(If you haven’t read the first part, check it out here: https://blogs.phil.hhu.de/anglophoneliteratures/2022/02/08/the-long-road-leading-up-to-the-australian-film-revival-part-i/ )
Towards the end of the 1960s, Australian film history was at risk of being completely forgotten. The local film industry was in a state of despair that embraced its looming death rather than its true potential. With no proper record or education in place, barely anyone knew about the early pioneers of Australian cinema anymore (Stratton 1). Even the few aspiring directors left in the country were mostly oblivious to their cultural heritage, since all they ever saw in theaters were Hollywood productions (Haltof 2, 4).
The first book solely dedicated to Australian film history tried to change that, but was not published until 1970 (6). John Baxter‘s The Australian Cinema reinstated the importance of the old masters and reflected upon their accomplishments to lay out a path forward. In the final chapter, Baxter wondered what the future may hold for the next generation of Australian filmmakers. Whether they would succumb to “the public preference for American films and the innate conservatism of the film industry” or if they could overcome these challenges to reestablish “a truly national Australian cinema.” Baxter was confident that Australia had the talent and determination to achieve this goal, but he did not know how it could be accomplished (Malcolm xiii).
By the 1970s, the solution was obvious. All that the Australian film industry needed was a little governmental support. An incoming set of new policies quickly propelled the struggling industry to previously undreamed of heights. After significant lobbying, Australian politicians were eventually persuaded to create numerous institutions to fund local film production (Haltof 4). Thus, a decade-long “national project” ensued with the mission to create a New Australian Cinema that was dedicated to a “culturally worthwhile” cause (4, 6). This sponsorship extended to almost all “films with Australian content” and finally prioritized filmmakers’ artistic visions over investors’ financial concerns (4). However, the tap for all this free flowing cash was soon turned off. Ultimately, the government ended up being just another financial backer who was fed up with failed investments and therefore put measures into place to guarantee safer returns (Stratton 284). Still, a major step in the right direction had been taken which laid the foundation for decades to come (294–295).
The first political rumblings over the dissatisfaction of the Australian film industry were heard in a 1963 Senate committee. The chairman Victor Seddon Vincent “provided several recommendations for the future development of the national cinema,” which were, however, largely “ignored by the Liberal government led by [Prime Minister] Robert Menzies” (Haltof 6). Part of the reason why these pleas fell on deaf ears was because, at the time, there really was no basis to the claim that Australians demanded to see themselves represented on the big screen. Theaters predominantly relied on American movies to fill their seats and politicians saw nothing wrong with that.
The case for the necessity of “films speaking in a distinct Australian idiom” continued to be rather unconvincing, until They’re a Weird Mob (1966) arrived (6). This film by the esteemed British film-making duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger turned into a landmark release for the Australian market. Even though this was another British production set in Australia, it was actually, for once, extremely respectful of its source material. Pressburger wrote a very faithful adaptation of John O’Grady’s novel of the same name about a newly arrived Italian immigrant trying to make it in Australia. And Powell went to extraordinary lengths to shoot in authentic Sydney locations and employ local talent, including the iconic Chips Rafferty. The result was an “immensely popular” movie that “enjoyed the longest run any film has ever had at [Greater Union]’s giant State Theatre in Sydney” (Stratton 5). The key ingredient to the film’s success was the comedy that ensued whenever the Italian, who only ever studied textbook English, encountered real working class Australians:
In an attempt to follow in the footsteps of They’re a Weird Mob, a series of independent films tried to show an equally keen observation of Australian culture. By utilizing low budget film equipment and small crew sizes, directors like Tim Burstall were able to pursue more personal and experimental projects that did not require extensive funding (5–6). Burstall’s semi-autobiographical 2000 Weeks (1969), about a writer running out of time to succeed in life, was “the first truly indigenous Australian theatrical feature film in many years” (6). It and several other passion projects like it proudly exhibited “the artistic potential of the local cinema” (Haltof 6), but were met with a lack of trust, respect, and funding that shut them out of a wider theatrical distribution (Stratton 5, 23).
