Winter 2009, Volume 25.2
Clean Hands and Dirty Hands—Colonial Violence in The Proposition
Sascha Pöhlmann is a lecturer in American Literary History at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, Germany. He received his MA degree from the University of Bayreuth in 2004 with a thesis on identity and self in Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow. His studies have also taken him to Trinity College Dublin and the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was a visiting faculty at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, and at the American Studies Center in Warsaw. He wrote his dissertation on “Pynchon’s Postnational Imagination.”
Maybe the name of the movie genre called Western is appropriate in its peculiar double meaning. Of course it means the American West, the Frontier, those familiar spaces, places, lives and the cinematic imagination that constructed them. But let us add another meaning, using the word as it is done so often in critical theory, familiar from expressions such as Western rationality, Western capitalism, Western modernity, Western values, Western patriarchy, Western racism, the whole set of ideas so easily labeled with that single word. So how Western is the Western? And especially, how can the Western negotiate two remarkably opposed concepts that coexisted in Western modernity, namely the rational possibility and necessity of self-criticism that is characteristic of Enlightenment thought, and the utterly violent set of theories and practices summed up under the term of colonialism, which were sought to be justified by rational arguments but actually ran counter to precisely that rationality? How does the Western create and affect the cultural imaginary of the Western world that needs to deal with its inherent contradiction between self-criticism and dominating others? In the classic American Western, this dichotomy would play out most obviously wherever white cowboys and settlers and the native population meet, and the sheer ubiquity of that motif makes it unnecessary to go through its clichés once more here. Armando José Prats summarizes the appearance of the Hollywood Indian as "the misrepresented agent of an indigenous culture so muddled, fudged, and falsified that it seldom admits of reference except through those contrivances that configure Hollywood’s idea of frontier savagery" (24). Later, the movies of Peckinpah, Leone and others turned against some of the basic genre conventions of morality, heroism and the depiction of violence, and their self-deconstructions of the genre from within complicated plot and character relations beyond clearly identifiable binary categories. Of course, movies like The Wild Bunch or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly nevertheless maintain idealizations of masculinity and violence as well as dramaturgic conventions such as the final shootout, and characters do still serve as identification figures despite their ambivalent moral status. Furthermore, they shift the focus from the white male hero to the white male in crisis at the cost of still not adressing the question of colonialism significantly, if at all. These reimaginations did introduce self-critical elements to the Western genre, but they mark only the beginning of a process that was taken further by later filmmakers and which coincides with a postmodern critique of Western rationality. Lee Clark Mitchell identifies in Peckinpah’s Westerns "a form of moral self-deception" and "a confusion central to the genre’s dynamic—a confusion between the restraint we initially desire and the violence that finally seems necessary" (246). This tendency can be expanded to include the confusion between the self-restraint of the rational subject and the violent excess of the colonizer. Based on this ambiguity, one can argue that any Western is necessarily a mediation of Western imperialism, since the West it narrates is most often the western fringe of a rapidly expanding system of domination, and its classic iconography of freedom and openness more often than not omits the colonialist aspects of these inscriptions on both territory and imagination. The fact that revisionistic Westerns such as Cheyenne Autumn (1964) or Little Big Man (1970) do explore this colonial aspect explicitly only makes its predominant absence elsewhere more poignant.
In Invisible Natives, Armando José Prats points out that there are "questions that the Western would rather sidestep, or at least not raise explicity, questions about the Western’s cultural assumptions and claims, about its figural strategies and motives" (10). These questions exist not only, but possibly most pressingly with regard to the relation between colonialism and the Western, and the Western has finally begun to engage them. Postmodernism might be the time when the modern demand for self-criticism was pushed to the point where the West would actually criticize its own metanarratives, and when a critique of its colonial practices became more widespread in the proliferation of critical discourses and works of art. The postmodern Western movie, therefore, can be seen as the cultural artefact where the Western imagination falls back on itself, re-imagining its ideology, restrictions and conventions, ironically deconstructing itself while maintaining enough of the genre conventions to be recognizably part of it. This critical reimagination certainly stands in the tradition of Peckinpah and Leone in many respects, but it does not forget to also reimagine their versions of the Western and complicate them even further. Jim Kitses argues that today an "increasingly code-savvy image-culture persistently fine-tunes the Western now to define its frontier in racial and gender terms" (16), although this fine-tuning often amounts to more of a radical overhauling. In the best of these efforts at reconfiguration, such as Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), the Western remains functional as a Western while ironically (often bitterly) questioning its own conventions and functionality. In literature, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West is the most successful example; a similar achievement is the Preacher graphic novel series, especially in its depiction of the story of the Saint of Killers. The most recent cinematic example of this deconstructive tendency is Brokeback Mountain (2005), which significantly complicates the heteronormative Western cliché of the cowboy. The same year saw the release of the Western to be discussed in this essay, and which, as I will argue, achieves two things simultaneously: it takes new steps in the ongoing dissection of genre conventions, and even more importantly also dissects relevant colonial ideologies by showing how Western the Western actually is, and also how it can work as a discursive intervention into Western colonial narratives. The Proposition, directed by John Hillcoat, with screenplay and score by Nick Cave, already decenters the Western by setting it in a place that is not part of the West we usually have in mind when thinking about the genre: Australia.
