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From D.H. Lawrence to the Language of Cinema: Chaste Sacrifices in The Woman Who Rode Away and Picnic at Hanging Rock

Romy Sutherland
p. 241-251

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1Picnic at Hanging Rock, a 1975 film by the Australian film director Peter Weir, opens with an eerie shot of a large, dark rock, covered in a shroud of mist, accompanied by unsettling sounds of an Aboriginal didgeridoo, that seem to emanate from the earth itself. This image can arguably be identified as the one that launched what came to be known as the New Wave of Australian film in the mid 1970s. The iconic image of Hanging Rock is immediately followed by a shot of a quaint colonial school looking somewhat incongruous in the Australian landscape. The visual juxtaposition of the rock and the school underscores the forbidding power of the former, and foreshadows an uncanny victory of the indigenous over the colonial in the film.

2Weir uses uniquely cinematic language to treat a theme with which Lawrence had grappled in his short novella, The Woman who Rode Away, set in the shadows of North American silver mines in Mexico in the 1920s, namely the multi-faceted and fraught meeting of an indigenous world and a colonial presence. In both Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Woman who Rode Away, colonial female protagonists respond in comparable ways to the indigenous world that surrounds their protective colonial enclaves.

  • 1 Joan Lindsay, Picnic at Hanging Rock. Melbourne: Penguin Books, 1967. Subsequent citations from thi (...)

3The Woman Who Rode Away is set in the new world of Mexico, not that of Australia, but it is worth recalling that Lawrence wrote it only two years after he had spent the summer of 1922 in Australia, writing Kangaroo. I am not going to argue that Lawrence’s story owes its inspiration to Australia but rather, on the contrary, that Joan Lindsay, the Australian novelist who wrote the novel on which the film is based, had certainly read Lawrence1 and that there are aspects of The Woman Who Rode Away which illuminate intriguing elements of Picnic that have eluded the film’s critics. Indeed The Woman who Rode Away offers insights into questions that have perplexed scholars of Australian film since the 1970s.

4In this paper I offer a very brief summary of Peter Weir’s film, highlighting the perplexities that have confounded its critics; I then outline a summary of those aspects of The Woman who Rode Away which resonate with the film; and finally, I conclude by suggesting the ways in which a reading of Lawrence’s story illuminates unresolved facets of Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Picnic at Hanging Rock

  • 2 Lawrence uses this phrase in his posthumous papers. McDonald, Edward D., ed. Phoenix: The Posthumou (...)

5Picnic at Hanging Rock is set in 1900, the year preceding Australia’s federation as a nation. The film depicts the story of a group of adolescent schoolgirls who leave what Lawrence might have called “the little fold of law and order”2 within their elite college to go on a picnic at the nearby site of Hanging Rock. Four girls decide to climb and explore the rock in the company of one of their teachers. During their expedition three girls and the teacher go missing, and the mystery of their disappearance will only heighten when one of the missing girls is found, but has no recollection of what took place.

  • 3 Brian Finney, Introduction. D.H. Lawrence Selected Short Stories (London: Penguin Books, 1982).

6Of the three girls who disappear, Miranda—the protagonist of the film—is the one who most clearly exemplifies Western ideals of beauty and grace. Her long, blonde locks and tall, elegant figure are explicitly compared in the film, both visually and verbally, to that icon of European art: Botticelli’s Venus. Miranda’s Shakespearian forename further aligns her with a privileged Western presence, that of the entitled colonisers of a brave new world. The pointed omission of Miranda’s surname, in contrast to those of her companions, enhances her status as an almost mythological being (already intimated by her comparison to Venus and to a mythological swan). In a similar vein, the critic Brian Finney has argued that the omission of the protagonist’s name in The Woman Who Rode Away underscores her status as a type rather than an individual.3

7Of the three missing girls Miranda encapsulates the most sophisticated melding of sensual blonde beauty and alert curiosity. Marion, always shown with her glasses prominently displayed, is also blonde and conventionally attractive, but represents a less corporeal, more intellectual presence. Irma, depicted as eagerly soaking up the sun’s rays and pouncing, tiger-like, from the rocks to the ground, is the most earthy and outrightly sensual of the three, all of whom are awakening to their sexuality. A fourth girl, Edith, who is chubby and sulky, sets out with the other three, but does not fall subject to the rock’s allure. Unlike her companions, who remove their gloves, shoes and stockings as they climb, Edith remains fully dressed throughout their expedition, and on realising that her companions are impervious to her pleas to resist the rock’s power, descends the rock and returns to the site of the picnic, screaming in fright.

