Riches to rags: the sad, bizarre story of Nauru

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A few clicks south of the Equator about 1,400 miles off the northern coast of Fiji, the island of Nauru is only eight square miles in land area — an oval-shaped slab that is located in the epitome of no man’s land. Its closest neighbors (in clockwise order) are the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia. The smallest independent country on Earth, Nauru has a story that is seemingly fitted to occupy an obscure section in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! 

Flash back 50 years. Nauru is enjoying its newfound independence, and it’s going well. Maybe too well. The island’s population of 9,000 is filthy rich due to phosphate, second only to the oil kings of Saudi Arabia in terms of per capita wealth. Nauruan residents don’t have to work too much, as their government has set up a trust fund that has managed the phosphate profits and will give them a large safety net for years to come. Most residents go fishing, play Aussie rules football, ride the main island road on their motorcycles, buy boats and cars for their family members, and drink beer with friends until the sun sets.

Now flash forward 50 years. Nauru is broke — quite literally. Since the country’s bank shut down, Nauru is using the Australian dollar exclusively, and with only one ATM on the island, the vast majority of transactions are in cash only. The government’s phosphate trust went belly-up roughly a decade ago, resulting in the almost complete collapse of the nation’s economy. Due to lack of funds, the island’s schools shut down for nearly three whole years in the early 2000s. The national airline had its Boeing repossessed, and the once-prosperous phosphate mines were abandoned.

Modern-day Nauru and its inhabitants are in bad shape, in more ways than one. The island’s interior is irrevocably scarred from the strip mining, with 80% of it now uninhabitable and unsuitable for agriculture; nearly all Nauruans live around the coast. Due to the lack of island vegetation and over-reliance on imported processed foods, Nauru’s citizens are some of the most obese on the planet, with the world’s highest per capita rates of diabetes and heart disease.

The country’s private sector is practically non-existent outside of a general store, two hotels and a few restaurants. With one exception: a so-called “offshore processing centre” run by the Australian government on and off since 2001, in order to deter would-be asylum seekers from navigating Australian waters.

Other than these enterprises, the island has a 90% unemployment rate, and some adult residents, if they’re able and willing to work, earn a mere AUS$70 per week. With no personal income taxes and no way of paying off their debts, Nauru’s government is insolvent and almost completely reliant on foreign aid, mostly from Australia.

So what the hell happened?

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Part 1: The good times

Originally christened Pleasant Island by English sea captain John Fearn, Nauru was inhabited by a dozen tribes of Micronesian and Polynesian stock. They were strong-bodied, excellent fishermen, and known as good-humored by the few people in the Pacific who knew they existed (in the early 19th century, this was mostly confined to Asian sea merchants and the odd Australian escaped convict).

A civil war broke out on the normally peaceful island in 1878 following a domestic dispute. This dragged on for a decade, exacerbated by the presence of firearms previously supplied by merchants and whalers. The conflict only ended when German merchants arrived and the war-weary Nauruan chief pleaded with them to establish a protectorate over the island so that the fighting could stop. They obliged, and Nauru was proclaimed a German protectorate in 1888.

Nauru was relatively autonomous under German oversight, and the people were Christianized by missionaries from their nearest neighbors in the Gilbert Islands. But in 1900, British prospector Albert Ellis was visiting Nauru and he surprised many when he found something.

You see, Nauru was about as far removed as any island could be (4,300 miles from Singapore, 2,500 from Sydney, and 3,000 from Tokyo). The island was also surrounded by a coral reef, prohibiting construction of a major port. And as Mr. Ellis found, Nauru had very few natural resources over the space of eight square miles, with no indigenous animals, rivers or lakes.

What they did have was phosphate. Lots of it.

Phosphate is made up of guano (fossilized bird droppings) and is a valuable ingredient in fertilizers and explosives. At the turn of the 20th century, with the industrial revolution still going, it proved to be a potentially valuable commodity for basically every first-world nation on the planet. Mr. Ellis established the Pacific Phosphate Company in order to conduct strip mining operations on Nauru, as well as the two other nearby phosphate islands Makatea (modern-day French Polynesia) and Banaba (Gilbert Islands).

Then World War I broke out. With Germany preoccupied on the western front, the Allies collectively seized most of the German possessions and protectorates in the Pacific, and Nauru was no exception. Following the war, the newly-established League of Nations entrusted Nauru to Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, but only after they were allowed to use the island as a phosphate mining operation with the Nauru Island Agreement.

While the strip mining was a successful operation for both Nauru and Britain, there was no effective way to rehabilitate the land from the mining, which left behind jagged rock pinnacles and no arable land suitable for agriculture. The South Pacific was also hit hard by the worldwide flu epidemic of 1918-1920, and the Nauruan people suffered dramatic mortality rates accordingly (at least 230 deaths).

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Part 2: Japanese occupation

The mining continued until December 1940, when two Nazi ships sank four merchant ships off the Nauruan coast and shelled the phosphate mines, cutting off the supply to Australia and New Zealand. Understandably, Nauru immediately faced an economic crisis amid the encroaching Japanese threat. The Japanese invaded in August 1942, enslaving the Nauruans. Some were forced into labor on their homeland, building an airfield for the Japanese to use. Others were deported to the Chuuk Islands in Micronesia, a few thousand miles away. Some were literally shipped off the coast in a boat that the Japanese torpedoed in order to send a message.

As Allied forces slowly but surely reclaimed Papua New Guinea, Guadalcanal, Indonesia, Guam, and the Philippines, the Nauruans were left high-and-dry. A month after Japan surrendered, the Royal Australian Navy finally arrived and reclaimed Nauru. Out of the 1,200 Nauruans kidnapped and enslaved, a mere 737 survived. The island became an Australian mandate again, this time under the UN, in 1947.

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Part 3: Independence (and more good times)

Australia managed Nauru (and its phosphate) for a good two decades following the end of WWII. By 1966, Nauru achieved autonomy, and two years later, they were fully independent, writing up a constitution and electing Hammer DeRoburt as the island’s first president.

At the risk of stating the obvious, one of the first things the new Nauruan government did was purchase the British Phosphate Company’s assets and rename it the Nauru Phosphate Corporation (NPC). Irritated with Australia over what they viewed as chronic mismanagement of the phosphate, the government would manage the exports and then transfer the profits to Nauruans themselves.

As mentioned previously, this resulted in the islanders becoming exceedingly rich and enjoying the benefits of being exceedingly rich. The island got their own airline, Air Nauru, buying a jet that could almost fit the country’s whole population inside. The government built a golf course on Nauru and bought high-rise hotels and other real estate in Manila, Melbourne, Sydney, Guam, and Honolulu, among others. Nauru was sitting pretty, and people were taking notice of the island paradise. But soon that paradise would be lost.

