Samuel Goldwyn Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Stephen Maxwell Johnson
Writer: Chris Anastassiades
Cast: Simon Baker, Jacob Junior Nayinggul, Jack Thompson, Sean Mununggur, Callah Mulvey, Witiyana Marika
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/19/21
Opens: May 14, 2021

I would guess that an astute filmgoer, watching this movie, would think back to the recent verdict in the Minneapolis trial of ex-cop Derek Chauvin. While not even 1/3 of police officers charged with crimes in the line of duty are convicted, largely because the police unions such as New York’s Patrolman’s Benevolent Society support them and lobby for acquittals. Juries are reluctant to come down against the people who protect them. This time, even the Minneapolis chief of police testified for the prosecution and, together with more than a score of other prosecution witnesses, the officer was found guilty of all charges. How does this relate to “High Ground”? What I take away from the picture more than any other concept is that loyalties can be divided. We sometimes think that all the white people in the cavalry during the settlement of what became the United States considered the Indians (Native Americans) to be the enemy. But there were divisions within the army and likewise splits within the Indian community. “High Ground” emphasizes the dual loyalties of white officers in 1919 who came into hostilities with the Aboriginal people, in this case those in the Yolgnu and Bininj communities.

Directed by Stephen Maxwell Johnson, whose “Yolgnu” deals with the friendship of three young people, “High Ground” starts with murderous actions, all the better to draw the audience into the violence that occurred between white settlers, whose boss could not understand why the Aboriginal people would not follow British law, and a family gathering of Aboriginals in Australia’s Northern Territory. In the principal white role, Travis (Simon Baker), a World War One sniper, is part of a white group leading a massacre of a family. Among the few survivors is Gutjuk (Jacob Junior Nayinggul), about eight years old and decked out in white grease, who is picked up by Travis and sent to a missionary settlement, where over a twelve-year-period learns English and is loyal to his white family. Don’t expect that loyalty to last.

Eddy (Callan Mulvey), an outright racist cannot understand why Gutjuk should remain alive. His views conflict with those of the less hard-core people like Travis and especially by Claire (Caren Pistorius), who has learned the Aboriginal language and opposes all killing. Gutjuk’s uncle Baywarra (Sean Mununggur) leads revenge attacks on settlements and is in the white settlers’ telescopic sights, but Gutjuk is conflicted. He is indebted to Travis and has come to love him, but at the same time he does not favor prospective attacks on his uncle. Therein lies the central conflict, which will play out in a series of killings that test Gutjuk’s loyalties.

You can imagine how many negotiations must have gone on between the film crew and the Aboriginals which tested their ability to trust one another. A group of local communities was assembled included Witiyana Marika, a former band member, who serves as cultural advisor to the film crew.

The cinematography is so breathtaking, I am afraid that however strong the plot (and it is powerful), audiences will remember most the landscapes so ably photographed by Andrew Commis in the wilderness of Arnhem Land in northern Australia, especially amid rock formations in Kakadu National Park. An Aboriginal soundtrack adds to the themes, and the film is in English and Aboriginal with English subtitles. There are said to be up to 363 Aboriginal languages. The title “High Ground” comes from the view stated herein that those who capture the high ground have a big advantage in a conflict. The British must have captured the high ground quite a lot since over the centuries 2500 Brits have died in the fighting and 40,000 Aboriginals.

104 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – A
Overall – B+

By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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