Storm Boy: a film of unusual friendships and the cycle of life

Henri Safran, “Storm Boy” (1976)

A moody and melancholy film, ostensibly about a lonely boy who raises three pelican chicks and remains close to one of them when they become adults and are released back into the wild, “Storm Boy” tells a deeply profound and moving tale about friendship, morality and the cycle of life with its message of releasing or letting go of sadness and of death being a portal to renewal and new life. Mike (Greg Howe) lives with his hermit father (Peter Cummins) in a shack near Coorong Lagoon and the wildlife reserve around it in South Australia. Local people know the father as Hideaway Tom, and local government authorities are anxious that the boy Mike is not attending school or receiving correspondence lessons as regularly as he should. While Tom supports himself and his son by fishing, Mike goes wandering through the tall grasses surrounding the lagoon and witnesses duck shooters firing at pelicans. The boy is found by Fingerbone Bill (David Gulpilil), an Aboriginal man who leads a solitary life in the area. Fingerbone Bill leads Mike to a nest of three orphaned pelicans and the boy takes them home.

Despite his father’s misgivings, Mike raises the pelicans to adulthood. Tom compels the boy to release the birds back into the wild but one of the birds, Mr Percival, returns to Mike and both remain fast friends. Life for Mike and Mr Percival would be peaceful and happy except for an incident in which hoons come and rip up the beach with their cars. They are chased away by Fingerbone Bill firing his rifle but the shooting leads to the local ranger visiting Tom and warning him not to use firearms. One thing then leads to another and before long Tom and Fingerbone Bill not only meet but become friends. Tom confesses to Fingerbone Bill that his estranged wife is still alive, and this causes upset to Mike who overhears the conversation, with the result that the boy runs away to find his mother.

Mike and his dad eventually reconcile, and the boy returns home. During stormy weather, a fishing boat with a crew of five is in danger of capsizing in rough waters and Tom and Fingerbone Bill do what they can to help. It falls to Mr Percival to take a rope out to the crew so they can steady the boat and bring it to shore. The men in the crew promise a large financial reward to Tom and Mike, and Mike is torn between wanting to say in the Coorong area and being able to go to school and have new experiences at last.

The film is slow and gentle, allowing the camera to concentrate on filming the landscapes and the ever-changing weather and its moods so that viewers become immersed in the remote world where a boy not only raises a pelican chick to adulthood but teaches it ingenious tricks that help to save lives. Due to the film’s emphasis on the marshy Coorong landscape as a character in its own right, the film has a distinctive look and understated style. Rowe’s acting is completely natural while most of the adult actors around him play their roles in a minimal way. Cummins is not completely convincing as a cantankerous recluse who over time warms to Fingerbone Bill and tries to mend his relationship with his son. Gulpilil steals most scenes in which he appears, playing an eccentric fellow at once spiritual and living in harmony with nature, yet estranged from his people for having transgressed indigenous law.

While the climax comes as a shock, and Mike learns a painful and profound lesson about human nature, nevertheless the film concludes on a positive note as Fingerbone Bill shows Mike how death can lead to new beginnings, and how sometimes things must pass on if something new is to happen. Thus the cycle of life continues renewing itself. Though the film’s look has aged and its lines can be a bit blurry, its story and themes stand up well nearly 50 years after it was made. It remains an unassuming and gentle family film classic.