As Hillcoat remarked in an interview, the Australian Western "has several similarities to the American Western. In fact, the Australian bushranger films predate the American Western: the first feature film ever made in Australia was The Story of the Kelly Gang in 1906" (Roddick). This precedence notwithstanding, the Australian Western can be seen as a reconfiguration of the dominant narrative that is the American Western, intervening from the margins into a genre that annexed the term Western itself in a way similar to the USA using the term America to refer to the nation-state, not the continents. It literally goes without saying that the Western is an American Western. As Stephen McVeigh asserts, "no other genre is more American than the Western, more engaged with such fundamental American concepts as individualism, progress, democracy" (76). Therefore, this particular Western set in Australia already presents a challenge to its genre, since the whole idea of the West or a Frontier does not easily translate from the USA to Australia, and it furthermore raises the question whether or not to include colonialism and imperialism among those alleged fundamental American concepts. Of course, not every Australian Western automatically aims at or achieves that deconstructive feat, as for example the production of Ned Kelly (2003) and its romanticized folklore show. However, The Proposition does thoroughly engage the Western bias in the Western and uses its marginal position as a fulcrum to dislocate the ideologies of Western colonialism within the American Western genre.
The film starts its deconstructive work even before the opening credits start to roll. A note reads that "Members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are advised that this film contains images which may be offensive to indigenous people." This statement alone could preface any American Western if modified to address Native Americans (a term as generalizing as Aboriginal), and its presence here draws attention to its absence in classical American Westerns, whose offensive content remains uncommented and presented as inoffensive according to colonialist ideology. However, The Proposition is not cautioning viewers against its offensive portrayal of indigenous people, since it resists that tendency of so many American Westerns. It is not a warning against the fact that indigenous people will be portrayed in an ideological or demeaning way; The Proposition is not offensive in its representation of indigenous people, but represents the colonial situation itself as offensive. The caveat goes on to explain that the film "includes historical photographs of people now deceased." Thus the warning is due to a recognition of cultural customs of the people portrayed in the film and those watching it, and while it does not negate its own Western point of view by using such photographs, it takes seriously the non-Western belief among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities that it is offensive to name or show photographs of the deceased. Thus the movie opens with a brief textual comment that draws attention to the possibility of views on representation alternative to Western ones. In a similar critical vein, the images of colonial life, oppression and violence that follow (and that summarize the events leading up to the opening scene) are ironically accompanied by the musical score of a child’s voice singing "Happy Land," showing the discrepancy between ideological representation and material reality, which is emphasized even more when the first sounds to follow this child’s song are those of a gunfight.
This critique of representation and ideology permeates the whole movie. As a brief summary of the main conflict helps to show, the movie refuses to conform to a simple binarism of good versus evil, or white versus non-white. Set in Australia at around 1880, The Proposition opens with Captain Morris Stanley capturing Charlie and Mike Burns, two brothers in a gang held responsible for an attack on the Hopkins farm in which the pregnant wife was raped and the whole family killed. The proposition of the movie’s title is made by Stanley, who offers Charlie a deal: if Charlie captures his oldest brother Arthur, head of the gang, within nine days, he earns his freedom, and Stanley will spare the life of Mike. This basic conflict is already a colonial one, since Stanley is British and the Burns brothers Irish; The Proposition thus harks back to an older colonial history that plays out in Australia and is rendered more complex by new colonial relations entering the structures of power. Instead of a classical two-way encounter of whites and indigenous people, The Proposition offers an ethnic triangle consisting of the British colonizers, the Irish colonized by the British but also colonizing Australia through settlement, and the Aboriginal colonized by both, and yet between the fronts of their colonizers’ own power struggles.
In this colonial context, the symbolism of inside versus outside that is so important in classical Western movies gains a new significance. The domestic setting of the home is traditionally opposed to the open spaces outside, which symbolize freedom, but also unrestrained wilderness and danger. The indigenous people living in these outside spaces are represented as part of its danger, and the home (and the traditional family) becomes the safe place to seek refuge in against these outside threats. For example, John Ford’s The Searchers uses shot and counter-shot techniques to frame the leaving and returning searchers in such terms, emphasizing the restoration of the family to the inside of the cabin. Like Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, The Proposition does not grant the family the capacity to offer refuge. Instead, the Hopkins family is eradicated and their farm burned down by outside forces, in this case the Burns gang (itself a family). The outside is not only threatening the inside, but seeks to penetrate the boundary and destroy its other. The opening scene, in harsh contrast to the quiet score that preceded it, already establishes this situation as it shows Charlie and Mike inside a cabin under attack from Captain Stanley and his men. The darkness inside the cabin gradually recedes with every bullet tearing a hole into the walls, and light entering the enclosed space.
The roles of outside and inside are not clearly assigned in the movie, and neither group can offer its members any security inside it, nor is any group exclusively a victimized one that only suffers from attacks but never attacks itself. The narrative of The Proposition thus is not one of romanticized revenge or justice one finds in classic Western movies. If there is revenge, it is not necessarily for reasons the audience would accept as justifiable, as can be seen in the fatal whipping of Mike. The strife for justice is undermined by the sheer injustice of those seeking what only they consider to be just. Each individual is following his or her own agenda, which sometimes coincides with that of a group he may represent, but all in all the movie shows only a violent struggle in a colonial situation that has blurred all boundaries between good and evil, with no identification figure to cling to for the viewer. What is common to this violence is the imagery of the constant outside threat and actual attack, making it a parallel to the violence of colonialist intrusion. The Western justification of bringing Enlightenment to the uncivilized then is aptly expressed by the light pouring into the dark cabin only through bullet holes created by those wishing to kill those on the inside.
In yet another move of complicating binaries, Charlie and Mike are not only in the cabin with members of their gang, but also with two Asian prostitutes, the only non-white women in the film. Their presence implies yet another complication, not so much in terms of plot as in terms of the cultural configurations that form the setting of the movie. Even though these Asian women are marginal because they do not speak and end up among the first of many dead in the film, they are not marginalized: they suggest an awareness of the complexity of cultural interconnections (no matter if positive or negative) that the Western Western often ignores in favor of simplified dichotomies. If there is a single laconic statement to sum up the ethics and aesthetics of The Proposition, it is that things are not that simple.
