In the truest larrikin style another film titled WILLS AND BURKE: THE UNTOLD STORY was made concurrently and told an alternative and comedic version of the story. It was released just one week before the historical drama and was met with a mediocre response, both critically and financially. Yet, as with so many Australian films of that era, it would later gain a cult following and become something of a comedy gem (to some).
Adhering to the same storyline and overall structure of the other film, WILLS AND BURKE countered each marker-point with ridicule. From puerile sight gags to clever situational jokes, the film threw as much comedy at the wall in hope that some of it sticks. Some did and some didn't, but for every misfired quip there is a backup of wonderful witticisms not far behind, finessing the film into a satire ahead of its time.
It must be said that WILLS AND BURKE is a time capsule and holds no footing with today's social standards. It is an outrageous and fiercely satirical lampoon that shuns political correctness and will be considered insensitive and racist by most people today. Of course it was also racist then, however its sharp wit and social derision eluded most viewers at the time, who misunderstood its true nature and failed to recognise that the white man was, in fact, the butt of all jokes. The same can be said for today's audiences, whom I can only speculate might misinterpret the humour and identify victims of bigotry.
It is true that various ethnic groups and cultures were stereotyped and ridiculed - from indigenous people to Indians and Arabs – but it is also true that the payoff for such behaviour was the white men's ignorance, arrogance and stupidity. Legendary actor Garry McDonald (Norman Gunston) played Burke as a bumbling nincompoop, whose lack of education and experience lead to a calamity of mishaps. As their party passes by ancient indigenous drawings, he condemns people for vandalism and disrespecting the land, calling for a clean-up crew to restore the rock's beauty. And where one aboriginal man's body-paint is (hilariously) that of a necktie, the joke is – again – on the white man as a family of natives casually collect fish from a waterhole while a white guy sits for hours at the end of a fishing line.
The cast included an alumni of Australian heavy-weights including Kim Gyngell (Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Heaven Tonight), Chris Hayward (Razorback), Peter Collingwood (Picnic At Hanging Rock), John Hardy (Mad Max), Mark Little (Neighbours) and a young Nicole Kidman. They wore their comedic hats with pride and were never afraid to make fools of themselves. One sequence has Kidman wearing a moustache as she pretends to piss at a gentleman's urinal. Another moment has Collingwood stripping naked and throwing all of his belongings (including his false teeth) to a non-existent crowd who he thinks adore him. It is all very silly, yet all rather topical of the time.
With WILLS AND BURKE receiving a recent DVD release from Umbrella Entertainment, the film might earn its overdue credit for being a legitimate comedy classic. The best way to describe its style would be to compare it to Mel Brooks and Monty Python. Throw in a tipple of Young Einstein and a hint of Zucker Brother lunacy and you might get the picture. It's a slow burn comedy, for sure, but it's also one that deserves more attention.