Learn the amazing story of three girls who, in 1931, walked about 1,500 miles (2,400 km) along the rabbit-proof fence in Australia as they tried to find their way home.
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About the movie Rabbit-Proof Fence
In 1927, Dr. Cecil Cook said, “everything necessary [must be done] to convert the half-caste into a white citizen.”
The term “half-caste” was used during Dr. Cecil’s time for the mixed-raced people in Australia. More specifically, those with one aboriginal parent and one white parent. In most cases, the white parent was a father who had children outside of marriage…often by way of what amounted to rape.
As was all too often in the early 20th century, the white government saw other races as subpar to their own. As you can probably understand, that term is considered quite offensive for many people today, so I’m going to avoid using from here on out.
I wanted to use that quote, though, because I think helps sum up the Australian government’s position during what we now know as the Stolen Generation.
Dr. Cook’s official title was the Chief Protector of the Aborigines and the Stolen Generation refers to the six decades between 1910 and 1970 when the Australian Government forced mixed-race children to be taken from their families.
It was something a lot of people didn’t know much about for a long time. That started to change in 1996 when an author named Doris Pilkington Garimara helped uncover a story during those years that you’ve probably never heard—a story that almost certainly would’ve been lost to history if it weren’t for Doris’ efforts to save it.
It’s a story we’re going to learn more about today.
Learn the true story behind Rabbit-Proof Fence
The movie begins with some text on screen that sets up our story. We’re in Western Australia in the year 1931. For 100 years, the aboriginal people have resisted the white settlers as they crept further and further into their lands.
Then, a special law called the Aborigines Act added a new level of complexity as it allowed the Australian government the ability to legally control the lives of aborigines. More specifically, according to this opening text in the movie, that power in Western Australia goes to Mr. A. O. Neville as the Chief Protector of Aborigines.
That is all true.
Opening this episode, we heard a quote from Dr. Cecil Cook. He was the Chief Protector of Aborigines for the Northern Territory. So, Mr. A. O. Neville was his counterpart in Western Australia.
Oh, and his full name was Auber Octavius Neville. He’s played by Kenneth Branagh in the movie.
The mention of the Aborigines Act is correct, although the movie doesn’t mention which one it’s referring to. You see, there were multiple acts that all put laws into place for how the Australian government would handle the aboriginal people.
There was the Aboriginal Girls Protection 1844. That law’s full name was, “An Act to Prevent the Enticing Away the Girls of the aboriginal Race from School or from any Service in which they are Employed.”
Basically, that made it illegal to remove aboriginal girls from either school or work without the consent of either the region’s Protector or the girl’s employer.
Oh, and even though the word “work” was used in the terminology, it wasn’t like the jobs you and I have today. Basically, it was servitude or straight up slavery.
Then the rights over more than just the girls were given by way of the aborigines Protection Act 1886 which established a Protection Board to appoint Protectors. They, in turn, got to involve themselves in the details of the lives of those they claimed to be protecting.
Then, the Aborigines Act 1897 further expanded the government’s power over the aboriginal people as it gave more rights to the Protection Board and allowed Governors to create new Protectors.
Those three acts were then repealed and rolled into the Aborigines Act 1905, which actually went into effect in April of 1906. It was this law that formed the position of Chief Protector and instantly made that Chief Protector the legal guardian of every aboriginal child aged 16-years and under. Not only that, but it specifically allowed for the Chief Protector to authorize detaining the children in either institutions or in servitude.
Think about that for a moment. The government just made up a law one day that said any child under the age of 16 could be forced into a boarding school where they’d be taught the ways of civilized society—in other words, how to be more like the white society that had moved into their lands. Or, they’d be forced to work—basically, slavery.
What you might find even more surprising about this law is when it was repealed. That happened on July 1st, 1964.
Heading back to the movie’s timeline, we’re introduced to the three girls who are the heroes of our story right after seeing the movie’s title. We see Jason Clarke’s character, Constable Riggs, and another policeman watching from the bushes as Everlyn Sampi’s character, Molly, catches a lizard. Alongside Molly we also see Daisy, who’s played by Tianna Sansbury in the movie, and Gracie, who’s played by Laura Monaghan.