Sitting in front of the perforated wall in the now well-lit cabin, Stanley explains that Mike will be hung on Christmas Day. Charlie replies that Stanley is "a copper, […] not a judge and jury," but he merely responds by saying, "Well, clearly, Mr Burns, I am what I wish to be." This statement not only testifies to the breakdown of the structures of law and order the rational state has allegedly established, but also remarks on the rational individual as violent and powerful colonizer no longer restrained by the limitations of its own Enlightenment metanarrative. Further evidence of this unrestrained power is that seconds later, Stanley employs torture and coerces Charlie by hurting Mike. Wiping Mike’s blood off his revolver’s white handle only completes that show of colonial power because it implies the denial of that power’s violent nature, leaving even the weapons of oppression unstained, not to mention the oppressors. Stanley soon after gives away his intentions about capturing Arthur, stating that he aims "to hurt him," with no mention of bringing him to justice or anything like that.
Looking out the window of the cabin, Stanley’s view gives us a blurred, painfully bright scene of his men digging graves, with the Aboriginal Jacko standing guard, slowly moving to center screen as the camera pans to the right. We see the colonial officer, a veteran of 22 years in the English forces, contemplate what he colonizes: "Australia. What fresh hell is this?" The juxtaposition with the image of gravedigging men in uniform raises the question of who brought this hell about, and yet Stanley leaves no doubt that he thinks he is here to tame it: "It will be done. I will civilize this place." However, before he can embark on a full-fledged colonialist lecture about Western civilization, Charlie intervenes and says: "What the fuck are you talking about, Stanley?" Accustomed to the violence of colonial Australia, Charlie has no nerve for its rationalization; he is aware that there is merely brutality, and that it is part of the white presence there, not the problem this presence will solve. The movie here only hints at the Western rationalization of colonialism by claiming the need to civilize, but it does not need to say more and is rather more significant in its impatience with speeches about the white man’s burden than in omitting them.
As Stanley makes the proposition to Charlie and explains that he knows where Arthur Burns is, we see Arthur from behind, looking west into the sunset over a vast landscape of desert and trees. This shot will occur as a visual motif time and again, altered more and more but always keeping the direction and sunset imagery. While Arthur is presented as a towering figure with the vast space beneath him, his visualization will change significantly, as we will see in due course. What can be noted even now is that there is never a romantic construction of "the west" in these shots, no frontier myth to go with it, especially as the montage juxtaposes them with shots of gravedigging once more. The colonial power relations are hinted at in the interplay of sound and image, since the close-up shot of the Aboriginal sentry is accompanied with Stanley’s words that "not even my own men" would go to Arthur’s hideout. The notion of possession and ownership expands here from military servitude to owning the human beings one is civilizing.
The proposition itself is phrased in the rawest form, giving it a biblical dimension:
Charlie: "You want me to kill me brother."
Stanley: "I want you to kill your brother."
The reasons for Stanley’s plain desire to see Arthur Burns dead are given both visually and in Stanley’s monologue, as shots of Charlie entering the burned-out Hopkins house are synchronized with Stanley’s words. Knowing that Charlie must have accepted the proposition (or at least lied about it convincingly), viewers now enter the contradictory play of sympathies the movie constantly upholds, giving sufficient reason to accept the proposition as the right thing to do. While Stanley rode off on his white horse to the civilization of the small town and its jail for Mike, Charlie rides into the blackness of the burnt Hopkins home, looking even darker in contrast to the glaringly white crosses on the graves of the Hopkins family members in the foreground. He enters the inside of a house that has no inside any more, and his taking off his hat seems a tribute to conventions and morals that fail to apply at this site. The Hopkins house offers no protection and shows the utter desolation of an outside having destroyed the inside. What is left are traces, bullet casings, but also the remnants of family life: photographs, furniture, all ashen. The true terror of this house turned inside out becomes apparent when Charlie opens a black door to find a perfectly conserved little room with colorful wallpaper and a clean white baby cot—ultimate proof that neither family nor house offer protection from the violence outside.
Remarkably, the next brightly white objects on the screen are the prison and barracks in the town, with the Union Jack flying over them. As Stanley presents Mike to the white inhabitants of the town, he repeats his assertion that "I will civilize this land." Soon after, we see British civilization arrive in the town in the form of Stanley’s wife Martha, riding her carriage in a perfectly upright position and politely exchanging greetings with other people, yet also passing both a prisoner on exhibit and the wooden beam to which Mike will be tied during his fatal whipping—the visual contrast could not be starker. Stanley greets her uncomfortably by saying, "you really should not come here," as if the dirty work of colonialism should remain unseen by those colonizers who do not directly act as colonizers. Further evidence of this is that Stanley reprimands one of his men by saying that "what happened today on the Flats, that’s between you and me… because there would be consequences were it to become common knowledge." While Stanley protects his wife from the terrible knowledge that the death of her friend Eliza Hopkins, "a good Christian woman," was far from "mercifully swift" as she doubtfully believes, he also protects her from the knowledge about the violent practices he himself and others resort to in civilizing the land.
