Burke & Wills (1987)




Director:     Oliver Torr and Matt Zeremes. 

Starring:       Celeste Barber (Jacki),  Bianca Biasi (Asha),  Winston Cooper (Darryl),  Rouna Daly (Cila),  Patrick Dickson (Father),  Hannah Durack (Lisa),  Daniel Feuerriegel (Guy),  Ashley Lyons (Brett),  Elizabeth Richmond,  Francesca Savige (Girl),  Oliver Torr (Burke),  Matt Zeremes (Wills).

the 1860 expedition across Australia from south to north, Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpenteria at Flinders River


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

Hever Castle, Kent, England, 1854.  People are playing croquet out on part of the vast lawns.  A young man, named Wills, races through a maze constructed of shrubbery.  He is trying to break a record, but keeps running into dead ends. 

Glimpse of the future.  Burke and Wills are out in the Australian desert on a cross-continental trek from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria.  They are exhausted and thirsty.  Burke asks Wills to see what he can do for Charlie who is baked.  Wills walks over to Charlie, who tells him that his belly thinks his throat is cut.   

Back to the present.  Royal Park, Melbourne, Australia, 1860.  A band plays  for a big crowd, while others are buying horses.  A speaker shouts to the crowd that today Mr. Wills and Mr. Burke are setting out on a mighty trail to conquer the country.  Mr. Burke gets up to thank the people and politicians of Victoria for their support.  McDouall Stuart is racing Burke and Wills for the glory of discovering the secrets of the unknown parts of Australia. 

The men of the expedition hope to be back before Christmas 1864.  Wills's father tells Burke that young Wills, the expedition's surveyor, will not offer his advice, but if Burke asks for the young man's advice, he will give it.  And when the surveyor does give advice, he advises Burke to follow it.  

20th of August, 1860.  The expedition has 28 horses, 27 camels, 19 men, 6 wagons and 21 tons of equipment and supplies.  They have to travel 3,000 miles round trip.  Burke is worried about his competition.  So also are the men who invested in Burke's expedition.  Wills keeps a diary of the expedition and does some scientific investigations. 

A woman named Julia Matthews is singing opera on the stage.  Burke rides through the night to get to the opera to hear her sing.  After the performance, Burke goes backstage to ask Julia if she will marry him.  She says Burke is both a policeman and an Irishman and her father would skin her alive if she married him.  They kiss. 

One of the expedition's sepoys cannot eat pork.  He can only eat mutton and he has to slaughter the sheep himself.  Wills says that the man will simply have to go.     

Jack is in bed with his Julia.  He talks with her about the time he will return.  He says then they we put on a great show for the people. 

31st of August, 1860.  The expedition is 11 days long and 130 miles out.  They encounter their first major obstacle:  the Murray River.  It's relatively easy to get the horses across, but it's very difficult getting the camels across.  Mr. Landells talks to Wills saying that they should turn back because this man Burke is all show and no substance.  He tells Wills that Burke will eat him alive. 

The expedition reaches a small town in rural Australia.  The 20 or so people of the town, some of them Aborigines, all come out to see the sight. 

Wills writes that they are at the village of Menindee on the Darling River (that flows into the Murray River).  It has taken them two months to travel 500 miles.  Burke has taken up with a man named Wright and still quarrels with Mr. Landells.   He writes:  "Things cannot go on as they are." 

Burke complains to Wills that they can't seem to get anywhere.  Wills says:  "Ah, too many of us." 

Flashback.  Jack is rowing with Julia on a river.  He stops to show her a wedding ring that belonged to his mother.  She says:  "Oh, Mr. Burke, how I adore you."

Back to the present.  Landells comes over to Burke to complain that the leader is selling the barrels of rum for a pittance and it's this very rum that livens up his camels.  Burke tells Landells that he aims to be the first white man to cross the Australian continent.  Landells tells everyone that the only reason Burke got to be the leader is that their richest contributor knew that Burke was flirting with all the chorus girls and singers and the rich man wanted his competition out of the way.  For this, Burke hits Landells and knocks him unconscious. 

21st of October, 1860.  The expedition is split now.  The party that goes ahead consists of 9 men, 15 horses and 16 camels.  The men hear the sounds made by the Aborigine people in the area.  A young boy is prepared to go on a walk-about to prove his manhood.  The expedition party stops to look at the art work of the Aborigines on rock walls.  One of the men suggests that the Aborigines may not like the whites hanging around what is probably one of their religious sites.  Burke says they will proceed forward.  A sandstorm comes up and the animals don't like it one bit.  It is hard for the men to control the horses and camels and some of the equipment is busted.  Just when they get the animals settled down another dust storm descends on them.

At night Burke tells Wills of how his brother was a war hero fighting the Russians.  In the morning Burke tells the men that they are half-way to Cooper's Creek.  They are 200 miles from Menindee. He is sending Mr. Wright back to Menindee.  Wright will get the stores and the main party of men and meet them at Cooper's Creek. 