At the same time, advocates for the Australian film industry started to mobilize a substantial lobbying effort (5). In 1965, Robert Menzies had just announced his intention to retire in the following year, so there was hope that a new Prime Minister would be more inclined to offer his support. As Harold Holt took office, two groups were formed in favor of “government intervention and the creation of government bodies responsible for sponsoring the local film industry” (Haltof 7). They resided in the two cultural centers of Sydney and Melbourne, which have had a long history of competing approaches to cinema (Stratton 10).
In Sydney, it was the film editor and producer Anthony Buckley who stood up for his profession. Ever since his first assistant job on The Stowaway (1958), Buckley had been continually refining his craft, until he was able to produce his own smaller projects (10–11). His passion for Australian cinema motivated him to dedicate a sentimental documentary to its cause. Forgotten Cinema: The Golden Age of Australian Motion Pictures (1967) “used vintage footage to tell the history of the Australian film industry,” which evoked an overwhelmingly positive reaction during the Sydney Film Festival. Moreover, it also attracted the attention of Roland Beckett, who was an influential member of the Producers’ and Directors’ Guild (11). Buckley and Beckett joined forces to create the more inclusive Australian Film Council, which could accommodate every trade of the film industry. Its main objective was to directly address individual members of parliament “with one powerful voice” (11). Thus, the council invited senators like Doug McClelland to private screenings of Forgotten Cinema that were followed up with discussions for possible legislation to reign in a new era. This course of action proved fruitful, as McClelland soon spurred on fiery debates, in which he “told the house that members should ‘hang their heads in shame’ for not supporting a film industry” (11). After Harold Holt’s untimely death in December 1967, the Australian Film Council extended their invitations to the newly anointed Prime Minister, John Gorton, who readily accepted. In a speech that concluded their productive dinner party, “Gorton indicated for the first time that industry support would be forthcoming” (11).
In Melbourne, Phillip Adams quickly followed up on this new momentum. The young advertising executive had become an integral part of the city’s Film Society and International Film Festival (11). Because of these deep roots, Adams preferred to form a new coalition out of Melbourne. However, to enter the political landscape, Adams had to ride on the coattails of his close friend and fellow Melburnian, Barry Jones (12). After over two hundred appearances of the popular television quiz show Pick a Box, Jones had displayed an “extraordinary encyclopedic” knowledge that made him a national sensation. This launched Jones into a career as host of “Australia’s only talkback radio programme and also a television interview programme,” which allowed him to regularly speak to Prime Minister John Gorton (12). Thus, Adams could inform Jones about the pressing issues of the local film scene, which Jones could then use to confront Gorton. Instead of having these two forces work against him, Gorton soon decided to employ them in his favor. Adams and Jones were appointed to an Interim Film Committee, which was chaired by the Member of the New South Wales Parliament, Peter Coleman. Together, they “wrote speeches for the prime minister in which he was able to establish himself as a man of cultural sophistication” (13). In consequence, Gorton became more and more convinced that the revival of the film industry would be a good political move for him. To make that a reality, Adams and Jones proposed that they should go on “a world trip to study government-funded industries abroad.” Gorton agreed, and when they returned, they wrote up an official report that detailed the necessary measures. According to the committee’s evaluation, all that the Australian cinema needed to thrive was “a modestly-scaled film industry,” “a film school,” “an experimental film fund,” and “a film bank” (13). “Gorton ‘unconditionally accepted’ all of [these] recommendations,” and confirmed shortly thereafter that government support would be forthcoming (Shirley and Adams 235).