The representation of the Stanley home shows clearly what civilizing means on a personal and spatial level: the shot of the house puts it in the background, small against a backdrop of trees and dominated by the vastness of a dry and barren desert in the foreground. Changing point of view, we see this desert outside now, outside of a neatly (and somewhat absurdly) arranged garden dominated by right angles, enclosing plants in arrangements of squares, and enclosing the garden itself by both a fence of plain branches and a wooden one painted brightly white. The Stanleys’ garden is a microcosm that stands for macrocosmic developments in colonial Australia. As Allaine Cerwonka argues, the history of Australia "testifies to how colonization largely depended on spatial practices that shaped the landscape" (6). Defining it as a terra nullius allowed for framing "the Aboriginal people as uncivilized" (Cerwonka 7). European ownership was at the same time "naturalized and its culture rooted through spatial practices like agriculture and the cultivation of English cottage gardens" (Cerwonka 7). A certain obsession for order is at the heart of the design of the garden, especially apparent as it strives to shut out the perceived disorder of an open space constructed as hostile and unknown (despite or because of its alleged emptiness). The bitter irony of the garden imagery in this scene is that a similar space was destroyed before with the Hopkins home, and that protection is illusory. Furthermore, the danger lies not only outside this enclosure, but in the form of Captain Stanley also lives inside it, and it is worth remembering that he was the outside threat that penetrated the boundary of the cabin before. All in all, the garden and its "aesthetic production of the landscape" (Cerwonka 66) comes across as a ridiculous endeavor to impose a Western order onto a non-Western space, and its absurdity gives away the violence contained in its strict design.
Charlie enters another dark space of a pub in the middle of nowhere and encounters Jellon Lamb, who rather insanely breaks into a rendition of "Danny Boy," with the first lines changed to "the flies, the flies are crawling." This simple change constitutes yet another rejection of a romantic view, changing a traditional love song into a ballad of decay and death (perhaps in an allusion to Once Upon a Time in The West, in which the song precedes the murder of the McBain family). Given the terrible state both Jellon and Charlie are in, his attempt to bond with him by saying, "we are white men, you and I," no matter how serious it is intended to be, comes across as a similarly bleak comment on the actual nature of whiteness and the colonizer’s race and civilization. The bonding of white men fails completely when Jellon refers to the dead pub owner Dan O’Reilly as a "sorry sack of Hibernian pig shit," and Charlie points a gun to his head and says, "One more crack about the Irish, Mr Lamb, and I’ll shoot you." Lamb fails miserably to keep his mouth shut, though: "Let us drink, then, to the Irish. No finer race of men hath ever…peeled a potato." Whiteness is not enough to create group identity even in the face of a non-white colonized other, especially as this whiteness cannot cover up the British colonization of the Irish that was carried out in racial, not national terms (Ignatiev 35). Lamb’s comment therefore hints at the anti-Irish racism in the 19th century that denied the Irish the status of being white in the first place, based on the idea that they were a race of their own (and of course an inferior one, too). Jellon lectures Charlie on Darwin and claims, "we are, at bottom, one and the same!" Jellon’s laughter shows how absurd he considers this claim to be, and yet his statement, "we are white men, sir, not beasts," rings hollow in the beastliness of their actions and existence. Charlie leaves this remark uncommented just like he refused to participate in Stanley’s colonialist musings, and his silence testifies to the reality of the violence no fanciful discourse can alter.
With the score picking up the motif of "Happy Land" again, in a shot similar to Martha Stanley entering town, we see the whitest of the white men in the movie ride in on yet another white horse: Eden Fletcher, the man Stanley answers to due to either Fletcher’s economic position as landowner or his possible position as a political superior. Embodying the fusion of colonial violence and the discourse of civilizing like no other in the film, Fletcher derides Stanley for speaking of justice: "‘Justice.’ Save your little wisdoms for the mob, Stanley." He knows that appearances must be maintained to the public to keep the colonial project going, but he also knows that one must not believe in them oneself. Eden’s paradisiacal name ironically opposes him to the fresh hell he is creating in Australia, yet it also suggests the colonial desire to transform open space into a controlled structure considered to be utopian.
We get another glimpse of this ordered place and the space that opposes it as the camera shares Stanley’s view across his garden fence, outside of which is nothing but desert and a background of indiscriminate trees—altogether an environment to which he and his settlement are hostile intruders, literally foreign particles that virally conspire to control or destroy the whole body. After we see an Aboriginal gardener at work, Martha Stanley comments that she has green thumbs. (This gardener, Tobey, only receives a name late in the movie, just like the Aboriginal trooper Jacko. Both never receive a last name.) With the outback in the background, Martha serves Stanley a breakfast of tea, eggs and bacon in the foreground, their Englishness maintained in opposition to its Other looming behind it. Drawing more attention to this marker of English life, the camera gives a close-up view of the breakfast plate, and yet even this image is spoiled by a fly moving on the food, as if the colonizers’ culture was never safe from ugliness and decay, no matter how neatly it laid out the table with the good china. (Flies are ubiquitous in the movie, a perpetual reminder of rottenness). Similar to that intrusion of the black fly on the white plate, a dirty rider moves across the bright desert to the white house, bringing news that testify that no inside of an enclosed space can offer protection from its outside. The messenger tells Stanley that his men had rounded up "six rebel blacks," killing one of them. Led by Jacko, Stanley then enters the cell in which the prisoners are kept. Jacko translates Stanley’s questions, taking part in their interrogation. Together with the ensuing dialogue, the prisoner’s reply to his question of how long they have hidden in the ranges constitutes an act of anticolonial talking back to power:
Jacko: "He said, They don’t hide in the ranges. They live in the ranges."
Stanley: "Well, then ask him how long they have lived in the ranges."
Jacko: "Them always been living in the ranges, Captain, sir."
Stanley: "Ask him if they have seen a white man up there." […]
Jacko: "They seen white men. White men catches them."
Stanley: "Jesus Christ. I don’t mean the police."
