously means acquiescence to western ways and accepting the loss of land to white farming.

One of Ealing's more neglected and underrated productions, Bitter Springs is, despite the above caveats, a generally well performed and beautifully shot (entirely on location by Australian cinematographer George Heath) adventure film with a serious message.

John Oliver

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Video Clips
Overlanders, The (1946)
Danischewsky, Monja (1911-1994)
Jackson, Gordon (1923-1990)
Norman, Leslie (1911-1993)
Trinder, Tommy (1909-1989)
Vaughan Williams, Ralph (1872-1958)
Ealing Studios (1938-59)