Producers: David Jowsey, Maggie Miles, Witiyana Marika, Greer Simpkin and Stephen Maxwell Johnson   Director: Stephen Maxwell Johnson   Screenplay: Chris Anastassiades   Cast: Jacob Junior Nayinggul, Simon Baker, Callan Mulvey, Aaron Pedersen, Ryan Corr, Caren Pistorius, Sean Mununggurr, David Field, Witiyana Marika, Esmerelda Marimowa, Maximilian Johnson, Guruwuk ‘TJ’ Mununggurr, Mark Garrawurra and Jack Thompson   Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Grade: B

An Australian Western of the sort John Ford might have made in his later years, when the veteran director was making amends for the way he had portrayed Native Americans in his earlier pictures (think 1964’s “Cheyenne Autumn”), “High Ground” is a somber reassessment of the ruthless treatment of aboriginal tribes by the government during the period of nation-building.

Chris Anastassiades’ screenplay, while not based on any specific incident, is nevertheless reflective of the colonial mentality.  It opens in Northern Australia in 1919, when a small party of soldiers, accompanied by a minister, approaches a gathering of a Yolgnu clan.  The mission is intended to be peaceful, but when young Gutjuk (Guruwuk ‘TJ’ Mununggurr) screams at the intrusion, his cry sets off a confused battle that turns into a bloody massacre.  The only aboriginal adults who survive are Dårrpa (Witiyana Marika), leader of the clan, and his son Baywara (Mark Garrawurra).

Gutjuk, Dårrpa’s grandson and Baywara’s nephew, is saved by Travis (Simon Baker), a soldier who had witnessed the slaughter from a vantage point high above the camp.  A World War I sniper, he’s disgusted by the carnage and blames his old spotter Eddy (Callan Mulvey) for it.  Taking Gutjuk to the nearby mission to be raised by the minister’s sister Claire (Caren Pistorius), he leaves the force; nevertheless he goes along with a cover-up of the disaster.

Twelve years later Baywara (now played by Sean Mununggurr) has mounted a guerilla war on white settlers, killing a woman in one of his raids.  That leads to military intervention, with elderly officer Moran (Jack Thompson) and trigger-happy Eddy arriving to take him into custody.  They enlist a reluctant Travis to join their expedition, and he in turn induces Gutjuk (now played by Jacob Junior Nayinggul), called Tommy by the whites, to lead him to his grandfather.  In the course of their journey the two grow closer, and combine to fend off an attack by Eddy and a mixed-race tracker named Walter (Aaron Pederson), who believe that Travis has gotten too soft in his attitude toward the aborigines. 

“High Ground”—which of course refers not only to the physical site that can give one a superior perspective for combat but a principled moral viewpoint—is, from a personal perspective, a study of two men torn between different options.  Travis is a member of the white establishment, but is weary of bloodshed and has come to see committed conquerors like Moran and Eddy (who simply says at one point that two peoples can’t share one country) as warmongers.  Gutjuk, on the other hand, must navigate not only the choice between his heritage and the white world in which he was raised, but the very different approaches represented by his grandfather, who seeks peace through just compromise, and the belligerence of his uncle—who, at the time of the initial raid was training Gutjuk in the rituals of manhood and is, therefore, a kind of surrogate father.

But more broadly the film is a portrait of two worlds clashing over territory and the land’s future—a situation not unlike the conquest of the American West and the treatment of Native Americans.  As Australians wrestle with the realities of their past, stories like this one raise the broadest issues of the imperialist mindset and the prejudices it evokes. 

In this case, the narrative is told against the backdrop of the magnificent North Australian landscape, which even boasts a rock formation as striking as the famous one in Monument Valley that Ford—and many other Hollywood directors—loved to highlight in their films.  The setting is lovingly captured in the gorgeous widescreen cinematography of Andrew Commis, with the spare production design by Ross Wallace and costumes by Erin Roche adding a touch of gritty human realism to the setting.  And the music, composed largely of aboriginal chants, adds to the character of the place.

Director Stephen Maxwell Johnson seems rightly awed by the locale, and working in tandem with editors Jill Bilcock, Karryn De Cinque and Hayley Miro Browne opts for a mostly stately pace that allows us to wallow in its visual beauty—until those moments of violence that intrude with sometimes shocking force and brutality.  The performances are for the most part excellent, with Baker expertly conveying Travis’ world-weariness and Moran an old soldier’s cynical view of his career in clearing the land for white settlement.  Mulvey has a harder time of it, since his character is meant to symbolize the worst of the imperialist outlook in its single-minded goal of exterminating the “other.”  But he brings it off better than many would.

The aboriginal actors, on the other hand, must struggle not to become typical “noble savage” types, and by and large they avoid the trap, giving their characters some real individuality.  That includes Nayinggul, Marika and the two Mununggurrs, as well as Esmerelda Marimowa as the woman Gutjuk connects with after rejoining his clan. 

Unfortunately the rest of the subsidiary characters aren’t nearly as well-drawn as the principals, Pistorius’ Claire being a major case in point; and a young recruit featured toward the close represents a misguided effort to add levity to the proceedings.  The script also relies far too often on one of the worst clichés of action movies—the point when one character is about to be killed by another, only to be saved when his attacker is blown away by a bullet from off-screen—and the employment of that device at the close is but a capper to a series of last-minute interventions that take on a forced, melodramatic feel.

Overall, however, “High Ground” is an action movie with both a mind and a heart, a moving attempt to come to terms with Australia’s dark past of conquest and racism.