Beauty and emotion stand the test of time
LONG before the Hindmarsh Bridge saga, long before any white person set foot on the Coorong in South Australia, pelicans and many hundreds of other types of birds used the wetlands as a breeding and resting ground. It was a summer holiday for some of them, who came ( as they still do) all the way from Siberia.
There are few great Australian movies for families and for my money Storm Boy tops the list.
The story is simple: a 10- year- old boy lives with his father, Tom Kingsley, a reclusive fisherman. The boy, Mike, spends his time collecting driftwood and exploring the windswept dunes and waterways around his home on the Coorong.
One day he meets a young Aboriginal man living alone in a camp on a riverbank. Together they scare off a pair of shooters aiming at the pelicans, which are big and slow- moving and make a great target. The boy rescues three pelican chicks and hand- rears them: one, Mr Percival, becomes his constant companion.
The three main characters have talismatic names. Mike ( Greg Rowe) becomes known as Storm Boy; his taciturn father ( Peter Cummins) is Hide- Away Tom; and a young David Gulpilil plays Fingerbone Bill.
Storm Boy was produced by the South Australian Film Corporation in 1976 with a budget of just $ 260,000. The ever- changing light, stark seascapes and peaceful waterways of the Coorong, 80km from Adelaide, are a cinematographer’s dream. Geoff Burton’s camerawork is sublime, underscoring the boy’s isolation with wide shots and swooping aerial photography taken from a hang- glider.
On the surface, this is a story about a boy and his pelican. But it’s also a parable about this country and the never- ending conflict between nature and people, especially white people, who seemingly venture into the Coorong only to kill and terrorise the occupants, leaving a scattering of beer cans in their wake.
It’s also a story about Australian men, circa 1960, when Colin Thiele wrote Storm Boy . Hide- Away Tom is a moral man. ‘‘ Lying is as low as a man can go,’’ he tells his son. The pain Tom experienced from the break- up of his marriage, and the subsequent death of his wife, has turned him into a refugee living in a shack in the wilderness. But his silences, and his emotional awkwardness, his stubborn refusal to talk to the boy about his mother or let him have companions amount to cruelty. It takes a cathartic episode, and the kindness of strangers, to unlock the strongbox of his emotions.
Fingerbone Bill is another refugee — he’s broken the law of his tribe by loving the wrong woman — but in the Coorong he takes on the role of protector and strides through the reeds like a warrior.
Reunited: David Gulpilil and Greg Rowe at a Storm Boy screening in 2002