Oases in the Desert

WEA Sydney Film Society ‘Oases in the Desert’ program
Sunday 25 March 2001

The Back of Beyond Australia 1954 66 minutes bw
Captain Thunderbolt Australia 1954 55 minutes bw
The Pudding Thieves Australia 1967 56 minutes bw

Why a Desert? Australian Films in the 1950s and 1960s

In the decade to 1960, eleven foreign films and four co-productions were made in Australia. There were but seven wholly Australian features made in that time, of which three were barely screened in their own country.

Why did Australia then have virtually no film industry, something that almost all advanced nations took as a matter of course and a matter of pride, and supported with taxes and levies on foreign film receipts, local quotas, etc. It was, after all, the Australian Salvation Army’s Joseph Perry who in 1900 had devised Soldiers of the Cross, one-minute reels of ambitiously dramatised suffering martyrs, alternating with colourful slides, with General Booth, choir and orchestra, two and a half hours in all. In 1906 the Australian theatre’s J & N Tait had produced the world’s first feature film, The Story of the Kelly Gang. By 1911 more features had been produced in Australia than in the United States and by 1920 more than 150 features had been made here.

Yet in the following ten years, the number of Australian productions fell dramatically. The reasons were twofold. First, the monopolistic practices of overseas distributors, in particular their block booking system which contracted cinemas to show the entire annual output of US companies, sight unseen. This made it difficult for independent Australian filmmakers to get their single films released on reasonable terms. Secondly, the mysterious lack of will in federal or state governments to take effective action against business practices which were clearly in restraint of trade and neither culturally nor economically in the national interest.

After growing pressure, in 1927 the federal government set up a royal commission which, to the surprise of many, found no evidence of the alleged American stranglehold. Its 1928 report was never debated in parliament and most of its recommendations could not be implemented without the concession of states rights. What was hoped would save the local industry had administered the final blow and even quota laws passed in the 1930s by several states proved useless as they contained no enforceable penalty clauses.

Two Australian film executives picked up the patriotic banner. When the Fox Film Corporation bought Hoyts Theatres in 1931, Frank Thring Sr used his share proceeds to set up Efftee Film Productions in Melbourne. He produced seven features and many shorts but Efftee closed down on his death in 1936, with two productions left unfinished. In Sydney, Ken Hall, Marketing Manager of Greater Union, persuaded his bosses to expand their Cinesound newsreel subsidiary into feature production. Hall made 17 features at Cinesound between 1932 and 1940. All except one made a profit, yet the increasingly conservative Greater Union cancelled further investment in features. His plans to then become an independent producer were thwarted, perversely, by a government anti inflation ban on raising new capital for ‘non essential’ projects. The British Rank Organisation’s purchase of 50% of Greater Union’s shares in 1945 ensured that distribution of Rank product would take precedence over riskier investment in Australian production.

World War II should have been an ideal time to encourage a vigorous film industry to boost morale and patriotism but apart from financial assistance to the indomitable and politically well received Charles Chauvel for 40,000 Horsemen and The Rats of Tobruk, the government held that feature film-making was “irrelevant to our war effort” and supported documentary production only. Other governments better understood public morale. While bombs rained on London and England’s fate lay in the balance, the British industry had never been more creative and inspirational. Eisenstein completed Ivan the Terrible as the German armies advanced into Russia, and Germany was making patriotic films to the end. Ironically, prime minister Menzies was later quite concerned that the rest of the world seemed to know nothing of Australia’s war efforts.

On to the fifties in Australia—and what a bland boring decade it was! As well as government indifference to Australian arts, the exodus of so many creative talents overseas and an ever-growing cultural cringe, we had the third most puritanical censorship in the world—even film violence was censored. Major filmmaking opportunities were thrown away. The film rights to Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, icon of the Australian stage renaissance, were sold to a US company, and although the Film Division of the Department of the Interior had shown its capacity to cover a major event with The Queen in Australia in 1954, the rights to the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne were sold to an incompetent French producer.

One of the many smaller organisations making short films at the time, the unique Waterside Workers’ Federation Film Unit, made punchy short films on unionists’ problems like pensions, the housing shortage and unsafe working conditions. These were shown not only at union gatherings but also by some non-theatrical organisations, particularly film societies. Actors used their own unvarnished Australian accents, then a rarity even in documentaries.