The Australian Film Revival
From that point on, the agenda was set and legislative action followed swiftly behind. The consequential upturn of production marked the 1970s as “the most interesting period for the Australian film industry” (Haltof 4). “After years of artistic inertia,” government institutions provided Australian filmmakers with financial support that resulted in 153 locally produced feature films (4, 6–7). A truly momentous achievement, considering that the preceding decade had only yielded 17 feature films (7). Part of the secret of this success story was the fact that the average budget for an Australian film was set at a modest $300,000 to $400,000, which was significantly lower than its American counterpart (7). Thus, limited government resources were spread among more applicants who shared a lowered financial risk that enabled them to focus solely on the domestic market.
The decade started with a bang, as two international productions were officially representing Australia at the 24th Cannes Film Festival (Shirley and Adams 246). The uncompromising approach of Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright (1971) and Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) redefined Australian cinema by bringing the bleaker aspects of Australian existence to the forefront. Both films pushed the boundaries of the medium with their distressing portrayals of animal cruelty that just narrowly avoided a violation of the Animals Act (Hitchens et al. 7). They are also both centered around a shocking existential crisis, which Wake in Fright uses for a dark descent into madness, while Walkabout prefers a lighter outcome towards self-discovery. Unfortunately, this proved to be too challenging for mainstream audiences who were revolted by them, which led to bad word of mouth and poor box office receipts (Shirley and Adams 245–246). Nevertheless, these two films have since been reappraised as cornerstones of the Australian New Wave and modern masterpieces.
The first government initiative in favor of the Australian film industry was passed in 1970. The Australian Film Development Corporation Bill proposed an inexpensive proving ground for new directors that was met with bipartisan approval (Shirley and Adams 235). The Experimental Film and Television Fund, which used money from the Australian Council for the Arts that was administered by the Australian Film Institute, began operation within the same year. “In the initial batch of loans, seventy-three applicants were granted a total of $111,450,” which immediately ushered in a new era for independent filmmaking (236). For instance, the EFTF covered the costs of feature film debuts like Peter Weir’s Homesdale (1971), Brian Kavanagh’s A City’s Child (1971), and Esben Storm’s 27A (1974). But it also encouraged filmmakers to further pursue their independent tendencies. Even Tim Burstall was able to secure $7,500 for the development of his next project (Stratton 25). As outlined above, Burstall had been struggling to find his footing in the industry, and he therefore breathed in a great sigh of relief when his uniquely bizarre Stork (1971) was well received (25–26).
Similarly, the larger Australian Film Development Corporation was also created in 1970 to help filmmakers with more commercial aspirations (14, xviii). Bruce Beresford received $250,000 for The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972), an inversion of the They’re a Weird Mob plot that has an odd Australian traveling to England (Pike and Cooper 265). Sandy Harbutt also obtained $154,000 for Stone (1974), an outlaw biker film about an undercover police officer trying close the unsolved murder cases of several gang members (278). And since Peter Weir had demonstrated his directorial talent with Homesdale, he was awarded $110,000 for his next project (Stratton 62). The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) became the next stepping stone of Weir’s career that really showcased his greater cinematic ambition. This surreal horror comedy set in the fictional Australian town of Paris portrays a dystopian future that hinges on the pressures of commercialism. Residents of this impoverished town deliberately cause car accidents in order to profit from the resulting wrecks and casualties. This critique about the contemporary societal decay is especially apparent in the film’s opening that is initially shot like an advertisement, which takes a wrong turn, and is then contrasted with the harsh reality of rural Australian life:
To nurture even younger talent, a film school also needed to be established. However, it would take years, until this project would finally come to fruition. After Prime Minister Gorton had agreed to the Interim Film Committee’s recommendations, he restructured it into an Interim Council for the Australian Film and Television School (“Our History” [AFTRS]). In 1970, the council went on another world trip to survey the internationally renowned film schools, once more. They found a location in Sydney and prepared a new report, but were largely ignored. Unfortunately, this project remained in a bureaucratic limbo, even after the council contacted the International Association of Film and Television Schools and wrote up another report (“Our History” [AFTRS]).
