Was David Gulpilil Australia’s Most Important Actor?

David Gulpilil lived all his life between two worlds. To some, he is the greatest Aboriginal actor in the history of Australian cinema.

Jun 16, 2024By Sara Relli, MA Modern, Comparative and Post-Colonial Literatures, MA Screenwriting

david gulpilil australia important actor


Australian cinema has earned a reputation for staging thought-provoking stories about the troubled relationship between Australians and the land, which is typically portrayed as a harsh, mysterious, and unforgiving environment. Until the early 1970s, Aboriginal people featured in Australian films as alien figures, impossible for white audiences to relate to, and often played by white actors in blackface. They could be funny, often ridiculous, along the line of an American minstrel show, or framed in a mystical light highlighting their closeness to the land and its mysteries. Their characterization often betrayed the colonial mindset of Australia. Then came David Gulpilil.


A Young Yolgnu Man Gone Walkabout 

Young David Gulpilil in Walkabout, 1971, Source: IMDb


1971 was the year of A Clockwork Orange, of Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show and Visconti’s Death in Venice. It was the year of Panic in Needle Park and Carnal Knowledge. Then came Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout, with its flight into the wilderness, its surreal and yet incredibly realistic shots of the Australian Outback and its biblical imagery. The three protagonists, the Girl, the White Boy and the Black Boy, are majestically played by Jenny Agutter, Luc Roeg, and David Gulpilil.


When Roeg decided to cast Gulpilil, the young Yolgnu man couldn’t speak English at all. Born and raised into one of the world’s oldest continuous cultures, he’d grown up outside the range of white Australian influences in the Maningrida Aboriginal community in the heart of the Arnhem Land region in the Northern Territory.


The promotion tour of Walkabout took Gulpilil across the world, to Europe and the United States, and immersed him in Western culture. Non-Aboriginal journalists and writers often muse about his time spent in the States with important figures of the 1960s counterculture movement such as John Lennon, Jimy Hendrix, Bob Marley, and Marlon Brando. They see it as a watershed event in Gulpilil’s life, the moment in which he finally emerged from the shut off bubble of his Aboriginal community to embrace Western culture. If this tour represented Gulpilil’s initiation into a world he knew nothing, or very little, about, the contrary is also true. Gulpilil’s charismatic presence introduced the world to a culture most people had so far disregarded as non-existent or on the verge of disappearing.

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Jenny Agutter in Walkabout, Source: HotCorn


Half a century after its release, Walkabout still feels like a timeless dream. The story is simple, almost uneventful, and yet it speaks on several levels. It’s been said that in his portrayal of the Aboriginal Boy Gulpilil embodies the stereotypical image of the noble savage, the traditional indigenous person who, thanks to his unique and mystical connection with the land, comes to the rescue of two white and traumatized siblings lost in the outback.


From this perspective, Walkabout does nothing to push past the trope of the noble blackfella aimlessly roaming the Australian continent. It’s worth noting, however, that the Girl and her Little Brother are not Australian. They’re British. Gulpilil’s character does come to their rescue and helps them find water in the desert. In leading them through the outback, he does look like the stereotypical spear-throwing Aboriginal. And yet, there’s something more to it.


The Aboriginal Boy is more than just a supporting character. We know very little, almost nothing, about him or his past, but we sense that he is striving for something and that his actions are always justified. He has agency, and this agency is constantly heightened and reinforced by (and through) Gulpilil’s masterful performance.


Gulpilil once said in an interview that Nicolas Roeg decided to cast him after seeing him perform a ceremonial dance in his Maningrida community. Gulpilil’s dance at the end of the film is iconic, and a powerful reaffirmation of Aboriginal culture. The White Girl fears him. She doesn’t understand what she’s witnessing, and she can only watch on, feeling perhaps that she’s missing out on something. That something embodies all that white non-Indigenous Australians (and arguably, non-Indigenous people around the world) who have refused (or failed) to learn about Aborigines and their culture for centuries.


