The Politics of Representation: An Analysis of the Australian Film Revival

Tom O'Regan

Chapter 3

Putting the case [for a feature film industry]

The last chapter showed how a 'film industry' (for TV) became an important bi-partisan goal, how 'culture' in Australia was asserted as a priority, and how film societies produced an intellectual concern for film. In this chapter we will see how the film industry came to focus on the feature film, how 'culture in Australia' became metamorphosed into questions of 'Australian culture' and how the appreciation of the film societies was publicly projected, such that a national cinema as art form could become a widely held quite spontaneously understood notion.

Feature film for the cinema had to be put on the public agenda and a group of cineastes helped put it there. They made the film appreciation, film art and Australian film history discourses more widely available. They also formulated a case for government subsidies to feature film and credited a national cinema with progressive cultural, social and national consequences. Their agitational discourse was aimed at replacing (1) the existing kinds of feature film activity (the location film), (2) notions of an Australian cultural lack and (3) the TV dominated discussions of the film industry.

Of concern in this scenario are features of this national cinema discourse - its rationality - rather than any inherent weaknesses it might have as a set of arguments. Operating this discourse produced not only the possibility of a number of outcomes, but also gave a framework in which Australian cinema could be subsequently appreciated, contested and written about.


What was the discourse of Australian film that informed the agitation for a feature industry? The main elements of the discourses were these. Firstly, at an aesthetic level, the cinema benefited the Australian community, nation and culture. Secondly, it was popular and modern, if not the modern art form. Thirdly, Australia, since federation, had had a fortuitous association with feature film making and in that time produced good, innovative cinema. Fourthly, the demise of Australian feature making from the forties through to the sixties had occurred because of the combination of Hollywood and British monopoly in the exhibition and distribution field and a lack of enlightened government action. Fifthly, at a practical level, both government production subsidies to an all Australian low budget feature making and government intervention into the local exhibition and distribution arrangements were essential. At a political level then, re-establishing a feature film industry was a progressive measure indicating, not only a commitment to culture, not only a broadening and modernising of the cultural net, but the provision of neglected services to the community.

There are at least three registers in which this discourse was elaborated: firstly, the public agitation for a feature film making, secondly the lobbying of the government and, thirdly, the advising of government and subsequent adoption of this rhetoric. The public agitation is examined here while the second and third are the concern of the next two chapters.

In the late sixties and early seventies, a number of critics (eg. Sylvia Lawson, Colin Bennett, Noel McLachlan) and film maker critics (eg. Mike Thornhill, Joan Long, Tony Buckley, Phillip Adams) embarked on a campaign for a national cinema. In a series of newspaper and journal articles they set out some common reference points as to why Australia should have a film industry.

The work of these writers gained a relatively wide hearing in Australia. During this period, Thornhill was a film critic for the national daily, The Australian; Lawson was the film critic for the national fortnightly, The Nation (later the Nation Review)' Bennett wrote reviews and features for the Melbourne based daily, The Age and Adams had a regular column in The Australian. Lawson and McLachlan also contributed to the two main cultural journals Meanjin and Quadrant, while Thornhill wrote for the widely circulated Current Affairs Bulletin as well as for his own publication, co-edited with Ken Quinnell, the Sydney Cinema Journal (SCJ). Joan Long and Tony Buckley contributed to this and to other cinema journals with Joan Long's research forming the basis of both John Baxter's Australian Cinema (1970), and the controversial documentaries on Australian cinema for the Commonwealth Film Unit (1968, 1972).[1]

The discourses of these critics and film makers had been formed in the film society movement of the sixties through journals such as the Melbourne Film Society's Film Journal and the Sydney Cinema Journal produced by people (Thornhill and Ken Quinnell) attached to the Sydney Film Group. For them, the feature film was the prime form of creativity. Influenced by Cahiers du Cinema's decisive intervention into film culture, both art house and Hollywood films were admired in these journals.


As already noted, the question of Australian content on TV and the status of The Vincent Report tended to dominate the mass media debates in the sixties. The report functioned as a visionary document for writers arguing for a national film industry. They singled out two crucial points from it: its endorsement of local TV drama as a significant human/cultural and national necessity; and its construction of Australians as having a propensity to do drama.