Movie censorship was an additional concern for the film industry that also needed to be addressed by politicians, but took a long time to achieve. Throughout the 1960s, censorship decisions were “plagued by official secrecy and laughable double standards.” The debate surrounding this issue reached a boiling point, when Minister for Customs and Excise Malcolm Scott had to defend “the removal of sexual activity from the Swedish film I Love, You Love .” The Sydney Morning Herald mockingly claimed that Scott “would not be able to identify sexual intercourse if he saw it,” which sparked international attention and sealed the end of his career (Shirley and Adams 221). This convinced his successor Don Chipp to take a radically different approach. He invited respected representatives of the parliament, the church, and the media to reconsider previously deleted scenes. Together, they came to the conclusion that “general community attitudes to the suppression of this material had changed” and that it was therefore time to end this excessive censorship (221). In 1970, Chipp therefore introduced reforms to shift Australia “from a closed and highly interventionist model of censorship into a more open, liberal and accountable regime, based around classification as the norm and direct banning of material as the exception” (Australian Law Reform Commission 32). The Australian Classification Board was created within the same year, but did not begin operation until more legislation was passed.
The negotiations over the Australian Film and Television School and the Australian Classification Board lasted well into 1971. In March, Defence Minister Malcolm Fraser abruptly resigned from Gorton’s cabinet and publicly expressed his dissatisfaction with the Prime Minister. To address this issue, Gorton held a Liberal caucus meeting, where he called for a motion of no confidence. The vote was tied, which meant that Gorton could have remained as party leader. However, Gorton still interpreted this result as reason enough for resignation. Thus, he nominated William McMahon as his successor, who was immediately confirmed.
For the Australian Classification Board, this transition went over very smoothly, because Don Chipp remained in his position. In November, he finally passed the National Classification Scheme that introduced four new film ratings: “G (General Exhibition), NRC (Not Recommended for Children), M (Mature) and R (Restricted to audiences aged over 18).” The first R-rated film to be publicly screened in Australia was Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971), closely followed by Stork (1971) and The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972) (“Australian Film”). All in all, the R rating was a much needed liberation from censorship that finally gave artistic freedom to filmmakers and freedom of choice to theatergoers.
However, the Australian Film and Television School faced significantly more scrutiny under the new government. In May, McMahon appointed Peter Howson to the new office of the Minister for the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts. In this capacity, Howson oversaw the Interim Council and “determined not to proceed with the film school.” This was unacceptable to Phillip Adams, who consequently resigned from the council. Crucially, Adams decided to publicly air his grievances “on the ABC news programme This Day Tonight,” which convinced McMahon to overrule Howson (Stratton 13). In 1972, the Interim Council published another report, which after some hold-up was finally approved by Howson. As a result, Peter Coleman was officially appointed as Chair of the AFTS (“Our History” [AFTRS]) and Jerzy Toeplitz, the co-founder of the Polish Film School who had become “one of the most important figures in film teaching,” was appointed as Foundation Director (Stratton 200). Meanwhile, the 1972 Australian federal election voted William McMahon out of office, which meant a further delay in this process. After Labor Leader Gough Whitlam was sworn in as the new Prime Minister, he made the sensible decision to split the cluttered Department of the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts into two separate offices. Thus, the new Minister for the Media Doug McClelland could finally fast track the Australian Film and Television School Act. In 1973, the AFTS opened its doors to its first and “possibly its most impressive” class of students, including “Gillian Armstrong and Phillip Noyce, who would both become successful feature film directors; Chris Noonan, who would do distinguished work for Film Australia …; Graham Shirley, whose interest was to lie in the history of the Australian cinema; [and] James Ricketson, who would opt for what he himself called ‘poor cinema’ productions” (200). These first graduates already showed that the effort to establish an Australian film school had paid off, since it successfully allowed young talent to branch out into so many different territories of the film industry.