In this scene in the film, the three girls are surrounded by their friends and family. Then, Constable Riggs’ horse snorts, alerting someone to the presence of the two policemen.
“Molly, hide the children!”
That whole scene is made up for the movie, but it implies something that is true. By that, what I mean is we can see in the movie the way Molly takes Daisy and Gracie and hides with them without a word. That’s a drill they’ve done before…and, as we already learned, sadly, that sort of thing happened.
Children taken from their families all in the name of protection. The government is doing them a favor by ripping them from their homes.
And that leads us up to the next part in the movie, where we see the three children get taken away.
According to the movie, it happens when see a building with a sign that says Jigalong Depot on it. Constable Riggs is inside. Outside the building, Molly, Daisy and Gracie are chatting with a man who’s working on the rabbit-proof fence.
All of a sudden, a vehicle zooms up. Constable Riggs gets out.
“Gracie!” a woman shouts, and the three girls start running.
Riggs hops back in the car and speeds along after them, catching up with the running girls in no time.
Maude, who’s played by Ningali Lawford in the film, is Molly’s mom and sobs, screams and cries as she is forced to witness Riggs put her kids in the car. All the while, Riggs is holding up some paperwork saying, “It’s the law!”
As Riggs’ car drives away with the three girls inside, all we can hear is Maude and Molly’s grandmother nearby howling and crying. It’s a disturbing scene for any parent, to say the least.
Sadly, the result of the three girls being taken away from their homes is true…but it didn’t happen that way.
Instead, when Constable Riggs showed up at their camp one morning, everyone knew why he was there. They dreaded it, but what could they do? Molly, Daisy and Gracie weren’t the first children to be taken away from their families—and, sadly, they wouldn’t be the last.
They knew why he was there. With heavy hearts and plenty of tears that the girls succumbed to their fate. Molly and Gracie rode Constable Riggs’ horse out of the camp, but Daisy wasn’t there.
So, after taking the two girls back to the Jigalong Depot, Riggs went back out in search of Daisy. Driving his car this time as he was going to take the girls to their final destination, Riggs searched for hours before finally finding Daisy.
This scene was a little more like what we saw in the movie with Gracie’s mother and other women in the camp wailing and crying as they were forced to deal with something they just couldn’t understand—their children being taken away from them.
Back in the movie, the next major plot point happens when we see the girls arrive at their destination. The text on screen says it’s the Moore River Native Settlement, about 1,200 miles south of Jigalong.
That’s about 1,930 kilometers, by the way. Although, to give some geographical context from a bigger city, Moore River is located about 84 miles, or about 135 kilometers, to the north of Perth.
Although the end result was true—they ended up at Moore River Settlement—the way they got there was quite a bit different than what we see in the movie.
The path the movie shows is pretty much Constable Riggs’ car to a truck that drops the girls off at the settlement. In reality, those would’ve been the caps on the ends of the trip. In between, the girls rode a ship along the coast of Western Australia—all the while marveling at the sights and sounds of places and things they’d never seen before.
Even though being taken away from their families was a horrible and scary thing, they were still young girls who were in awe of much of the world outside what they’d known up to that point. Their curiosity got the better of them, and for lack of a better term—one might say their trip to Moore River was quite pleasant.
That would change once they got there.
Now, the movie doesn’t talk about the Moore River Settlement much at all, but that was a real place. Let’s fill in some of the backstory the movie skips.
Moore River got its name from a man named George Moore, who was the first European to discover the area. He named the river after himself in 1836. It wasn’t until 80 years later, though, that the settlement was built near the river.
That’s 1916, by the way.
And that’s when Moore River Native Settlement, as it was officially called, started in a way that might seem as innocently as ever. It was originally built to be a farm that would provide jobs for aborigines while simultaneously bringing the families in so the kids could get an education.
The idea was that the adults would work on the farm, there would be a hospital and a school for their kids.
