Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 1, No. 1, 1987
Australian Film in the 1950s
Edited by Tom O'Regan

Nascent Innovation:
Notes on Some Australian Features of the 1950s

Stuart Cunningham

There is a sense of renewed interest in and concern for the contexts and achievements of Australian filmmaking in the 1950s, to which this inaugural issue of Continuum itself testifies. The broad implications for an historiography of the period are taken up elsewhere in this issue, particularly in Tom O'Regan's introduction, so I don't wish to belabour general points in these notes. Rather, I want to lay out a number of observations, none of them in any sense developed satisfactorily, regarding certain filmmaking projects of the period. In doing so, perhaps the purpose of this issue, that of opening up lines of investigation into a generally neglected aspect of Australian film history, can be furthered.

There are various manifestations of interest in 1950s filmmaking, not necessarily commensurate with each other, nor dovetailing neatly into a coherent pattern of reinterpretation, homage, nostalgia or analysis. There is Ross Gibson's powerful evocation of paradigmatic images of a cinematically sentient Australia, drawing on two great film texts of the period, Sons of Matthew (1949) and The Back of Beyond (1954), in his Camera Natura (1986),1 pioneering the need for an aesthetics of appropriation of the film heritage, copyright royalties notwithstanding. So too, there is the singular importance of Jedda (1955) to Aboriginal cultural commentators as the first of very few features to give blacks top billing. The recent, heavily-publicised volume The Greats 2 included Chauvel, indeed he was the only figure from the 'mass media' to be so included. Important works of left reminiscence, inter alia amply demonstrate why and how many would never be remotely considered for entry to The Greats, chief amongst them Cecil Holmes' One Man's Way 3 and, more obliquely, Roger Milliss' Serpent's Tooth. 4 So too the jejune Chips: The Life and Films of Chips Rafferty 5 by Bob Larkins at least whets the appetite for the forthcoming biography of Rafferty by Michael Noonan.

These are the more public manifestations. Other work is in progress - some of it represented in this issue. What none of this material underestimates is the severity of production circumstance in the 1950s: the Capital Issues restrictions in the early years of the decade; the start and deepening of conservative rule under Menzies and its attendant cultural black-out and mass exodus of film and other cultural talent from Australia; the direct and more mediated effects of Cold War anti-leftism on the government film unit and those, like Cecil Holmes, who tried to work for it; the exits of Greater Union and Ealing from systematic production in the late 1940s and early 1950s; the effects of TV and of international financial control and interest in the distribution-exhibition, sector producing an even greater indifference toward support for indigenous production than before; the highly symbolic scandals of certain American location films, particularly Kangaroo (1952) and On the Beach (1959), which dangled the carrot of characteristic Hollywood largesse in front of largely excluded local film actors and technicians.

These elements, however, don't cohere into a scenario of achieved 'cultural imperialism'; the factor of locally-induced breakdown is too potent. However, given these parlous production 'constraints', the achievements of a number of films, production companies, and individuals during the period take on greater stature. While the 1950s signalled the end, in many senses, of the 'second generation' of Australian production, it can also be seen as marking out many of the paths of the 'third generation'.

There is, given the numerically limited output of features, an exciting range of film style, format and experimentation compared to earlier periods of more sustained feature production. This can be attributed to two influences: the integration of classical documentary methods and approaches to material, and the first marked effects of the international art cinema on Australian filmmaking. Harry Watt's first two Ealing films in Australia, The Overlanders (1946) and Eureka Stockade (1949) were the hallmarks of the first and Ron Maslyn Williams' Mike and Stefani (1952) was an excellent example of the second; although to put these films together like this is already to underline the extent of the interrelation of the documentary 'idea' and the appropriation of art cinema protocols. Putting these two stylistic influences together with a more explicit socialist humanism than usually informed them produced two of the most politically and stylistically innovative reworkings of nationalist archetypes both for the time and subsequently, Cecil Holmes' Captain Thunderbolt (1953) and Three in One (1957).

