As I’ve become very interested in far-right extremism over the past six months or so, I decided to write a post on how this movie relates to the reality of extreme right activities in Australia at the time.
Romper Stomper is about the exploits and collapse of a skinhead gang in Melbourne. The story (which I won’t go into) centres on the gang’s leader Hando (Russell Crowe), his best mate Davey (the late Daniel Pollock), and Gabrielle (Jacqueline McKenzie) who is initially a love interest for Hando.
The gang prowl the streets of Footscray assaulting Vietnamese-Australians, perceiving them as invaders. They squat in disused factories and warehouses (it was set during the recession), venturing out to engage in violence against “gooks” in what Hando views as valiant struggle to defend what’s rightfully theirs.
The movie is fictional, but is drawn from some real incidents. The most well-known example is neo-Nazi Dane Sweetman, who was tried and convicted for murder shortly before Romper Stomper was made. Sweetman and his gang had carried out violence against Jews, Asians and homosexuals in Melbourne during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
While on bail for a pre-meditated bashing of someone he suspected was gay, Sweetman got into an argument with a fellow skinhead named David Noble during a party held on Hitler’s birthday. So he murdered Noble, before cutting his legs off with an axe to fit the body into a car boot. Sweetman’s inspiration is openly acknowledged through a scene where Hando holds an axe to two hippies and threatens them by saying “I’ll chop your legs off.”
Director Geoffrey Wright has pointed to some other inspirations for the movie:
Well, Dane Sweetman was something that we looked at, but it probably didn’t begin with him. It began earlier, we just noticed a shift in some of the street gangs. Some of the street thugs had taken on certain political ideas and drew inspiration from their counterparts in Europe, and we saw it happening here in Melbourne. We thought this was interesting. We started doing a lot of interviews. I’ve still to this day got a box full of 1/4″ tape, of dozens and dozens and dozens of these characters that we spoke to, who were either on their way into it or on their way out. We were very rarely able to speak to people who were in the cutting edge of it in that moment. Of course, the ones who were into it, were either on the run, or didn’t want to talk to us or were suspicious of us, or what have you. But Dane Sweetman’s story became known to us, and we met people who knew him. So that got rolled up into the general research of the thing, but I wouldn’t say that the Dane Sweetman story was the sole inspired to make the film, it was a number of things.
In his commentary on the 20th anniversary DVD release, Wright states that Romper Stomper was loosely based on ten or so real incidents that involved several different gangs, over the space of a few years, across multiple Australian states. For the sake of an engaging movie, these incidents are all compacted and are carried out by a single gang, over the space of a week, all in Footscray.
This created the impression of a bigger neo-Nazi problem than actually existed, which was unfortunate for Footscray’s inhabitants. The Age reported on the local reaction at the time:
In the film, the area is turned into a battleground for rival gangs of skinheads and Vietnamese-Australians, prompting one councillor to threaten legal action against its makers.
The rest of the council take a different line. The Mayor, Councillor Bert Jessup, said his only regret was to have to give further publicity to a film he described as “almost puerile”.
Footscray police agree. They said yesterday that they were tired of answering calls from concerned citizens seeking advice on how to deal with skinhead gangs that do not exist.
“We would be wrong to say that some of the violent behavior didn’t occur, but it is not common to Footscray. It’s all over Australia,” said Councillor Jessup.
He said a woman reported seeing a skinhead in a shopping centre, but no one had to dodge gangs of skinheads in supermarkets. “Racism is not prevalent. We are one of the most multicultural cities in the world.” A local youth worker, Mr Les Twentyman, said two skinheads once lived in Footscray, but they had moved on several months ago. “The movie was a whole lot of crap. It’s all right for arty-farty film-makers to come out here, but they have no regard for the consequences,” he said.
The movie gave the impression that neo-Nazism was far more prevalent in Australia than it was, but by being loosely based on real incidents, it still portrayed a problem that genuinely existed.
Romper Stomper’s portrayal of the neo-Nazi skinheads’ lifestyle was also partially accurate. The skinhead gang is portrayed as bunch of jobless, homeless, directionless, alcohol-driven hooligans, driven more by adrenaline, adventure and camaraderie than by ideological commitment.
Their leader, Hando, is the only one who actually reads Nazi literature and discusses the ideas involved. Other members wear Nazi symbols, purchase memorabilia and are of course overtly racist, but are committed to neo-Nazism more as an attitude than an ideology. The characters are not methodical in their violence, nor do they carry out actual political activism.
This misses out part of what was actually occurring at the time. Some neo-Nazi skinheads throughout Australia attended demonstrations, distributed leaflets, posted stickers, formed bands, organised concerts or were affiliated with formal organisations, sometimes acting as enforcers. This sort of activity does not feature in Romper Stomper.
