The history of the Australian film industry can be summarized as a continuous rise and fall that ultimately reached its peak with the New Australian Cinema of the 1970s. On the path towards this high point lay a great number of obstacles. Economic recessions had to be overcome, governments had to be convinced, and talent had to be nurtured. Eventually, however, all that was settled and, for a decade-long period, Australian filmmakers blossomed. Gone were the days when only foreign productions could dominate the big screen: The days when the Americans and the British flooded the market with narratives of their past. And when, every so often, they tried to interpret Australian stories through their foreign gaze. Within a decade, over 120 nationally produced feature films reclaimed what it meant to be Australian (Stratton xvi, Hall 8). Generation-defining directors like Gillian Armstrong, George Miller, Phillip Noyce, Fred Schepisi, and Peter Weir suddenly came to the forefront and convinced the whole world that Australian cinema demanded their attention.
This abridged version of events can seem quite overwhelming and hard to believe. Indeed, it would be remiss to say that the Australian New Wave swept the nation in one smooth motion. The chief visionaries and advocates for this snapshot in time were Phillip Adams and Barry Jones (Stratton 10, Hall 9). Years earlier, they started the fight to break down the barriers that prevented Australian filmmakers from thriving in their own country. Once it all clicked into place, Australian directors profited from this effort, as they could finally roam free. Supporters of this newfound artistic freedom tried to hold onto it as if their lives depended on it, but they could only hold on for so long. The Australian Film Renaissance did not last. Too many new battles had to be fought to defend it against the mounting pressure to turn the Australian film industry into a lucrative business. Personal passion projects rarely succeed at the box office and were thus soon replaced by safer commercially oriented films. But to actually understand all the minutiae of this, it is really necessary to start at the beginning. The ups and downs of Australian film history go from the silent era to the talkies, from local productions to foreign imports, and from privately funded movies to government financed films.
The Moving Pictures
When the Lumière brothers patented their cinématographe device in 1895, they knew that their invention could take the world by storm. As a result, about a year and a half later, they sent Marius Sestier to Australia to privately demonstrate their apparatus at the Royal Lyceum Theater in Sydney. His audience was enthralled and quickly concluded that Sestier also needed to capture Australia with this device. For this endeavor, Sestier partnered up with the established Australian photographer Henry Walter Barnett. They decided that Barnett would use his artistic vision to compose the moving pictures, while Sestier would use his technical expertise to operate the cinématographe. Together, they shot the first Australian short film, Passengers Alighting from Ferry Brighton at Manly (1896), and later screened it to the public in Sydney’s newly opened Salon Lumière. Afterwards, they traveled to Melbourne and set their eyes onto a new target. The Melbourne Cup Carnival was in town, and they tried to document every aspect of it. Fifteen short films were produced and presented to the public in a selected chronological order as The Melbourne Cup (1896).
From that point on, it did not take long until more and more venues started to show locally produced and internationally imported motion pictures. Film soon became “a part of Australian life,” so that “by 1900 the foundations of a film industry in Australia had been laid. Most European producers had Australian sales representatives; production facilities were established; and patterns of exhibition pioneered” (Sabine 25). One of the first film studios in the world was the Limelight Department, which was run by The Salvation Army in Melbourne. They produced one of the earliest narrative films, Soldiers of the Cross (1900), which features “a combination of slides, film, music, and commentary” (Haltof 5). At more than three times the length, this multimedia presentation actually predates the more commonly known American film The Great Train Robbery (1903). The latter was also shown in Australia and had a particular effect on Charles Tait, who set out to make his own film a couple of years later. He directed “one the world’s first feature length films,” The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), which ran for more than an hour (Stratton 1). It depicted the life of the notorious outlaw Ned Kelly, but actually portrayed him as the hero fighting against villainous police.
Theatergoers were highly delighted, and filmmakers took notice. The success of this narrative established “the distinct Australian genre of the bushranger” films (Haltof 5). However, this proven formula came under scrutiny when state governments concluded that these films caused a recent rise in crime rate. The bushranger bans of 1911 and 1912 brought a swift end to the production and exhibition of this genre of film. A young industry was devastated and had to suddenly rethink its approach to telling stories.
With World War I on the horizon, Australian filmmakers were eager to come back into favor with their government. The military was glad to see patriotic motion pictures on the silver screen and thus rewarded the industry with additional funding for movies “promoting the war effort” (5). These thinly veiled propaganda films mystified the Australian contribution to the Great War and were cheered on by their audience. Movies thus were briefly transformed into military recruiting devices that even ended with a concrete call to action.