The Aboriginal translator makes the temporal claim to territory himself, not waiting for the reply of the man he is supposed to ask. Here, the collaborator with colonial power subverts this power and does so even further when he translates the prisoner’s remark about white men. While Stanley observes the distinction of good and bad among white men, that distinction is of no importance to his black prisoners since they can see neither the "dog man" Arthur Burns nor the police force as good. Interrupted by a short instance of the by now well-established signature cuts of the movie, the dark space of the prison interior is opposed to the overexposed brightness of the desert Charlie rides through and in which he finds the body of an Aboriginal in Western clothing impaled by three spears. This image lingers with the viewers as the camera cuts back to the policemen in a tent, who themselves prove the Aboriginals’ point by arguing over a few drinks too many that "those black bastards, they’re running all over us. They chose the wrong man for the job. ‘Cause this isn’t London. It’s not England. This is fucking Australia.’" Their implied call for more violence in civilizing the place is interrupted by everyone’s similarly brutal assertion that each wants to "fuck Mrs Stanley," actually foreshadowing a rape that is born out of a notion of masculinity the colonial discourse thrives on and which is strengthened by the hero worship of the classical Western that persisted even in the fallen or morally corrupt heroes of later movies.
The scene following constitutes a destructive comment on such male heroism: waking suddenly among swarming flies, Charlie finds his horse killed, and while still looking at the corpse is pierced with a spear barely missing his heart, impaling him in the ground with an incredulous look at the group of Aboriginals beholding him from the top of a nearby rock. This violent and sudden intrusion of the spear into a body is immediately matched with the even more violent intrusion of a bullet into one of the Aboriginal’s heads, blowing half of it off. The scene blacks out and leaves the audience with the juxtaposition of violence against violence and the parallel invasions of bodies’ interiors by outside objects. The Aboriginal attack is not at all more humane than that of the shooter, and the movie certainly does not start to distinguish between good and bad violence here. However, the means of violence are contrasted starkly, and the extent of damage done by a single bullet illustrates the explosive potential of colonial intrusion well.
Coming out of the blackout earlier than Charlie, viewers enter the space of Arthur’s cave and find it a chaotic version of Stanley’s garden. He has appropriated the space of the rocks for his hideout, not by arranging or enclosing it with straight lines, but by filling it with artefacts of Western civilization. Books, a lamp, a candleholder, but also bandoleers coexist with the flies in this place where Charlie is nursed back to life. Once awoken, Charlie joins Arthur on a rock looking over the desert at the setting sun, and Arthur reminds him at the sight: "Be humble of heart, Charlie. This is the end of things." Foreshadowing the deaths to come, this statement is in tune with the apocalyptic tone of the whole movie, leaving no hope whatsoever that the colonial virus that brought this present constellation about could lead to anything but death and destruction.
Proving that this complex constellation can lead nowhere else, Eden Fletcher lectures Stanley about the "law of reciprocity" while sitting in a room full of the symbolic markers of colonial Britishness—the Union Jack, a portrait of the Queen, and the military sabre on the wall. Fletcher explains that Dan O’Reilly had been killed in revenge for the shooting of an Aboriginal, and is quick to add the solution to the colonizer’s problem: "If you have to kill one, make sure you bloody well kill them all." This is the attitude Henry Reynolds identifies as the "almost universal riposte" of the colonial "punitive expedition" in Australia: "The objective was simple: the use of overwhelming force to crush resistance once and for all and drown in blood the Aboriginal determination to take an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" (63). Out of this genocidal ideology comes Fletcher’s next remark that he will "have Mike Burns flogged. […] One hundred lashes." Postponing his justification in order to play the perfect gentleman for Martha Stanley, he easily switches roles from colonialist apologist to the embodiment of British male upper-class culture, and back again. His exclusion of Martha from the unpleasant narratives of violent crime and colonial authority is unsuccessful, however, as she listens in on the conversation through the door. Knowing about the rape of Eliza Hopkins, Stanley’s warning as he leaves her attains an even more forceful meaning, and one that resonates deeply with the imagery of violent intrusion set up so far in the movie: "Do not let anyone in."
Remarkably, the next intrusion viewers witness is performed by Martha Stanley herself, as she enters what was constructed as the male sphere of violence up until then. She is the one who foils her husband’s attempt to protect Mike Burns from the small but effective mob that plans to flog him. Under the Union Jack flying over the white prison walls, Mike is tied up and prepared to be whipped, as Eden Fletcher delivers a speech that justifies the punishment as "a message to all who dare transgress the laws of this land," as if it was the land itself that set the rules, not the people who colonized it. Giving the order but not carrying it out himself, his hands only on the surface remain clean of the blood the violent opening up of Mike’s body produces. In a montage similar to that of "Happy Land" accompanying images of colonial violence, the traditional song "Peggy Gordon" and its hauntingly beautiful melody counter the images of Mike’s punishment. At no point in the movie is it more clear that no beauty, not that of a garden, a song, a person or a whole landscape, can escape the evil that seeks to destroy it. The song makes the flogging not a bit easier to bear for the audience, but instead the flogging destroys the song and emphasizes its tragic content. Accordingly, each of the onlookers present at the flogging is swarmed with flies, as the violence done to Mike clearly symbolizes their own demise. The shots showing the backs of the townpeople crawling with flies especially imply that we are witnessing the dark underbelly the white colonial project seeks to hide.
