Land of Mirage

It’s not widespread knowledge that Shell, which celebrates its 121st year in Australia in 2022, had a cutting edge film unit 80 years ago, established to help explain some of the mechanical marvels of the age.

Under the guidance of UK filmmaker John Grierson, Shell produced informative and entertaining films that highlighted the triumphs of how people overcame challenges in health, food and transport.

John Heyer’s award-winning documentary The Back of Beyond (1954), perhaps our national cinema’s most well known best kept secret, was one of these.

Commissioned to capture the “essence of Australia,” The Back of Beyond accomplishes this anthropological inquiry in terms close to poetic.

Something of a stylised ethnographical reverie, the film charts the postal route of Tom Kruse, a Royal Mail carrier.

The viewer therein rides shotgun with the unflappable postie in the corroding Leyland Badger he pilots from Marree in South Australia to Queensland, some 517 kilometres along the unforgiving Birdsville Track.

This desolate habit is home to chanting Afghani camel drivers, embittered solitary dingo hunters, and creatures from the prehistoric past.

The lyrical commentary, written by poet Douglas Stewart, serves to inform as much as it does to set the rarefied mood.

“Who passes or perishes only the dingo knows,” offers the voice-over by William Henry Butler, in an anodyne observation worthy of the cult HBO travelogue Fishing with John.

It’s worth noting that the Simpson Desert, which had only been successfully crossed on foot by CT Madigan just 15 years earlier, suffices as the inhospitable neighbourhood in which Kruse conducts postal rounds that take up to a fortnight to complete.

Principal photography which began in 1951 took the best part of two years to finish.

The same year it was released the film was the recipient of Best Documentary at the Venice Film Festival. Heyer’s film is rightly considered to have extended the language of documentary filmmaking.

While the subjects are real, the scenes (like some of the camera set-ups) are sometimes staged.

The end result, however, is more Abbas Kiarostami than Alby Mangels.

Several scenes like those at Kopperamanna Lutheran Mission and a swollen Cooper Creek are remarkable for the radical departure they make from the film’s already well-established, albeit, enigmatic, documentary codes.

During its extended release The Back of Beyond is estimated to have attracted 750,000 people to screenings in this country alone.

On one of his first runs Kruse, according to the film production notes, walked in 40 degree heat to Mungerannie and back to Mulka to get a broken tailshaft fixed.

Some of the well known drivers who worked for Harry Ding to get the mail to Birdsville were Ken Crombie of Mungerannie, Tom Robinson and Fred Teague.

In 1939 Tom helped with the supplies for Cecil Madigan who was the first European to cross the Simpson Desert by camel.

By January 1948, Kruse had taken over the Birdsville Mail contract on his own account and successfully owned and ran it for the next 15 years until 1963. He reportedly had great difficulty retaining his employees, as conditions were so bad that they could not put up with the continuous problems and hard living.

Long before his famous namesake, Tom Kruse enjoyed his own cult of personality.

Kruse, who probably lived long enough to see outback roadtrains in action, died in 2011.

Today mail is largely distributed by plane across the cattle stations strewn across his old expansive postal run.

That same tyranny of distance presents challenges anew for those responsible for building the nation, a project that is ongoing, far reaching and unthinkable without those who helped pave the way as the Shell Film Unit served to remind us.

A recently proposed hydrogen heavy vehicle corridor will stretch the gamut of three separate states including the Pacific, Newell and Hume Highways, the latter which is estimated to carry some 40 per cent of the nation’s freight.

Should it prove viable, the project will likely be an awesome undertaking to behold.

A film documenting its progress, what’s more, would certainly be compelling. Especially in the hands of Werner Herzog.