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Part 4: Panic time

Here’s where it gets weird.

By the late 1980s and early 90s, the phosphate was beginning to run out. Therefore, Nauru’s government needed a backup plan. One of the country’s financial advisers, an Australian man named Duke Minks, came up with a strange idea — fund and sponsor a West End musical. Minks had connections in London prior to his banking days and decided to co-write and produce a musical based on the life of Leonardo da Vinci. Nauru’s then-president, Bernard Dowiyogo, jumped at the idea.

Leonardo the Musical: A Portrait of Love debuted in June 1993 and was a massive critical flop, becoming one of the biggest bombs in West End history. The cost to the Nauruan taxpayers? Seven million dollars.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Nauruan citizens were getting disgruntled. Phosphate was no longer a viable industry, and the people knew it, with their shrinking bank accounts staring them in the face. With the advent of the internet in the early 90s, Nauru’s government jumped at the chance to purchase ads on the World Wide Web. They posted several, offering anyone with $20,000 the chance to open up a bank on Nauru.

You can probably see where that was going. In 2000, it was revealed that the Russian mafia laundered $70 billion through Nauru in one year alone. Increasingly desperate for money, Nauru even began selling passports to anybody who wanted one and started playing diplomatic musical chairs, recognizing Taiwan, then Communist China, then Taiwan again in exchange for lucrative foreign aid packages to upgrade their own decrepit infrastructure.

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Part 5: Australia, the Godfather

Only a month before 9/11, a boat carrying a few dozen refugees and asylum seekers capsized in the Indian Ocean. Many of them were Afghan, Pakistani, or Sri Lankan and were fleeing their home countries due to religious persecution, political persecution, or both. Most were trying to get to Christmas Island, an overseas territory of Australia near the maritime border with Indonesia, when the boat capsized. A Norwegian cargo freighter, the Tampa, rescued the refugees, but were promptly stopped and ordered to turn back by the Australian Defence Force.

Immigration had been an ongoing issue in Australia in the past few years leading up to this event, and the government’s policy was never to allow anyone who came by boat. But regardless of ones feelings about admitting would-be boat people, this incident triggered a full-blown crisis for Australia, its Parliament, and then-Prime Minister John Howard. Norway wasn’t happy. Neither were the refugees.

Howard refused to let any of the refugees into Australia, but didn’t want to deal with a permanent solution for them either. Instead, his government came up with the so-called Pacific Solution and passed the buck to — you guessed it — Nauru, offering lucrative amounts of foreign aid in exchange for temporarily housing the asylum seekers. In other words, Australia became Don Corleone: they made Nauru an offer they couldn’t refuse.

This proved to be a double-edged sword for both countries. First, Nauru couldn’t exactly say no (their bills weren’t going to pay themselves). Secondly, Australia’s government didn’t want refugees and certainly did want to provide an effective deterrent to any others that tried to come. And thirdly, none of the refugees were actually processed at the offshore Nauru centre; they were simply left there, given their papers, and conveniently forgotten.

Seeking to protect their new source of income, Nauru closed off the processing centre to outside observers and began charging outrageous prices (AUD$8,000) for media visas. Concurrently, Australia passed strict anti-whistleblower legislation in the hopes that no one would find out about the processing centre and its grim conditions. It was the perfect storm.

When Australia’s government changed hands in 2007, they temporarily shut down the Nauru centre, but it re-opened in 2012 under Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and continues to have broad bipartisan support in Parliament. Men, women, and children alike were once again shipped off to the depleted phosphate island as they faced an uncertain future.

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Part 6: The Aftermath

Nauru continues to deal with the consequences of the past five decades. Corruption is almost as widespread in Nauru as obesity: this is a country that changed heads of government an astonishing 17 times in 14 years (including three presidents in 1996 alone) and whose presidents would routinely commandeer the Air Nauru planes on weekends, leaving paying customers stranded on the tarmac.

Way back in 1962, the Australian government, including then-Prime Minister Robert Menzies, understood the potential ramifications that generations of phosphate mining could have on Nauru and its people, who were getting ready to become fully independent at the time. Menzies even went so far as to hire a Director of Nauruan Resettlement, whose job was to scour the Pacific and/or the Australian coast for a suitable island for Nauruans to move to once their home was completely ruined. Nauru balked at the idea, arguing that moving the whole island’s population would diminish their own culture and ruin their lives. They stayed put.

In the early 2000s, after Nauru’s dubious transactions with the Russian mob were well-documented, The Economist wrote a non-flattering piece about the island’s ecological state:

Seen from the air, Nauru resembles an enormous moth-eaten fedora: a ghastly grey mound of rock surrounded by a narrow green brim of vegetation. On the ground, this unlovely impression is confirmed. Strip mining has turned Nauru into a barren, jagged wasteland. The once-dense tropical vegetation has been cleared.

And its rampant corruption:

Greed, phosphate, and gross incompetence in a tropical setting….the citizens of Nauru, to their credit, have not taken all this lying down….rare visits from international dignitaries have been disrupted by placard-wielding protesters, demanding to know where their money has gone. It is a melancholy sign of the islanders’ desperation that the idea of simply buying another island and starting afresh is once again under discussion. But who in his right mind would let the Nauruans get their hands on another island?

In 2018, Nauru will celebrate its 50th anniversary of independence, although I’m sure few people feel like celebrating. Essentially, Nauru is back where it started — heavily dependent on Australia — only this time, with no more valuable mineral resources to give. They’ve become the archetypal client state, beholden to a larger power while Australia holds all the cards in the deck 3,000 miles away.

While many Nauruans try to stay positive and do all they can to work with what they have, this story was never going to have a happy ending. For better or worse, Australia and Nauru are forever intertwined, if only by a handful of refugees. And as far as Nauru’s decline goes, sadly, the writing was on the wall. One easily exploitable resource plus chronic fiscal mismanagement equals collapse.

Or, as Vlad Sokhin of the World Policy Institute puts it, “Nauru is a cautionary tale of what happens when the music stops. Or, more to the point, what happens when the single commodity on which an economy rests runs out.”

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Like a moonscape, much of Nauru's land has been left barren by miners who have extracted phosphate o..

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The Disaster Artist (2017)

***SPOILERS AHEAD***

Based upon the best-selling memoir of the same name, this film follows an eccentric, misguided filmmaker who teams with his actor friend to make what ended up being known as The Room.

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Native San Franciscan Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) is an aspiring actor who desires to make a career in Hollywood, but lacks the confidence, money or  parental support to do so. One day in acting class, he is enthralled by a mysterious misfit named Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) who is an appallingly bad actor but approaches it with admirable gusto.