The Commonwealth Film Unit was the last government institution to be impacted by this restructuring phase. Originally, the CFU was created to offer filmmakers the chance to learn their craft by producing large in-house productions. Anthony Buckley and Peter Weir first cut their teeth there, as did Donald Crombie, Brian Hannant, Oliver Howes, Joan Long, Arch Nicholson, and Michael Thornhill (Haltof 2–3, Shirley and Adams 264–265). But the establishment of the Australian Film and Television School meant that this previous “training ground for aspiring filmmakers” needed a new purpose (Haltof 2). In December 1972, the CFU became the responsibility of the Department of the Media. The following year, the organization was relaunched as “the government’s [primary] documentary filmmaking arm” with the new name of Film Australia (Stratton 16, Shirley and Adams 266).
To summarize, by 1973 the Australian Government had created the Experimental Film and Television Fund to invest in independent films, the Australian Film Development Corporation to finance more commercially oriented projects, Film Australia to produce documentaries, the Australian Classification Board to stop banning movies, and the Australian Film and Television School to teach the trade to the next generation of filmmakers. This course of action laid out a solid foundation for a thriving Australian film industry, but the financial support system extended even beyond that. Besides the federal sponsorship, there was also state and private backing. In fact, multiple funding bodies provided alternative and cooperative ways of financing. Thus, filmmakers had the option to choose among several investors to develop their projects from the initial conception to the final release. The establishment of this interwoven financial network is the main reason for Australia’s prolific film production in the 1970s.
The South Australian Film Corporation was the first state production company to follow the example of its federal counterpart. The Premier of South Australia, Don Dunstan, signed the South Australian Film Corporation Act in 1972 “to both encourage and develop the local film and television industry, and to attract production to the state” (“Our History” [SAFC]). Indeed, the SAFC grew to be “a major force in the industry” that threaded the needle between artistic recognition and commercial success (Stratton 17). This was most prominently proven by two of its earliest films, Sunday Too Far Away (1975) and Storm Boy (1976). Both of these films are astutely aware of their social and natural environment. However, while Wake in Fright and Walkabout were pessimistic about these conditions, Sunday Too Far Away and Storm Boy are realistic. Ken Hannam and Henri Safran faithfully capture the challenges of Australian life, without shedding a favorable or unfavorable light upon them. Moreover, their authoritative films do not dwell on animal cruelty. Instead, they showcase humans in coexistence with animals:
The historic significance of Sunday Too Far Away was already felt at the time. Even before its wide release, Sunday Too Far Away was well received at 28th Cannes Film Festival, won four major prizes at the 17th Australian Film Institute Awards, and had already recouped its $300,000 budget (Shirley and Adams 278, 277). For the public premiere during “the opening night of the Sydney Film Festival,” it was therefore introduced with “a retrospective tribute to local cinema spanning [the last] sixty years.” Expectations for the future of Australian cinema were high, and they were met when “twenty-five new Australian features” were released within the same year (276). Among them was also Peter Weir’s next film, Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), which was financed by the Australian Film Development Corporation, British Empire Films, and the South Australian Film Corporation (Stratton 69). Critics’ overwhelmingly positive reaction and Great Union’s “brilliant advertising campaign” intrigued hundreds of thousands to watch this Gothic mystery in the theaters. Consequently, Picnic at Hanging Rock turned into an “instant box office success” that went on to become “the most profitable of all the new Australian films of the seventies” (71–73).
From that point on, it was off to the races. Over the next two years, all the other State Governments tried to mimic South Australia’s success by creating their own film production companies (18). The Victorian Film Corporation was established in 1976. Its first production was Bruce Beresford’s The Getting of Wisdom (1977), an adaption of Henry Handel Richardson’s endearing Bildungsroman of the same name about a young woman’s education at a Melbourne boarding school for girls. A year later, the VFC financed another Australian literary adaptation, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), which was directed by Fred Schepisi and based on Thomas Keneally’s identically titled novel about the life of bushranger Jimmy Governor. Other VFC productions were Esben Storm‘s In Search of Anna (1978), Richard Franklin’s Patrick (1978), and Colin Eggleston’s Long Weekend (1978).
