Home Up Pitch Synopsis Screenplay O'Connor WA Locations

The film opens with a horseman approaching a beach over white dunes, hoof-prints in wet sand and pounding surf.  The man urges his mount into the surf.  There is a pistol shot.  Gulls rise in alarm.  The horse bolts, dragging the man whose foot is caught in a stirrup.  Blood stains the foam and sand along the margin of the tide.

We see a young woman (Aileen O'Connor) travelling by train.  She looks out at the desert landscape.  She watches a string of laden camels. At Kalgoorlie she meets John Kirwan, who conducts her through the crowds to the Palace Hotel.  There is an air of excitement and celebration in the town.  At Kirwan’s request she begins to tell him the story of her father, Charles Yelverton O'Connor.  Kirwan puts down his notebook and listens.

After the death of his parents in Ireland , O'Connor, a young engineer, follows the emigrant trail to New Zealand , arriving during the ferment of new settlement and the Second Maori War.  He commits himself wholeheartedly to the development of the colony, travelling in rugged, uncharted country and with unerring skill, mapping the routes for roads and railways to new harbours and goldfields.  Coming to assist at a mining accident, he rescues an entombed Paddy Hannan.  Hannan a well travelled, footloose single man, who has suddenly woken up to his own mortality, confides to O'Connor that he is a bit nervous underground and longs for a nice alluvial claim somewhere back in  dry Australia.

In the course of his travelling around the country O'Connor meets and eventually marries Laetitia Ness and seems set for a life of secure and distinguished public service, but politics intervene.  O'Connor is passed over for promotion and gradually he becomes disillusioned.  He is consulted by Sir John Coode on the construction of a harbour at Fremantle.  O'Connor puts his finger on the solution but they disagree. Out of the blue and partly through the good offices of Coode, he is offered the position of Engineer in Chief for Western Australia with responsibility for “railways, harbours, everything”.  Overcoming doubts and apprehension, the O'Connors leave the comfort of Christchurch for a new and exciting life in more spartan surroundings.

O'Connor shares Sir John Forrest’s vision for an independent Western Australia , a vision which Forrest pushes forward with the intrepidity of his youthful expeditions into the interior.  Gold discoveries loosen the purse strings and make gigantic projects feasible.  People flock to the colony.  Paddy Hannan finding gold at Kalgoorlie , once again influences O'Connor’s life and the ensuing years see nothing but triumph, the construction of a great harbour and an efficient railway system.

Driven by a desire for excellence and the principle of honourable service, O'Connor works himself almost to exhaustion.  He finds relief in his love of horses and the outdoor life, but also in a secret gambling habit. His successes attract praise, envy and suspicion in varying measure.   When he settles to one project, he is called away to another.  The railways need water.  The goldfields demand water.

The future prosperity of Western Australia depends on water.  O'Connor travels the country by rail, on horseback and on foot.  He recalls his father’s drainage schemes at Gravelmount and water rushing in torrents in New Zealand mountains and he conceives a great scheme, to dam the waters of the west and build a pipeline over the mountains and across an empty, scorching desert to the goldfields, an incredible feat of engineering if it could be done.  The world had never seen its like before.

He remembers hungry men in Ireland with their families huddled behind them, begging for work and again he sees men flocking to Mundaring on the basis of rumour and the reputation of “The Chief”, to find employment on the great water scheme and he sets to with renewed dedication.

But his enemies circle for the kill.  The country will be bankrupt, pouring water into the desert, into goldfields that will be played out in a few years.  Water cannot flow uphill.  The main priority is to provide money for the defence of the Empire.  Surely even an Irishman could see that everything else should be subordinated to the immediate defeat of the Boers?  Or was this Irishman, a man who advised his own workers to unionise, not enriching himself at the expense of the taxpayer in constructing the most expensive and wasteful white elephant in the history of Australia.

Deprived of his greatest ally, Forrest, after Federation, O'Connor battles on,  but he is badly served by a weak and vacillating government.  The last straw comes when Paddy Hannan tells him that a trusted lieutenant, a suitor to his daughter, Aileen, has covertly engaged in land speculation along the route of the pipeline, in contravention of all O'Connor’s principles.  This “friend” reveals that he knows of O’Connor’s gambling debts and offers him an easy way out.  Dismayed and depressed, O’Connor feels that the integrity of his public life has been undermined.  He writes his final instructions for the water scheme, loads a pistol and mounts his horse to ride to his death on the beach near Robb’s Jetty, removing what he sees as the last obstacle to the great scheme.

In the final scenes we see Aileen concluding her story.  The parade and the bands pass by.  We see Sir John Forrest and other dignitaries at the momentous turning on of the water.  Aileen walks in the opposite direction, a lone figure on a dusty street. We see an old digger, (Paddy Hannan) detaching himself from the crowd.  He carries his water bag.  He stops Aileen whom he recognises.  He offers her a drink of the fresh scheme water.  He pours a stream of water into his blackened billy-can.  The water catches the light.  She drinks and smiles for the first time.  Paddy takes the billy-can, raises it and says “The Chief”.  The camera from above, pans over the two figures on the street, the crowds at the ceremony, the railway station and then westwards in the afternoon light, following railway and pipeline over desert and mountains to the dam, to a great modern city, out over the harbour, the yachts and the shipping and into the blinding reflection of the sun sinking into the ocean.

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Last modified: Thursday, 02 February 2012
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