Yet the movie’s portrayal of them as primarily disorganised thugs still has a lot of truth to it. Members of formal organisations have spoken of facing difficulty when trying to organise skinheads into any kind of coherent force. For example, Jim Saleam, who led the far-right extremist organisation National Action (NA), has written that:
Simon Dinsbergs, WAR[White Aryan Resistance]’s director, said that the film Romper Stomper “reasonably accurately” portrayed Skinhead life and its alcohol and racial-violence mores. The ANSM [Australian National Socialist Movement] frustratedly characterized many Skinheads as
… a bunch of drugged out pisspots, backstabbers, traitors, cowards, time wasters, fantasizers, big mouths and in general anarchists … who refuse to take orders.
Another organisation was Jack van Tongeren’s Australian Nationalist Movement (ANM), whose members were responsible for a terror campaign in Perth during the late 1980s, including firebombings, bashings, robberies, a bombing and a murder. The ANM found skinheads somewhat useful but still looked down on them.
In a submission to the 1991 National Inquiry into Racist Violence in Australia, one ANM member spoke of skinheads who were assaulting anyone who tried to tear down the ANM’s “Asians Out or Racial War” posters.** He stated that:
They are ratbags, purely bigots and terrorists in my opinion. However, they do have one useful function. They ‘bodyguard’ a lot of our gear, including the posters, which cost seventeen cents each.
Similar tensions existed between skinheads and organised far-right groups across the world, but the Australian scene was particularly dysfunctional. By contrast, the UK’s National Front managed to organise skinheads on a scale never remotely achieved here.
A colleague of mine spoke to former neo-Nazis in Germany, who told an anecdote about how disappointed they were when they invited Australian skinheads to Germany in the mid-1990s. The Australian Nazis just wanted to get drunk and bash people rather than discuss the finer points of Mein Kampf.
This is consistent with Geoffrey Wright’s earlier point that “some of the street thugs had taken on certain political ideas and drew inspiration from their counterparts in Europe, and we saw it happening here in Melbourne.” A lot of the skinheads were not people who had become committed to neo-Nazi ideology and engaged in violence as a result, they were already violent thugs who then adopted neo-Nazism.
This makes Romper Stomper’s characterisation of its protagonists, as thrill-seeking and lacking organisation and political engagement, largely accurate. While the movie leaves out the organised activity that was occurring, it still captures a broad truth about Australia’s neo-Nazi skinhead scene at the time.
Something else that rang true was Wright’s portrayal of the gang’s disintegration following internal rifts and external pressure.
For Romper Stomper’s first thirty minutes the gang seems unstoppable. They carry out crimes with impunity, attract new members (Gabrielle and a group of skinheads from Canberra), and just party. But after they encounter some people who fight back, everything goes downhill for them, ending in fratricidal violence.
Most of Australia’s far-right extremist groups have comparable stories, particularly of internal conflict.
For example, after the Australian Nationalist Movement’s leading figures were arrested in Perth in 1989, two members murdered fellow activist David Locke who they wrongly suspected of being an informer.
On April 1991, while National Action leader Jim Saleam was on trial over a shotgun attack against the leader of the African National Congress in Sydney, one NA member murdered another member (ASIO listening devices installed in NA’s headquarters, where the murder occurred, helped secure the killer’s conviction).
The informal gangs also experienced this sort of violence. On April 1990 Dane Sweetman murdered a skinhead in Melbourne in the incident mentioned at beginning of this post. On December 1990 a skinhead in Perth was murdered, and police suspected the killer was another skinhead, named Colin Irvine, who they shot and killed on a house raid the next month.***
So Romper Stomper tells a plausible story of the violence, dysfunction and downfall of a neo-Nazi skinhead gang in Australia at the time.
Romper Stomper remains a work of fiction, but it’s a valuable one for anyone interested in far-right extremism or in racist violence in Australia. It tells a story of the most extreme and violent, but least organised or ideologically-engaged, subset of Australia’s far-right fringe.
As this post has shown, the movie has parallels with many real-life examples of such groups. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw an outbreak of far-right terror that Australia has not come close to seeing since (there was an attempt by the ANM to relaunch their violence in 2004, but it was foiled).
Many of the people involved in the violent far-right groups ended up dead, imprisoned or disillusioned, following a similar trajectory as portrayed in Romper Stomper. Their activities disappeared from public consciousness in the following two decades, and consequently this movie is remembered more than the real incidents on which it is loosely based.
* When I refer to skinheads in this post I’m talking about the neo-Nazi ones, even though most skinheads are not neo-Nazis.
** The ANM member didn’t state in the report that these individuals were necessarily skinheads, but other sources (media reports from the time and Tongeren’s autobiography) indicate that the ANM largely used skinheads for these footsoldier type tasks.
*** Another possibly similar incident occurred on September 1991, when police discovered the body of a Sydney man who had reportedly been involved with both National Action and a skinhead ganged that bashed gay men. His brother was accused of murdering him and was charged, but I can’t find many sources on this incident and don’t know if the brother was also part of the skinhead scene, or if he was convicted.
Update March 2017: Most of the links seem to have gone dead. I’ll update this post sometime soon with lots more sources.