The two strike up an offbeat, surprisingly close friendship, but Sestero consistently has questions about Wiseau’s background. The independently-wealthy, thick-accented Wiseau declines to reveal his sources of income, his nationality, and even his age. Regardless, they both share a serious passion for film and acting and constantly encourage each other to pursue their dreams. When Wiseau reveals that he has an apartment in Los Angeles, Sestero jumps at the chance to move to LA and potentially get an agent.

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After moving with Wiseau into his LA apartment, Sestero begins pounding the pavement looking for work. He lands with a prominent agency and also starts a relationship with cute bartender Amber (Alison Brie), but still doesn’t get the major break that he wanted. Meanwhile, Wiseau also auditions for numerous gigs, to no avail, and becomes discouraged and jealous. Eventually, he decides to write his own movie and finance it independently. Titled The Room, Wiseau decides to direct, produce, and star in the film — despite the fact that he has no experience doing any of the above tasks.

Wiseau’s story is intended to be a love-triangle drama about amiable banker Johnny (played by Wiseau) whose fiancée Lisa cheats on him with his best friend, Mark. Encouraging of his friend’s efforts but wary of the script’s many weaknesses, Sestero is chosen to play Mark in The Room. Against protocol, Wiseau decides to buy all of the film equipment (rather than renting) and even chooses to shoot in both HD video and 35MM film simultaneously. They are backed by a seemingly endless supply of money, the source of which Wiseau refuses to reveal.

Filming ends up being a disaster, with Wiseau routinely forgetting his lines and clashing with numerous crew members, most notably cinematographer Raphael Smadja (Paul Scheer) and script supervisor Sandy Schklair (Seth Rogen). Wiseau is adamant about doing his film his way, and the budget balloons accordingly due to his mismanagement. Sestero eventually becomes exasperated, and wants to forsake the entire project, arguing with Wiseau repeatedly and leaving the project behind completely at the end of filming.

Eight months later, Sestero hasn’t talked to Wiseau at all until he receives an invitation in the mail for The Room‘s premiere. Initially reluctant, he reconsiders after Wiseau tracks him down and insists that he come.

The premiere on July 27, 2003 is a disaster, with the audience dumbfounded by the film’s awkward dialogue, terrible performances and gigantic, unresolved plot holes. Audience members begin to embrace The Room as a comedy, and their laughter makes Wiseau uncomfortable, causing him to leave in a huff. Sestero tracks him down and convinces him to come back into the theatre, saying that even though this response wasn’t what Wiseau wanted, people are still entertained by The Room and are having a blast. The two men return to the theatre and Wiseau gets a standing ovation.

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Imagine a film so bad that it becomes the proverbial car wreck you can’t look away from. Imagine a film that is so intensely bad that it becomes funny. And imagine rewatching this film over and over because it’s just that priceless.

That, my friends, is The Room, the $6 million disaster-piece that was christened “the Citizen Kane of bad movies” when it was released in 2003. Bombing at the LA box office in a limited release, The Room was eventually embraced as a midnight movie and cult classic, becoming a worldwide sensation. This has what has led to both Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero becoming the unlikeliest of household names.

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As for The Disaster Artist itself, this movie-about-a-movie is truly wonderful. In their first film collaboration, Dave Franco and James Franco are exceptional as Sestero and Wiseau, respectively, performing their roles with conviction and earnestness. Smartly written and downright hilarious, The Disaster Artist succeeds as both an homage to the “greatest bad movie ever made” and as a poignant nod to the quirky people who choose to never give up on their dreams.

Grade: A

  • Directed by James Franco
  • Produced by James Franco, Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen, Vince Jolivette, and James Weaver
  • Screenplay by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
  • Based on the book “The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made” by Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell
  • Director of Photography — Brandon Trost
  • Music by Dave Porter
  • Editor — Stacey Schroeder
  • Starring James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor, Alison Brie, Paul Scheer, Josh Hutcherson, Jacki Weaver, Hannibal Buress, Zac Efron, Sharon Stone, Melanie Griffith, Megan Mullally, Jason Mantzoukas
  • Rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity.

 

HISTORY SPOTLIGHT: Tom Wills

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Tom Wills’s life had all the drama, passion, and excitement of a major movie script: someone who was beloved across a then-fledgling country as a talented dual sportsman and an eccentric personality.

The man was one of the most talented Australian cricketers of his day and also helped give birth to Aussie rules football — a unique and fast-paced game that enthralls modern audiences and has spread across the globe. However, immediately following his death, he fell into obscurity and did not achieve folk hero status as an Aussie sports legend for many decades. Who was Wills, and what made him such an intriguing figure?

Thomas Wentworth Wills was born in rural New South Wales (then still a British colony) on August 19, 1835 to Horatio Wills and Elizabeth McGuire Wills. Wills’s maternal grandparents were Irish convicts, while his paternal grandfather Edward Wills was an Englishman who was convicted of highway robbery and transported to Australia in 1799.

Horatio Wills was active in local politics and also owned a newspaper, where he helped make the case for a self-reliant, robust Australia with minimal British interference. By the time he got married and started raising a family, however, Wills moved to the countryside, settling in a predominantly Aboriginal region of Victoria near the modern-day town of Moyston. Here, the Wills family began a more pastoral style of living.

Young Tom naturally gravitated towards his Aboriginal neighbors as companions, learning their language and appreciating their music. Horatio Wills was also well-regarded among the community due to his uncommon hospitality to the locals, allowing Aboriginal clans to hunt on his land. Tom eventually moved south to Melbourne and attended Brickwood’s School from the age of 11, where he developed a close relationship with his uncle, who lived nearby. A natural athlete, Wills first began playing cricket while at school in Melbourne.

By 1850, Wills was 14 and his father was looking to ensure a good secondary education for his eldest, so he sent him to the elite Rugby School in Warwickshire, England. Here, Wills continued to play cricket and developed a sterling reputation as one of the best young bowlers at the school. In addition to his prowess as a cricketer, Wills also excelled in other athletic events, including Rugby School’s annual sports carnival. At a lanky 5’10” with natural agility and skill, Wills was considered the best all-around athlete in the school.

Wills, despite battling homesickness, finished his schooling in 1855 and began playing cricket across England, including first-class appearances for some of the most historic cricket clubs in the country. Eventually, after pressure from his father, Wills returned home to Australia right before Christmas 1856.

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Wills came back to his home country at the perfect time — the colonies of Victoria and New South Wales were battling annually in cricket and the competition had reached a fever pitch. Recruited to the Melbourne Cricket Club (MCC) by his old school friend, William Hammersley, Wills soon became a highly-regarded cricketer in Australia as well.

