There is a built-in irresistibility about the stories of explorers, especially that particular brand of hero and madman who “goes where no man has gone before” strictly for the sake of getting there first.
So many of these treks, whether to the top of a mountain or a polar end point, were staged not such much for king, country and the general good of mankind but rather the specific obsession of being first. That’s what makes these tales so fascinating.
Burke and Wills tells one of these tales, and a very good one, too. It’s the story of an ill-fated dash across the continent of Australia – the first time the interior was crossed by white men – called the Victoria Exploring Expedition of 1860. Burke (Jack Thomson) was the Irish leader of the expedition; Wills (Nigel Havers) was the upper-class English scientist.
They and their party marched from Melbourne in the south to the ocean in the north, across a continent of parched nothingness. With a small group, Burke and Wills made it across. But getting back to Melbourne proved an insurmountable task.
The story is told as a stately Lawrence of Australia. The focus, rightly enough, is on the crossing, though we return frequently to life back in Melbourne, where Burke’s fiancee (Greta Scacchi) gazes longingly at mementos of her roughneck explorer, while the financial backers of the enterprise (rather easily caricatured) gradually lose interest in their far-flung adventurers.
At first the explorers are flush with the thrill of the journey, pausing to play a cricket match on a sandy riverbed at their base camp halfway across the continent. They end with a grim death march, struggling to maintain the last vestiges of civilized behavior.
The final blow comes when Burke’s nearly dead troupe returns to that base camp after a four-month march, only to find that the remainder of the party has given up hope and headed back to Melbourne just a few hours earlier. This incredible coincidence can only be justified by history: It really happened that way.
The director, Graeme Clifford, was born in Australia (although he has spent most of his career elsewhere), and has apparently always loved the story. His approach is sometimes overwrought, but he does capture the broad, brown vistas of the outback, and some of the madness of the trekkers.
Clifford could have pruned Michael Thomas’s script a bit. The cutaways to Melbourne life become redundant; worse is his tendency to overwrite dialogue. Larger-than-life Irish characters are always in danger of becoming overripe, and Thomas stumbles with some of Burke’s more inspirational moments – and his love scene: “You’re a foolish, emptyheaded little creature … but I must have you!”
The major strength of Burke and Wills is the engrossing true story itself, rendered with all the foolishness and heroism of the mission. There are hints of Burke’s intense motivation to cross the land first, but in the end it springs from the same need as the film’s aborigines to leave their painted handprints on cave walls: the fundamental urge to say, “I was here.” That may be the noblest motivation of all.
First published in The Herald, April 24, 1987
Yes, I do like movies like this. Graeme Clifford came up as an editor before his feature directing bow with Frances; he also did Gleaming the Cube before veering off into TV movies. Jack Thompson is of course a giant of Aussie film, and Greta Scacchi had already made Heat and Dust for Merchant Ivory, thus putting her on the map.