Once the war ended, the industry hit the reset button and “Raymond Longford emerge[d] as the key figure of this [new] era” (Stratton 1). He directed two “classics of the Australian silent cinema,” The Sentimental Bloke (1919) and On Our Selection (1920) (1–2). “The former, especially, is deservedly celebrated for its stylistic and technical mastery as well as for its ‘Australianess,’” which reflects the “simple values and enduring sentiments” of the common people (Haltof 5, Stratton 1–2). Longford preferred a realistic approach that openly embraced the Australian “vernacular, colloquial humor, and the naturalism of the Woolloomooloo (Sydney’s working-class area) scenes” (Haltof 5). For example, in the opening of the film, the Bloke attends an illegal game of two-up. He gambles away the little money he has left, and the situation soon starts to turn even worse:
Another standout from this period was Franklyn Barrett, who directed the heartfelt The Breaking of the Drought (1920) and A Girl of the Bush (1921). By the mid-twenties, however, Australian theaters almost completely ceased to show local productions. “[A] flood of American films onto the Australian market precipitated the industry’s first crisis,” as stars like “[Rudolph] Valentino, [Greta] Garbo, Clara Bow, Lon Chaney, Joan Crawford, [and] John Barrymore … were swamping the cinemas of the world” (Stratton 1, 2).
To counter this new American box office dominance, Australasian Films reached deep into its pockets to produce the highly ambitious For the Term of His Natural Life (1927). The studio envisioned that this story based on an Australian literary classic could be the breakthrough hit that establishes them internationally. Raymond Longford seemed like the obvious choice for director, especially since he so openly proclaimed his passion for this project. “[B]ut the investors decreed that an American must be imported to do the job and, inexplicably, they imported an unknown, Norman Dawn (Stratton 2).” Similarly, the popular American actor George Fisher was cast to play the leading role of Rufus Dawe, a young Australian who is falsely accused of murder and shipped to Van Diemen’s Land. His love interest is also portrayed by another admired American actor, Eva Novak. In a big blow to the local industry, Australasian Films chose no Australian talent in any of the marquee positions. The aspiration to appeal to the international market superseded, but also meant that the budget kept rising, until it hit “the then staggering sum of £60,000.” Lengthy negotiations prolonged the release of the final film so much that “by the time For the Term of His Natural Life was ready for cinema screens, the silent film was almost a thing of the past” (2). Indeed, the first sound film, The Jazz Singer (1927), came out the same year and astonished audiences when it actually said out loud: “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” It took the Australian silent classic two more years to finally make its way into the American theaters, and at that point audiences were understandably underwhelmed. For the Term of His Natural Life was a success in Australia, but a flop overseas: “A big gamble had failed to pay off. Thus Australian filmmakers went into the talkie era with their spirits low” (2).
The Talking Pictures
The Australian film industry was too slow to adapt to the technological invention of sound film. Their yearly production rate plummeted from one of the highest in the world to almost a complete standstill. In 1926, Australian filmmakers released sixteen films, but by 1930 they were no longer able to produce more than three films per year (Stratton 2). The industry was shaken to its core and in danger of a total collapse, but ultimately was rescued by three prolific filmmakers: F.W. Thring, Charles Chauvel, and Ken G. Hall (2).
Francis William Thring was the first Australian director to fully embrace the talking pictures. He even went so far as to establish a new studio dedicated to their cause. Efftee Studios opened up its doors in 1930 and was supposed to reign in a new era. Within a two year turnaround, Thring directed his first sound film, His Royal Highness (1932). This musical based on an earlier stage show was popular enough to finance further pursuits in this endeavor. Most notably, Thring also produced The Sentimental Bloke (1932), Harmony Row (1933), and Clara Gibbings (1934). However, Australian movie theaters were still “dominated by foreign product,” which made it particularly challenging for Thring to release his films (2). This hurdle proved to be too hard to overcome, so that Efftee Studios had to eventually close down in 1934.
