Tudawali (1987)





Director:     Steve Jodrell.

Starring:     Ernie Dingo (Robert Tudawali), Peter Fisher (Harry Wilkins), Charles 'Bud' Tingwell (Dr. Rayment), Jedda Cole, Bill McCluskey (Jack Everett), Frank Wilson (Charles Chauvel), Suzanne Peverill (Elsa Chauvel), Michelle Torres (Kate Wilson), Shane Wynne (Jimmy Deakin), Chris Sampi (Willy), Franklyn Nannup, Michael Carman (Conroy), John Low (Detective).

life of the first Australian Aboriginal actor Robert Tudawali, (a.k.a., Bobby Wilson)


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

An Aborigine boy (the future Robert Tudawali) paddles in a canoe to the mainland at Darwin from Melville Island. 

At night around a fire, Robert Tudawali is fighting with some other fellows, one of them his cousin, over a bottle of liquor.  He falls or is pushed backwards onto the fire and screams bloody murder.  

Flashback.  Darwin, Northern Territory (north central coast of Australia). 1954.  Bobby Wilson is working with a road crew.  Mr. Wilson, a white man, tells him that his wife is coming with his lunch.  An elderly couple drive up and ask for a Bobby Wilson.  The fellow they want is sitting under a tree with his wife and cousin eating lunch.  The couple, Charles and Elsa Chauvel, come over to the Aborigines and Bobby says that he is Bob Wilson.  Mr. Chauvel tells the lad that he was recommended to them by Norm Lockwood of Native Affairs.  They are searching for an Aborigine boy to act in a film they are going to shoot.  Bob says:  "Like Hopalong Cassidy?"  His cousin says Bob has seen that movie about ten times already.  The couple says not exactly, buy first they want to have Bob take a screen test. 

Charles Chauvel tells Bob that he is a character named Marback a proud, savage warrior.  They ask him to walk proud in a circle, but don't forget that Marback is also a killer.  Bob's wife, Peggy Wilson, and his cousin laugh at the way he looks.  So Charles tells Peggy that she will play the part of Jedda.  All she has to do is sit on the ground and look at her husband.  Now Charles tells Bob to "will" the woman to him with his eyes.  So Bob adapts an Aborigine dance to his wooing of Jedda.  The Chauvels are happy with his performance. 

Back to the present.  Sydney, New South Wales (southeast coast of Australia).  July 1967.  Three TV people are editing an interview of Robert Tudawali by one of them, the journalist Harry Wilkins.  On film Harry says to the camera that in the Aboriginal settlements there is a tradition of "passive acceptance" of white colonial rule, but that attitude may be changing now.  At Wave Hill Station in Northern Territory the Aborigine stockmen of the Gurensey tribe are on strike for equal pay with white white stockmen.  The strikers are getting strong support from other black spokesmen and among these is the one-time Aboriginal film and television star Robert Tudawali. 

The boss tells Harry that he wants him to interview Tudawali again.  Harry says he won't go.  The two other fellows tell him that Tudawali has had an accident and he must go to Darwin to see him.  The man is dying. 

Harry is in a Darwin taxi saying to the driver that he is going to visit a friend, Robert Tudawali.  The white taxi driver knows the man, but he doesn't like him.  He says Tudawali is one of those blacks stirring up trouble

Six weeks earlier.  The boss of the stockmen at Wave Hill Station denies the charge that he pays the white workers $50 dollars and the Aboriginal workers only $10 dollars.  In addition, says the boss man, besides cash the men get part credit at the company store.   

Back to the present.  Harry goes to see Robert in the hospital.  The nurse is rude to Robert saying that he is here only for a story.  She takes him into Robert's hospital room, but there they run into two policemen who tell the nurse and Harry that they will be the ones to speak to Robert first.  They start to leave.  A puzzled Harry asks them:  "It was an accident, wasn't it?"  The police don't answer. 

Harry looks at the ugly skin burns on Robert's body and is a bit repulsed.  He can't speak to him because Robert is in a deep sleep.  So he asks the nurse some more questions about what happened.  The nurse tells him that it was the night before the Darwin Agricultural Show and there was a lot of celebrating and drinking at the Bagot Reserve.  Robert fell backwards on the fire.  She adds that it may have been the alcohol or a stroke. 

Flashback.  Sydney, Australia.  Charles Chauvel introduces the actors in the movie Jedda.  He especially singles out Tudawali for his performance.  Charles talks about Robert's background.  He is a member of the Tiwi tribe, born on Melville Island.  Some 25 years ago at the age of ten, Robert rowed 50 miles from Melville Island to Darwin.  The man was once a crocodile and buffalo hunter, but now Bob is an actor.  He says that Robert and his co-star Rose took to acting very naturally. 