8While Miranda and Marion, the two blonde girls, never return, the dark haired Irma is found unaccountably alive and unharmed after a week on the rock. It is necessary for the story’s conceit and symbolist-infused aesthetic that it is never definitively revealed what precisely did happen to any of the missing girls. Indeed much of the film’s appeal and affective impact resides in the fact that the mystery remains unresolved.

9One aspect of the film that has been particularly perplexing to the film’s critics is the fact that Irma, the retrieved girl, is found without her corset, but with her virginity intact. The possibility that the girls may have been violated is a primary concern for the principal of the girls’ college—Mrs Appleyard, given that the preservation and protection of the young ladies’ chastity is the sine qua non of a finishing school for maidens destined to mother the subsequent generations of the nascent nation’s leaders.

10The value of the girls’ chastity heightens the significance of their shifting states of dress and undress throughout the film. In the oppressive environment of the school, dress codes are enforced rigorously. An image often reproduced to represent and publicise the film is a shot of the schoolgirls binding each other into corsets within the confines of the school, in preparation for their departure to the picnic. Accordingly, the liberation they experience on leaving the school is signaled initially by shots of them removing their white school gloves in a horse-drawn buggy as it approaches the rock, intercut with kinetic images of spinning wheels and galloping hoofs. A further degree of distance between the select girls who ascend the monolith and their classmates is signaled by shots of the adventurous girls sensually removing their shoes and stockings once they have ascended a section of the rock.

11The emphasis throughout the film on the girls’ state of dress and undress serves to foreground the fact that Irma is found without her corset, into which she had been so ceremoniously bound that morning, and that despite having been close to, or perhaps fully naked on the rock, she has evidently not been sexually touched. It is also significant that, of the three missing girls, it is Irma, the one presented as the most sensual of the group, who returns. The proof of Irma’s chastity, established in a medical examination, suggests that whatever the explanation for the girls’ disappearance, it cannot necessarily be reduced to a sexual motive.

The Woman who Rode Away

12D.H. Lawrence’s The Woman Who Rode Away is worth bringing to bear in an analysis of Picnic, precisely because it offers insights into the motif of the chaste sacrifice suggested in Peter Weir’s film.

  • 4 D.H. Lawrence, “The Woman Who Rode Away.” D.H. Lawrence Selected Short Stories (London: Penguin Boo (...)

13In Lawrence’s narrative, a young American woman feels stifled in an unsatisfying marriage to an American businessman who owns and runs silver mines in Mexico. An analogue to the tightly framed constriction of the interior shots that introduce Appleyard College in Weir’s filmic language is found in Lawrence’s description of the woman’s protected but stultifying situation in which her husband “admired his wife to extinction,” within a “walled-in one storey adobe house, [with a] shut-in patio.”4

14The protagonist of Lawrence’s tale is an adult woman, but she is described as a girl who has not yet fully experienced life: “At thirty-three she really was still the girl from Berkeley, in all but physique. Her conscious development had stopped mysteriously with her marriage, completely arrested” (392).

15Like the girls in the film, she feels bound and constrained by a colonial world in a wilderness of sorts. Like them, she is lured by evocations of an indigenous world, venturing to a dark mountainous incline in search of an encounter with an indigenous other. She rides her horse towards the nearby community of the Chilchuis Indians, accompanies them up a dark mountain face to where they reside, and spends some months there being prepared, unbeknownst to herself, to be sacrificially offered to their gods. These preparations include eerie rituals in which she is ordered to undress in front of a public of male Chilchuis Indians. However at various junctures the text repeats that the men did not see her in a sexual light: “They could not see her as a woman at all. As if she were not a woman. As if, perhaps, her whiteness took away all her womanhood, and left her as some giant, female white ant (401- 402).” As her time with them proceeds, this feature in their attitude towards her is maintained: “It was curious, he would sit with her by the hour, without ever making her self-conscious or sex-conscious. He seemed to have no sex, as he sat there so still and gentle and apparently submissive (410).” Even in the final stages of her ritual preparation for death, when the men are applying oil to her naked body, the text states explicitly: “They were so impersonal, absorbed in something that was beyond her. They never saw her as a personal woman: she could tell that (419).”

16The story closes when the woman is ultimately sacrificially killed by the Indian community in revenge for white colonisers’ having taken their land: “You with blue eyes, you are the messengers from far away, you cannot stay and now it is time for you to go back” (416). The Indians believe that by sacrificing a white woman to the sun, they will be the beneficiaries of their solar god: “ The Indian says he will give the white woman to the sun, so the sun will leap over the white man and come to the Indian again. […] And we shall be full of power, like a spring day. But the white people will be a hard winter, without snow” (416).