Twentieth Century-Fox, bowing to pressure in 1952, sent the renowned director Lewis Milestone here on location to spend £800,000 of its “frozen” dollars on an off the shelf B western, retitled Kangaroo for this occasion. Its big losses worldwide were frequently quoted by Fox as a justification for never again investing in big local production, yet they later put funds into Byron Haskin’s Long John Silver (1954) and Anthony Kimmins’s two Smiley films (1956 and 1958). Columbia used its frozen dollars to finance Smithy (1946), MGM bought up theatres, while most of the remainder somehow found its way into British productions.

Veteran Charles Chauvel’s last feature tackled the contentious subject of Aboriginal assimilation. Jedda (1955) impressed Australians with Tudawali’s powerful performance and the vivid colours of the Outback, but even its overseas earnings were not enough to keep Chauvel’s company afloat. Chips Rafferty and Lee Robinson’s Southern International company produced The Phantom Stockman (1953) and King of the Coral Sea (1954), both successful on their own modest terms. Their first venture into foreign co-production resulted in only one success, Walk Into Paradise (1956), profitably renamed Walk into Hell by its US distributor. But bigger budgets with international actors led to a fatal loss of control of the next three films, which were virtually unreleasable here.

The two most interesting and, maybe not coincidentally, very Australian productions of the 1950s, Cecil Holmes’ Captain Thunderbolt (1953) and John Heyer’s The Back of Beyond (1954), are both part of today’s program (see separate notes following).

Welcome to the sixties! Five out of ten homegrown productions to 1969 had a fair release. Two highlighted the tastes of contemporary local audiences. Tim Burstall’s 2000 Weeks (69), seriously, if a little naively, dramatised the dilemma facing Australians of talent: whether to persevere in an unappreciative homeland or to try for success overseas. Resourcefully produced for only $98,000 and imaginatively promoted, 2000 Weeks hit the Australian cultural cringe right on target. Its small arthouse audiences groaned it to failure, led by film critics who did not even give credit to Burstall for at least trying to discuss an imbalance in Australian society. On the other hand, the Australian hit of the decade, They’re a Weird Mob (1966) directed by Michael Powell for J C Williamson, demonstrated that millions of Australians couldn’t get enough of seeing their mateship ethos, beer capacity and warm unintellectual hearts praised to the skies.

Towards the end of the 1960s, Australian production picked up after John Gorton became Prime Minister. To develop and finance film and television production, his government set up the Australian Film Development Corporation (forerunner of the Australian Film Commission) in 1970, a Tariff Board inquiry into production assistance in 1972 and undertook to establish a film school. By its first student intake in 1973 Gough Whitlam’s Labor Government was in power and introducing unprecedented support to all the arts. South Australia set up a film corporation, followed by other States. At last the dreams of many were becoming a reality.

Suggested reading:

  • Pike, Andrew and Cooper, Ross. Australian Film 1900 to 1977: A guide to feature film production. Melbourne: Oxford University Press in association with the Australian Film Institute, 1980.
  • Meanjin: vol. 13, no. 2 (Winter 1954), pp. 189-198 (Cecil Holmes: “The Film in Australia”).
  • Shirley, Graham and Adams, Brian. Australian Cinema: The first eighty years. Sydney: Angus and Robertson in association with Currency Press, 1983.
  • Stratton, David. The Last New Wave. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1980.
  • Stewart, John. An Encyclopaedia of Australian Film. Frenchs Forest: Reed Books, 1984.
  • McFarlane, Brian, Geoff Meyer and Ina Bertrand (editors). The Oxford Companion to Australian Film. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Lansell, Ross and Peter Beiby (editors). The Documentary Film in Australia. North Melbourne: Cinema Papers in association with Film Victoria, 1982. Includes “1940s Australia” by Tom Politis (p. 39) and John Hughes’ essay “Propaganda Then and Now” (pp. 142-143) which mention the work of the Waterside Workers’ Federation Film Unit, and Anthony Buckley’s “1950s Australia” which mentions The Back of Beyond (p. 41).

The Back of Beyond

Australia 1954 66 minutes bw
directed by John Heyer

The Shell Film Unit, Australia. Producer and script, John Heyer; script collaboration, Janet Heyer, Roland Robinson; photographer, Ross Wood; sound rerecording, Mervyn Murphy and Gwen Oatley; dialogues and narration, Douglas Stewart, John Heyer; music, Sydney John Kay; narrator: Kevin Brennan.

As themselves: Tom Kruse, William Henry Butler, Jack the Dogger, Old Joe the Rainmaker, the Oldfields of Eradinna, Bejah, Malcolm Arkaringa and the people of the Birdsville Track.