The New South Wales Film Corporation began its operation in 1977 with a strict funding criteria that was based on “commonsense and practical experience of the industry” (Stratton 18). This approach tried to weed out unpredictable filmmakers who presented a financial risk factor, and instead favored formally trained talent. Therefore, the NSWFC invested in the next project by Donald Crombie, the legal custody drama Cathy’s Child (1979). But more importantly, the two most famous alumni of the Australian Film and Television School also received funds for their breakout movies. Phillip Noyce was glad to finally find a production company that was willing to take on his notoriously complicated screenplay about the behind the scenes production of post-war newsreels. However, the NSWFC also had reservations about the marketability of this project and therefore demanded changes that dismayed Noyce (209–210). Nonetheless, the launch of Newsfront (1978) was still critically praised and a moderate commercial success (211–212).
By comparison, the production of Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career (1979) went quite smoothly. Armstrong also had trouble securing funding, but that was resolved once the NSWFC provided half of the $890,000 budget. In fact, in this case, Armstrong felt so empowered by this support that she took the initiative to hire a script editor to iron out the last wrinkles of the screenplay (217). Some minor pre-production hiccups ensued, but in the end even those turned out for the better (218–219). The NSWFC offered “enormous co-operation” to guarantee the success of My Brilliant Career, which also included two extra weeks of shooting “to do things properly.” The premiere was set for the 32nd Cannes Film Festival, where the film was “extremely well received” (219), even though it went up against an absolutely incredible lineup that year. Nevertheless, My Brilliant Career still stood out because it was a poignant reminder of the female struggle to resist against the greater societal pressures that try to drown their free-spirited nature and ambition. This message and the fact that it was heard so clearly at an especially competitive international film festival speaks volumes about its director, who tried to make a stand “for all the other women in the [Australian] film industry“ (218).
The last three state-run film production companies were all established in 1977, but had way fewer and less pronounced standout films. The Tasmanian Film Corporation financed a documentary, The Last Tasmanian (1978), and a feature film, Manganinnie (1980), about the Black War genocide of the Aboriginal Australians in Tasmania. The Queensland Film Corporation produced Touch and Go (1980), a female caper film with an altruistic spin, and Final Cut (1980), a thriller revolving around the twisted games of a shady show business tycoon. Lastly, the Western Australian Film Council helped to fund Harlequin (1980), a supernatural interpretation of a Rasputin-esque figure in contemporary Australia, and Roadgames (1981), a truck driver’s highway chase of a hitchhiker killer.
However, as already mentioned above, government support was just the most easily accessible financial avenue. The private sector also offered a last resort for filmmakers in search of final funding (Stratton 18). Most commonly, filmmakers sealed a deal with a private investor by selling the distributing rights in exchange for an advance payment. Movie distributors preferred this hands-off approach that let them focus on the business side of this arrangement. Thus, Greater Union was responsible for the profitability of The Irishman (1978), In Search of Anna (1978), My Brilliant Career (1979), Thirst (1979), Tim (1979), Final Cut (1980), Harlequin (1980), Manganinnie (1980), and Touch and Go (1980). Meanwhile, Hoyts dealt with The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), Long Weekend (1978), Dawn! (1979), Stir (1980), and The Chain Reaction (1980). And Roadshow managed the release of Stork (1971), The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972), Alvin Purple (1973), Petersen (1974), Sunday Too Far Away (1975), End Play (1976), Caddie (1976), Storm Boy (1976), Newsfront (1978), Money Movers (1978), Blue Fin (1978), Mad Max (1979), The Last of the Knucklemen (1979), Cathy’s Child (1979), and Breaker Morant (1980).
After name-dropping so many movies, it feels appropriate to review the filmography of the Australian New Wave as a whole. Of course, not every single film has been discussed in detail here, but the main canon has been sufficiently covered to warrant a conclusion. Within one decade, the Australian Film Revival produced over 150 feature films (Haltof 7). This movement liberated Australian filmmakers, who consequently realized that their own local stories demanded to be represented on the big screen. By focusing on the predominant myths of the bush, mateship, and ancestry, they therefore reinvented the country’s sense of identity (8). The majority of this “‘building-a-nation’ process” involved period pieces, which dealt with “nationhood not only through current mythologies and realities but through discourse on the meaning of the Australian nation [throughout history].”
