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
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
, O'Connor, a young engineer, follows the emigrant trail to
, 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
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
with responsibility for “railways, harbours, everything”.
Overcoming doubts and apprehension, the O'Connors leave the comfort
for a new and exciting life in more spartan surroundings.
O'Connor shares Sir
John Forrest’s vision for an independent
, 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
, once again influences O'Connor’s life and the ensuing years see
nothing but triumph, the construction of a great harbour and an efficient
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
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
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
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
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