Grand Prix Assoluto, Venice International Documentary Film Festival, 1954.

This classic Australian documentary followed mailman Tom Kruse on his regular run, the Birdsville Track, 500 kilometres of virtual desert from Maree in South Australia to Birdsville, Queensland. Twice a month he made the journey using two trucks, one on each side of the Cooper River, which he ferried his cargo across on outboard powered barge. Despite the almost unbearable environment, this is essentially a romantic documentary in the Grierson tradition. Heyer incorporates a string of vignettes about some of those who live and work along this desolate lifeline into Kruse’s fortnightly odyssey, his lyricism giving an ennobling resilience to those stoic yet very human people.

John Heyer OBE, a sound engineer in the 1930s for both Efftee and Cinesound, made documentaries during World War II, shot exteriors for 40,000 Horsemen, was 2nd unit director on The Overlanders, joined the Film Division of the Department of Information as a producer in 1946 but left two years later to become producer in charge of the Australian branch of the Shell Film Unit. He was President of the Sydney Cinema Society from 1944 to 1954.

Heyer did not shoot off the cuff. He made a recce trip with Tom Kruse, then wrote a detailed shooting scrip before heading out with a crew of 20, including cameraman Ross Wood whose stunning images epitomised the overall high quality of Australian cameramen of the time.

Captain Thunderbolt

Australia 1954 55 minutes bw
directed by Cecil Holmes

Commonwealth Films. Producer, John Wiltshire; script, Creswick Jenkinson; photography, Ross Wood; editor, Margaret Cardin; art director, Keith Christie; music, Sidney John Kay, assistant director, Rod Adamson; sound, Robert Allen.

Grant Taylor (Fred Ward), Charles Tingwell (Alan Blake), Harp McGuire (Mannix), Rosemary Miller (Joan), John Fegan (Dalton), Jean Blue (Mrs Ward), John Fernside (Colonel), Loretta Boutmy (Maggie), Ronald Whelan (Hogstone), Charles Tasman (colonial secretary), Harvey Adams (parliamentarian), Patricia Hill (Belle), John Brunskill (judge), John Unicomb, Sydney Loder, James Doogle, Frank Bradley, Dennis Glenny, William Collins.

Convicted young horse-stealers Fred Ward and Alan Blake escape from their harsh colonial prison. Unable to return to their homes, they take up bushranging, robbing only the rich landholders who are oppressing the small selection farmers. Ward’s notoriety as Captain Thunderbolt becomes so intolerable that the police assign the psychotic Sergeant Mannix to capture him “dead or alive.” Mannix and his troopers corner Thunderbolt at a country dance and after a gunfight Mannix identifies a corpse as Thunderbolt. But the legend grows that the real Thunderbolt is still at large in the New England ranges.

Holmes eked out the small production budget of £15 000 by the intelligent choice of colonial buildings and historical props and, if he overdid the villainy of the top people at times, put it down to youthful inexperience. From the raw talent shown in this first feature it is evident that he could have become a major feature director had he not elected to stay in Australia and had his left-wing attitudes not disadvantaged him in the politically paranoid 1950s.

Thunderbolt was trade shown locally in January 1953 to the indifference of local distributors and waited until September 1956 for its one-week Sydney independent release. The dispirited Holmes cut the original negative from 69 to 55 minutes and it was sold profitably as a supporting feature in the US and Europe. This was the version subsequently shown on Australian TV at the express direction of Ken Hall, then general manager of Channel 9. No copy of the original version survived.

Pudding Thieves

Australia 1967 56 minutes bw
directed by Brian Davies

Producer and script, Brian Davies; photography, Sasha Trikojus; editor, Peter White; music, George Tibbits; sound, Lloyd Smith, Lloyd Carrick. Cast: Bernice Murphy, Bill Morgan, George Tibbits, Tina Dare, Burt Cooper, Dorothy Bradley.

Pudding Thieves was the first of what became known as Carlton Cinema, 16mm films made on minuscule budgets by frustrated aspiring filmmakers associated with two small but influential theatres in Melbourne’s Carlton, La Mama and The Pram Factory. Inspired by the rule breaking rebels of the recent French New Wave, these filmmakers, using borrowed equipment, contras, deferrals and the goodwill of friends and relatives, shot their films with complete creative freedom, without thought of future commercial exhibition.

Made over a period of four years, Pudding Thieves’ understandably disjointed digressions from its original storyline of two photographers experimenting with pornography reveal much comic invention and, in retrospect, a real sense of time and place.

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