His Name is Gulpilil 

David Gulpilil in the backyard of his house in Murray Bridge, South Australia, Source: IF Magazine


My Name is Gulpilil (2021) has the gentle and delicate progression of a ballad. Molly Reynolds’ documentary film has been described as “a living wake,” a wake that is raw, emotional, and hilarious at the same time. The film powerfully oscillates between past and present, a progression dictated by the nature of the story it is telling: the film’s protagonist, Gulpilil, is dying. First diagnosed with lung cancer in 2017, he was given six months to live. Three years later, when the film entered post-production, he was still alive. This is “my story of my story,” as Gulpilil puts it. There are no talking heads from anyone else.


David Gulpilil in My Name is Gulpilil, 2021, Source: Time Out


Perhaps because it was shot when Gulpilil’s death seemed imminent, the film manages to avoid the pitfall of self-celebration. “There was nothing off limits,” the director said in a 2021 interview. Neither Gulpilil nor Molly Reynolds ever shy away from addressing the actor’s multiple criminal charges or his drinking problem. They are never afraid to show his weaknesses and his flaws.


Gulpilil openly discusses his lung cancer, the diagnoses, and his funeral, as well as his yearning to go home one more time, up north, to Arnhem Land. He is astoundingly fearless, honest, and unfiltered. He trusts Molly Reynolds, and it shows. Most of the time, cinematographers Maxx Corkindale and Miles Rowland frame him decentralized, either when he is sitting on his big armchair in the backyard of his house in Murray Bridge (where at the time he was living with his carer Mary) or when he is standing on the shore of a lake or on a dusty road next to an emu.


Gulpilil painting in his house in Murray Bridge, Source: New Zealand International Film Festival


Gulpilil is as important as the land around him, these shots seem to suggest, and he surely would have agreed. The film, produced by Rolf de Heer (who directed Gulpilil in some of his best films, The Tracker and Charlie’s Country), is about Gulpilil’s life (and imminent death), as well as about his on-screen persona. Clips from his films go hand in hand with archival recordings of his successful theatre shows and shots of him, sick, struggling to breathe, and getting out of bed. 50 years separate David Gulpilil’s breakthrough role in Walkabout (1971) and My Name is Gulpilil (2021): over the course of these 50 years massive changes shook the foundations of Australian society and cinema. The most important (and symbolic) one is of course the 1992 Mabo Case, an historic decision by the High Court that recognized that the Meriam people of Murray Islands should enjoy rights to the lands and waters of their ancestors.


Gulpilil in one frame of My Name is Gulpilil, Source: The AU Review


Just like the actions of Eddie Mabo and his people managed to reaffirm the Aboriginal peoples’ ancestral bond with the Australian land, over the course of his long career David Gulpilil has contributed to the decolonization of Australian cinema. Thanks to his powerful screen presence, he has dignified Aboriginal people both on screen and in real life. He understood cinema and how it works, and he used the far-reaching power of the moving image to push past the negative stereotypes surrounding his people. The Last Wave (1977), written and directed by non-Indigenous filmmaker Peter Weir, and described by Gulpilil as “the first film to authentically describe Aboriginal ‘Dreamtime’ mythology,” is a perfect example of this.


Facing and Welcoming: The Last Wave 

David Gulpilil in Peter Weir’s The Last Wave, Source: Impulse Gamer


In Reynold’s film, as he puffs on his inhaler and takes his pills and painkillers, Gulpilil gives voice to the deep differences in attitudes towards life and death in Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cultures. The Last Wave (1977), the second most significant film in his career after Walkabout (and perhaps Storm Boy), is one of the first works in Australian cinema to engage with Aboriginal culture, values, knowledge, and history without ridiculing or simplifying them. Gulpilil found in Peter Weir a filmmaker willing to engage with a unique culture, and an open mind he could trust to tell a story rooted in Aboriginal Dreamtime myths honestly and respectfully. Peter Weir (and Tony Morphett) admittedly wrote the character of Chris Lee with Gulpilil in mind. But what is The Last Wave about?


