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The Last Wave

by John Denvir, USF Law School (May 1998)

Peter Weir is known for some excellent Hollywood commercial films; Witness and The Year of Living Dangerously come to mind. But as a young man he made more challenging films in his native Australia. One, The Last Wave, gives a perspective on law we don't find in Hollywood films.

The film's plot sounds simple enough. A young lawyer, David Burton (Richard Chamberlain working off his success as Doctor Kildare), lives the bourgeois life to which so many male law students aspire. He's a tax lawyer with a handsome wife, two beautiful little girls, and nice house in the suburbs of Sydney. He even does a little pro bono on the side, representing indigents in the criminal courts.

Legal Aid asks Burton to represent four Aborigine youths who are accused of killing another Aborigine in a drunken brawl. Burton accepts the case and then layer after layer of "law" starts to unpeel.

First, Chamberlain discovers that his clients are "tribal people" who still practice the traditional Aboriginal rites. In fact, the killing was in retribution for the victim's stealing of certain sacred stones, and the weapon was not a knife or a gun, but a shaman's pointing of a bone at the victim which caused his heart to stop beating.

The first interesting "legal" question is whether pointing a bone at someone with the intent to kill can be "murder" under Australian law. But then we also have a question about the interface of legal cultures since to the Australian government the crime is theft, but to the tribal Aborigines it's sacrilege which can only be punished by death.

But to me, the even more interesting question is the connection between the temporal secular law of Australia and the law of "dream time"—the atemporal psychic space which the Aborigines feel to be more "real" than temporal reality. Chamberlain pleads with one of the defendants to tell the truth so he can get him off, he makes a comment any liberal western lawyer might make: "Surely people are more important than the law." But the Aborigine quickly corrects him: "No, the law is more important than man."

He of course is not talking about the penal code, but law in some more ultimate sense. Finally Burton finds out that he too has a connection to that larger "law" with which we seem to have lost touch. Should we be searching for it? Or is it just a dream?

John DenvirJohn Denvir, who teaches constitutional law at USF Law School, is editor of Legal Reelism: Movies as Legal Texts, available at local bookstores or through amazon.com.


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