17There are of course significant differences between The Woman Who Rode Away and Picnic at Hanging Rock. The female protagonist of Lawrence’s story is a woman of thirty-three, sexually experienced and indeed married with two children, while the adolescent virginity of the pre-Raphaelite looking girls in Picnic at Hanging Rock is repeatedly emphasised and visually privileged in the film’s mise-en-scène. Similarly, it is made explicit in The Woman Who Rode Away that the protagonist is directly drawn towards the indigenous people, whom she meets and lives with over a period of some months, whereas in the film there is no literal depiction of any direct personal contact with Aboriginal peoples. In Weir’s film, an Aboriginal presence is suggested rather than spelt out, and there is no proof of any explicit human sacrifice in the story.

18Salient similarities between the two stories are however illuminating. The rocky inclines that the respective protagonists ascend are portrayed in comparable ways, and both are distinctly anthropomorphised. Lawrence’s linguistic description of “stretches of naked rock against the sky” (397) resonates with the repeated medium-shots in Weir’s film that frame sections of Hanging Rock as dark phallic peaks. Lawrence also speaks of the “Awful huge bulking of the rock” (412), and the “Huge shadows [that] came down from steep rocky slopes” (400). Such descriptions are reminiscent of Joan Lindsay’s narrative: “The shadow of the rock has grown darker and longer,” or “The dreadful shape is a living monster lumbering towards them” (Lindsay 154).

19Weir’s translation of such anthropomorphising passages into filmic language includes long, static takes of angles of the rock that look distinctly like faces of Aboriginal men. One of the shots is a medium close-up on what resembles a large, elderly dark face looking directly into the camera; another is of the same section of rock shown in a low-angle close-up; a third is an eye-level close-up on an imperious looking “Aboriginal face” in profile. Each of the “portraits” is included several times throughout the film. During the sequence depicting the police search for the missing girls, Weir includes the “faces” in a montage that subtly incorporates them into the story line. At one moment while searching in the bush for clues, the chief investigating officer pauses and nonchalantly glances around before his interest appears to be piqued. He stares abruptly, somewhat perturbed, at something that has caught his eye. The search sequence then concludes with a long point-of-view shot (a full 5.5 seconds) of the largest of the “Aboriginal faces” we have previously seen. A cut then takes us immediately to Edith, the girl who did not follow her friends up the rock, lying in bed. One of the school’s teachers implores her: “Try to remember Edith, what it was that frightened you on the rock. Think carefully darling, carefully.” At which point the investigating officer interjects, with the first words we hear him say since staring at the “face” in the rock: “Did you speak to anyone, [pause] was there a man?”

20I am proposing that the montage sequence suggests the officer’s thought process: on seeing what resembles a male Aboriginal face in the rock it occurs to him that the girls may have been abducted by an Aboriginal man; immediately after which, we see the same individual asking Edith if it was a man who frightened her (and caused her to scream) on the rock.

21The protagonist of The Woman Who Rode Away and the girls who disappear in Picnic at Hanging Rock experience three stages in their call away from their own colonial existence. Firstly, each respectively intuits that it is somehow her destiny to approach the indigenous world; secondly, each willfully embarks on her journey; and thirdly, each enters into a trance-like state in which she finally submits entirely to the will of an explicit or implicit indigenous power.

22Lawrence writes of his protagonist that “She felt it was her destiny to wander into the secret haunts of these timeless, mysterious, marvelous Indians of the mountains” (394). Similarly, before departing for the fateful picnic, Weir’s protagonist tells her closest friend, who is not accompanying them, that she must “learn to love someone else, as I won’t be around much longer,” thus suggesting that she has a prescient sense that she might not return from the day’s outing. And despite being specifically warned of the dangers lurking in the terrain they are approaching, neither the woman of the novella nor the girls in the film appear to be frightened, although, as Lawrence writes: “The country truly was not safe” (395), and Mrs. Appleyard cautions: “The rock itself is extremely dangerous.”

23Once the protagonists of both works have decided to make their ascents up their respective inclines and willfully embark on their adventures, there is a marked shift in their consciousness. Indeed the protagonists of both the novella and the film appear to enter into a dissociated state, in which they lose connection with their former white communities, and even their former rational selves. Lawrence writes: “And now as she neared, more or less, her destination she began to go vague,” and “In her eyes was a curious look of trance” (397). The woman’s shift in consciousness takes place independently of, and well before, a later episode in the story during which she is given a drug by her Chilchuis hosts which will induce an hallucinatory effect (408).