Doesn’t sound too bad, right?
But, as the settlement was established, those original ideas turned out to be nothing more than a cover. The children at Moore River weren’t the kids of the adults. The adults there were ones deemed as troublesome, so the government could keep an eye on them.
Basically, it was a prison camp without the name.
As the years dragged on, conditions in the camp deteriorated. People were forced into the camp, there was hardly enough food to go around for the inmates—they didn’t call them that, of course—and by the time our story takes place in the 1930s, things were downright horrible.
Back in the movie, there’s no indication of time, but soon after we see the three girls arrive at Moore River, a girl named Olive tries to run away. She’s caught by a tracker named Moodoo. He’s played by David Gulpilil.
After Olive is brought back to the camp, she’s placed in a small room that Nina, another one of the girls telling Molly what’s going on, calls the boob. Going in behind her is the camp’s overseer, Mr. Neal. He’s carrying a whip. We don’t see what happens inside the small room, but Olive’s screams make it pretty clear what’s happening.
That’s not true. Well, sort of. Olive wasn’t a real girl—at least not one that I could find any documentation of being there at the same time as Molly, Daisy and Gracie.
While the specifics of these scenes aren’t true, but they’re more of a composite scene of what life was like for the three girls after they arrived at Moore River.
So, even though the movie doesn’t indicate timing, it was on July 26th, 1931 when the three girls set sail on a ship to head to the settlement at Moore River. They arrived about a week or so later, in early August.
While they were there, they did witness a girl being locked up in the “boob” like we saw happen in the movie. It wasn’t for running away, though, but rather for swearing at a teacher.
Oh, and the kid’s name who was locked up in there was named Violet, not Olive.
What the kids called the “boob” was a small, one-room cement block building. It was used as isolation for children who did something wrong. The girl who Molly saw get locked up in there—her name was Violet, by the way, not Olive like we see in the movie.
Violet got locked up in there for two days for swearing at the teacher. The three girls heard other stories of children who tried to run away getting locked up for a whole week.
Speaking of which, we see this moment in the movie when Molly wakes up one day and tells Daisy and Gracie that they’re going to go home. There’s a storm in the distance, and Molly says they can use that to cover their tracks, so they won’t get caught.
As the rest of the children head to the church for a service, instead of joining everyone else like she’s been asked to do after disposing of the waste bucket, Molly leads the three girls away from Moore River.
The basic gist of that is true, but there’s some changes.
Let’s start with the weather. There also wasn’t a massive storm off in the distance like we saw in the movie. It was raining, bit it was more of a drizzle than a downpour.
The rest of the children weren’t going to the church for a service. At least, that’s what I’m assuming it was in the movie when we see everyone singing a song in the church.
Instead, Molly and the two others purposely lagged behind to empty the bucket while the rest of the children left for school. The movie doesn’t really mention how much time is passing, but Molly, Daisy and Gracie ran away the day after they arrived.
Once they had the chance, the three girls made their way toward home. Another difference between the movie and real life was that the plan all along was to find the rabbit-proof fence. That’s how they were going to find home. Find the rabbit-proof fence and follow it to Jigalong.
Oh, and remember earlier when we learned there wasn’t a storm off in the distance to cover their tracks? That’s an important point because, while there was a tracker at Moore River who had found other children who had run away, the character of Moodoo that we see in the movie is a fictional one.
And with that, you probably have a good idea of how accurate the specifics are for the scenes we see where Moodoo is tracking the three girls very closely.
I say the specifics because even though Moodoo wasn’t real, his character was more of a composite character. Not necessarily all at the same time, but there were many people who were trying to find the three missing girls.
In the movie, we see these efforts to recover the girls come from Mr. Neville himself back in Perth.
And that’s true. As the Chief Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia, it was Mr. Neville who ordered policemen to try to find them.
Heading back in the movie, there’s a scene where we see Molly sneaking into a chicken coop to steal some eggs. She gets caught by a woman living in the nearby house, and after coaxing out of Molly that she’s not alone, the three girls come to the house. There, the woman gives them food and coats to combat against the cold nights.
