The camera sweeps around hills and valleys. They are covered in trees and there is no sign of inhabitants. The land is strange and forbidding. The river is wide and deep. On the shore, 8 prisoners stand to attention awaiting orders to swim out to a long boat. They are to spend the day cutting trees and hauling the logs to the river so they can be transported downstream.
Led by Greenhill they attack their overseer and escape inland. They have a few supplies: a billy, an axe, a knife and precious little else. The band of escapees are English, Scots and Irish; little love is lost between them.
We are treated to the thoughts of one of the escapees, Alexander Pearce (Oscar Redding), in his native Irish. Director Johnathan Auf Der Heide said that the purpose of the foreign tongue in a voiceover throughout the film was to alienate an Australian audience, familiar with the landscape, to better identify with the aliens who have escaped into this wilderness.
So strange in fact is that when supplies run out, they do not see anything which they can hunt and eat. Despite all the rivers they cross, there are no fish. Surrounded by trees, they spy no birds.
Tracking through the bush there are no wallabies, wombats or other native animals. I thought I heard the curious cry of a Devil during one night scene however this was short lived and never referred to again. Perhaps it was the devil himself come to judge them.
Four of the escapees decide to sacrifice one of their band for the common good. After clubbing him with an axe they hang him up to bleed. They mean to use him as food. This, they reason, is their only means of survival.
They continue to wander “east” looking for civilisation and settlement but every step leads to another hill to climb, another river to cross. “By this tree, on this rock, in this place … where are we?”
Two retreat and head back for Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour rather than participate in this cannibalism. They are dead either way. It is not long before another is taken for the common good. “Four godless men walk to the devil.”
The palate of the film has all the red, all the warmth, removed from it. The blues, greys and dark greens indicate a hardness and a cold which they cannot overcome.
Pearce becomes quieter the longer the march continues, keeping his own council. Instead of the group surviving, the four become two and what common bond they held has been well and truly rent. The two men walk side by side, many metres apart. Neither has slept for fear what the other might do and are nearly asleep on their feet. Their camp at night is now two fires, at a distance. It is when Greenhill finally sleeps soundly that his fate is sealed.
It is curious to note that the longer he travels, Pearce sheds his boots and does not take advantage of a warm coat from one of his fallen comrades. It is as if he is stoking the fires of damnation within his own belly and no longer has need of outer warmth.
The men that play the convicts all appear wiry and tough. They speak and act with a manly familiarity. The fact that all actors have been friends for some years aids how comfortable they are around each other. Even in the context of the story, they have been transported together, lived under the hardship of the penal colony together and slaved in their work together.
The tension of the film builds with each step as they face extinction, one way or another. The reality of the penal settlements in these remote parts of Australia is that they did not need to be excessively guarded. The real prison was the Southern Ocean on one side and the Tasmanian wilderness on the other. The fact that so few escaped and survived in the whole history of convict Australia demonstrates how effective the location was. This story is based on the real life confessions of Pearce who was captured near Hobart around 1822. His tale of cannibalism and murder were considered so extraordinary that the magistrate refused to believe him, thinking that his fellow escapees were still at large. He was sent back to Macquarie Harbour where a year later he escaped again but was found more quickly with some of the remains of his unfortunate fellow escapee in his pockets.
In this film, Van Dieman’s Land, it turned out that the price of freedom was very steep indeed.