At the time, Aussie cricketers were strictly amateur sportsmen. Wills didn’t mind; he liked playing sports strictly for fun, but he also enjoyed drinking and fraternizing with the professional Aussie cricketers, which irked sporting officials but endeared him to the average fan.

During the 1857-58 cricket season, Wills was elected secretary of the MCC, but he was blamed for poor administrative skills and sometimes didn’t even show up to club meetings, even when the MCC was heavily in debt. Wills eventually resigned in a huff, resulting in a strained relationship with the MCC that would last for many years.

Despite his lack of secretarial skills, Wills was a prolific writer on cricket-related matters, penning numerous letters to the local press, many of which were often contentious in nature. On July 10, 1858, Wills wrote a letter to Bell’s Life, a Melbourne sporting chronicle, discussing the possibilities of forming a football club to help keep cricketers fit during the winter months:

Now that cricket has been put aside for some few months to come, and cricketers have assumed somewhat of the chrysalis nature….why can they not, I say, form a foot-ball club, and form a committee of three or more to draw up a code of laws?

Wills may not have realized it at the time, but he made a historic declaration, stating that “foot-ball” should be an organized and regular pastime. After spreading the word to local schools, Wills and his fellow cricketers organized a series of test matches at the Richmond Paddock, located adjacent to the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). The matches were played on subsequent Saturdays in August between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar School. At this point, the form of football was more akin to rugby than anything else, but Wills would soon devise a scheme to make his new code of football unique.

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On May 14, 1859, Wills and a handful of other cricketers founded the Melbourne Football Club. Three days later, Wills invited William Hammersley, Thomas H. Smith, and J.B. Thompson to the Parade Hotel to formally codify the new type of football.

The four men debated the public school forms of football that were popular in England at the time. Wills naturally geared more towards the rugby of his alma mater; however, Hammersley disliked what he viewed as the complex and violent nature of rugby. The men compromised and decided to tailor-make the rules to the typical Melbourne winter conditions. They drew up a set of 10 rules:

1. The distance between the goals and the goal posts shall be decided upon by the captains of the sides playing.
2. The captains on each side shall toss for choice of goal; the side losing the toss has the kick off from the centre point between the goals.
3. A goal must be kicked fairly between the posts, without touching either of them, or a portion of the person of any player on either side.
4. The game shall be played within a space of not more than 200 yards wide, the same to be measured equally on each side of a line drawn through the centres of the two goals; and two posts to be called the “kick off posts” shall be erected at a distance of 20 yards on each side of the goal posts at both ends, and in a straight line with them.
5. In case the ball is kicked “behind” goal, any one of the side behind whose goal it is kicked may bring it 20 yards in front of any portion of the space between the “kick off” posts, and shall kick it as nearly as possible in line with the opposite goal.
6. Any player catching the ball “directly” from the foot may call “mark”. He then has a free kick; no player from the opposite side being allowed to come “inside” the spot marked.
7. Tripping and pushing are both allowed (but no hacking) when any player is in rapid motion or in possession of the ball, except in the case provided for in Rule 6.
8. The ball may be taken in hand “only” when caught from the foot, or on the hop. In “no case” shall it be “lifted” from the ground.
9. When a ball goes out of bounds (the same being indicated by a row of posts) it shall be brought back to the point where it crossed the boundary-line, and thrown in at right angles with that line.
10. The ball, while in play, may under no circumstances be thrown.

While not all of these rules have survived, they still form the official basis of Australian rules football — primarily kicking goals, marking the ball, and playing a fast-paced game over a very large area. Due to Wills’s immense popularity in Australia, the new game grew quickly, spreading across Melbourne and the nearby city of Geelong.

While Wills was developing Aussie rules during the winter, he remained a constant — albeit controversial — figure in cricket. After his falling-out with the MCC, Wills traveled around Australia, playing for any cricket team that would have him. This made many clubs furious, as Wills would frequently play without giving prior notice to the opposition, dramatically tilting the odds in his new team’s favor.

Shortly before England’s inaugural cricket tour of Australia in 1861, Wills abruptly announced his retirement from all sports. At the behest of his dad, Wills moved to found a new family property, this time thousands of miles north in outback Queensland along the Nogoa River. Wills, his family, and a number of his dad’s employees took a steam train to Brisbane, and then began the long trip to the rugged Queensland interior to establish their new property. Upon their arrival, Horatio Wills named the new location Cullin-la-ringo and established a ranch there. The family was wary of intermittent fighting between Anglos and Aborigines in the area and resolved to have a non-interventionist approach to the conflicts.

Two weeks later, on October 17, Wills was out of town seeking new supplies when nearly everyone at Cullin-la-ringo — including Horatio — was killed by Aborigines. Nineteen people (including women and children) were clubbed to death, resulting in the deadliest massacre of Anglo settlers in Australian history. Wills was not the only survivor; two men avoided being spotted by the Aborigines and reported the news to Wills later on.

Following the tragedy, Wills rebuilt the property at Cullin-la-ringo and sold it to a relative; however, Wills began to descend into insomnia, PTSD, and alcoholism. Drifting for awhile, he returned to cricket briefly and also spent some time coaching footy in Geelong before going back to Cullin-la-ringo.

By 1864, Wills’s personal life was imploding — his fiancée broke up with him and he was deeply in debt due to squandering money on alcohol while falsely claiming it as “station expenditures.”

Wills eventually moved back to Victoria, staying in Geelong with his sister Emily. He continued to play cricket occasionally, but his on-field professionalism was undermined when opposing players and umpires alike accused him of throwing games repeatedly (In cricket, one must use an orthodox method of bowling the ball, with very little wiggle room. Otherwise, a “no-ball” is called.).

By 1871, Wills’s style of play had ostracized many of his former friends and teammates, including Hammersley, and during that year’s match, Wills was tossed from the game and eventually banned from intercolonial matches. Wills attacked Hammersley (an Englishman) many times in the press, accusing him of manipulating the rules against Australians and threatening legal action.

Despite his fall from grace in the cricket world, Wills was still highly regarded in Geelong, where he helped further develop footy’s popularity. He continued to play and coach, and consulted with other authorities to make new rules and provide innovative game plans. He retired from footy in 1877.

Continuing to struggle with debt, Wills lived with his longterm girlfriend, Sarah Barbor, in the Melbourne suburb of Heidelberg. Wills’s alcoholism continued to consume him until he was completely broke. With no money, Wills experienced withdrawal symptoms, including intense paranoia, and was admitted to a local hospital on May 1st, 1880. After being observed and released, Wills continued to suffer from paranoid delusions; two days later, he stabbed himself in the chest three times and died. Estranged from most of his family, Wills was buried in an unmarked grave and his funeral was attended by only six people.

