English Title: Backroads

Country of Origin: Australia

Studio: Backroads Productions

Director: Phillip Noyce

Producer(s): Phillip Noyce

Screenplay: Gilbert Emery, Phillip Noyce

Cinematographer: Russell Boyd

Editor: David Huggett

Runtime: 60 minutes

Genre: Road Movie

Starring/Cast: Terry Camillieri, Gary Foley, Zac Martin, Julie McGregor

Year: 1977

Other Information:

Gary, a young Aboriginal man at a loss after the breakdown of his marriage, and Jack, an unemployed white drifter, meet by chance and steal a car, some booze and some new clothes. They drive through western New South Wales, drinking and arguing their way to a testy friendship. Stopping briefly at a reserve, Gary visits his son, and Uncle Joe joins their trip. They also pick up Anna, a woman working at a petrol station who is looking for meaning in her life, and Jean-Claude, a French hitch-hiker who Jack taunts with racist remarks. At the coast, Anna drives off in the car, and Uncle Joe drunkenly shoots a stranger. Gary, Jack and Uncle Joe take the dead man’s car but after a brief reprieve at a river hideout, the police catch up with them. Gary tries to run but is hunted down and shot dead.  Uncle Joe and Jack are arrested.


Noyce collaborated on Backroads with Aboriginal activist Gary Foley, who apart from his political actions, such as the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra in 1972, had also worked in theatre. As a result, Backroads is the first feature in which Aboriginal characters in major roles are neither romanticised nor patronised. Foley and established actor Bill Hunter were encouraged to improvise and the resulting banter has a fresh and rough realism. Noyce’s background in documentary is evident in the confidence with which he goes with the flow of the dialogue, capturing the action on the run with a small crew. The sound recordist apparently spent quite some time in the boot.


Backroads balances the frustrated anger of disempowered men carried by both Jack and Gary with easy humour and the dynamic, clean images of cinematographer Russell Boyd. The breezy jazz score effectively enhances the vibrancy of the Pontiac speeding through red dirt country. Backroads taps into the zeitgeist of 1970s Australia, when land rights, the women’s movement, and the cultural assimilation of post-war European migrants were hot topics, and for most of the film’s length the dialogue between Gary, Jack, Anna and Jean-Claude carries the drama. The real kick in the story, however is when Uncle Joe, who has barely said a word throughout, shoots a wealthy fisherman at point blank range. This act of seemingly unprovoked violence is quickly answered, and in one sense explained, by the enthusiasm with which the police chase down and shoot Gary dead.


Shot on 16mm, and only 60 minutes in length, Backroads had limited commercial exposure in Australia, but after appearing at the Berlin and Cannes festivals played at London’s La Scala cinema for six months. After a many years directing in Hollywood Phillip Noyce returned to Australia to make his second road move, Rabbit-Proof Fence.


Further reading:

Gary Foley’s Koori History site contains a comprehensive dossier on Backroads



Author of this review: Fiona Trigg