The Last Wave – A Culturally Appropriated Classic

The Last Wave is a 1977 effort stemming from the extremely capable hands of famed film director Peter Weir, whose films before and since include Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) Witness (1985) The Truman Show (1998) and many more.  

Starring Beverly Hills born Richard Chamberlain, who played the original Jason Bourne in 1988, The Last Wave follows David Burton (Chamberlain) A Sydney lawyer defends five First Nations Persons after a ritualized taboo murder and in the process learns disturbing things about himself and premonitions. Among these characters is Chris Lee (David Gulpilil), a ‘tribal Aborigine’ who helps David understand what he’s going through.  

The Last Wave is what I would call, overall, an Australian classic. Peter Weir creates a great atmosphere, he derives fantastic performances from his cast and gets the best out of cinematographer Russel Boyd. The script, coming from Tony Morphett, Petru Popescu and Weir himself, provides good pacing.  

Remarkably, the script is also quite respectful of Aboriginal people. It speaks of massacres, turning First nations lives upside down, land theft and more. It’s only derogatory comment coming from a police officer, intended to be seen as an undesirable character. 

In contrast, Road Games, an Australian thriller from the same era (1981) which also utilized an international cast, did not speak of First Nations people at all, but did depict racism through its choice of shots. In one scene, inside a very Australian-centric roadhouse has a mural of a brutal massacre of Aboriginal people on its wall, while in another there are derogatory terms written on the wall.  

Ironically, Road Games American stars Stacy Keach and Jamie-Lee Curtis were not treated well by the Australian crew, who accused them of coming to Australia and taking their jobs. 

Despite its obvious qualities, The Last Wave does become problematic in one area.  

Cultural Appropriation.  

So, what is ‘cultural appropriation’? 

To keep it simple and quote Oxford Dictionaries, which only put the phrase into its official lexicon in 2017, cultural appropriation is “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” 

The Last Wave fits this definition perfectly. But how? 

Even in 2021 First Nations people are not a dominant culture in this country, constantly used as a political tool, the constant victims of both Unconscious Bias (75% of Australians hold a negative bias toward First Nations people according to a 2019 ANU study) and plain old racism (just log in to Facebook) while according to another ANU study, to get the same amount of job interviews, First Nations people in Australia must apply for at least 33% more jobs than their non-Indigenous counterparts.  

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So, what must the ’70s have been like? 

Only 3 years prior was the 1967 referendum. A great feat no doubt, but these key moments occurred in the ’70s, meaning that the vote didn’t equate to equality.  

  • 1971 – Aboriginal Flag first flown during a land rights march in Adelaide. 
  • 1972 – Tent Embassy is formed on the lawns of Parliament House.  
  • 1973 – Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement is formed in Adelaide. 
  • 1975 – National Aboriginal and Islander Health Organisation (NAIHO) is formed. 
  • 1979 – House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs Report Aboriginal Health, States that poor Aboriginal Health is due to low standards of environmental and housing conditions, socio-economic factors and inappropriate health services. 
  • The Stolen Generations continued throughout the ’70s. 

While these key points are positive (aside from the Stolen Generations) they are a sign of the negative landscape that First Nations people were living in, in the ’70s.  

Knowing all that, the fact is that the First Nations people of Australia are battling for basic rights at the same time that non-Indigenous screenwriters, film directors and stars are making a film that is heavily influenced by First Nations people and culture. It also seems to depict what appears to be Mayan styles of artwork in conjunction with creating its own prophecy or dreaming story. 

It is pure cultural appropriation.  

Unfortunately, David Gulpilil’s presence, as well as the other First Nations actors, while significant does not change that. Cultural Appropriation, however, is not something that impacts plot, structure or writing. It’s a conversation about morals and ethics, one that is had outside of what makes a film good or bad.  

Those issues aside, The Last Wave is a well-made fantasy drama.  

Where it fits within Reconciliation is in the respectability given to First Nations people through its dialogue (despite the appropriation) and putting First Nations actors on the big screen alongside someone of Richard Chamberlain’s status. While sadly, most First Nations actors would not go on to do any more acting. 

However, David Gulpilil’s next feature film role would be a small one in The Right Stuff in which he shared screen time with popular American actor Dennis Quaid.  


Written by Travis Akbar