That’s true, but it didn’t happen how the movie shows.
You see, as the girls were traveling they got, understandably, really hungry. They did their best to find food here and there, for example, they did stumble upon a man who gave them some matches so they managed to kill and cook some rabbits. But there was only so much they could find.
Probably the closest to what we saw in the movie happened when they found a farmhouse. It was Daisy and Gracie who approached it. There wasn’t a chicken coop. The plan wasn’t to steal eggs. It was always to approach the house and ask for some food.
And, it worked.
The woman, a Mrs. Flanagan, asked Daisy and Gracie to call Molly to come, too—she knew about the three girls already from news reports. The three girls ate until they’d been filled, then filling some brown, paper bags with food and she send the three girls on their way.
What the girls didn’t know at the time is after they left, Mrs. Flanagan decided to call Mr. Neal back at Moore River. She seemed to think it was what’s best for them. And, as horrible as the conditions were at Moore River, I can still understand Mrs. Flanagan’s position.
After all, it’s not likely she knew the conditions were that bad there. All she knew was that three girls were out in the wilderness—they certainly couldn’t last that long out there alone. Calling the authorities was the right thing to do, in her mind.
Oh, and it was in this scene, according to the movie, that Molly gets the idea to follow the rabbit-proof fence.
Well, as we already learned, that part isn’t true—Molly had the idea to follow the fence before they left Moore River. But, Mrs. Flanagan did help point them in the right direction after Molly told her they were planning on using the rabbit-proof fence to get to Jigalong.
That’s information she likely relayed when she reported their position.
As a little side note, the rabbit-proof fence itself was built between 1901 and 1907. The purpose of the fence, as the name implies, was to keep rabbits out of Western Australia’s farmland.
You see, rabbits aren’t native to Australia. They’re one of the animals the British brought with them. Before long, rabbits thrived. They grew to be a problem for farmers, and so the fence was built to try to keep them out.
As the movie mentions at one point, there’s three different fences. The No. 1 fence stretches from the northern coast of Australia all the way to the southern coast. As you can probably guess, that’s the one that was built first.
It didn’t solve the problem. So, they built the No. 2 fence on the western side of the No. 1 fence. Finally, the No. 3 fence was added. That one runs east-west instead of north-south like the No. 1 fence.
Overall, the three fences are about 2,023 miles long. That’s about 3,256 kilometers. Simply put, it was a massive undertaking. It provided a lot of jobs in the area, both for the building of the fence and the maintenance of it. People would have to go up and down the fence to mend it when it’d break due to weather, animals or anything else that’ll break a fence in the wilderness.
Back in the movie, there’s a scene where we hear Nina reading from the paper to the remaining children in the dormitory at Moore River. As she reads, the children add their own commentary. Starting the article, Nina says, “The Chief Protector of Aborigines, Mr. A. O. Neville…”
The children interject, “Devil!”
Nina laughs, continuing, “…is concerned about three native girls aged eight to 14 who, a month ago, escaped from the Moore River settlement…”
This time the children cheer, “Yay!”
The article finishes up with an interesting mention of the only thing the authorities being able to find being a rabbit, which the girls tried to eat.
That article is real, although interestingly there were some details changed. For example, the article says the girls were aged eight to 15, and there’s no mention of them escaping a month ago. Maybe they changed that to give a timeline in the film.
And perhaps calling it an article is a bit much. It was no more than a couple paragraphs. This was published on August 11th, 1931 in the News and Notes section of The West Australian paper out of Perth:
Missing Native Girls.
The Chief Protector of Aborigines (Mr. A. O. Neville) is concerned about three native girls, ranging from eight to 15 years of age, who, a week ago, ran away from the Moore River Native Settlement, Mogumber. They came in from the Nullagine district recently, Mr. Neville said yesterday, and, being very timid, were scared by their new quarters, apparently, and fled in the hope of getting back home. Some people saw them passing New Norcia, when they seemed to be making northeast. The children would probably keep away from habitations and he would be grateful if any person who saw them would notify him promptly. “We have been searching high and low for the children for a week past,” added Mr. Neville, “and all the trace we found of them was a dead rabbit which they had been trying to eat. We are very anxious that no harm may come to them in the bush.”
