Tommy (Tommy Trinder) is in Australia at the turn of the nineteenth century with his young son, and trying to make a living as an escapologist, but it is not going as well as he would have liked. Therefore, when a chance arises to join a sheep drive and help out sheep herder Wally King (Chips Rafferty) - for financial gain, of course - he decides this will allow him and his boy to get by, and Chips gladly accepts them, along with Scotsman Mac (Gordon Jackson), a carpenter seeking employment. There is a campaign on to spread the white settlers more widely among the Southern Australian territory, and King is part of that, since the whites are growing in number dramatically. However, nobody has asked the Aborigines who actually stay on the land what they think...
Ealing Studios made a few films away from their usual British stomping grounds, and some of those were an attempt to capitalise on the possibilities of life Down Under, often in the form of Australian versions of the Westerns that Hollywood dominated the world with. The continent certainly had the wide open spaces to take advantage of, and a frontier history comparable with that of the Old West, but perhaps more of a grasp on the issues the presence of the whites had brought up in relation to the blacks. The Overlanders had been a big hit out of Oz from Ealing, but in some ways Bitter Springs, which was in the same vein and style, was the more interesting picture, facing up to problems and guilt that lasts to this day.
For the opening half hour, Wally and his family, along with his small coterie of workers, essentially replayed a variation on The Overlanders, with the party struggling through harsh Outback conditions to get the herd to their destination. All very adventurous and just what audiences of the day were expecting, but maybe what they did not anticipate was an ethics lesson as once they reach the Bitter Springs of the title - a vital watering hole - they find not a few acres of land all theirs for the taking, but a region that the Aborigines have lived on for tens of thousands of years, and are not about to give up without a fight. There’s a bushman (Michael Pate) present to keep order in the area, and he points out to the bristling King that he can force the indigenous people off the land, ease them off, or find a way of working with them.
The notion that the Kings should find alternative accommodations is not highlighted, since there is a sense this is a fait accompli, and nothing will stop the white man from taking over, but that does not mean it is ignored, and the whites are by no means heroic in this tale: if anything, the film was far more sympathetic to the blacks, which may be why it did not make as big an impact on the cultural consciousness as the more straightforward The Overlanders. But do not dismiss it: although it builds to a somewhat pat conclusion thanks to reshoots that toned down the bleaker, original finale, there was a lot here to think over if you liked Westerns that made you contemplate their implications. Comedian Trinder, apparently playing himself (!), was a curious focus for all this, but even he was not essaying the role of the buffoon and was surprisingly sincere when the need arose. All in all, not perfect, but far more intriguing than it needed to be, going as far as provocative in addressing a complacency that would latterly be addressed head on.
[The Network British Film collection Blu-ray release has a trailer and a gallery as features.]