David Gulpilil: Ten Defining Performances

Content Warning: First Nations readers are advised that the following article contains the name and likeness of a person who has died. Both are respectfully used with the permission of the deceased’s family.

Last week, Australia and the world mourned the loss of an eminent, indelible fixture in the medium of cinema. The artist, David Gulpilil Ridjimiralil Dalaithngu, was born and raised in the Mandhalpuyngu clan, plucked from obscurity to appear in a motion-picture, and later became an informal ambassador for his Indigenous culture through his traditional dance, painting and public speaking.

But of course, David Gulpilil (as he’s most often credited in projects) is best recognised as an actor, having appeared in some of the most iconic Australian movies and delivered one fantastic performance after another. In honour of his memory, Rating Frames has put together a list of the ten roles that best shaped and defined his career, all of which are essential viewing for anybody who considers themselves a fan of Australian cinema.

Walkabout (1971)

In his debut role, filmed when he was just a teenager, Gulpilil plays an Aborigine on “Walkabout”, an adolescent ritual where a boy must traverse the bush alone in order to achieve manhood; on his journey, the teenager happens across a white girl the same age as he (played by Jenny Agutter) and her younger brother (Luc Roeg, the director’s son) both of whom come to rely on him for survival.

Walkabout is often cited, wrongly, as the first picture to star a First Nations actor; and the first to have a Black performer in the role of an Aborigine, rather than in blackface – it’s beaten to each milestone by Jedda (1955) and The Overlanders (1946) respectively. But, it is the first known instance of Indigenous Australian culture being accurately and respectfully represented in a feature-length film, which Gulpilil does almost effortlessly.

Storm Boy (1976)

Gulpilil’s next feature-length role came five years later, a picture based on Colin Thiele’s junior novel of the same name. This crowd-pleasing affair centres on Mike (Greg Rowe), a boy who lives with his reclusive father Tom (Peter Cummins) on the Coorong – the wetlands that separate the Murray River from the Southern Ocean – and his friendship with a pelican he names Mr Percival.

The character that Gulpilil portrays here is Fingerbone Bill, a local Aborigine who befriends young Mike and becomes his mentor. His performance is more energetic and upbeat when compared to that in Walkabout, and yet, the actor demonstrates the same relaxed and natural presence in front of the camera. (Incidentally, Storm Boy would be adapted again in 2019, with Gulpilil quite fittingly playing the father to Fingerbone Bill.)

Mad Dog Morgan (1976)

The same year that Gulpilil appeared in the family-friendly Storm Boy, he also starred – alongside Dennis Hopper (pictured above, right) – in a violent, confronting biopic set during Australia’s colonial era. In said biopic, Gulpilil plays an accomplice and confidant to the titular bushranger, guiding him through unfamiliar terrain and abetting his crimes.

Mad Dog Morgan is an example of the “Meat Pie Western”, a term affectionately given to an Australian production that utilises the tropes of a Hollywood Western. Its success, both at home and internationally, helped spur the New Wave of antipodean cinema and gave rise to numerous imitations in the decades that followed; one such example is The Proposition (2005), which featured Gulpilil in a minor role as an interpreter.

Crocodile Dundee (1986)

Here’s a movie that needs no introduction. It’s the worldwide box-office smash that made Kakadu a top holiday destination for tourists locally and abroad, renewed interest in Australia and its culture, and transformed Paul Hogan from a TV larrikin to an international star. Neville is the character Gulpilil plays here, who meets with friend Mick Dundee (Hogan) and American journalist Sue Charlton (Linda Kozlowski) on his way to a Corroboree – a ceremonial gathering of First Nations peoples.

The briefest of Gulpilil’s roles on this list, and possibly the one he’s recognised most-widely for, Neville is viewed as the embodiment of modern Indigenous culture; caught between modernity and tradition, practising the ways of his ancestors while also adhering to the white man’s norms – it’s most evident in his appearance, with Neville seen wearing traditional face-paint with jeans and a wristwatch.

The Tracker (2002)

The first film to credit Gulpilil as a lead performer, this low-budget drama tells of an Indigenous man tasked, at the behest of the white authorities, with locating a fellow Aborigine accused of murder. Ironically, the actor performed in a very similar role for Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence (also 2002) albeit as a supporting player with less screen-time – and hence, is never given the opportunity to truly flex his acting chops.

