"Crocodile Dundee" did a lot to endear Australia to the Americans. But his "g'day" bravado and cheery one-upmanship was all a pack of lies.
So says art and social critic Robert Hughes in his new six-part series "Australia: Beyond the Fatal Shore," which makes its premiere Sept. 5 on PBS.
The Australian-born Hughes left Down Under 35 years ago, but he returns annually for another taste of the rugged land that was founded by convicts and is run by reluctant royalists.
"Americans seem to have this fantasy that Australia is their 'Wild West' conducted by other means, down below the equator -- that in some way 'Crocodile Dundee' is a work of social realism," Hughes said.
"For God's sake, 'Crocodile Dundee' is a funny, silly fantasy film that was made by some very tough-minded Australian producers to have something to sell to the gullible Yanks."
That's not the only illusion Americans harbor when it comes to our Australian brothers, Hughes said.
"Americans have this contrary myth of space. To Americans, space is freedom ... 'Go West, young man' You go to it. You fulfill your destiny. You become richer, better, prettier. In Australia, space itself was the prison. Space always had these prison-like associations. In America you go out, you walk across the country. You discover paradise. In Australia, you walk across the country, and you find absolutely nothing. And then you die."
There are other, more social expectations that have become their own urban legends, he thinks. "I've lost count of the number of nice American girls that I've met who think that Australia is this kind of gigantic, open-cup mine full of heterosexuals," Hughes said. "In fact, Australia is probably the queerest nation of the West. ... Anybody who thinks they're going to meet this exemplary country filled with massive, macho, freakishly heterosexual indigenes, I'm afraid is barking up the wrong tree."
The similarities between the renegade Aussies and the revolutionary Americans are also overblown, thinks Hughes, who is art critic for Time magazine.
"The biggest single difference between Australians and Americans, if you want to take it in the long run, is that you were founded as a religious experiment, and we were founded as a jail. Consequently, Americans always had before your eyes the possibility of Utopia. You think it's always somewhere around the corner ... Whereas we, perhaps more realistically, know that we are there. We know that we were sent there, originally, as a punishment for our sins. And we're deeply skeptical about the notion of redemption," he said in a press conference by satellite from New York.
Hughes called America "a bizarrely religious country" and said he thinks that Australia is a nation of agnostics.
"I think one of the distinguishing factors of Australia is a kind of propensity for gritty endurance and long-range hope which is not, however, guaranteed by any God-like figure or any power on Earth," he said.
"We are intensely, not just mildly, but intensely suspicious of politicians. We have a deep resistance to utopian promises. There is nothing in our constitution that says it is our civic right of duty to be happy."
During filming of this series (which airs on three consecutive nights), Hughes was gravely injured in a head-on car collision and almost died. He insisted on continuing with the project, though it certainly changed the way he views things.
"It does transform you, that kind of thing," he admitted. "It does something to your fear of death. It does something to your expectations of life. It makes you realize that life is a very contingent thing and that we only come here once. And so we'd better damn well make the best we can of it. It taught me so much about the experience of pain, of nearly dying, and all the rest of it, that it just gives me such a pleasure in being alive. Because if you don't like being alive, try thinking about the alternative."
Hughes is one man who has managed to go home again -- and again. "Revisiting is always a process of self-discovery, as well as discovery of others because you find that things that you thought were true, no longer are.," he said. "And at first you feel a bit lost. You don't quite know how to fit these altered experiences into your, as it were, inherited stereotypes ..."
Australians are like Americans in some ways, he acknowledged. "We like fishing and golf and sex and all sorts of stuff. But our feelings about them are modified by social experiences which run very deep and are absolutely counter to the American experience."
In a recent election there was a movement to jettison Britain's queen as Australia's head of state. But that referendum lost by a narrow margin.
"Australians, who are brilliant at sport and who display an amazing kind of valor and inventiveness on the field of battle, nevertheless, when it comes to politics, could often act like total poltroons and cowards," Hughes said. "The popular thing to say was, 'If we don't have the queen, who are we going to look up to?' ... In a democracy you don't look up to people. That was the mistake that you guys made with Kennedy and that's why you were disappointed over the revolting Mr. -- what's his name? -- Clinton."