As for the mention of the dead rabbit, there’s hardly enough details in the article to know for sure what it’s referring to. But there was an incident where Gracie killed a rabbit.
She was scolded by Molly, who reminded Gracie they didn’t have any way of making a fire—so they couldn’t cook the rabbit. Hungry, frustrated and disappointed, Gracie threw the rabbit to the side after failing to find a way to gut the animal.
Going back to the movie, probably one of the closest calls happens when the girls find another aboriginal woman doing laundry. She remembers being in Moore River, and wants to help the girl. Mavis is her name. She tells the girls to stay out of sight for now, but she’ll return with food—they can stay with her tonight.
The next scene we see is the girls in Mavis’ servant’s quarters. It’s a building detached from the farmhouse. The three girls are laying in the bed when someone comes in. It’s not Mavis. It’s a white man, who we find out later is named Mr. Paul Evans. He takes off his boots, pants and starts to get into the bed when he pulls back the covers and sees the three girls.
Shocked, he grabs his boots, pants and rushes out the door.
The girls are about to leave themselves when Mavis comes in. “Please, if you leave he’ll come back. He won’t say anything!”
The three girls stay with Mavis that night until, in the dead of night, they’re woken up by the sound of a car. When it arrives, Moodoo and some policemen get out. Mavis wakes up the three girls, and they just barely make it to the brush before they arrive at the servant’s quarters.
None of that is true.
As far as I could tell, Mavis wasn’t a real person. The girls never befriended a servant who was forced to sleep with her boss—owner, whatever they called it.
We can get a sense for what’s going on between Mavis and Mr. Evans in the movie. Even the man, Mr. Evans, isn’t someone who showed up in my research at all.
Of course, that’s a common name. So, while that particular story is tough to verify, that doesn’t mean the three girls didn’t have some close calls.
Probably one of the closest calls was another scene in the movie where we see the three girls become two.
According to the movie, Gracie finds out her mom is in Wiluna, so she decides to try to find her by taking a train there. Molly and Daisy advise her against it, but she insists. So, they split up for a few hours. Finally, Molly and Daisy decide to go back for Gracie.
They find her sitting alone at a train station. Just as they get her attention, a vehicle appears. It catches up to Gracie, and out hops a policeman who, helped by another man on a bike, snatch Gracie and put her into the back seat of the car.
As the car drives away, Gracie looks out as Molly and Daisy watch on helplessly from behind a pile of railroad ties. After she’s gone, Molly buries her head in the dirt before letting the tears flow.
The end result is true, but that’s not exactly how it happened.
It is true that Gracie found out her mom was in Wiluna. And, as far as I could tell, she actually was at the time. After Gracie was taken, her mom was so fed up by her husband’s inaction at taking Gracie away, she packed up and moved to Wiluna. She believed that because her husband was white, he could’ve done more than he did—and since he did nothing, that’s probably true.
So, after hearing that’s where she was, Gracie decided to try to go there instead of Jigalong. It was probably a mixture of longing for home and being exhausted and tired of walking, but Gracie had made up in her mind that the best way to do that was to go to a nearby train station in Meekatharra and hop a ride to Wiluna.
Molly and Daisy tried their best to change her mind. It didn’t work.
Like the movie showed, for a while, Molly and Daisy continued on without Gracie. They never turned back for her like we saw in the movie. But, Gracie wasn’t caught at the train station like we saw in the movie.
In truth, she took the train to Wiluna. When she got there, though, her mom was nowhere to be found. Turns out she wasn’t in Wiluna anymore.
Unfortunately, it was here where Gracie was recognized as being one of the runaways. She pretended to be a girl named Lucy from Jigalong, but it didn’t work—on Neville’s order, she was taken back to Moore River.