The 1st of November, 1860.  The forward expedition now travels through desert territory.  It's hard for the camels to get up and over the dune hills.  They reach the northern edge of the desert and see vast plains before them. 

11 of November, 1860.  An Aborigine warns the others of his tribe that the whites are coming.  They all run away to hide.  The expedition reaches a large stream and are happy to see it.  The men go in for a swim while the horses and camels get a drink.  They have reached Cooper's Creek, which is more of a river than a creek.   

At night mice-like creatures are all over the men and the equipment.  The men get upset and start running around kicking at the creatures.  The next day the men start playing cricket by the river.  The "blacks" watch the white men playing cricket and are amused at the sight.  The Aborigines bring some food to the white men.  Burke is very suspicious of this display of generosity and tends to walk backwards away from one of the Aborigines who approaches him.  One of the whites, Charlie, gets spooked and shoots his pistol into the air.  The Aborigines quickly run away. 

Back home, Julia wears a locket with Burke's picture in it around her neck. 

Wills is a cautious man compared to Burke, who is so daring that at times he seems a bit reckless.  The surveyor reminds Burke that the trip from Melbourne to the Gulf is 1,500 miles.  Round trip that makes for 3,000 miles. He says they should wait for the supplies, establishing a base camp at Cooper's Creek.  Then they can proceed to the Gulf.  Burke is very impatient and says his orders are to get to the Gulf first.  Wills estimates that the journey will be three more months at the most. 

Some men will stay behind to wait for Wright and the supplies, while Burke, Wills, Charlie Gray and John King move northward. 

15th of December, 1860.  Some men will stay behind to wait for Wright and the supplies, while Burke, Wills, Mr. Gray and John King move northward.  They calculate they will be there and back in three and a half months.  The desert of the plains is very difficult because of the many rat holes and angular granite rocks in the ground that hurt the camel's feet. 

Aborigines prepare a kangaroo for their meal.  The men paint their faces and bodies with white markings.

Wills tells Burke that millions of years ago this sandy ground was the floor of an inland sea.  The sea shells found in the sand are evidence of that inland sea. 

It's Christmas and the people at home sing a Christmas carols and so do Burke and his men.  The money men behind Burke say they will be in the clear of money obligations to Burke as Stuart is on his way back to Adelaide. 

The Melbourne News carries a story of McDouall Stuart having been turned back by hostile natives and that there is still no word of Burke and Wills.  Meanwhile, Mr. Wright is hanging around in the local bar.  He tells those who ask that he is waiting for news of his wages first and then he will start out. 

John King starts having some hallucinations out in the desert.  Meanwhile the rest of the men of the expedition just wait and wait for Wright to make his move. 

The men are walking 12 hours a day.  They cross the Tropic of Capricorn in the night.  The men walk through marshes filled with crocodiles, mosquitoes and leeches.  Some Aborigines see the white men walking through the marsh but don't pay much attention to them.  A crocodile attacks the horse with Burke and Wills.  Burke shoots the crocodile and the Aborigines run away in fear at the sound.  They have left the two other members of the expedition back behind them.  John King struggles to get his camel out of a marsh, while Mr. Gray tells him to just shoot the camel. 

Burke and Wills proceed ahead on foot.  Burke finds brackish water.  He figures they are very close to the Gulf.  The two men hug each other.  They soon reach the Gulf.  Their one horse races along the beach by itself. 

Flashback.  Burke imagines he is back home.  He marries Julia.  In her wedding gown, Mrs. Burke dances on the lawn for their guests.

Back to the present.  Burke dreams of the day he returns when his name will be on everybody's lips.  He now tells his horse Billie that the horse is famous, because he's the first horse to cross the continent. 

A man named Tom Paine from Menindee comes to speak with the wealthy backers of Burke.  He tells the rich men that Wright is still waiting to receive his wages.  One of the rich men figures out that the other rich man never sent the money to Wright.  He says that the men of the expedition are going to die out there.  Julia Matthews senses something is wrong and she demands to know what is it.  Paine tells her that Wright has not received his money, so the supplies have not moved from Menindee.  A scared Julia tells everyone that Mr. Burke is lost out there.  She tells the crooked rich man that Burke will die out there and these rich people don't give a damn.  The crook says she has no right to talk to him this way, but Julia tells him she has every right because she is Mrs. Burke.  She goes on to tell the man's stuck-up wife to tell her husband to stop putting grubby little love notes under her door.  She walks out. 

At Cooper's Creek the man in charge, Herman, watches with a telescope for any sign of Burke and Wills.  Four Aborigine men come to the camp of some of the white men and start stealing their supplies.  A man wakes up and screams.  He shoots and wounds one of the natives.  The man in charge says it's been three months since Burke and Wills left them behind.  So where is that fellow Wright?  After all, they could have gone back and forth three times in the time that Wright has had.  One of the men says that Burke and Wills and the others are all dead.  Two of the men start fighting with each other and the man in charge has to break them up. 

Back to the starting place of the film.  Wills tries to buoy the spirits of Charlie.  The man pisses in his pants and Wills tells him it's all right. 