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Wills was Australia’s first real sporting celebrity — excelling in cricket professionally and developing Aussie rules into a beloved winter pastime. However, the man himself remains an enigma among his supporters and detractors alike.

In addition to his alcoholism and PTSD, which sprang from the personal tragedies in his life, Wills had strange personality traits. He was frequently described as charismatic and laconic, although he also had very narcissistic tendencies and was not shy about alienating people. Wills was also a notorious womanizer and may have had hidden mental health issues, often confiding in friends and family that he didn’t always feel like himself.

Wills also wrote many letters to his friends and family over the years, many of which were composed in bizarre fashion: he had a peculiar stream of consciousness style of writing that sometimes defied grammar, featuring random puns, strange Shakespearean allusions, and droll asides. It’s possible that he was bipolar or even mildly epileptic. “He could be dismissive, triumphant, and brazen all in a single sentence,” says Australian historian Greg de Moore.

Despite his moral flaws, Wills is heavily remembered not just for his sporting legacy, but for his egalitarian attitudes, which are strongly reflected in Australian culture at large. In some ways, he is emblematic of the tough, down-to-earth, individualistic image of the “Aussie bloke.”

“‘Great’ athletes seem to be anointed every day; far rarer are those entitled to be considered ‘original’. Tom Wills is such a figure in every respect,” says journalist Gideon Haigh.

Whatever you think of Tom Wills as a person, he will probably always be remembered as a lasting icon of Australia’s two most famous sports.

HISTORY SPOTLIGHT: Jim Stynes

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Jim Stynes has been cemented as one of the all-time greats in Australian football, winning a Brownlow Medal, earning two All-Australian honors, and holding the record for most consecutive AFL games. But Stynes didn’t know the finer points of Aussie rules until he was a young man, as the sport was entirely foreign to him growing up.

Born in 1966 to Brian and Teresa Stynes, he was raised in the southern suburbs of Dublin as one of six kids. He began playing Gaelic football and had a real passion for it, starting from the age of eight and continuing throughout his school days in Ireland. In addition to relishing the fast pace and ball movement in Gaelic football, Stynes also liked full-contact sports, competing in rugby union at De La Salle College, Churchtown.

In 1984, when he was only 18, Stynes led his team — Ballyboden St Endas — to a Gaelic football title in the All-Ireland Minor Championship division. While coming down from the high of this big win, Stynes wanted a steadier income. Since Gaelic football was an amateur sport, Stynes had to support himself by delivering papers for meager wages. While he wanted to go to college, it seemed like a pipe dream.

Soon afterwards, Stynes saw an ad in his newspaper from the Melbourne Football Club. They were offering two scholarships for young Irishmen to come and play Aussie rules while studying at a university in Melbourne. Lanky and athletic, Stynes saw it as a great opportunity and was eventually selected, flying to Australia in November 1984.

In addition to adjusting to the cultural differences in Australia, Stynes had to learn Aussie rules from scratch. While both Aussie rules and Gaelic football feature similar ball movement and kicking skills, Stynes found it hard to transfer his football IQ right away. He needed to fine-tune his techniques, adjust to the full contact nature of footy, and attempt to compete with young men his age who were far more experienced.

However, after about a year or so with the Melbourne Demons’ reserves squad, Stynes began to settle in and be more comfortable with a footy. Coaches liked his athleticism and his positive attitude, and by 1987, he made his senior level debut in a night game between Melbourne and Geelong.

It didn’t go as planned; Stynes performed poorly on the grand stage and didn’t play much the rest of the ’87 season. Melbourne got to the AFL Preliminary Final that year and was leading Hawthorn in the final seconds. The siren sounded to end the match, but Hawthorn had one more shot and were given a free kick after Stynes ran across the mark. This critical error cost the Demons a shot at the Grand Final that year.

But once again, Stynes didn’t quit and the following year, Melbourne made it back to the postseason. This time, they did advance to the Grand Final and lost badly, but Stynes was showing rapid improvement.

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In 1991, Stynes had his best season yet, playing all 24 games for the Demons and leading the league in marks (214). He also won the Brownlow Medal, the AFL Players Association MVP award, and was named All-Australian. To date, Stynes is the only foreign-born AFL player to ever capture a Brownlow, which is the game’s highest individual regular season honor.

Stynes was highly regarded for his relentless pursuit of the ball, out-hustling and maneuvering his opponents and using his quickness to be aggressive towards bigger players. In 1993, Stynes collided with a teammate and broke a rib. He was initially ruled out for six weeks, but amazingly, he returned the following week and played with light chest padding for protection. He was holding the all-time record for consecutive AFL games when he suffered another severe injury — this time to his hand — in 1998, and he retired that fall as one of the best players in Melbourne history, playing 264 career games.

Following his retirement, Stynes remained involved in the community, both on and off the footy oval. In 1994, while still playing, Stynes co-founded the Reach Foundation with his friend, filmmaker Paul Currie, with the goal of starting community outreach programs. The foundation works with kids, families, and the like to help people in various ways, from mental health education, to violence prevention, to sports and athletic activities.

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Stynes continued his philanthropic efforts in 1997, when the Government of Victoria asked him to help assist their anti-suicide task force, helping advocate for youth treatment programs and compassionate outreaches. In addition to two autobiographies, Stynes also wrote children’s self-help books and was named Victorian of the Year twice (in 2001 and 2003). In recognition of his community activism and work with children, Stynes received an honorary doctorate from the Australian Catholic University. The AFL inducted him into their Hall of Fame in 2003.

The Jim Stynes Medal was named in his honor, first awarded in 1998 to the best Australian player in the International Rules Series, which pits Aussie rules and Gaelic footballers against each other under hybrid rules.

Stynes became president of the Melbourne Football Club in 2008 to much fanfare, although the following year he announced a sabbatical after being diagnosed with melanoma. Stynes continued to work during his treatment, but soon the cancer had metastasized. He passed away at his home at the age of 45 on March 20, 2012 and was survived by his wife Samantha and two kids.

Former Melbourne team captain turned TV journalist Garry Lyon gave an emotional tribute to his former teammate on The Footy Show:

Jimmy refused to let the game define who he was. It was just a part of him and it allowed us to marvel at his determination, unwavering self-belief, resilience, strength, skill, endurance and courage….he was secure enough to know that displaying vulnerability can be a strength and not a weakness.

mother! (2017)

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Note: the characters in this film are purposely never referred to by name, and are listed on IMDB in the following manner. There is a reason for this, which I’ll get into later:

  • Jennifer Lawrence as mother
  • Javier Bardem as Him
  • Ed Harris as man
  • Michelle Pfeiffer as woman

Ok.