What is remarkable about The Proposition is that it forces viewers to bear the violence to its bitter end. As the executioner wrings out the blood-soaked whip, we see more and more of the onlookers leave, and yet the movie itself does not allow us the same relief. Here is "civilizing the land" in its full glory, and this Western forces Western viewers to look it in the face and notice the flies on their backs at the same time. As Martha Stanley presses her eyes closed, a policeman pronounces the terrible number of lashes dealt so far that lets the audience know that they are witnessing an execution, not just corporal punishment: "Thirty-eight." While the whole setting implies that the violence must have reached its end, with Mike hanging lifeless and most of the crowd gone, this number states that we are far from that end. Having lost all measure and reason, the Western colonial power is balking in nothing but its own power here, exerting sovereignty and violence for the sake of sovereignty and violence. "Go on," Fletcher orders the blood-stained and weary executioner, and he is the only one still upright and apparently unaffected by what he brings about—until Stanley presses the bloody whip into Fletcher’s hands and smears his face with blood, finally staining the man whose hands remained clean during the dirty work of civilizing. While both Stanley and his wife have realized just what this civilizing means, Fletcher does not share their self-criticism and continues to exclude it from his imperial narrative. His threat to Stanley shows that it is people like him who will remain in charge of the colonial project: "Your days are over, Captain Stanley." The Proposition here uses the Stanleys and Fletcher to show how mutually exclusive Enlightenment self-criticism and colonialism are, since Stanley cannot and does not want to participate any further in colonial acts after having gained insight through a critique of his own self, and Fletcher refuses to perform such a critique in order to be able to go on with his project of domination and exploitation.
The thunderstorm that approaches on the horizon serves a double function in the scenes to follow. First of all, the rain that precedes it soaks the ground of the town but leaves its sins of excessive violence intact, impossible to wash off. Second, the thunder and lightning symbolize an immense threat that will become actual and random violence, utterly out the control of the humans affected by it. Stanley barricades the house shut against both the storm and the expected onslaught of the Burns gang once they learn of Mike’s flogging, and The Proposition excellently conveys the atmosphere of expectation and fear of a violent conclusion while actually nothing at all happens. At the same time, Stanley admits to Martha the failure of his ideology: "I had an idea about justice…for the town, for the country…for you, for you. And now…I don’t know." No other value system replaces the one Stanley left behind, and after having seen the excess of the colonialist system he supported, he cannot replace it with anything and needs to deal with the existential nothingness The Proposition locates everywhere. The emptiness of that colonialist system finds its bleak expression in the scene after the troopers have successfully attacked the black rebels and are sitting with bloody hands in the pub where Charlie met Jellon, singing "Rule Britannia" with cracking, broken voices, their civilized pride hollow, lifeless and despicable.
Following this scene is the image of Arthur Burns burning his books. This act marks the rejection of Western thought that contained both the idea of a rational and restrained humanity and of an expansive imperialist colonialism. Arthur decides to ride out with his gang to attack the very pub in which the troopers were celebrating their victory, and he drives one of them from the bright daylight into the darkness of a shed to kick his head in. Jacko does not escape a violent death either, being killed by his Aboriginal counterpart among Burns’s men, Two Bob. Just like the movie refuses to grant a common identity to the white colonizers, it rejects any romanticized notion of unity among the colonized. Thrown into the colonial situation, there are only humans inflicting violence, and all simple categories of description fail.
Even the moments of intimacy the Stanleys share in the following scene are placed between the scene of the attack and Charlie’s violent capture by Jellon, no more than a mere intermission in the dominant brutal mode of the narrative. Having Charlie literally by the throat, Jellon simplifies the complexities of this particular colonial situation by asking, "For what is an Irishman but a nigger turned inside out?," asserting British dominance despite his own low standing within that society. Ironically, he is shot in the stomach by the non-Irish black man Two Bob, and in his dying words shares a quote by English poet George Borrow with Arthur, who identifies and appreciates it before pushing Jellon over to leave him dying. That particular instance of Western poetic culture—"Life is very sweet, brother. Who would wish to die?"—fails to bond these white Western men together, since Arthur remarks, "But you’re not my brother," before stabbing him. After Charlie shoots Jellon out of mercy, he tells Arthur about Mike’s immanent execution, and both ride out to save him—while in the meantime the Stanleys complete their British home in the outback with one of the unmistakable symbols of Western civilization, the Christmas tree.
In yet another shot looking west towards the setting sun, Arthur, Samuel and Two Bob take time to contemplate life and the world and allow insight into part of the fundamental human situation presented in the movie:
Arthur: "You never get your fill of nature, Samuel. To be surrounded by it is to be stilled. It salves the heart. […] Every man can be made quiet and complete. Even the lowliest misanthrope or the most wretched of sinners."
Samuel: "What’s a misanthrope, Arthur?"
Two Bob: "Some bugger who fucking hates every other bugger."
Samuel: "Hey! I didn’t ask you, you black bastard."
Arthur: "He’s right, Samuel. A misanthrope is one who hates humanity."
Samuel: "Is that what we are? Misanthropes?"
Arthur: "Good Lord, no. We’re a family."
Arthur interprets the experience of nature as sublime, with both aesthetic and ethical effects. However, he either ignores or rejects these cleansing qualities since he seeks to free or avenge his youngest brother. His hatred and violence are justified by family relations, and yet this concept actually allows no refuge from the overall misanthropic situation, since much of the violence in the movie is directed at families.
Their riding on is presented in a camera pan from left to right, cut to a shot of the Stanley farm with a similar movement, and the montage leaves no doubt that the Burns brothers are eventually heading for this particular family, even if they will go to the town prison first. Stanley is waiting for them on the porch, looking at both the desert and the space of his enclosed garden. Inside the house, Martha browses through a clothes catalogue and looks at children’s dresses—a hint at her possible pregnancy as well as her nostalgic longing for the life world of England. The gang is joined by Charlie, and they ride west into the sunset, effectively reinscribing that positive trope of Western movies with the terror of pure misanthropic violence, since the audience knows they are not moving towards openness and freedom, but actually moving in on a family once again, with a pregnant woman at that.
