In the late eighteenth century a Judge Advocate's daughter runs away with a group of twelve women convicts. In the wild colonial bushland the women successfully defend themselves from wild men living in the wilderness and from the soldiers who try to capture them. When one of the women is raped and murdered, the others seek revenge.
Though it was released when the Australian film renaissance of the 1970s was gaining momentum, Tom Cowan’s gruelling Journey Among Women (1973) is rarely spoken of with the same reverence that is afforded the flag-bearers of our cinematic coming-of-age.
It’s easy to see why the film has been difficult to categorise; when compared to the lace-bodiced, melodramatic interpretations of our colonial past that typified the Australian cinema’s next wave, Journey Among Women is the black sheep of the family. Insanely uninhibited, the convict survival story is too steeped in graphic nudity and violence to sit alongside critic’s darlings like My Brilliant Career (1979), Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) or The Getting of Wisdom (1978). But it is also too artistically and intellectually noteworthy to be embraced by the genre B-movie aficionados who claim Stone (1974) is the greatest Australian film ever. Cowan’s achievement exists within a niche all its own.
The film’s central character is Elizabeth Harrington (Juene Pritchard), a statuesque beauty of social standing amongst the colonial settlement, and the object of affection for redcoat Captain McEwan (Martin Phelan). When she learns that female convicts are being subjected to sexual and physical abuse, she frees them and escapes with them, into the dense Australian bushland, despite possessing no survival skills and hailing from the ruling class that all the women have spent a lifetime rebelling against.
The nine women soon establish a campsite with the aid of Kameragul (Lillian Crombie), an Aboriginal woman who befriends the group. McEwan, however, will not rest until his Elizabeth is found and the escapees brought to justice.
Cowan asks an extraordinary amount of his team of actresses, who spend all or part of
their time unclad in the wilderness, filthy; one nerve-racking scene involves a barefoot, war-painted naked woman hurling herself at full sprint, into a valley whilst being chased by a trooper on horseback.
But the director was not aiming for cheap titillation or genre thrills with Journey Among Women. At its core is a strong feminist tale that would have resonated with the women’s movement of the early 1970s and still holds relevance today; these women from all walks of life have endured male oppression and societal abuse, and they find individual power through group unity. By stripping them bare and having his characters fend for themselves in such a brutal, unforgiving climate, Cowan has allowed his actresses unparalleled freedom to define the essence of the female struggle.
Bewilderingly, Cowan went on to direct only more film – Sweet Dreamers (1982), starring Richard Moir and Sue Smithers – but established himself as a leading cinematographer, shooting the likes of The Love Letters from Teralba Road (1977), Dimboola (1979), Winter of Our Dreams (1981), One Night Stand (1984) and Emma's War (1986).
Though Cowan’s directing style lacks finesse in parts (no doubt due to the films miniscule budget) and some of the acting is patchy (notably from the men), Journey Among Woman deserves the same respect afforded the (other) great Australian films of the period. It is a fearless, unique vision that encapsulates both a shameful brutality and the spiritual essence of Australia’s past, be that the 1880s or the 1970s.