This film is very difficult to describe. There are multiple interpretations of mother! out there and it’s causing a polarizing reaction among critics and audiences alike. There WILL be some spoilers in this review. I apologize in advance; I wanted to include a completely spoiler-free review before a did a more in-depth look at mother! but found myself unable to broach the film’s subject matter without getting into the nitty-gritty aspects of it.

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Him (Javier Bardem) is a gifted poet who lives in an isolated rural house with his much younger wife, known only as Mother (Jennifer Lawrence). Mother works to renovate the house while Him suffers from writers’ block; they are outwardly affectionate towards each other, but have a strange relationship dynamic. Him is naturally sociable and charming, but it’s implied that he has suffered from traumatic events in his past and comes across as emotionally distant towards his wife. Meanwhile, Mother is young and timid, and while she loves Him, she struggles to reveal her true thoughts and feelings due to the demanding nature of his work. We see that Mother also occasionally has disorienting, vertigo-like episodes and that the house itself is sentient and has a personality of its own (yes, even a beating heart).

One day, the couple’s tranquil existence is disrupted by a Man (Ed Harris). Man is a doctor and researcher who has greatly admired Him’s writings, but his unannounced arrival — as well as Him’s lack of suspicion towards his mysteriousness — alarms Mother. Soon enough, Harris’s wife, Woman, (Michelle Pfeiffer) also shows up. There’s plenty of awkward interaction as Woman begins to trouble Lawrence with nosy questions and help herself to a tour of the house. Again, Mother and Him’s lack of communication with each other causes notable tension.

It’s soon revealed that Man is dying of an unknown disease. He and Woman have two sons, and a traumatic and violent incident occurs involving the two of them and their father’s will. This results in the younger son being bludgeoned. Him follows the family to the hospital, but the younger son dies regardless. As Mother cleans up the bloody crime scene, she notices a spot on the wood floor that continues to bleed, dripping down to the house’s basement.

This violent incident drives a further wedge being driven between Him and Mother. After a wake for the son in which more uninvited guests arrive, Mother eventually confronts Him about it and voices her frustrations about the lack of communication in their relationship. It’s also becoming increasingly apparent by how many people hold Him in such esteem, even to the point of harassing Mother, being rude to her, and becoming violently obsessed with Him’s work. Mother becomes angry with Him, but they eventually make up and have sex, which results in Mother’s pregnancy.

Happy for his growing family, Him finally gets new inspiration to write. He finishes the piece in record time over the next few months, and both he and Mother begin to be contented again. However, when Him’s new poem is released, he begins to get more and more obsessed fans arriving at the house, who become violent and push a pregnant Mother to the edge of her own sanity.

This film is insane. I didn’t know much about it until I saw it recently, only that it drew a sharply divided response from critics and audiences and was full of metaphor and allegory. Mother! is the brainchild of acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky, who has frequently blended violence, harrowing drama, and surrealism into his previous films, most notably Black Swan, Pi, Noah, The Fountain, and Requiem for a Dream. He’s someone that I greatly respect due to his daring artistic visions and willingness to push stylistic boundaries. You never forget an Aronofsky film once you’ve seen it.

The insane part of the film is primarily due to the violent climax in the last third of the movie, but mother! builds a coherent and visceral atmosphere right off the bat. Lots of the early parts of the film follow Mother around the massive house, and you get a real sense of the scope, age, and isolation of the place. The cinematography and sound design are both outstanding, the latter of which is key, because mother! has very little in terms of a traditional musical score. Therefore, the sound of the film becomes extremely important in establishing the tone.

Alas, tone is what can sometimes make mother! a jarring and disorienting experience. I get that it’s a psychological horror film with heavy allegorical meaning, but some of the tonal shifts from scene to scene — most notably about halfway through the movie — weren’t done super well. At the same time, I feel like that the unsettling effect of the tonal shifts were kind of the point — after all, I would agree that this is a film that must be experienced, not simply watched. Nonetheless, I recognize that it’s sometimes strange to go from surreal religious symbolism to domestic drama to psychological horror and back again. This is probably one of the reasons as to why most audiences found mother! a difficult film to watch.

The acting and directing are as good as any you’ll see all year. Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence in particular are outstanding; Lawrence might have just given us the performance of her career, and that’s saying something.

The film has been described as a Biblical allegory by both Aronofsky and Lawrence, and this becomes very apparent as the film goes on. Bardem — as Him — is essentially playing a version of God, albeit a deity that’s not entirely consistent with one particular religion. Him is universally admired and some of his followers do, in fact, take it too far and do horrible things to please Him. Lawrence echoed some similar sentiments in a recent interview as well — that Bardem represents a deity, but not any particular religion.

(Worth mentioning: Aronofsky previously directed the Biblical epic Noah in 2014. While he admits to a spiritual side, Aronofsky has said that he has a complex relationship with religion and was raised culturally Jewish in his hometown of Brooklyn.)

Harris and Pfeiffer represent Adam and Eve, and you’ll pick up on some related symbolism along the way. The brothers fighting and one killing the other is obviously a Cain and Abel reference, Lawrence’s character is an embodiment of Mother Earth, while the house is the Garden of Eden (this is explored by Mother giving life to a literal child as well as sustaining the house through its many incarnations).

***WARNING: MORE SPOILERS AHEAD***

Speaking of Mother Earth, there were some reviewers that believed that the latter half of the film — in which Him’s obsessed fans ruin the house and drive Mother to her breaking point — as being a metaphor for environmentalism. You could certainly draw this parallel, but the religious symbolism is much stronger and more pervasive throughout the movie.

In my opinion, the symbolism of the bleeding floorboards of the house has two meanings: physical and spiritual. The house’s bleeding stops when Mother is pregnant, suggesting both the physical differences (menstruation vs. pregnancy) and how Mother is happier knowing that she’s bringing a new life into the world, as opposed to earlier, when she felt emotionally distant from Him and lacked joy in her life.

There was some controversy related to Aronofsky’s intentions with this film. The director wrote the entire script at an astonishing pace — five days, in fact — and said he wanted the movie to have a dreamlike quality to it. Some critics complained that the film’s themes and poster bore an uncanny resemblance to horror classic Rosemary’s Baby. Other people didn’t like the violence in mother! or found it too intellectually dense to comprehend, dismissing it as silly or pretentious.