One of David Burton’s apocalyptic visions in The Last Wave, Source: IMDb


Black rain pours down on Sydney. Huge chunks of hail break through the windows of a school in remote Australia. A white solicitor, David Burton (Richard Chamberlain), sits in his car observing the unusually heavy rainfall. He starts having intense and bizarre dreams of running water invading his house, of drowned corpses floating around his car stuck in a traffic jam amid a flood.  Meanwhile, an Aboriginal man has been killed after a pub brawl—drowned, although in a mysterious way. Four Aboriginal men are accused of murder, and Burton is procured for their defence. One of them is Chris Lee (Gulpilil). As Burton desperately tries to understand the meaning behind his apocalyptic dreams, the two men develop an increasingly close relationship. Burton begins to suspect that the murder was an Aboriginal tribal execution.


The dinner table scene is the heart of the film. Two Aboriginal men (Chris Lee and Charlie, played by Amugula Nadjiwarra) sit across from David Burton and his wife Annie (Olivia Hamnett) discussing dreams, the Law, and men. Western rationalism clashes with Aboriginal knowledge. When Burton asks Chris Lee what dreams are, he replies: “Dreams like…seeing, hearing, talking.”


Burton, a logical-thinking lawyer with a typically white Australian family, can only stare at him. Does he understand what Lee is talking about? Do his words resonate with (and within) him, or is he just as lost and confused as the audience is? Chamberlain’s performance here is as powerful and nuanced as Gulpilil’s. “Dream,” Lee continues, “is a shadow of something real.” Interestingly, Gulpilil’s surname means “Kingfisher.”


Chris Lee (Gulpilil) leading David Burton (Chamberlain) through subterranean tunnels under the city of Sydney, Source: IMDb


Had these lines been written by Peter Weir alone, or by any other white, non-Aboriginal filmmaker, this would have been a case of cultural appropriation. Here however, we have a young Aboriginal actor engaging with a young non-Aboriginal writer and director to deliver a powerful story about the common history shared by Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. In the 1970s, Peter Weir was one of the first Australian filmmakers to turn to Aboriginal people and ask consent and permission when dealing with Aboriginal matters. He was soon to be followed by the above-mentioned Rolf de Heer and Molly Reynolds, who collaborated with Gulpilil on several films and documentaries over the next few decades and managed to introduce non-Indigenous audiences to Aboriginal history and culture.


Following The Tracker 

The Tracker (Gulpilil) leads the Fanatic (Gary Sweet) and the Follower (Damon Gameau) into the Australian interior, Source: MUBI


As in Walkabout, the story of The Tracker (2001), written and directed by Rolf de Heer, is rather simple. It’s 1922, and we’re “somewhere in Australia.” A white woman has been murdered. The man accused of her murder is Aboriginal. Three law enforcement officers, the Fanatic, the Follower, and the Veteran, employ an Aboriginal tracker (Gulpilil) to locate the murderer. The Australian outback, with its cracked earth and lush colors, belongs to the Tracker. This is clear from the very first shots: Without him, the three white men wouldn’t know where to go.


The Tracker is a complex character whose goals remain elusive. He is enigmatic, sarcastic, and moved in his actions by a clearly defined set of values. He works within the colonial world he lives in and does what he can to survive without ever betraying his moral principles.


Gulpilil, a master of silence, gives one of his best performances, as we see in the massacre scene, one of the most dramatic moments of the film. The Tracker has inadvertently led the white men to an Aboriginal camp. He spots the men and women gathered on the riverbanks before the others do, but it’s too late for him to turn back without raising their suspicions. Fear gives way to guilt; guilt gives way to pain; pain gives way to sorrowful acceptance. Gulpilil manages to convey all these feelings simultaneously in the span of a few seconds through his subtle body language and facial expression. Not a word is spoken. Carnage ensues. There’s nothing the Tracker can do to save his countrymen, other than withdrawing himself and his body from it.


David Gulpilil on the set of The Tracker, 2001, Source: National Film and Sound Archive of Australia


The Tracker refuses to portray violence and gore graphically and to turn colonial violence into a grisly spectacle for the masses. It substitutes the carnage with paintings, created by South Australian artist Peter Coad specifically for this film and backed by the gorgeous songs written and performed by Aboriginal songwriter and activist Archie Roach (1956-2022), the voice of the stolen generations.