The purpose of this endeavor was to create an acceptable image of Australia and to promote it overseas. The [Australian mythology] was of greater importance here than historical accuracy or truth. As Ina Bertrand bluntly stated in 1984: “Truth is not an issue here. As a nation we can live without ‘truth’: perhaps we prefer not to know if the truth is unpleasant or, even worse, boring. But we cannot continue to exist without a sense of self, identity, [and] in this case ‘Australianness.’” (8)
With this in mind, it needs to be pointed out that these period films actually emerged in two consecutive phases. The previous deterioration of the industry meant that Australian filmmakers had to essentially start from ground zero, again. As a result, ocker films like Stork (1971), The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972), Alvin Purple (1973), and Petersen (1974) first stormed onto the scene. Their eponymous “urban heroes” satirized contemporary Australian “vernacular, characteristically vulgar behavior and masculine habits” (8). This unsophisticated interpretation of the meaning of Australianness was based on filmmakers’ own insecurity and bitterness, at the time. It would take them a couple more years to develop the necessary skills to properly reflect upon their own identity.
In contrast, more matured history films form the second phase of this process. As dramatizations of historical events, these films displayed a strong grip on their past: The Getting of Wisdom (1977) and My Brilliant Career (1979) are firmly situated during the last decade of the nineteenth century; Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) are characterized by the chaos at the turn of the century; Gallipoli (1981) depicts the battles of World War I; The Irishman (1978) and Caddie (1976) are set in the roaring twenties; and The Devil’s Playground (1976) and Newsfront (1978) take place in a new reality after World War II. In these instances, Australian filmmakers are not necessarily nostalgic or critical of these formative periods, as much as they are aware of their lingering effects. These tumultuous times have shaped the Australian psyche and can only be reckoned with if they are confronted with a clear set of mind.
Besides these ambitious period pieces, there also emerged a growing wave of exploitation films. The origin of this phenomenon can be clearly traced back to the introduction of the R rating in 1971. Australian cinema was liberated by this landmark achievement, but also immediately started to abuse its newfound freedom. Graphic depictions of sex, drugs, and violence became a major selling point of low-budget movies. Filmmakers primarily gave in to these cheap thrills in order to attract curious theatergoers, but it also helped them to become more deeply entrenched in genre conventions. By transcending previous code limitations, genre films finally illustrated the heart of their subject matter. Thus, the Ozploitation craze included horror movies (Night of Fear (1972), Patrick (1978), and Thirst (1979)), thrillers (End Play (1976), Long Weekend (1978), and Roadgames (1981)), dystopian fiction (The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), Mad Max (1979), and The Chain Reaction (1980)), and crime films (Stone (1974), Money Movers (1978), and Touch and Go (1980)).
In general, Australian New Wave films are heavily influenced by two competing styles of filmmaking (Haltof 8). On one side, classical Hollywood cinema presented directors with a systematic approach to narrative progression, cinematic framing, and editing technique. These principles had already been shown to be immensely popular and were therefore closely followed by directors who wanted to replicate their success in Australia. George Miller, for instance, studied Hollywood action films, westerns, and road movies to arrive at his equally successful Mad Max series (8–9). But on the other side, European art cinema rejected all of these classical conventions in favor of a more truthful representation of the main subject. The first experimental phase of the French New Wave demonstrated this radical break with tradition that soon enchanted all of Europe. Elvira Madigan (1967), for example, had the unconventional approach to contrast a tragic love story with the lush fields and forests of the Swedish countryside. Peter Weir used this beautifully shot film as an aesthetic model for his mysterious portrayal of nature in Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) (8). However, these two sides were not entirely exclusive. Many directors also combined aspects of both styles in their work. My Brilliant Career (1979), for instance, is as much inspired by John Ford, as it is by Agnès Varda.
