Why It’s Important
Storm Boy is a bona fide Aussie classic. Henri Safran’s adaptation of Colin Thiele’s 1964 novel established its reputation with a then-impressive haul of $2.6 million at the local box office, since maintaining a cultural foothold thanks in large part to its ubiquity in primary school classrooms. Its message of environmental conservatism and social acceptance has ensured that generations of kids have been treated to fuzzy VHS transfers of the film. (The G-rating and supplementary education kits can’t have hurt, either.)
The film stars prepubescent Greg Rowe as the titular ‘Storm Boy’, better known as Mike to his dad Tom Kingsley (Peter Cummins), whose own nickname, ‘Hide-Away Tom’, effectively summarises his hermitic tendencies. It takes place in a remote South Australian lagoon system and national park called the Coorong. ‘Storm Boy’ is thus named by Fingerbone Bill (David Gulpilil), with whom he rescues a trio of pelican chicks, abandoned after their mother’s death. Storm Boy forges a friendship with Fingerbone and one of the pelicans, named Mr Percival. But the idyllic rhythms of lagoon life are challenged by the encroachments of the real world, and all that implies for Storm Boy’s unconventional childhood.
Storm Boy’s release was heralded by a handful of awards, largely from Australian institutions – most notably the Best Film gong at the 1977 AFI Awards (Safran, Gulpilil and screenwriter Sonia Borg also nabbed AFI nominations). Forty years on from its premiere at Adelaide’s Fair Lady Theatre on the 18th of November, 1976, Storm Boy remains an important piece of Australian film culture. The Guardian’s 2014 rewatch of the film celebrated it as “a drama deeply attuned to its own aesthetic” while a recent FilmInk retrospective noted that “the film truly stands the test of time.”
Admittedly, Storm Boy’s prominence may have waned somewhat over recent years – not helped by a middling-quality DVD transfer – but its 40th anniversary has seen it swoop back into the public consciousness in a big way. A recent restoration has toured the country, playing at Adelaide panel discussions, the Canberra International Film Festival and this year’s Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival. A remake – which “an older Mike Kingsley recounts his pelican adventures to his wayward granddaughter” – is even in the works (perhaps hoping to recreate the success of 2011’s surprise hit Red Dog), to the doubtless delight of primary school teachers across the nation.
What’s It Really About?
If you’re looking for a case for the conservation of the Australian natural ecosystem, Storm Boy operates as an effective exhibit. Geoff Burton’s cinematography gently captures the Coorong’s beauty, creating a contemplative sense of fragility that cuts through even when watching the most overworn video cassette. This portrait of nature avoids naiveté, with an encounter with a deadly black snake acknowledging the perils amidst the picturesque views.
The film’s environmentalism is nuanced throughout, representing the diverse challenges to the sanctity of its seaside setting. The callous hunters who gun down Mr Percival’s mother – and, ultimately, Mr Percival himself – are the most obvious threats to the environment, but their blithe destruction is joined by casual neglect: the drunken louts who plough their dune buggies through the undergrowth (an addition to Thiele’s story, inspired by producer Matt Carroll’s encounter with “the incongruous sounds of… booze-fuelled hollering” in the area), or the boating businessman who toss their empty beer cans into the lagoon without a second thought. (Environmental vandalism, it seems, goes hand-in-hand with excessive alcohol consumption.)
"The sad state of the region nowadays reinforces the importance of Storm Boy’s messages of sensitivity and conservation."
Said businessman are caught at sea in a raging storm, and only rescued by the intervention of Mr Percival who – in the film’s least plausible, most crowd-pleasing moment – flies a lifesaving line out to them. Today, they might be in trouble. In the four decades since Storm Boy’s filming, the Coorong has degraded to a potentially irrevocable state of disrepair. Mass extinctions and declines in breeding, credited to super-saline water caused by “years without an environmental flow from the Murray-Darling system” saw The Age declare the ecosystem “dead” in 2006.
Hope is not lost entirely – a “bird boom” earlier this year suggested a path to recover for the Coorong, though ”the jury’s still out” – but the sad state of the region nowadays reinforces the importance of Storm Boy’s messages of sensitivity and conservation.
In Storm Boy, the Coorong is both a sanctuary for native birdlife and a refuge for its protagonists. Tom’s escape from polite society is a wilful retreat, an embrace of seclusion absent clear motivation. One might initially assume that his hiding away is prompted by the loss of Storm Boy’s mother, but midway through the film, Tom reveals (to his son’s surprise) that it was he who chose to leave his wife.