24The girls in Picnic become similarly dissociated from their former selves. In a crucial scene of the film, Marion looks down from the rock upon her classmates at the picnic ground with whom she had been lunching shortly before, and is oblivious as to who they are: “Whatever could those people be doing down there like a lot of ants?”, she wonders aloud. In both the film and the novella there is a suggestion that the protagonists may be under a spell and that they are not acting out of their own volition. Lawrence writes: “If she had had any will of her own left, she would have turned back […] But she had no will of her own” (397). He later adds: “And she, she was only utterly strange and beyond herself, as if her body were not her own” (407).

25Another important parallel between Lawrence’s story and Weir’s film is the fact that the protagonists’ transition from a state of integration with, to alienation from, their colonial milieus is signalled by a desire, or a compunction, to sleep. Sleep in both the novella and the film operates as a hinge between the protagonists’ initial state of belonging to their respective colonial communities and their subsequent separation from them. It is while they sleep that the irreversible transformation appears to take place in the females. It is as if they are psychically penetrated by the respective indigenous worlds, to which they are being drawn or to which they may be subjecting themselves.

26In Picnic Miranda and the other three girls simultaneously descend into an orderly circle and fall asleep, as if orchestrated to do so by a supernatural force akin to Prospero’s magic, which induces sleep in Miranda’s namesake in The Tempest. On waking, the girls in Picnic immediately ascend in silence, out of frame, to the mysteries hidden in the rock’s peaks. Similarly, Lawrence narrates that before her ultimate surrender his protagonist was “very tired. She lay down […] and she slept, giving up everything” (408).

27It initially appears that the protagonists of both narratives are drawn to the respective indigenous worlds out of an erotic instinct, and that if Picnic might initially be construed as a tale of adolescent sexual awakening, The Woman Who Rode Away appears at the outset to be the story of a frustrated wife who seeks sexual fulfillment in an indigenous world. Both stories, however, shift from those motifs, taking on more perplexing and intriguing connotations, once it becomes apparent that the actual encounter with the indigenous other (irrespective of what the females’ initial intention might have been) is not an explicitly sexual one.

28By viewing Picnic at Hanging Rock through the lens of Lawrence’s tale we see that the preoccupation in the film regarding the girls’ chastity may in fact be displaced. In The Woman Who Rode Away it is made explicit that the woman was not sexually touched. In Picnic at Hanging Rock the fact that Irma, the most sensual of the girls, was not sexually violated, suggests that the two girls who remain missing were probably likewise left “intact.” Had Irma been forced upon, the story would have been a typical tale of colonial anxieties regarding contact with, and most particularly miscegenation with, indigenous peoples. The fact that she was not touched, implies a significant shift in the story’s initial presuppositions. It transforms the story from one dealing with colonial anxieties about indigenous violation of white women, as in so many American and Australian narratives of female captivity or disappearance, to a story that, like Lawrence’s visionary tale, explores the anxieties of a colonial people regarding their own violation of an indigenous world. The motif of the captive woman carries omens of the anxiety of the colonial settlers about the success of their mission. However the shift in Lawrence and Weir intimates colonial guilt for the displacement of, or for the violence enacted upon, the indigenous world. In The Woman Who Rode Away Lawrence makes explicit that his protagonist was sacrificially killed. From the perspective of the novella’s indigenous characters, she is an offering to their gods to compensate for the unjust usurpation of their lands. I would like to suggest that an analogous chaste sacrifice may also inform the uncanny pathos of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.

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1 Joan Lindsay, Picnic at Hanging Rock. Melbourne: Penguin Books, 1967. Subsequent citations from this novel will be followed by the page number in the text.

2 Lawrence uses this phrase in his posthumous papers. McDonald, Edward D., ed. Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D.H. Lawrence, 1936 (New York: Viking Press, 1968), 419.

3 Brian Finney, Introduction. D.H. Lawrence Selected Short Stories (London: Penguin Books, 1982).

4 D.H. Lawrence, “The Woman Who Rode Away.” D.H. Lawrence Selected Short Stories (London: Penguin Books, 1982), 391-92. Subsequent citations from this story will be followed by the page number in the text.

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Romy Sutherland

Romy Sutherland is a Lecturer in film and literature at UCLA. She has published several articles including “Commanding Waves: The Films of Peter Weir, an essay for the “Great Directors” series of the journal Senses of Cinema. She is currently working on a book on Weir’s Australian films.

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