25th of March, 1861.  It's 130 degrees with no shade.  Burke has not said a word for days.  They eat the camels as they die.  The graphite in Wills's pencil turns to liquid and runs out of the pencil.  Charlie has disappeared.  Wills goes to look for him.  Wills finds him eating the last of the flour.  The other men are extremely mad at Charlie.  For his transgression, Burke whips the man with his belt.  They are still 200 miles from Cooper's Creek. 

A red bearded man tries to get the leader to leave with him because he thinks Burke and Wills are already dead. 

Billie is on his last legs.  Burke cries over his dying animal.  He shoots the horse in the head.  At night King says his prayers out loud. During the night Charlie dies.  Burke buries Charlie. They lose a day in doing so. 

21st of April, 1861.  Herman buries some of the equipment. 

31st of April, 1861.  It's 140 degrees out.  All their supplies are gone.  Herman and the men are getting ready to leave.  He takes one last look for Burke, but doesn't see anything.  The Aborigines have seen them because one of them imitates the walking and falling down of Burke, but they can't communicate with the whites to tell them. 

Burke suddenly hears the bagpipes being played at Cooper's Creek.  He runs to the camp, but finds no one there.  The men dig up a box buried by Herman.  Inside is a letter that says no person has been up here from Menindee.  Most of the men are sick and they have left.  The men realize that Herman and the men left this very day after four months of waiting. 

Wills thinks they should chase after the men who recently left.  It's 400 miles to Menindee.  He thinks they can catch up with them.  Burke says that's impossible.  They will go to another place 150 miles away.  They start walking.   The last camel is dying now.  Without the camel they cannot carry enough water.  They must turn back. 

The wife of the rich man traitor tells her husband that the people are saying that he financed the expedition to feather his own nest.  Her husband says it isn't true and she tells him to go out there and tell the press people outside their door.  The wealthy man goes out to talk with the press.  He says the stories are "tripe".  The rich man just tells them off.  The newsmen start laughing at him.  He finally gives them some news.  Some men, including Herman,  have now gone out from Menindee looking for Burke and company. 

Herman and the men reach Cooper's Creek, but no one is there.  Some aborigines ask a white man to come over to them.  The fellow is very suspicious, but he follows them up a hill.  Under a shelter the man finds King.  King is brought back and is given a big welcome.  He meets Wills's father and Julia Matthews and they leave the area by stage coach.

The press wants King to speak to them, but he doesn't want to speak with them.  Julia finally convinces him to go out there.  King gives Mr. Wills's his son's watch and a letter. He goes to speak with the press and the public.  The rich men hypocritically praise King.  The traitor says that the Royal Geographical Society of London gives King a watch.  A bewildered King is helped up to receive the applause of the crowd. The rich men give him a little speech to read to the crowd.  It's a regular dog and pony show for the wealthy men. 

King says in the end there was a fight.  The last of the camels had died.  The blacks took a cloth and Burke started shooting at them.  Wills objected to Burke's behavior.  Burke slaps him across the face. The men were barely surviving by collecting some plants to eat.  Wills gave Burke a letter to his father and his father's watch.  He says to Burke:  "We did well, didn't we, Mr. Burke?  We got there."  Burke says they did and they can never take that away from them.  In the audience, Mr. Wills cries over the loss of his son. 

King says that Charlie was laughing when he died and he wanted everyone to know that he was laughing when he went.  Mr. Burke buried him.  If they had left that day, instead of burying Charlie, they would have made it to Cooper's Creek in time. 

Burke wants to kill himself.  King hands him the pistol.  King then goes out to get some water.  He shoots at a bird.  The sound of the rifle shot, makes Burke think of his brother Jamie as he was killed.  He shoots himself.  The Aborigine comes to console King, who now says that it was the "blacks" that saved him.  He adds that Burke never understood the blacks.  He adds:  "But he got to the Gulf and he got there first.  He led us all the way and Mr. Wills was one step behind, all the way."  King says they did their part.  And if some of the people back home had done their part, Burke and Wills would have been standing here right now. 

The people in the crowd stand up and clap for Johnnie King.  And so does the traitor. 


Spoiler warning.  Wow, a powerful movie.  I don't remember reading about any expedition where a lousy politician/rich man deliberately kept desperately needed funds from men in charge of an actual expedition and that act ending in the death of the leaders.  Just when I thought I had seen all the evil things humans have done to each other, I get this shocker. Another man that needed to be crucified in the press was Mr. Wright.  He just left those men out there to die knowing that the supplies he was in charge of could have saved them.  But he had to get paid first.  He should have delivered those supplies no matter whether he got paid or not.  And why didn't the man in charge of the supplies at Cooper's Creek go in search of Burke and Wills?  So there are at least three and probably more blackguards in this story.  There's some of the best of humans in the story and some of the worst of humans in the story.  What kind of men were the Australians producing back then?   The fellows playing Burke and Wills were both very good. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



Return To Main Page

Return to Home Page (Vernon Johns Society)