Charles Chauvel did not have to face such difficulties, since his epic films were already sensations upon their initial release (3). By visualizing major historical events, Chauvel was able to capitalize upon audiences’ innate interest in these stories. Thus, he directed In the Wake of the Bounty (1933), a new dramatization of the mutiny aboard the HMS Bounty in 1789; Heritage (1935), a retelling of the colonization of Australia spanning over 150 years; Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940), a chronicle of the Australian Light Horse cavalry in World War I; and The Rats of Tobruk (1944), a tale about the Australian Army’s defense of a Libyan city in World War II. Not all of Chauvel’s career was a walk in the park, though. When he set out to direct Sons of Matthew (1949), he had to endure the harshest production conditions imaginable. Chauvel decided to shoot on location in Queensland during one of the wettest seasons in recorded history. The area was constantly flooded and even temporarily stranded him and his crew in a small base camp with dwindling supplies. Throughout their first six months on set, the rain did not stop. They went to Sydney for two months and then returned to Queensland for another five months of rain. After an unprecedented eighteen months of production, the film’s budget had blown up to be more than twice the usual rate, clocking in at around £120,000. All that was forgiven, though, when Australians finally saw the film’s climax that beautifully captured this battle against the elements:
Kenneth George Hall had yet another approach for success. When he founded Cinesound Productions in 1931, he was keenly aware of the restrictions of his time (Hall 8). The thinly stretched budgets of the Great Depression did not allow any margin of error. To make ends meet, Hall had to guarantee that he could turn a profit every year. Thus, Hall ventured into safer genre films that offered much needed escapism for a disheartened society. His Dad and Dave comedies, in particular, brought smiles back on Australian faces. The popular characters from the short stories by Steele Rudd were reimagined in On Our Selection (1932), and expanded upon in Granddad Rudd (1935), Dad and Dave Come to Town (1938), and Dad Rudd, M.P. (1940). George Wallace, “that most quintessential of thirties comedians” (Stratton 2), also did his best to entertain theatergoers, when he teamed up with Hall for Let George Do It (1938) and Gone to the Dogs (1939). Another way to lift up the spirits was to show melodramas that ended on a happy note. Thus, Hall directed films about a young, independent farm girl, The Squatter’s Daughter (1933), an unfaithful clergyman, The Silence of Dean Maitland (1934), a naive graduate from forestry school, Tall Timbers (1937), and an expelled violinist, The Broken Melody (1938). But he also directed more action driven movies that featured the adventures of a struggling horse trainer, Thoroughbred (1936), a boxing kangaroo, Orphan of the Wilderness (1936), and a pearl diving concert pianist, Lovers and Luggers (1937). Any profits that these films made were immediately invested into future projects (Hall 8). This tremendous turnaround made Hall the most prolific director of his time.
However, as World War II geared up, the Australian film industry came to a breaking point. In 1940, even Cinesound ceased its production of commercially successful films in fear of their financial risk. This sentiment proved to be emblematic of a much larger trend that persisted even for decades after the war ended. Charles Chauvel only directed one more film, Jedda (1955), which ended up being the first Australian feature film to be shot in color. But even new technological advancements like this could not revive the local film industry. The 1950s and 1960s marked a new low point in the yearly production rate of Australian movies. In fact, from 1962 to 1965 not a single feature film was shot (Haltof 5–6). That is why Ken G. Hall decries these decades as Australia’s “Dark Ages,” in which years and talent have been shamefully wasted (Hall 8–9).
The American and British film industries were not as severely impacted and instead quickly recovered to some sort of new normalcy. Nevertheless, they did notice that after the war fewer people returned to the theaters. To entice audiences to come back, overseas filmmakers thought they needed to show something new. As a result, many American and British directors traveled to Australia to film in a new “cheap location” that offered “an exotic backdrop for exotic stories” (Haltof 5). The British arrived first in Australia. Ealing Studios made a couple of quick stops to produce The Overlanders (1946), Eureka Stockade (1949), and Bitter Springs (1950), before they moved on to East Africa. A couple of years later, they returned again to film The Shiralee (1957) and The Siege of Pinchgut (1959), but had since realized that they only needed to capture the exterior shots in Australia (Stratton 4). The interiors were filmed back home in London, which meant that Australia saw even less of a boost to the local industry. The Rank Organisation employed the same tactic when they produced Robbery Under Arms (1957). The Americans, however, put more stock into their Australian projects and invested millions to film Kangaroo (1952), Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1959), On the Beach (1959), and The Sundowners (1960).
All in all, the 1950s and 1960s were a tormenting time for Australian film professionals. Almost no more movies were produced and when they were, they rarely hired local talent. Sure, “[i]t was exciting to have internationally known directors” and actors working in the country, but they were not producing Australian films (4). They had a different vision altogether. American and British directors filtered “Australian stories … through [their] foreign eyes” and employed “foreign actors [who] were pretending to be Australians” (4). They came into this country in search of new exotic sensations. They claimed its identity and displayed it on the big screen. And the actual Australians were left sitting in the dark movie theaters wondering what exactly it was they were seeing. It was not them, so much was for sure. At the time, the Australian journalist Tom Fitzgerald commented upon this experience by saying: “Our voices are thin and so weakly articulated as to be barely audible to visitors when they step ashore. The daydreams we get from celluloid are not Australian daydreams” (Haltof 6). A change of direction was desperately needed.
The history of the Australian cinema continues in Part II with the organization, the arrival, and the collapse of the New Wave. Be sure to come back later this month and check it out.
Hall, Ken G. Introduction. The New Australian Cinema, edited by Scott Murray, Elm Tree Books, 1980, pp. 8–9. Internet Archive, archive.org/details/newaustraliancin0000unse.
Haltof, Marek. Peter Weir. When Cultures Collide. Twayne Publishers, 1996. Internet Archive, archive.org/details/peterweirwhencul0000halt.
Sabine, James. A Century of Australian Cinema. William Heinemann Australia, 1995.
Stratton, David. The Last New Wave. The Australian Film Revival. Angus & Robertson Publishers, 1980. Internet Archive, archive.org/details/lastnewwaveaustr0000stra.