Before the energy of the calm before the storm discharges itself, however, the movie once more draws attention to colonial conditions, refusing to turn completely into a classical revenge drama of the Western film. Tobey is about leave the farm, sent away by Stanley but apparently already having prepared his departure. Stanley calls out to him at the gate of the white fence, wishing him a merry Christmas. Looking him straight in the eyes with an expression of both distance and disgust, never letting Stanley out of his gaze (in an inversion of the usual colonial hierarchy), Tobey takes his shoes off, leaves his handkerchief on the ground and walks off. He returns the good wishes, but the curtness of his words shows no sympathy, only indifference to what will happen on this colonial farm. Wearing Western clothing, speaking these significant words of Western religion, Tobey subverts all these markers of this culture by taking his shoes off before entering the desert, the alleged terra nullius, just like a Western person might do when entering a house. He is effectively going inside from an outside by entering the desert, not the other way round. Tobey leaves the alien territory and its alien conventions, knowing about the hollowness of its customs and ideals—this Christmas will not be about love or the birth of a savior, but about hatred and death, the ultimate perversion of Western ideals by Western people. The Aboriginal colonized walks off indifferently and leaves them to their violence, his "merry Christmas, Captain" an empty phrase in the expectation of the brutality to come. Tobey keeps Stanley firmly in his gaze, but never looks back once he has opened the gate.
As Tobey moves outside of the enclosed space of the farm and inside another space, the Burns gang commences their invasion of the town. They are disguised as troopers and pretend to bring Two Bob in as a black prisoner, a charade catering to the racism of the inhabitants, but also visually underscoring the movie’s notion that the good and bad guys are indistinguishable from each other and that a colonial situation eradicates these differences. Having freed Mike, Arthur and Stanley stay behind to kill the guards, and viewers see another scene of a white man washing himself of other people’s blood—incompletely and unsuccessfully. Arthur does not even bother to clean himself, but Samuel does, and Arthur assures him he is looking good. Apparently, Arthur knows about the impossibility of these acts of bodily and moral purging, especially as he is aware that they are about to add more acts of violence soon when attacking the Stanley farm. Elsewhere, Charlie shares a similar awareness of guilt as he buries Mike and cries over his brother’s death.
The bright daylight of these calmly terrifying scenes is locked out of the Stanley farm, as the well-dressed Captain and Martha prepare for dinner behind boarded-up windows. The imagery of this scene is particularly significant in its visual composition. Vertically, the dim light of the candles on the festively set table in the foreground is contrasted with the threateningly glaring sunlight from outside shining in through the cracks in the boards. Horizontally, the table in the center is framed by the decorated Christmas tree on the left—and a rifle on the right. The image as a whole implies that the refuge of the enclosed domestic space is an illusory one and that once more an outside will break in. Ultimately, it is the colonizers who are put in the position of the colonized by facing an outside threat. Martha’s prayer at the table—"For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful"—conveys this impending intrusion as well as the terror of a failing Christian belief that cannot prevent or make bearable the violence to be dealt in that farm. Seconds later, Arthur shoots out the lock of the door, the shot blowing out the candles as the white light from outside enters the dim room.
The Proposition has no showdown, no duelistic shootout as in classical Westerns. Stanley is beaten unconcious by Arthur and beaten even more in an adjacent room, the violence conveyed terrifyingly by sound only as we see Samuel sitting down at the table to start eating the Turkey with the shocked Martha still sitting next to him. The sheer speed of these events leaves no room for reflection and emphasizes the inevitability of what happens; there is no chance for heroic acts, nor is there a chance to escape.
This impossibility for the male character to act as a hero also affects our reading of the female character. While Martha assumes the passive, domestic role that women are often assigned in Western movies, her passivity becomes more than a patriarchal cliché since the male counterpart cannot assume the active, heroic role that goes along with this passivity. While "in the classical revenge plot, women and children are displayed as helpless and dependent on the hero, and thus providing him with a good reason for using violence in order to protect them" (Spiegeler 33), The Proposition portrays its characters as equally helpless no matter what their gender, and the absence of the hero reconfigures the traditional patriarchal structure which assigned women their fixed place. The film is certainly not explicitly feminist, and especially the absence of Aboriginal women is conspicuous, but its critique of colonialism involves a dissection of its patriarchal assumptions that should not go unmentioned.
No happy ending will contradict the horror in this colonial setting. The failure of Western civilization is highlighted even more as it parallels the enactment of the Western ritual of Christmas. Samuel forces Martha into the room where Stanley sits badly hurt in a chair, the Union Jack covering his head completely like a mask. Arthur pulls off the flag for Stanley to witness the rape of his wife, and in addition to the very personal physical and psychical violence of this situation, it contains once more a metaphorical dimension with regard to colonialism: the protective cover of the flag, symbol of nationalist-imperialist discourse, comes off to force the colonizer to see and experience the violence brought about within and by the colonial situation. The Proposition by no means seeks to justify any of these violent acts, nor does it aestheticize them. What it does is force the gaze of the audience along with the gaze of the colonizers to focus on the violence and perceive it for what it is, without the discourses Western colonialism and nationalism traditionally invoke to legitimate it or ignore it altogether.
