Classic Movie Appreciation: The Last Wave (1977)

Peter Weir's strange film about secret tribal rituals and climate change has haunted me for nearly 40 years.
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Some films get under your skin and years down the line you have to track them down and re-watch them. Some of them, you can account for why they got there. A strong message, maybe, like Claude Lelouch’s brilliant and impossible-to-find Life Love Death (1969), which campaigned against the soon-to-be-removed death penalty in France, or mind-blowing extravagance as in Sergei Bondarchuk’s all-but-forgotten seven-hour War and Peace (1966), still considered the most expensive film ever made. Others get under the skin for no clear reason. They may have claim to no historical notoriety, may represent no celebrated cause, but they stay there, itching, occupying the mind afterwards for days that turn into years and you’re still thinking about it, that damn film, and it only ever turns up on Amazon in VHS for £35 and the video player has long been ditched.

Peter Weir’s 1977 film The Last Wave has haunted me in this fashion since I saw it on television not long after I started college, a year or two after its quiet release. Weir had scored a 1974 indie hit with The Cars That Ate Paris followed two years later by the international hit Picnic at Hanging Rock. Weir, along with Bruce Beresford, was the darling of a new wave of Australian cinema, soon to be courted by Hollywood. Weir even chose an American star for The Last Wave, Richard Chamberlain, not long fresh from big hits like The Three Musketeers, The Towering Inferno and The Slipper and the Rose. In The Last Wave, he plays David Burton, a Sydney lawyer defending five aboriginal men accused of killing another aborigine. The procedure of the case becomes irrelevant however as Burton seeks the reasons for, and the truth of, what happened beyond the courtroom, in the real world.

The ‘real’ world of The Last Wave, though, is not as we might recognise it, thrown out of balance by freak storms, raining frogs and Atlantean premonitions of mass drowning. Burton is troubled (as you might be) by one of the accused, Chris (played by the ever familiar David Gilpilil), having appeared in his dreams before they ever met, and the introduction of the enigmatic Charlie (played by real-life tribal elder Nandjiwarra Amagula) into their lives puts a strain on Burton’s relations with his wife and family. As his world spins out of control, his quest draws him frantically towards an underground tribal site where secret rituals have continued for thousands of years, the heart of the film’s mystery, and the heart of his own darkness.

Director Weir has claimed that this was one of the first films to deal with climate change (ironic now, perhaps, considering the amount of water he spilled making it). He’s also said he wanted to make a film about tribal lore and the meanings behind rituals long since regarded as taboo, but that it was a difficult subject to research deeply enough for him to organise his material into a more coherent narrative. To me, though, alongside Richard Chamberlain’s best performance, its strangeness is its strength. The final moments of the lawyer crawling from an outlet pipe onto the shore to witness a vision of an apocalyptic tsunami leave the viewer wondering, is it real, this last wave, and what can it mean? These questions keeps calling me back to it nearly forty years on.