Chauvel tells Robert that 70% of his money goes into a trust fund for him and his family.  Just 30% of the funds can be spent on whatever he wants to buy.  Then he asks Robert about why isn't Peggy with him?  Robert says she's been stick with tuberculosis. 

Harry sees Robert in the men's room.  He tells the actor that he was very good in the film.  Then, since this is Robert's first time in Sydney, he offers to show him around the town.  He gives Robert his home phone and his work phone numbers.  He says goodbye, but Robert tells him that he forgot to give him his name.  Harry Wilkens smiles and says his name.

Robert is on the beach with Harry and his family.  Robert mentions that he didn't get much schooling.  His sister died at school and his father reckoned that it was school that had killed her. 

Chauvel has Robert act a scene of a man losing his mind.  After the filming, Harry takes Robert to a bar.  The white men stare at the white and black man drinking together.  Harry observes that the two of them together is not a common sight in Sydney.  Nor, says Robert, is it common in Darwin.  He tells about part of the relationship between the government and the Aborigines.  All black men have to register, according to the Welfare Act, and are made wards of the government.  Black men can't drink, can't vote, but must be at home at night when curfew goes into effect. 

Harry and Robert play pool.  Three white men are staring or glaring at the black and white man.  The guy in the middle tells Robert that he is not welcome here.  And they can't play a two games out of three set.  They want to play and play now.  The middle bloke picks up Robert's money on the pool table border bumper. Robert gets angry and tells the man that's his money.  Harry backs up Robert and it looks like a fight is going to ensue.  But suddenly one of the whites recognizes Tudawali as the Aborigine actor in the movies.  He asks and Robert confirms his identity as the black actor.  Now this fan tells the other two men to give Robert back his money.  He wants to buy Tudawali a drink and talk with him for awhile. 

Harry watches Robert play another scene for Charles.   It's actually the last scene they have to film.  Chauvel and the whole crew come forward and shake each others' hands.  Robert gives Charles a tie.  Charles says it's a bit flashy for him, but he will wear it.  Not having a gift for Robert, Chauvel takes his watch off his wrist and gives it to the actor. 

Robert returns home on an airplane looking like a fancy -dressed American cowboy. He is greeted by the welfare doctor and is told that Peggy is waiting over at the gate for him.  The couple hug each other. 

At home Robert drives his motorcycle.  He is quite the celebrity in his neighborhood.  He tells his cousin to watch the bike and goes inside to have sex with Peggy.  In the middle of having sex, Robert realizes he can't perform because of all the commotion outside.  He has to go investigate.  He sees that his cousin has driven the motorcycle and now it has fallen on him.  He scolds his cousin for not taking proper care of the motorcycle. 

Robert goes back inside.  Peggy is coughing and coughing and he tells her:  "You came out of hospital too soon."   Peggy is a bit upset at the way Robert acts.  She thinks his head has been swollen by all the attention he received.  Robert admits that it all did turn his head a bit.  He adds that if they offer him another acting job, he'll be back there like a shot.  Peggy now accuses Robert of infidelity  -- of having sex with fellow actor Rose.  Robert denies that and says that Rose is still just a girl. 

The movie has its premiere.  Instead of being with the director and his fellow actors, Robert sits with Peggy in the front to watch the film.  Near the end of the film there is a scene where Marback is threatening to step off the edge of a cliff with the young girl Jedda he has with him.  A white man pleads with Marback not to do it, but Marback gets so close to the edge that he and the girl fall to their deaths.  Peggy doesn't like the movie and is not afraid to show that on her face. 

Charles comes forward to get on the stage when he sees Robert.  He asks him:  "Where have you been?"   Robert says he was just sitting in the front like he always does at the movies.  Charles brings Robert onto the stage with the other actors.  When he points out Robert, the audience gives him a big applause.  Peggy just walks out of the theater.

Back home Peggy is throwing dishes at her husband.  To stop her he slaps her and she goes down.  He then lays down with her. 

Back to the present.  Robert's cousin and a friend walk out of Robert's hospital room.  They won't stop when Harry tries to talk with them, so Harry chases after them.  The cousin dismisses Harry saying that all he wants is a story.   He and his friend leave the hospital. 

Flashback.  Darwin. 1956.  Peggy is pregnant and Robert has tuberculosis.  Peggy tells him that it's her fault because she did come out of the hospital too soon. 

Robert goes to the banker in town to get some of his trust money.  The banker does not want to give him the money.  He says Bobby doesn't deserve this money.  He is not to be taking the trust fund money in big sums all at once.  The banker says that 1,800 quid in trust is a small fortune, even for a white man.  He tells Robert:  "You're a soft touch, that's your trouble."  Robert replies that his wife is sick and has to get her some medicine.  And he still paying off his motorcycle.  As Robert signs for the money, the banker tells him:  "You don't look that good yourself."  Robert says he's all right. 