From a box office point of view, the New Australian Cinema produced films of commercial success and international acclaim that were able to compete at home against Hollywood productions. To be more concise, the domestic box office grossed $4,720,000 for Alvin Purple (1973), $1,356,000 for Sunday Too Far Away (1975), $5,120,000 for Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), $2,645,000 for Storm Boy (1976), $1,576,000 for Newsfront (1978), $5,355,490 for Mad Max (1979), $3,052,000 for My Brilliant Career (1979), and $11,740,000 for Gallipoli (1981) (“Australian Films”).
However, there was also a flipside to these box office receipts, because all the aforementioned successes were actually the rare exceptions. Even though 1975 marked the breakthrough year for Australian cinema, it also indicated a changing tide. That same year, the Whitman Government restructured the Australian Film Development Corporation as the Australian Film Commission, which fatally “was given a free hand and was exempt from political control” (Stratton 15–16). After five years of unconstrained operation, the AFC had given out so many grants that they returned only about 38% of their investments. In fact, almost half of the “about fifty feature films” that they supported “were complete write-offs representing total losses” (16). The South Australian Film Corporation did not fare much better, either. They also handed out their money way too freely, so that by 1978 they reaped nothing but commercial failures (17). A spiraling budget inflation and a declining theater attendance certainly did not help (17). Almost every Australian film released in 1979 was box office bomb, except for Mad Max and My Brilliant Career. This “convinced investors that [only] newcomers, backed by experienced technical teams, could” succeed financially, anymore (284). As a result, established directors and personal scripts were dropped in favor of closely monitored commercial films with international appeal (289).
This “reactionary thinking” that abandoned true Australian talent and reduced Australian films to “the lowest common international denominator” ultimately brought in the collapse of the Australian Film Revival (290–291). At the time, Fred Schepisi exclaimed that trying to fund “an Australian film would be so difficult as to make the effort hardly worthwhile” (284). In consequence, he soon retreated to the United States, as did Bruce Beresford, Richard Franklin, and Peter Weir. Gillian Armstrong, Phillip Noyce, and George Miller still had some success in Australia, but they also looked abroad for funding. Tim Burstall, Donald Crombie, and Henri Safran stayed firmly in Australia, but saw very few of their projects greenlit. “This left the way clear for the newcomers,” who were, however, put under tremendous pressure to stay within budgets and appeal to a broad range of audiences (284). The Australian film industry had certainly changed.
All in all, it was a long road, but also one that paved the way for decades to come. The Australian Film Revival established federal and state funding bodies, the Australian Film and Television School, and the Australian Classification Board. New Wave films reinvented Australianness, were internationally celebrated for it, and thus redefined the country’s reputation. The 1980s were still riding on this success, so that the effects of the collapse did not appear in the box office numbers, until a decade later (“Australian Films” Graph 2). Moreover, due to the accomplishments of the Australian Film Revival, the domestic production rate has been steadily increasing and Australian films have been able to compete against their American counterparts (Graph 4, 10). Certainly, the following decades still developed local talent that produced great Australian cinema. Art films have become a rare sight, though. But if you look for them, you can still find them:
Thank you, Lucas and Tina, for allowing me to write this admittedly not very speculative blog post and for being so lenient about deadlines.
“Australian Film and Television Chronology: The 1970s.” Australian Screen Online, aso.gov.au/chronology/1970s/. Accessed 2 Mar. 2022.
Australian Films at the Australian Box Office. Film Victoria, 2009, web.archive.org/web/20160201101046/http://www.film.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/967/AA4_Aust_Box_office_report.pdf.
Australian Law Reform Commission. “National Classification Scheme Review.” Discussion Paper, vol. 77, Sep 2011. Australian Law Reform Commission, alrc.gov.au/publication/national-classification-scheme-review-dp-77/.
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