Just like Peter Weir did with The Last Wave and Reynolds will do with Another Country (2015), a powerful documentary film about Aboriginal remote communities, Rolf de Heer engages with Aboriginal culture by seeking the help and consent of Aboriginal people, actors, and songwriters. Through his collaboration with Gulpilil, he manages to create a character, the Tracker, who is never a victim, despite being repeatedly threatened, chained, and verbally abused.


Eddie Mabo, the face of the Mabo case, Source: Bulletin Bite


De Heer’s film situated itself within the newly found awareness about Aboriginal land rights following the 1992 Mabo case. In rejecting the concept of terra nullius, it proved that the land had been stolen, settled, and conquered at the expense of the Aboriginal people. It also proved that the British Empire had acquired the land without buying it or leasing it, and most importantly, without signing treaties with the indigenous people, the custodians of the land from time immemorial. It also implied that Indigenous Australians were, and still are, the victims of imperial power, and that the colonization of Australia was not the heroic conquest of a wild, deserted land described in school textbooks and legislation bills. It was, on the contrary, a history of violence and violation of human rights, backed by an “illusion of vacant possession,” to quote from the 1993 speech of Aboriginal rights activist Patrick Dodson.


Gulpilil’s Country

Black Pete (Peter Djigirr) and Gulpilil in Charlie’s Country, Source: The Boston Globe


Rolf de Heer worked with Gulpilil on another project, Charlie’s Country (2015), a slow-burning film about an Aboriginal man caught between two worlds. In his mid-60s, Charlie lives in an Aboriginal community where he is continuously supervised by white authorities who treat him like a child. He’s a hunter, but he can’t hunt: policemen won’t allow him. Why? Because his guns are not licensed. He makes himself a hand-made spear, but that gets confiscated too. He knows the land, the country of his ancestors, but he can’t use that knowledge to live off the land: white authorities won’t allow it.


Contemporary Australia is removed from him unless he completely adjusts to it and its rules. The film is essentially about non-Aboriginal Australians trying to suppress Aboriginality. It has been said that Charlie is a weathered figure, an old and tired man trying to find his place in the world, but that is not the whole story.


Yes, the corrugated shack he builds himself in the country, away from white settlement, does point to the miserable living conditions faced by many Aboriginal people across Australia. Yes, he is battered, humiliated, and endlessly forced to move around. But he is also undaunted. He is resilient, for lack of a better word, and he keeps going. As we follow him in his roaming and ordeal, we might notice something in Charlie’s character that sounds familiar: he has the same wit, the same energy, the same resilience, and the same (almost heroic) stubbornness as the Tracker.


Charlie’s Country was co-written by Gulpilil with Rolf de Heer, and it shows. The battered Land Rover Charlie fixes closely resembles the one owned by Gulpilil in the early 2000s when his luck seemed to have run out. Charlie says he once danced for the Queen. So did Gulpilil.


Charlie in his shack in the country in Charlie’s Country, Source: Pasatiempo


For three days after his death, Gulpilil was known as David Dalaithngu, in accordance with the Aboriginal tradition of not naming the dead. In a powerful article written shortly after Gulpilil’s death, Australian journalist Stan Grant called him “our greatest actor.” From his first film, Walkabout (1971) to his last, My Name is Gulpilil (2021), Gulpilil brought his unique contribution to stories written by non-Aboriginal filmmakers, slowly but steadily undermining Western assumptions about Aboriginal Australians. For all his life, David Gulpilil Dalaithngu walked tall in two cultures, powerfully alive and creative in both.

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By Sara RelliMA Modern, Comparative and Post-Colonial Literatures, MA ScreenwritingSara is a Berlin-based screenwriter and researcher from Italy. She holds an MA in Screenwriting from the University of West London, as well as an MA (Hons) in Modern, Comparative and Post-Colonial Literatures from the University of Bologna. Deeply passionate about the relationship between history and literature, her interests range from Irish literature to race representation (in literature and cinema), from post-memory to the response of Indigenous peoples to climate change.