Charles visits Peggy in the hospital.  Robert is there also.  Charles can't believe that Robert spent every penny of the trust fund.  He says his relatives don't deserve the money.  Robert says they do things differently in his world.  Charles is not discouraged.  He says that Robert has Peggy and their new daughter to take care of now.  Charles adds that he has been away, but he had to come to see them because this scandal is in the newspapers.  There are big headlines about Robert being wracked with tuberculosis and living in slums. 

Robert tells Charles that he would like to act again.  He also tells Charles that turned an acting job down offered by another firm.  Charles tells him that he should have taken the job.  The director now turns to ask Peggy the name of her baby girl.  It's Christine Joyce Jedda.  Charles is genuinely touched and tells her:  "How nice.  Thank you."  Robert asks if they liked the film Jedda overseas?  Charles says that there was favorable comment overseas on the film. 

Robert is out spear fish with his small daughter.  He is now working on a feature:  Dust in the Sun.  He is playing another bad black fellow.  He tells Christine that one day he will take her to Sydney.  Maybe they will even decide to live there.

Robert talks with Harry on the beach.  He says he was thinking about that 50 mile journey of his to Darwin from Melville Island.  Harry wonders if he was afraid of sharks, but Robert says no way.  In his dreams he would dream about sharks and that's good.  In fact, he says:  "Tudawali" is Tiwi for shark.  Harry tells Robert that sometimes he hates Australia.  The whites here are so smug and self-satisfied., while the Aborigines have a spirituality closer to the land.  He even says:  "I envy you."  Robert's response is:  "That's a heap of shit, Harry." 

The motorbike sales owner comes over to see Peggy.  She is not happy to see him.  The white fellow asks her if she has any money.  Robert still owes him on the motorcycle and for four separate repairs of the bike.  Peggy doesn't have any money.  The guy says Robert owes him 85 quid on the motor bike, "Unless you and I can make an arrangement."  Peggy knows he's talking about sex and she refuses. 

The welfare doctor visits Robert in the prison hospital.  He is still outraged at the six months sentence Robert received when in a similar case the punishment was only six weeks.  He goes on to say that it was just a Christmas drink Robert had with his cousin.  Robert has tuberculosis bad and the doctor tells the sheriff:  "I want him out of here."  This man should be in the hospital.  

Peggy comes to visit Robert in the hospital.  Robert is glad to see his little girl, but asks his wife why she is always running off to Delizabel (?)  Peggy says that's where her home is and, anyways, Robert is always running around wherever he likes, so why can't she?

The welfare doctor speaks to Robert about not taking the job making the TV series known as Whiplash.  He urges Robert to stay with his family.  He says:  "These Whiplash people will use you up and when it's all over you're gonna come back here and try to settle down again and be just as restless as you have been since that day."  He also says that Robert could get a "proper" job.  Robert gets mad and says there are no decent jobs for the black man.  It's always some type of low-level manual labor. 

Sydney. 1960.  Charles Chauvel has died.  Robert goes with Harry and Mrs. Chauvel to visit the gave in the cemetery.  Mrs. Chauvel shows Robert a letter and a photo of his co-star Rose that she received.  Rose is a nurse now.  After she and Harry leave, Robert takes off the watch from his wrist that Mr. Chauvel had given him and buries it in the ground over the grave. 

Harry talks with Robert and tells him this Whiplash thing is crap. Robert responds that there are no other acting jobs around for him.  Harry says he himself shouldn't talk.  He is unsatisfied with his work and wants to do something useful.  He wants to right some wrongs and be able to tell people the truth.  They talk into the night at the beach.  Robert says he dreams about sharks and porpoises.  The two species respect each other, but if a shark wants to kill a porpoise, the shark has to get the porpoise alone and into deep water.

Scenes from the opening of the program Whiplash are showed.  It stars the American actor Peter Graves.  

Robert returns home, but Peggy isn't there.  He asks where is Peggy, but no one will answer.  Robert sees Christina and Peggy coming down the road.  Robert hugs his daughter and then goes to take a look at Peggy's baby.  The baby looks totally white.  This shocks Robert and he walks away from Peggy. 

Robert now becomes an alcoholic.  And he is in jail again. The judge warns Robert that they might just send him back to Melville Island.  Robert commits domestic violence and has to appear before the judge again and is sentenced to 11 months on Melville Island.  Back on Melville Island Robert doesn't play games with the other men, but after awhile he is in there playing with the best of them.