International stylistic ensembles virtually untouched in the Australian cinema are juxtaposed in these films: expressionism, social realism, neo-realism, Soviet social-class typage. Unfortunately treated as almost perfunctory asides in Holmes' recent autobiography One Man's Way, these two films are starting in their range of innovation within the tradition of Australian features. This is not completely surprising given the personnel involved: the accomplished cinematographer Ross Wood (on both films), Margaret Cardin, a British editor who had worked with Lean, Reed and Asquith, editing Thunderbolt, Colin Scrimgeour and Frank Hardy backing Thunderbolt and Three in One respectively, and the quality performances of Grant Taylor, Bud Tingwell, Jack Fegan, Jean Blue, Reg Lye, Leonard Teale. (Indeed, the acting and direction of actors in many features of the 1950s arguably represents a definitive break with theatrical protocols that so marked Australian cinema throughout the 1930s.)

Wood's cinematography in both films exploits new stylistic possibilities for reworking Australian space and theme. Its use of high, low, and canted angles codes outback spaces in the first episode of Three in One, 'Joe Wilson's Mates', and Thunderbolt expressionistically. Night-for-night shooting in the wood stealing sequences in 'The Load of Wood', the sequence of the young couple wandering the streets in The City' (episodes two and three of Three in One) are powerfully drawn neo-realist and social realist reprises. -The spare, halting staging of figures in the Australian landscape, especially the long burial sequence in 'Joe Wilson's Mates' and the escape of Ward and Blake in Thunderbolt, bear effective comparison to no earlier or contemporaneous film except The Basic of Beyond. Thunderbolt's hysterically overcoded 'class enemies' sequences - the trial of Ward and Blake for horse stealing, the subsequent robbing by the two bushrangers of their trial judge and his three capitalist cronies - are an outrageous piece of cinephilic interpolation in homage to Eisenstein that outstrips even the tendentious master the black suited, brandy-swilling, cigar-chomping, bloated capitalists are framed vertically from floor level underneath a glass-topped table!

Thunderbolt, it seems to me, is a particularly confident, stylistically and politically radical short fiction for a feature directorial debut, notwithstanding Holmes' disarmingly endemic self deprecation in One Man's Way. It is undoubtedly the best treatment of the highly-censored bushranger' theme in the Australian cinema It displays economical narratorial control with strong, even flashy, trans-sequential linking devices - the gun aimed at the spectator, shock pans and cuts, musical riffs, and the Wild Colonial Boy' montage sequence -and emphatic cut-aways, lighting effects, framing and camera movement. The Ward and Blake escape sequence, amongst many other moments in this film and Three in One, is a masterly example of this stylistic confidence that demonstrates that Holmes could not only quote from the international art and political cinema traditions but appropriate them for the purposes of politicising a central 'national fiction, bushranging.

The film's enunciative or discursive strategies are overt, even tendentious, yet simultaneously quite complex: an unambiguously radical but formal 'thick' text. On the other hand, the film offers- a progressive-populist, 'identificatory', account of bushranging (based, as Holmes has said, on Frank Clune's 'definitive' The Wild Colonial Boys6 by means of the (albeit rather perfunctory) psychobiographising of Ward, the latitude accorded Grant Taylor to develop a powerfully heroic '1890s radical' performance of the character of Ward/Thunderbolt (and thus a cinematically conventional central character as identificatory hero), and the somewhat disingenuous denouement which follows the historical record of the bushranger only so far as it allows for the (again conventional) 'happy end' of legendary' Thunderbolt, miraculously escaping the police net. Cutting across these elements are the emphases on social-political determinants that construct the category of outlaw and the narratorial distance from the subject of identification created by 'speaking' the narrative through Sergeant Mannix, a particularly noisome piece of colonial constabulary whose dominant motivations for pursuing Ward and Blake are revenge and sadism.

