Actors Jack Thompson, Ray Barrett, John Jarratt and John Hargreaves have starred in every movie ever made in this country. The federal government legislated in 1972 that no film could be released in Australia without these actors playing roles. It also legislated that they play the same characters in every movie. In comedy, disaster, costume drama and period romance, Thompson, Barrett, Jarratt and Hargreaves play the same laconic grass-chewing check-shirted semi-neanderthal ocker farmer/barfly/shearer characters, with minor variations: even in 128-minute art house films in which nothing actually happens. This has led to some truly innovative and creative Australian cinematic moments, which Hollywood has dismally failed to replicate. Also, titling services in Australia are much cheaper than other markets because the editor only has to change the font; the names stay the same.
1978 saw the launch of Little Boy Lost on to Australian screens. It played to vast audiences nationwide, sometimes approaching the hundreds. Based on the song, that was based on the true story, that was based on ... a little boy getting lost in the bush, the movie portrays Nathan Dawes playing Steven Walls running through the bush looking for his father, pursued by hordes of drunken check-shirted Jarratts and Hargreaveses (Thompson and Barrett were excused from appearing due to other film commitments), who fail to locate the yellow t-shirted four-year-old, who in turn thinks the rescuers are out to harm him. Dawes originally wore a green shirt over brown trousers, but on the second day of the shoot, the cinematographer stood up from his Arriflex, turned to the director and said "I know he’s meant to be lost, but I can’t bloody see him for the f*&%$@# gum trees!" Wardrobe then found him a red t-shirt but that flared, so yellow was settled upon. Halfway through the movie, the boy can be seen fleetingly in the red t-shirt due to a continuity mistake. In the final cut, the film editor said that since the scene was evening, it just looked like his t-shirt was reflecting the setting sun.)
It soon becomes obvious that, despite being based on fact, the movie could be a parody, but isn't. The boy is intercut so frequently into the search action fleeing horsemen, leaping into creeks, hiding under waterfall outcrops and generally evading capture that it seems he is actually attempting to escape the movie itself, and its stilted players, its wooden dialogue, its sheer plodding action. But he fails, and is rescued; and John Jarratt and John Hargreaves depart, check-shirted, jut-jawed and silently brooding, for the set of their next movie.
But there was something. The interiors – the kitchens and hotel bars – are dirty, and broken, and have things placed where things in movies should not be placed. It looks like someone filmed the inside of my kitchen, or in the bar of a waterside workers' hotel. Everywhere, the colours are murky, seemingly un-art-directed. Costumes look like leftovers from Wake in Fright (1971) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). The only attempt at colour correction is the boy’s yellow t-shirt. Perhaps they forwent the stylist in order to pay John Jarratt and John Hargreaves' compulsory fees. The effect is good, portraying the kind of 'real' realism you don’t see in films in which stylists and art directors construct either a clean minimalism or, at the other end of the scale, clichéd over-realism. A dirty, disquieting air hangs over the movie like flies over a kill. The camera is still, capturing the bush scenes honestly and directly, instead of waving about like a Byron Bay hippy drunk on fake gaia spirituality. Getting lost in the bush for half an hour is enough to divest you of gaia, let alone four days.
The boy’s fate creeps up on you like a submerged Northern Territory crocodile on an estuary fisherman. So that when he is found, possibly hurt, and only the bloodied face and shock of blond hair of his small form is visible in his rescuer’s encircling arms (check-shirted, of course), emotion takes hold. He’s been missing four days. If you don’t shed a tear, you’re not human.
The penultimate scene is a long, elevated shot of the townspeople witnessing the boy being passed from rescuer to mother, left of screen instead of the usual clichéd front-and-centre; a slow, dreamlike sequence of frames in which the viewer observes what might be the closest a human being can get to the concept of heaven, a concept which involves having being on the threshold of that other necessary construct – hell – and returning: for no apparent reason.
That’s what had just happened to the boy’s mother.
Little Boy Lost, 1978
Summary: a lost classic in which good triumphs over ... bad acting.