I disagree; I found mother! to be extremely engaging, visually and technically spectacular, and very well-acted. Some might find it too ambitious or disturbing, and some will love the meaning of the film and draw philosophical and spiritual messages from it. Just like my favorite Aronofsky film, Requiem for a DreamMother! is harrowing and intense at times, and isn’t exactly something I’d recommend to everyone. However, I know this film has a real meaning to it and will definitely merit repeat viewings eventually.

Grade: A-

  • Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky
  • Produced by Darren Aronofsky, Scott Franklin, and Ari Handel
  • Director of Photography — Matthew Libatique
  • Edited by Andrew Wiesblum
  • Starring Javier Bardem, Jennifer Lawrence, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer
  • Rated R for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language.

Silence (2016)

Two young Jesuit priests search for their missing mentor while facing danger and persecution in 17th-century Japan.

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Why do bad things happen to good people?

Why does God seem hidden when we need Him the most?

Why is there suffering in the world?

What loaded questions. But these age-old philosophical queries form the basis of Martin Scorsese’s religious epic Silence.

In 17th-century Japan, there are a number of hidden Christians (known as Kakure Kirishitan) under persecution from the authorities. The story follows two young Portuguese Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver), who are stationed at St. Paul’s College, Macau.

Garupe and Rodrigues receive word that their former mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has been rumored to have forsaken the faith while under torture. Skeptical but nonetheless troubled of this rumor, both priests journey to Japan, attempting to both find Ferreira and bring a dash of faith, hope, and love to the impoverished, persecuted Japanese Christian community.

However, along the way, both men — especially Rodrigues —  become deeply distraught at the fear and tragedy that the Japanese Catholics deal with. They live in destitution and are desperate for someone to give them encouragement and support. Many scenes in the movie are Rodrigues journaling his thoughts, serving as an inner-monologue to his struggles. It’s heartening to know that even leaders of the faith struggle with the problem of pain, but Rodrigues and Garupe will soon find themselves persecuted as well, struggling to sustain their Gospel against the Japanese shogun.

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Silence is — to put it mildly — an emotional roller-coaster of a movie. Characters grapple with their consciences. Innocent men and women are tortured for their faith. Some characters deny their faith only to tearfully ask for confessions later on.

Put it this way: I have never, ever cried while watching a movie, but in Silence, there were three occasions where that streak was nearly broken.

Silence was in the works for 25 years, with Scorsese securing the rights to Shusaku Endo’s novel back in the 90s. Scorsese’s Catholic background was a key factor in his desire to bring the story of Silence to the big screen, but he still struggled to find the emotional heart of the story. Scorsese and his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Jay Cocks, wrote the screenplay all the way back in 1991, but were never quite able to get the project off the ground, re-writing scripts numerous times in between Scorsese’s other films, such as Shutter Island, Gangs of New York, and Hugo.

Eventually, the duo were embroiled in legal battles with studios and had to fight for many years to retain the novel’s rights. Scorsese continued to work on other films in the meantime, before finally deciding to film Silence after his 2013 blockbuster The Wolf of Wall Street. 

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Even at the age of 74, Scorsese is still one of the greatest directors alive, and this pet project was something that he was genuinely passionate about and fought to get made. Still controversial among Christians for his 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese nonetheless does have a sincere set of beliefs, even if it’s taken him awhile to re-examine them in his later years. “All I’ve had all my life are movies and religion,” the director once said. In fact, Scorsese briefly considered entering the ministry thanks to the positive influence of a priest during his teenage years at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx.

Father James Martin — a real Jesuit priest — worked with both Driver and Garfield to ensure an accurate representation of the Catholic faith and traditions. Garfield — fresh off playing another faith-filled hero in Hacksaw Ridge — actually undertook the Spiritual Exercises in preparation for the role. The Exercises are a series of meditations and philosophical musings practiced by the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and Garfield admitted that he found them “profoundly transformative.”

Filming Silence was a grueling process, with many actors losing weight and suffering through unpredictable weather conditions while shooting in remote and rugged parts of Taiwan.

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Silence does have some incredibly powerful moments. Even for a three-hour film, it’s truly engrossing and beautifully shot, although it really can be hard to watch at times. By Scorsese’s standards, Silence is a very mild R-rated film, with only occasional bloodshed, but it’s still tragic seeing so many people suffer.

Let me be clear: Silence deals with some very deep themes and religion permeates every aspect of the film. Heck, that’s probably why the movie flopped at the box office: most Scorsese fans will not be expecting this type of film from him, and lots of moviegoers aren’t necessarily comfortable with religious epics. But even if you aren’t religious, it’s still an outstanding film and something that is more than capable of tugging at heart strings.

Scorsese explains his philosophy further:

As you get older, ideas come and go. Questions, answers, loss of the answer again and more questions, and this is what really interests me….ultimately as you get older, there’s got to be more. Much, much more. The very nature of secularism right now is really fascinating to me, but at the same time can you wipe away what could be more enriching in your life, which is an appreciation or some sort of search for that which is spiritual and transcends? Silence is just something that I’m drawn to in that way. It’s been an obsession. It has to be done… it’s a strong, wonderful true story, a thriller in a way, but it deals with those questions.

The director even went on record as saying that there’s not much hope for humanity without Christianity. “I’m a believer with some doubts,” Scorsese told The Hollywood Reporter. “But the doubts push me to find a purer sense of the word ‘God.'”

In Silence‘s examination of heresy and apostasy, there’s a bit of a bait-and-switch. While it is certainly a grievous sin to deny one’s faith, Silence asks us to go even deeper than that. If someone outwardly denies his faith, but still believes deeply in his heart, is it as severe of a sin? Can someone serve Christ silently, even if he doesn’t show it publicly out of fear of being harmed?

Scripture is a prime example of how people are still redeemable, even if they struggle with their faith or even have public moments of doubt. In the Old Testament, Samson fell away from God, but still destroyed His enemies (and himself). In the Gospels, Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy, influential man who loved Jesus, but also feared backlash from the Sanhedrin and kept his faith secret. And, most famously, Peter — the greatest coward in history — became one of the most prominent and dedicated leaders the Church has ever known.

I should clarify — Silence does sometimes pose a lot more questions than answers, and among Christians, I would only recommend it for mature believers. Again, it’s an emotional roller-coaster and is the most thought-provoking film I’ve seen in awhile. The film is also punishingly lengthy (three hours), but does reward the patient viewer. Without getting into spoilers, the emotional payoff of Silence doesn’t come until the final shot of the movie.

Here’s what Catholic scholar Caesar Montevecchio stated in his analysis of the film:

Silence is as much about the object of Christian faith as it is the experience of that faith…..The object of faith becomes a Christ who is a hero of pity, who takes up the weakness and suffering of humankind as his cross, rather than a hero of triumphant resolve. The Jesus of Silence is one of utter kenosis or self-emptying, and one who in the mercy of that kenosis radically sympathizes with the weakness and frailty of human beings.