Two further notes are in order regarding these two neglected films of Cecil Holmes. First, their productive displacement of the bush/city duality which has been structurally dominant, explicitly or implicitly, across the main body of features, and documentary work for that matter, throughout the history of Australian cinema. Consider, here, the way in which Thunderbolt engages in reasonably fastidious location shooting in the New England Tableland region but does not render it as spectacle, as all other locationist projects did; or the way Three in One moves representatively from outback to semi-rural township to inner-city without the movement being marked as in any way in and of itself significant. Second, the symptomatic irony that, of 1950s features, these were two of the very few 'completely Australian' productions (in terms of technical and acting personnel, financing, as well as being innovative in treating paradigmatic 'nationalist' material) and yet were treated with almost complete neglect in the national trade while receiving considerable critical attention and international art-house exposure.

I want to return now to a quite different filmmaking project in the 1950s - The Chips Rafferty- Lee Robinson partnership, which started as Platypus Productions (with George Heath) for The Phantom Stockman (1953), then Southern International for King of the Coral Sea (1954) and the co-productions Walk into Paradise (1956), The Stowaway (1958), Dust in the Sun (1958), and ending as Australian Television enterprises for The Restless and the Damned (1959). I think the Rafferty-Robinson partnership the life span of which neatly covers the decade under consideration, along with the Ealing experiment spanning a slightly longer but less intensely concentrated period of filmmaking, best presents the problematics of fifties feature production.

This is a project bedevilled by the myriad difficulties of mounting and maintaining local film production in the period but whose financial profile was a handsome success at least until the latter years of the decade. The ultimate demise of the project is attributable more to financial overreaching and the internal management of the co-production arrangements than to any more global 'cultural imperialist' notion of disempowerment of Australian film production. This is a project that developed a model of negotiating the industry culture duality well before such terms had sharpened through critical debate, state intervention and more contemporary industry practice into the central discursive place they occupy now; it is therefore a project that should have been examined much more closely than it was in the period of industry 'revival'. It is a project, essentially, of exploitation filmmaking - exploitation of antipodean exoticism which nevertheless can be read as a viable model of response to local production circumstances in the period. Basically intended to fit into the international B-movie market, some of these terms still had considerable budgets and quite lavish location schedules for Australian films - Walk into Paradise,for instance, rivalled Jedda in the complexities of shooting colour in difficult locations (and in dual language versions) on a similar budget, and yet was brought in almost on time on a twelve-week schedule! Additionally, for a project that constitutes such an intriguing antecedent to more recent attempts at servicing international market imperatives, some of these films, particularly those in which Rafferty acted bear significance for a more culturalist notion of a 'national cinema'.

Whereas the Holmes films amply demonstrate the opening up of Australian film to international art cinema influences, the Rafferty-Robinson partnership represents the first ongoing Australian engagement in another global development during the 1950s: international co-production. It may be stating the obvious, but the Southern International project should be clearly distinguished from the varieties of location' filmmaking in Australia in the period in terms of the degree of production control exercised by the local protagonists. And this production control was turned definitively away from local exposure: Robinson speaks in interviews of Rafferty being necessarily uninterested in Australian audiences. This strategy was, at least initially, an unqualified success.

Nevertheless, we can read these films in terms of a project in 'national cinema' as it undergoes positioning in international markets. This is to be understood in terms of the rather ad hoc, industrially-defined rather than content-specific category of the exploitation film: 'exploitation' of established genres, Australian and South Pacific exoticism, and, what I shall discuss in some detail here, the 'Chips Rafferty' figure as 'national cinema star persona'.

Analysis of star persona and performance has been advanced recently in several innovative studies. 7 Almost exclusively, and understandably, though these have concentrated on luminous instances of the Hollywood star system. There have been exceptions: Bazin's "The Destiny of Jean Gabin", and, of recent work, two of the most interesting have been Comolli's "A Body Too Much" and Vincendeau's study of Gabin. 8 Despite the crucial importance of 'national star' performances bodying forth the heavily over determined weight or marketable national typage 'on top of, as it were, standard signifying procedures centring enunciation and address around the star, there has been scant analysis of central figures of major national cinema movements such as Gabin, Anna Magnani, Emil Jannings, or Hanna Schygulla. Analysis of the career trajectory, performance style, character types and modes of promotion and reception of Rafferty would constitute a significantly new way of slicing into a neglected period of the Australian cinema, and, inter alia, would tell us a good deal about the ebb and flow of cultural dependency and underdevelopment.