The Tracker marked Gulpilil’s first collaboration with director Rolf de Heer, and netted him an AFI Award for Best Actor. It’s an accolade that’s rightfully deserved, for he does well to convey the conflicted emotions of his character – the apprehension, fear, guilt and anger, sometimes all at once – and does so with an unflinching ease, outshining all of his co-stars in the process.

Ten Canoes (2006)

Following the success of The Tracker, Gulpilil and de Heer reunited for another narrative, and a particularly ground-breaking one at that. It’s a tale of sacrifice, leadership, covetousness and warfare that takes place before European settlement, is spoken in the Yolngu Matha language and features a cast of First Nations actors in traditional dress. As a result, Ten Canoes is the most authentic representation of a nomadic, tribal lifestyle ever put to film.

Unlike his two other partnerships with de Heer, Gulpilil doesn’t make a physical appearance on this occasion, with his son Jamie (pictured above) playing the lead instead. But the elder Gulpilil still has a presence in Ten Canoes, taking on the role of narrator in both the English and Yolngu Matha versions of the picture, complete with his trademark energy and dry wit.

Australia (2008)

Baz Luhrmann’s Northern Territory-set epic was much-hyped at the time of its release, stirring the emotions of many an Australian with its allusions to the Stolen Generations and re-enactment of the World War II bombing of Darwin. Also generating hype was a star-laden cast that included the two biggest Australian thespians of the day, Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman, in addition to David Wenham, Bryan Brown, Ben Mendelsohn, Jack Thompson and, of course, Gulpilil.

The latter plays an Indigenous elder known to the white settlers as King George, who’s also the grandfather of Nullah (Brandon Walters), the half-caste child adopted by Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman). ‘Tis a more restrained and mostly silent performance from the venerable actor, one that doesn’t make full use of his abilities; but his presence in this big-budget, Hollywood-backed blockbuster did, at least, immortalise him as a legend of the Australian screen.

Charlie’s Country (2014)

The years that followed Luhrmann’s Australia were some of the most turbulent for Gulpilil, who spent time in jail for physical assault and as such, failed to find work. His experience in prison, and in poverty, would eventually inform his third collaboration with de Heer, in which he plays a semi-fictionalised version of himself named Charlie. It’s a deeply personal narrative, yet one that resonates widely, for his story is reflected in First Nations communities across Australia.

Charlie’s Country had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, with the lead winning an award for his performance as part of the Un Certain Regard program; this feat would later be replicated at that year’s AACTA Awards, with Gulpilil winning Best Actor for a second time. More importantly though, the film revived Gulpilil’s dormant career, ensuring that audiences hadn’t seen the last of his talents.

Goldstone (2016)

A contemporary take on the Meat Pie Western, Goldstone is a sequel to Ivan Sen’s excellent Mystery Road (2013) and sees journalist-turned-actor Aaron Pedersen return to the role of Detective Jay Swan. This story has Swan working undercover, attempting to locate a missing person in a remote mining community; and, just like its precursor, examines issues of prejudice and corruption in regional townships.

Harking back to his roles in Mad Dog Morgan and Storm Boy, here Gulpilil plays a sage elder who guides Jay through the landscape and tells legends of his ancestors. The part is rather unassuming, but nevertheless, Gulpilil lends it a gravitas that only a performer of his calibre can, being a charming and welcome presence as per usual.

My Name is Gulpilil (2021)

“This is my story, of my story,” says a gravel-voiced Gulpilil as he fixes his eyes on the viewer, wearily but warmly. Produced and narrated by its very subject, this tender, intimate documentary recounts the significant events in Gulpilil’s life, observes his routine as a cancer patient and ponders what his legacy will be once he departs this world.

Even before his untimely death, this was always intended to be Gulpilil’s final on-screen role, but is no less impressive, leaving the viewer transfixed throughout. Gulpilil is at his most vulnerable, physically and emotionally, yet still manages to deliver an insightful, compelling tale about himself, a testament to his abilities as a storyteller. For those reasons, this raw portrait has earned a place as one of the greatest performances of David Gulpilil’s fifty-year career.

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