Exactly 30 years ago, Bushfire Moon was released into cinemas.
You probably don’t remember it, because it seems to have disappeared from our collective memory. There’s been no DVD or streaming release that we can find—although you can pick it up on VHS from Amazon US, under its American title Miracle Down Under, for the bargain price of fifty bucks. Nobody talks about this film any more, and that's a shame, because it turns out it’s the ultimate Australian Christmas movie.
Bushfire Moon has all the ingredients you need for a good Christmas film: a hopeful kid, a cute puppy, a stranger who may or may not be Santa Claus, a grumpy Scrooge figure, and lots of learning about the true meaning of Christmas. The only thing it was missing was snow, but we’ll come to that in a moment.
The story goes like this: in the outback of 1891 Australia, a ranching family is suffering from drought conditions, and there’s a real chance their livestock will not survive the Summer. Their young son, excited by the coming of Christmas, is keen for presents that his family simply cannot afford. After seeing a picture of Father Christmas in a shop window, the kid becomes convinced that a passing swagman with a big white beard is the real Father Christmas, and pins his hopes on the drifter to save the holiday.
Meanwhile, there’s a rich property owner neighbour who refuses to allow the struggling family to use his lake for their cattle. He would get nothing out of such a transaction, so why bother? He’s preoccupied with his own society status as he prepares to throw a lavish party for the local swells, but seems to have his own mysterious past with the Santa-esque swagman.
Basically, the film is a mix of A Christmas Carol and Miracle on 34th Street—which is appropriate given how much Australian product in general is just UK classics and US pop culture thrown into a hopper and augmented with a local twang.
But this is where the soft genius of Bushfire Moon comes to the fore. Because that’s exactly what this film is about.
The film’s best sequence comes about two-thirds of the way in. The rich landowner has invited all of his snooty friends over for a traditional Christmas dinner. None of them wants to admit that they’re no longer living in England, and they’re so desperate to hang on to familiar customs that they ignore the heat, dress up in layers of seasonal finery, and sing in front of a raging fire.
This leads to disaster, of course: fainting, collapsing, trees and tables being knocked over, things catching fire, general over-egged chaos as all the stuffed shirts trip over one another. But as a commentary on the cultural cringe, and of Australians ashamed of being Australian, it’s an incredibly pointed moment. It elevates the film from disposable frippery into something pretty notable.
This is in part because one of the things this sequence appears to criticise is the film it’s in.
Possibly the weirdest thing about Bushfire Moon is the inexplicable casting of American actor Dee Wallace as the family’s matriarch. Wallace, whose distinct American accent is never explained or referred to, feels massively out of place. Wallace is best known for playing the mother in Spielberg’s ET, so you can see the logic that inspired the filmmakers to cast her as the mother of a kid who meets a magical being. (Side note: Wallace’s son from ET, Henry Thomas, was in Australia the year before playing the lead in fantasy Frog Dreaming, so we were clearly very busy mining Spielberg’s classic for our own family entertainment.)
The rest of the cast includes future Dr Blake Mysteries star Nadine Garner, local acting icon John Waters, and Aussie legend Charles “Bud” Tingwell as the swagman.
It’s directed by George Miller, and before you get too excited, no, it’s not the one you’re thinking of. This particular George Miller is a man cursed to share a name with another Australian director who’s far better known. It’s one of the strange quirks of Australian cinema that our relatively small pool of successful filmmakers should include two George Millers. It would be unfair to refer to him as Miller Lite, but the pun is tempting. (And, appropriately, entirely American.) This iteration of George Miller has enjoyed a solid career, making films such as The Man From Snowy River (1982), The Aviator (1985), Les Patterson Saves the World (1987), and The Never-Ending Story II: The Next Chapter (1990).
His Bushfire Moon demonstrates what a reliable and un-showy director he is: crafting a Christmas tale with a solid moral centre that teaches all the correct lessons about doing the right thing without promise of reward (even if the movie is obliged to provide rewards anyway) and doing good things for bad people (even though the bad people eventually turn good).
The final note of the film tells you everything you need to know about the film’s confused approach to cultural cringe. In America or Britain, the film would end with snow falling lightly and delightfully from the heavens as the characters look up in wonder. But this is Australia in the height of Summer, so our happy ending is punctuated by rain. The drought-stricken family looks up happily as the skies open and unfrozen water descends. It’s touching, but also kind of hilarious when you consider what the Christmas movie rulebook tells us is supposed to happen.
And if you don’t find that image deeply funny, an anachronistic saxophone takes us into the end credits. The sax is completely out of place for the time period, has not been heard in the film up until now, and takes us entirely out of the moment. It’s a very 1980s American sound, too, serving to remind us that we simply cannot help ourselves when it comes to aping our transpacific cousins.
It’s a shame that this film is so hard to find, because there are so very few Christmas-themed films in the Australian canon. It would be nice to revive the one that is—perhaps by default—the best of them all.
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