Throughout, Tom consciously shies away from interaction with the wider world, whether musing to Fingerbone that the “best thing is to love no one. Always end up getting hurt,” or chiding his son for collecting an abandoned radio from the beach. For Tom, the radio represents a real connection to the outside world and all it represents: including education. He resists the urging of locals to enrol Mike in school, arguing that “he’s learning all he needs to know” exploring the Coorong. Despite his gruff demeanour, Tom is fundamentally a fantasist, doing his damnedest to create an enclave quarantined away from the unkindness of reality.
"Despite his gruff demeanour, Tom is fundamentally a fantasist, doing his damnedest to create an enclave quarantined away from the unkindness of reality."
The deliberateness of Tom’s lifestyle becomes apparent when he’s compared with Storm Boy’s other father figure, Fingerbone Bill. Banished from his tribe for breaking Kunai law with a woman, Fingerbone’s separation from society is born of circumstance rather than choice. While Gulpilil’s performance lends the character a jovial levity, the character’s warmth belies the gravity of his situation. The solitude imposed upon Fingerbone goes some way towards explaining why he swiftly bonds with his young protégé, though it’s hard to deny that Bill’s role in the narrative resembles the ‘magical black negro’ archetype rightfully frowned upon in contemporary cinema (not dissimilar to Gulpilil’s breakthrough role in Walkabout).
While Storm Boy’s racial politics can come across as slightly dated – particularly in Fingerbone’s introduction, which implicitly exploits his blackness, accentuated by murky lighting, to evoke fear – there is an acknowledgement that the difference between Tom and Fingerbone is linked to race. That’s most notable in an oblique reference to Fingerbone’s past, at “mission school”, which complicates Tom’s choice to keep his son out of traditional school – a choice denied to indigenous Australians. Notice, too, that the businessmen are eager to offer Tom a loan after their rescue, but don’t appear to offer any such salvation to Fingerbone.
The film largely resists sitting in judgement upon either of its outsiders, leaving audiences to reflect upon whether, for example, Tom’s withdrawal from civilisation is justified or neglectful. But it is clear that Tom’s choice to live his own way is one denied to many, including Aboriginal Australians like Bill.
Change and Loss
Storm Boy’s moral ambiguity in this regard is integral to its role as a coming-of-age story. Such stories are traditionally about disillusionment, about the ambivalence and change, the losses and gains associated with ‘growing up.’ Storm Boy is no different, channelling Storm Boy’s paradoxical desires for things to stay the same and for everything to change through his bond with Mr Percival and his increasing interest in attending school. After learning that his father left his mother, Storm Boy runs away from home to sit in at the local school, to the satisfaction of Miss Walker (Judy Dick). We sense the attraction of school to the young boy, as somewhere for him to hang out with children his own age and to learn – about pelicans! But school also represents loss: a loss of freedom, a loss of childhood, the loss of the Coorong. For Tom, it represents a path towards destruction, as encapsulated in the speech he delivers to his son:
“You've got to learn that you can't have everything you want. The radio will tell you you need this and that and a thousand other things. You want more and more, so you end up chasing a lot of rubbish. You got to trust me son.”
Again, the film balances its perspective between Tom’s pessimism and a more optimistic perspective, recognising through Mr Percival that growth and loss are often intertwined. When the pelican is shot dead by the same hunters who killed its mother, Mike’s father’s reaction is one of denial, suggesting that the pelican may still be alive as they couldn’t find its body.
"The film balances its perspective between Tom’s pessimism and a more optimistic perspective, recognising through Mr Percival that growth and loss are often intertwined."
It’s up to Fingerbone to offer a more realistic perspective and one that, I suspect, aligns more closely with the intentions of the filmmakers. He finds Mr Percival’s body and takes Storm Boy to the grave, but also directs him towards the new pelican chicks hatching in the lagoon. “Mr Percival all over again, a bird like him never dies.” This lesson serves an important rite of passage for Mike, a recognition that life is defined by loss and rebirth alike.
What to Watch Next
The aforementioned Walkabout (streaming now at SBS On Demand) – another film about Australia directed by a European, sharing a coming-of-age story and a prominent role for David Gulpilil – is perhaps the best companion piece for Storm Boy, even if its dreamlike editing and risqué subject material make it ill-suited for the primary classrooms where Safran’s film thrived.
There’s also a strong lineage of Australian children’s films with prominent environmental themes. 1992’s FernGully is a worthy follow-up for younger viewers not quite ready for Walkabout, while George Miller’s Happy Feet offers a more recent example of environmentally-minded animated entertainment. And, of course, there’s the remake of Storm Boy to look forward to in the years to come.
Watch 'Storm Boy'
Friday 14 May, 7:30pm on NITV
Director: Henri Safran
Starring: Greg Rowe, Peter Cummins, David Gulpilil, Judy Dick, Tony Allison