Historical Fiction and the Allegorical Truth of Colonial Violence in The Proposition
Firing another shot in the history wars, Prime Minister Howard used his 2006 Australia Day speech to berate postmodern approaches to historical truth. At the same time, a UK-Australia co-production, The Proposition (John Hillcoat, 2005) was enjoying critical acclaim as both a violent revisionist Western and an important film about Australia’s frontier history. It would be tempting to include this frontier film in the cycle of ‘post Mabo’ films exemplified by The Tracker (Rolf de Heer, 2002). Yet unlike The Tracker, The Proposition eschews historical reference in favour of baroque allegory. If The Tracker’s moral fable is clearly a left-liberal intervention in the history wars, The Proposition seems to offer no illumination of the present, only the unredeemed violence of retribution as the irrefutable truth of the frontier, aligning it with the 1976 mini-series, Luke’s Kingdom. This article asks in what sense history persists in the allegorical truth of frontier films which cannot be subsumed into historical representation. I argue that The Proposition offers a philosophical view of history as mediated time, rather than a political view of history as traumatic event. I contrast the popular reception of The Proposition as a revisionist, bushranger Western ‘about’ Australian history, with Routt’s counter-claim that The Proposition is an art film ‘about’ violence, revealing Australia as ‘a primal scene of annihilation.’ However, in order not to reinstate the myth of a fatal landscape as the template of Australian identity, I turn to Benjamin’s critique of Baroque allegory as a retrospective mode in which the transience of time finds expression in decay, ruin and debris. The question to be resolved is whether, by giving us multiple horizons of historical time, the revisionist film avoids being drawn into allegory’s melancholy alliance with myth, opening instead into a cinematic revelation of history’s unrealised potential.
The Proposition; The Tracker; colonial violence; Australian cinema