When Robert comes back home he is clean and sober for the moment.  He tours with a tent show boxing mostly white men.  The welfare doctor tells Robert that there are two kinds of people:  those who can hold their liquor and those who cannot.  He says for those who cannot, it's usually a sign of discouragement.  He warns Robert not to make his tuberculosis worse by heavy drinking. 

A fellow from the Aborigine Rights Council comes out to speak with Robert in a tavern.  He says that Robert can talk to both whites and blacks.  And he can talk on any topical issue if he wishes.  The tavern owner comes to tell Robert that he is not very welcome here.  The government may says that he has the right to drink, but he doesn't have the right to drink here.

Bobby Wilson, the boxer, is a good fighter.  And he seems to really enjoy knocking out racist white men.  But one night the boss comes over and tells him to start taking dives when he fights the whites.  The boss will make more money that way.  But for Bobby it means he has to take a great many more punches, which can't be good for his health.  The man with the Aborigine Rights Council and other black civil leaders don't approve of what Bobby is doing.

Wattie Creek, June 1967.  A TV crew is coming and they want to speak with Tudawali.  Harry is speaking with Mr. Conroy who is the employer of the striking black workers.  Harry sees Robert Tudawali.  They walk and talk together.  Robert says he's working with the Aborigine Rights Council.  Harry says Robert could do a lot for his people, but Robert just walks away from Harry.  Harry sits down on the ground beside Robert.  He says that he and his wife Sarah broke up a couple of years back.  Robert says he and Peggy broke up too.  He says his daughter Christine is fourteen years old now.  He says he doesn't know what to do, but he has got to do something.

Back to the present.  At the hospital, Harry goes in to see a now awake Robert.  He gives the patient some water.  Harry then asks him if he can get him something?  Robert says to get Christine for him.  She's on Methodist Island dealing with people who look after her. He says he has to get Christine to a convent school in Sydney.  Robert asks Harry if he is doing a story on him?  Harry says no, he's just came to see Robert.  Robert says:  "There might be a story in it."  Robert coughs up some blood and then falls to sleep.  The nurse tells Harry that he must go now.  Robert won't wake up until dawn tomorrow.  She then apologizes to Harry for being rude to him.  She says that Robert did say that it was three against one and that they threw him onto the fire. 

Harry tells the welfare doctor that somebody wanted Robert Tudawali out of the way because of his work with civil rights and they had him killed.  The doctor feels Robert's descent into hell was because of all of these white ideas they gave him such as the worship of fame and celebrity.  

Harry goes back to the hospital and tells Robert that he wants to do something for him.  He wants to make people understand Robert's true story.  Then he adds that he will look after Christine for him.  This makes Robert mad and he goes a bit crazy, screaming at Harry to leave his daughter alone.  Then he tells Harry twice to fight him.  Of course, Harry is not going to fight Robert.  Then Robert starts screaming:  "What do you want from me?  What do you want from me?"

"Majingwanipini, aka Bobby Wilson and Robert Tudawali, died in Darwin Hospital on July 26th, 1967.  His grave, like that of many Aborigines buried in Darwin Cemetery, is marked only by a number - 103." 

The last scene is of Harry recording the remarks of Robert on behalf of the striking Wattie Creek Aborigine stockmen. One thing he says is that "we want the right to make our own way in life like everyone else, mistakes and all."


Spoiler Warning.  A sad movie but a good one.  The actor Robert Tudawali made history with his acting, but he paid a terrible price for it.  He was caught between his native Aborigine roots and culture and the white culture of Australia.  He couldn't really satisfy the people in either of these worlds.  If he is part of the world of actors and acting, then he is separated from his wife and daughter, which brings troubles for the family.  But if he returns to the slum living conditions in the Reserve, he has a hard time getting any acting jobs.  And living in Darwin and Sydney, he doesn't make enough money or have enough acting jobs to provide for his family and himself.  His family life starts to fall apart and the white world is troubled that Robert isn't around as much as he should be to become a commercially secure actor.   Robert is torn between these worlds and ends up becoming an alcoholic as a way to free himself, however briefly, from his inner demons.  Robert just falls apart and dies like a junkie on the streets, in his case, fighting over a bottle of liquor.

Ernie Dingo (as Robert Tudawali) was very good in his role. 

I thought the apartheid-like nature of the Australian system of racial superiority was brought out more clearly in this film than in the other films I have seen on this civil rights issue in Australia.  A lot of it reminded me of the separate but equal system of apartheid in the United States.  The many restrictions on blacks/Aborigines in both nations was very similar.  The resultant inequality between the blacks and whites, of course, leaves the whites on the whole more wealthy than their black counterparts. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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