As the movie comes to a close, we see Molly and Daisy finally make it home. There are tears of joy as they make their way back to Jigalong—to their mother, Maude.
We see Mr. Neville dictate a level that suggests they don’t have the funds to keep pursuing the children. At some point, perhaps, they’ll apprehend them, but for now the chase is off.
It’s a happy ending for the children.
And that’s true.
We don’t really know for sure what the exact moments were like when Maude saw her daughter for the first time since she was forced to leave. I think it’s safe to say there probably were plenty of tears—happy tears.
As for the mentions in the movie of not having the funds to pursue them, again, that’s true. I’m sure they could’ve come up with them if they really wanted to, but Mr. Neville wasn’t too happy about all of the extra costs his department had incurred in trying to recapture the girls.
In his mind, no doubt, he thought he was doing the girls a service by trying to incorporate them into white culture—even if it was as servants.
At the end of the movie, we hear Molly’s voiceover as she explains the trip took nine weeks. After arriving home, they hid in the desert. She grew up, had two girls of her own. Later, she was taken with her kids back to Moore River—where she made the trip yet again from Moore River to Jigalong.
Amazingly, that’s true.
The journey that Molly, Daisy and Gracie took in 1931 lasted nine weeks. They left in August, arriving in October—that’s the same month Gracie was recaptured, too. While their trip wasn’t a straight line, and the three children didn’t track their path exactly, the trek from Moore River to Jigalong is roughly 1,000 miles away. That’s about 1,600 kilometers.
A combination of Mr. Neville’s department running low on funds and Maude taking her family into hiding in the desert helped keep them out of government hands for quite some time.
Nine years later, in 1940, Molly had surgery in Perth for appendicitis. Her two daughters went with her, and afterward the three were taken to Moore River. Molly asked if they could return home, but they weren’t allowed to leave.
So, on January 1st, 1940, Molly took Annabelle, the youngest of her two children, along with her as she walked the same route she took as a child herself. A few months later, she arrived safely in Jigalong with Annabelle.
Molly’s other daughter, Doris, stayed at Moore River. She didn’t see her mom again until 1962, when she tracked Molly down. It was then that Doris decided to tell her mom’s amazing story, which led to the book Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence that the movie was based on.
Sadly, Gracie never saw Jigalong again. She married, having six children before passing away in 1983. Molly and Daisy, on the other hand, lived out the rest of their days in Jigalong.
In January of 2002, a truck arrived in Jigalong for the two girls. This truck wasn’t going to take the girls away, though. Out hopped some workers, who blew up a screen and hooked up the truck’s projector.
Molly and Daisy watched their very first movie—the world premiere of Rabbit-Proof Fence.
KEEP LEARNING WITH MORE RESOURCES
- Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) – IMDb
- Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence – Kindle edition by Doris Pilkington. Politics & Social Sciences Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.
- Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence – Wikipedia
- Rabbit-proof fence – Wikipedia
- Amazon.com: Rabbit-Proof Fence: Ningali Lawford, Kenneth Branagh, Laura Monaghan, Everlyn Sampi: Amazon Digital Services LLC
- Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) – Plot Summary – IMDb
- Doris Pilkington Garimara, Aboriginal Novelist, Dies at 76 – The New York Times
- Doris Pilkington Garimara dies; wrote of Australia’s ‘stolen generations’
- Doris Pilkington Garimara | Australian Aboriginal writer | Britannica.com
- Doris Pilkington Garimara – obituary – Telegraph
- Doris Pilkington Garimara: A fearless storyteller
- The History: Northern Territory
- Aborigines Act 1905 – Summary | Find & Connect
- Aborigines Protection Act 1886 – Summary | Find & Connect
- Aborigines Act 1897 – Summary | Find & Connect
- Moore River – Western Australia – Australia – Travel – smh.com.au
- Moore River Native Settlement – Summary | Find & Connect
- Moore River Native Settlement – Wikipedia
- 11 Aug 1931 – NEWS AND NOTES. – Trove
- For Molly, the fence was a lifeline – www.smh.com.au