Waterfront was a 1984 television mini-series that aired in Australia, starring Jack Thompson, and Greta Scacchi in the lead roles. It is more-or-less described by movie database IMDB as a ‘romance’ between an Italian immigrant, Anna Cheri (Scacchi), and a rough-diamond wharfie Maxy Woodbury (Jack Thompson). But that synopsis doesn’t scratch the surface of the historical curiosity contained within this outstanding production made at the height of Australia’s once-burgeoning film industry.
The producers may not have known it at the time, but what they were creating was a fictitious biopic of the allegedly fascist New Guard and its argy with both the government of NSW Premier Jack Lang and the union movement. Despite changing character names and setting the drama in Victoria instead of New South Wales, it’s an accurate take on the period, and of great interest to the keen nationalist, who is, after all, an eager student of Australian political history.
Herein we better understand the contretemps between the supposedly ‘communist’ unionists and those fascists of the New Guard and Old Guard. Because as research reveals the unionists were nationalists, not communists, and the New Guard was a curious mix of qualities but never fascist.
However, misconceptions were integral to the New Guard’s self-identity and in their reckoning of the unionists, who they’d mistaken as much as their leader Colonel Eric Campbell had incorrectly identified himself and his militia with the fascist type of Mussolini’s Italy and that of Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.
We never encounter Campbell in Waterfront, but his name is uttered, and instead of the New Guard, we hear them referred to as the White Guard. Victoria, in fact, had ‘the White Army’ as its counterpart to the New Guard, so this is not a great license the producers have taken. These are the muscle working to undermine the Premier of Victoria, who is in actuality a proxy character for the NSW premier of the day, Jack Lang. Why they made these Victoria-centric choices is not a matter of interest to us because we plainly see what the creators have done.
So, the plotline differs from the actual story behind the violent clashes between the New Guard and the unionists in NSW around which this story is based, but the drama retains its essential parallels so that we know fully to which events they refer.
The fallacies we’ve mentioned such as the unionists being communist and the New Guard fascist are pertinent to our discussions here on the New Australian Bulletin. Those assumptions about the likes of former NSW Premier Jack Lang, and the union movement, which is regarded by Australian nationalists as our forebears are accurately portrayed here. There were efforts by the communists to infiltrate the union movement, and one character, a right-hand man of a union boss is an outspoken Leninist. But he is not respected by the union men and is killed by New Guard members when they attack him while he gives a soapbox oratory out on a Melbourne pier. In fact, Jack Lang despised communists as did the average worker.
In other clashes, such as at the wharf strike zone, the union have been beguiled into believing that a concession has been made that will guarantee their struggling members get conditional work. Instead, New Guard turn out behind their ranks, as they face a row of armed police. The New Guard incite the mob into violence which is cut down in a hail of gunshot, wounding and eventually killing ‘Snowy’, one of the young unionists. These sorts of things happened.
But it’s while the union are marching on parliament house to air their grievances that we get an insight into the contradictory nature of these mistakenly labelled ‘fascists’. For what must be understood about the New Guard is that they were loyal to Britain and regarded Australians as British subjects. They believed any threat to the sovereignty of the crown was, therefore, a threat to Australia and vice versa. One can hear them in this scene, as they did in the day, yelling, “Long live the king!” to rile up the unionists. This pro-imperialist nationalism massively deviates from the prerequisites of a definition of fascist. What’s more, Premier Lang’s social reform policies, not to mention how they were funded, would have most likely found favour with Sir Oswald Mosley in his interpretation of British fascism. Mosley was, after all, a former socialist.
These are far from the only reasons that you should track down a copy of this now rare piece of Australian television and cinematic history (viewable on Australia’s Amazon Prime Video streaming service along with Kangaroo), its other epochal accuracies give a fascinating insight into the times such as how Italian migrants were treated. The story, in fact, follows the tribulations of Anna Cheri and her father, a renowned socialist professor as they are forced to flee fascist Italy in the mistaken belief Australia would prove a political idyllic away from the quarrels of Europe. Yet, ironically, they find themselves drawn into the centre of the battle between the unionists and the New Guard and the violent revolution they aimed to escape.
Meanwhile, Kangaroo (1987) is much more invested in the Old Guard, or rather a private army predecessor. Based on D.H. Lawrence’s novel (he was a good friend of ultra-nationalist Percy Stephensen) this story has an autobiographical element (at least there are arguments to say so) as it recounts Lawrence’s visit to Australia with his wife Frieda in the early 1920s. Colin Friels plays Richard Somers, with Judy Davis as his wife Harriet. They arrive in Australia after leaving England in search of existential motivation abroad. Back in Cornwall Richard Somers had drawn the attention of the local authorities vis-à-vis his anti-war writings while failing a medical for the British army.
Here, the timeframe is curious since the period is fictionalised to post-war Australia when reactionary private armies flourished to counter the threat of communism. In this deceptively static atmosphere, Richard Somers meets his neighbour ‘Cooley’, who is believed to have been based on Major John Scott, a leading figure in The Old Guard alongside Major General Charles Rosenthal. Kangaroo (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne) is considered to be based on Rosenthal who Somers finds his way to as his curiosity and companionship with Cooley and his wife grows.
It is ironic that Somers expresses his view that Australia would need to shed blood in a civil war before it could earn a historic place among nations since his encounters place him in a direct battle between Kangaroo’s militia and the unions they revile as commies. Yet, it is these very skirmishes in an infant nation that allows him a fledgeling model to express his sentiments about the Europe he abandoned.
The book came to be regarded as part of the movement of early native Australian literature despite being written by an Englishman. The film is faithful to the book and one of those gems that slipped under the radar. Australian nationalists interested in understanding this immensely complex topic are advised to start with a viewing of these two classics.