Japanese-American theologian Fumitaka Masuoka also echoed this view, stating that the movie “pivots on the idea that the silence of God is in fact the message of God, being not the silence of nothingness, but rather the accompaniment for the forsaken and the suffering.”

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Scorsese premiered Silence at the Vatican and at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome at the end of November 2016. Scorsese met Pope Francis at the premiere, who wished the film great success and was also impressed by Garfield and Driver’s unique preparations for the role. Scorsese also arranged several private screenings for groups of Jesuits, many of whom were moved to tears. (I’m sure it was a surreal experience for Scorsese to be among groups of people who might have been ready to tar and feather him following Last Temptation, but that’s beside the point.)

It’s a shame that this film didn’t connect with audiences the way it should have. Silence is a remarkable achievement and one of Scorsese’s finest films, and that’s saying something.

Grade: A

  • Directed by Martin Scorsese
  • Screenplay by Jay Cocks & Martin Scorsese
  • Based on the novel by Shûsaku Endô
  • Produced by Martin Scorsese, Irwin Winkler, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Vittorio Cecchi Gori, Barbara De Fina, Randall Emmett, David Lee, Gastón Pavlovich
  • Director of Photography — Rodrigo Prieto
  • Music by Kathryn Kluge and Kim Allen Kluge
  • Editor — Thelma Schoonmaker
  • Starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Yôsuke Kubozuka, Tadanobu Asano, Issae Ogata, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Ciarán Hinds, Yoshi Oida
  • Rated R for some disturbing violent content.

 

The Year of Living Dangerously (1982)

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An Australian journalist and a British embassy officer have a romantic fling while surrounded by political instability in 1965 Indonesia.

Foreign correspondent Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) receives his new assignment in Jakarta, Indonesia, a country with rampant instability and high corruption. The country’s president, Sukarno, is an avowed nationalist who has been fiercely opposed by both the state communist party (the PKI) and the Muslim-majority Indonesian military.

Western journalists — including Hamilton’s own colleagues from the US, the UK, and New Zealand — struggle to gain adequate information. Hamilton feels awkward around his colleagues, as they view him as an inexperienced hotshot. Adding to Hamilton’s frustration, his predecessor left Indonesia suddenly and didn’t inform him of what to expect.

Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt), a Chinese-Australian photographer born with dwarfism, turns out to be an unlikely ally for Hamilton, giving him valuable insider information and arranging key interviews with prominent political figures. While smart and intuitive, Billy’s motivations don’t always remain clear to Hamilton.

Billy introduces Hamilton to Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), a beautiful assistant at the British embassy, and the two eventually begin a romance. However, Hamilton discovers several important bits of information that could signal a coming coup against Sukarno, including the bombshell revelation that the Indonesian communists are plotting to overthrow Sukarno by using arms from China. Despite the danger, Hamilton plans to cover the impending communist uprising, much to Jill’s chagrin. In the midst of turmoil, can Hamilton keep his career and his love life intact?

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One of the classics of Australian New Wave cinema, The Year of Living Dangerously was based upon C.J. Koch’s novel of the same name. Koch wrote the novel in 1978 and based it on some of his brother’s own experiences in Indonesia as a foreign journalist during the same time period.

Koch’s novel soon drew many suitors who wanted to adapt the political romance into a film. While there was no shortage of contenders, eventually Peter Weir bought the rights and signed on to direct. Weir was riding high following his 1981 war film Gallipoli, but The Year of Living Dangerously would prove to be a unique challenge for him.

Koch wrote an early draft of the script, but Weir didn’t like it, prompting a few re-writes from screenwriter Alan Sharp and Gallipoli collaborator David Williamson. Weir and Williamson eventually wrote the final draft, and Koch estimated that the screenplay was 45% his work, and 55% Weir and Williamson.

Funding was initially easy to come by due to Weir’s status in the Australian film community at the time, but the South Australian Film Commission was eventually forced to back out. Weir’s agent suggested that MGM, which was already involved in North American distribution, provide the final budget. The Year of Living Dangerously was green-lit with a budget of AU$6 million and was one of the first international co-productions between the US and Australia (as well as one of the most expensive Aussie films ever made at that point).

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In addition to Williamson, Weir brought in Gallipoli cinematographer Russell Boyd and hired another previous collaborator, Mel Gibson, as his lead. Gibson was already a household name in Australia due to Gallipoli and the first two Mad Max films.

For the role of dwarfish photographer Billy Kwan, Weir originally cast David Atkins, a dancer, but during rehearsals, Weir felt like the chemistry between Gibson and Atkins was lacking. A few more people auditioned, but Weir soon made the unlikely choice to cast Asian-American Linda Hunt in the role of Billy. Hunt won the role and eventually earned the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

Filming was completed mostly in Australia and the Philippines; due to the movie’s political overtones, the Indonesian government refused to allow the production to film in Jakarta (the movie remained banned there until 1999). Both Weir and Gibson received death threats from Filipino Muslims who had been led to believe that the movie was anti-Islam; this later forced the production to move to Sydney and complete principal photography there. (Gibson brushed off the death threats in a subsequent interview, quipping, “It wasn’t really that bad…I mean, if they meant to kill us, why send a note?”)

The Year of Living Dangerously was released in November 1982 in Australia and February 1983 in North America, grossing over $10 million in both countries combined. The film was also nominated for the Palme d’Or at the ’83 Cannes Film Festival.

I really enjoyed this movie — it’s got a excellent tone, pace and some really good cinematography while blending elements of suspense, romance, and drama. Gibson, Weaver, and Hunt are all outstanding. I found The Year of Living Dangerously to be about halfway between the sweeping romance of Casablanca and the harrowing, pulse-pounding nature of The Last King of Scotland. Most of these specific plot elements work really well, although there are some minor tonal inconsistencies from scene to scene. Apart from that, The Year of Living Dangerously is well-made and entertaining, and I’d highly recommend it if you like political thrillers, romantic thrillers, or Gibson’s pre-Lethal Weapon filmography.

Grade: B+

  • Released 1982
  • Directed by Peter Weir
  • Produced by Jim McElroy
  • Screenplay by Peter Weir and David Williamson
  • Director of Photography — Russell Boyd
  • Music by Maurice Jarre
  • Edited by William M. Anderson
  • Starring Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver, Linda Hunt, Bill Kerr, Michael Murphy, Noel Ferrier, Bembol Roco, Paul Sonkkila
  • Rated PG