The major performances of the career - in Forty Thousand Horsemen, The Overlanders, Eureka Stockade - occur early under strong established directorial control and stage a persona/screen character relationship that, with minor variation, was to be cemented, for better or worse, for the term of the career until its generic transmogrification in Rafferty's last performance, Wake in Fright (1971). In the films of Platypus and Southern International directed by Robinson and starring Rafferty - The Phantom Stockman, King of the Coral Sea, and Wall into Paradise, the Rafferty persona appears as a lugubrious congealment of the earlier performances and characterisations. Certainly less engaging (within films that have far less assured directorial control), they are nonetheless fascinating in terms of the packaging of the persona within the demands of the international action-adventure or displaced-Western 'genre'. As the 'Sundowner' in Phantom Stockman, Rafferty plays a legendary outback figure around which a veritable universe of generic motifs constellate: he is reputedly ten feet tall, bush animals 'know'' him and come to his call, he stops tribal wars amongst black tribes! Throughout the film, the Sundowner exerts a kind of transcendental patriarchal and juridical power, solving crimes by superior detection, escaping entrapment by using Aboriginal mental telepathy, and realigning the disturbed narrative universe of no less than his godchild, Kim Mardsen. In King of the Coral Sea, Chips is Ted King, 'King' of the pearling industry whose avuncular/paternal oversight sees his daughter reunited with a redeemed pink gin playboy and the pearling industry racketeers apprehended. Wall into Paradise has Rafferty as a vastly-experienced New Guinea administrator called back from leave to lead a difficult expedition to establish- a landing strip in the middle of the Highlands.

In all these films the negotiation of sexual difference is rendered at the very margins of the narrative and a refined, avuncular masculinity tenders itself as our guide through an 'acceptable' specularisation of landscape and exotic non-Western culture. Chips is a figure fashioned out of a particular landscape; he 'stars' only insofar as it also stars. The narratives are too weak to bring his performances in themselves into focus as anything more than minor triumphs of 'technical' perfection. If Rafferty was Australia's only 'international film star' 9 before the contemporary period, this was indicative of both the relative success of the international marketing of the persona and the failure of the Australian cinema to develop any more than the most limited repertoire of performance, character and narrative styles.

Australian cinema in the 1950s can be read, with a due amount of realism and historically specific caution, in terms of quite contemporary post-classical developments in institutional and textual filmic regimes. In this perspective, the period would begin to look less like the deracinated fag end of the 'first' Australian cinema and more like a series of connections with models of textual and institutional practice developing powerful currency at the time within the post-war 'internationalisation' of the cinema and which a 'second' Australian cinema would have good reason, in its time, to entertain and debate.


1. Camera Natura (1986) dir. Ross Gibson. prod. John Cruthers. This film is a significant extension of ideas developed in Gibson's article "Camera Natura: Landscape in Australian Film", Framework, nos. 22/3 (1983), pp.47-5 1.

2. Leonie Kramer at al, The Greats: The 50 Men and Women who Most Helped to Shape Modern Australia (Sydney: Angus & Robertson in Association with Channel Nine and the Bulletin, 1986).

3. Cecil Holmes One Man's Way (Ringwood. Vic.: Penguin, 1986)

4. Roger Milliss Serpent's Tooth: an Autobiographical Novel (Ringwood: Penguin. 1984)

5. Bob Larkins Chips: The Life and Films of Chips Rafferty (Melbourne: Macmillan, 1986)

6. Frank Clune The Wild Colonial Boys (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1970).

7. For example Richard Dyer, Stars(London: BPI, 1979); and Heavenly Bodies - Film Stars and Society (London Macmillan/BFI 1986).

8. Andre Bazin, "The Destiny of Jean Gabin" in What is Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971); Jean-Louis Commoli, "Historical Fiction - a Body too Much" trans, Screen, p. 19, no.2 (Summer 1978); Ginnette Vincendeau

9. "Community, Nostalgia and the Spectacle of Masculinity", Screen, v.26, no.6 (Nov./Dec. 1985).

10. Larkins, p57

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