Our gaze is only granted relief from this explicit scene by more violence. Charlie walks straight across the enclosed spaces of the garden, disregarding its artificial boundaries, and enters the house. He shoots Samuel in the head as he is raping Martha, shutting him up while he sings "Peggy Gordon" in a perverse twist of the earlier scene where the sound of the song paralleled the image of Mike’s flogging. He shoots Arthur in the stomach, saying "no more," and follows him outside, leaving the Stanleys in their violated condition. Charlie passes through the enclosed garden and its beautiful roses once more, following the trail of blood left by Arthur. Not only is the perfect order of the garden stained by this blood, but its space itself is violated and opened up to its outside, as Arthur broke through the fence on his way out. Charlie sits down on the desert ground next to Arthur, who is no longer the towering figure he was introduced as in the establishing shot. Both are swarmed by flies, facing west once more in the final shot that has so many parallels in The Proposition. The last lines of the movie are Arthur’s: "You got me, Charlie. What are you going to do now?" No answer is given; Arthur dies, and the camera backs away from the shadowy silhouettes of the two brothers, showing a final shot of the darkness of the ground and the humans sitting on it, the contrast brought out starkly by the evening light of an already vanished sun. As the credits roll, the audience is left with just that question and no answers. Neither this particular conflict nor the larger colonial one are resolved. The Proposition offers no closure since the colonial situation and misanthropic humanity it portrays are both endless. This Western ends with the gaze facing west, and yet we have no hero riding off into the freedom of the sunset, nor do we have an anti-hero who simply gets to leave with the money he tricked so many people out of, but only the immobility and terror of death. This final cinematic gaze west becomes the Western gazing at itself, facing its own dark underbelly without the protective cover of euphemistic discourses, the veils of the national flags pulled from our faces.
However, the movie adds another dimension to this Western self-critique by emphasizing precisely that self of Western Enlightenment philosophy and its capability to act autonomously. The colonial situation is not granted as an excuse for the individual to deny his or her own responsibility. While it provides the fertile ground for violence, it should not be taken as its sole cause and especially not as prior to human action. Colonialism is indeed the sum of individual actions in the movie, and these acts are autonomous even where they claim necessity and the demands of a higher cause or context. The flogging of Mike Burns is such an example, which is ordered by the individual Eden Fletcher yet justified by appeals to law and order. Individual responsibility and the possibility to act autonomously, even act ethically, become central topics when Charlie Burns says "no more," and even though his act of violence against his own family may not be redeeming or even good, it is at least an act that goes against the grain of the all-pervasive brutality, brutal as it may be in itself. As Charlie and the audience are left with Arthur’s question about agency—"What are you going to do now?"—the score that accompanies the credits reflects on this autonomy. The lyrics set the individual in relation to nature, not calming it as Arthur claimed before, but engaging, challenging, questioning it:
‘When?’ said the moon to the stars in the sky
‘Soon’ said the wind that followed them all
‘Who?’ said the cloud that started to cry
‘Me’ said the rider as dry as a bone
‘Who?’ said the sun that melted the ground
‘Why?’ said the river that refused to run
‘Where?’ said the thunder without a sound
‘Here’ said the rider and took up his gun
‘No’ said the stars to the moon in the sky
‘No’ said the trees that started to moan
‘No’ said the dust that blinded his eyes
‘Yes’ said the rider as white as a bone
‘No’ said the moon that rose from his sleep
‘No’ said the cry of the dying sun
‘No’ said the planets that started to weep
‘Yes’ said the rider and laid down his gun.
The rider contradicts nature and his environment and makes a choice; he says "yes" where everything says "no," and his choice is to lay down his gun. This act of pacification is an affirmative act, and if there is anything positive among the overall nihilism of The Proposition, it is this individual choice. The song is followed by another one introducing the topic of redemption. On the one hand, its lyrics ring as cynically ironic as "Happy Land" at the beginning of the movie, especially as it is also accompanied by images of colonial violence. On the other hand, it at least maintains the idea of forgiveness to a certain extent.
Clean hands and dirty hands
Brown eyes and blue
Pale cheeks and rosy cheeks
Jesus loves you
If you come to him today
He will wash your tears away
If you come to him today
He will wash your sins away.
Washing away tears and sins does not work at all in The Proposition, but arguably all the characters are doing is to deny and cover up their guilt without actually trying to redeem themselves. Only Charlie’s "no more" constitutes a true act of individual resistance, even if it is insignificant in the larger colonial scheme of things, especially as the worst fanatic of colonial violence, Eden Fletcher, goes unpunished. However, this resistance is an ethical act, and its consequences are open for the audience to ponder as the musical score emphasizes the motif.
The Western The Proposition ends its critique of Western colonialism and the Western movie genre on this note, simultaneously holding the autonomous self of the Enlightenment accountable for the crimes it committed and legitimated, but also empowering it to resist the dark impulses of its own rationality. Refusing to categorize its characters with clear labels of good and evil, the movie shows both the deterministic embeddedness of the subject in its social context, but also the choices available to that subject despite its entanglement. Its existentialist dimension shows that, while there are no good or evil humans, there are humans doing good and evil things. All in all, The Proposition does not seek to remove the Western genre movie from its context in Western culture; what it does is make the Western movie as Western as it should be, forcing the rational demand for self-critique upon the film, its audience and its characters, thereby effectively turning it into a more truly Western cultural artefact by including that which so many Western films excluded.
Cerwonka, Allaine. Native to the Nation: Disciplining Landscapes and Bodies in Australia. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2004.
Ignatiev, Noel. How the Irish Became White. New York and London: Routledge, 1995.
Kitses, Jim. "Introduction: Postmodernism and The Western." The Western Reader. Eds. Jim Kitses and Gregg Rickman. New York: Limelight, 1998. 15-31
McVeigh, Steven. The American Western. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2007.
Mitchell, Lee Clark. Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996.
Prats, Armando José. Invisible Natives: Myth & Identity in the American Western. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 2002.
Reynolds, Henry. The Other Side of the Frontier: An Interpretation of the Aboriginal Response to the Invasion and Settlement of Australia. Townsville: James Cook University of North Queensland, 1981.
Roddick, Nick. "Ballad of the Wild Boys." Sight and Sound. March 2006. http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/feature/49267
Spiegeler, Susanne. Women in the American Western Film from 1930-1980: Historical Reality and Filmic Representation. Aachen: Shaker Verlag, 2002.