Because the report was never debated in parliament by the conservative Menzies government, its shelving became a sign for them of the same philistinism that in the past had allowed a prosperous film industry to be taken over and phased out by overseas capital leaving 'Raymond Longford ... probably the best of our early film makers to end up as a tally clerk on the Sydney docks'.[2]

The critics at once repeated and transformed the Vincent case to anchor it to a feature rather than a TV drama industry. Cinema was a powerful medium necessary to the development of native cultural expression, to a nascent nationalism and to propagandise Australia overseas. By extending Vincent's discussion of the rise and fall of the early Australian film industry they supported, not so much increased Australian content on TV, but the establishment of a feature film industry as a priority in its own right. The 'melancholy spectacle' of the Australian film industry was also its present feature history.[3] Additionally, the report's film production recommendations provided a negotiable blue print for a feature industry. Vincent claimed that there needed to be subsidies to TV drama production and that the Australian Broadcasting Control Board (ABCB) needed to demand greater levels of Australian content from the stations.[4] Both were relevant to the creation of a feature film industry inasmuch as there needed to be similar production support and some means of ensuring exhibition and distribution involvement in feature productions.[5]

So too, the quality objective of the report was taken over, but not the means to achieve it (ie co-productions and the limited importing of overseas personnel).[6] The whole arena of co-production advocated by Vincent could have no place in the raising of Australia's film production standard nor in continuous feature activity. An international standard quality film making would come, not from injections of overseas capital and talent, but through all Australian feature film making.[7]

In using Vincent they sought to forge separate identities for feature film and TV in the (independent) film production industry. In this they were helped by the failure to debate Vincent: if nothing could happen in TV perhaps it could in the cinema.


This repositioning of Vincent was accomplished alongside a more detailed reconstruction of Australian film history and the elaboration of a set of arguments specifically relating to the intrinsic priority of the feature film. These moves were designed to think a position which could yoke diverse social, cultural and political groupings to the notion of a feature industry.

Through their elaboration of an Australian film history they constructed an Australian tradition in the cinema. This tradition was said to include masterpieces (The Sentimental Bloke, 1919) great directors (Longford and Tal Ordell), action directors (Charles Chauvel), a popular production house (Cinesound in the thirties), the first feature film ever made (variously Soldiers of the Cross, 1899 or The Kelly Gang, 1906) and a peculiarly Australian bushranger genre. The tradition also entailed a history of overseas (usually American) conspiracies in the area of exhibition and distribution to squeeze out local production and secure the domination of Hollywood together with federal government inaction against this process.[8]

The projected Australian cinema was to be legitimated on the basis of an organic link with the 'tradition' thus constructed for the purpose. The sophistication of the expected new cinema would then be seen in relation to the earlier films and to world cinema rather than in relation to the current TV drama. The 'new' Australian cinema was to be the possible fulfilment of the promises shown earlier, provided there was government action to support production and some settling of accounts with the Americans. In that way, the proposed new feature industry had more to do with the past than the present, both in terms of the issues and problems facing it and in terms of the types of expression evidenced in the popular and unselfconscious products of the 'tradition'.

Despite the proto-nationalism of this tradition, the comparison of directors with their famous overseas counterparts was a consistent rhetorical figure with these writers. Colin Bennett compared Charles Chauvel to Cecil B. de Mille and spoke of Snowy Baker as 'our Douglas Fairbanks of the 1920's'.[9] Sylvia Lawson, in turn, wrote of the achievements of Tal Ordell (Kid Stakes, 1927) and Raymond Longford as anticipating de Sica and neo-realism:

To look at their films now is to find out how it felt to live here forty years ago - and, incidentally, to realise that the way of looking at urban life that critics christened neo-realism was not invented by Vittorio de Sica.[10]

In addition, a sense of quality could be conveyed through reference to the overseas reception of a film. According to Noel McLachlan, the English praise for The Sentimental Bloke was not marked by any trace of imperial condescension'.[11] In fact both strategies of valorisation continue to be mobilised today: overseas first release, particularly at the Cannes festival, is seen as an important precondition for local theatrical success.

The early cinema was mainly put into discourse, so to speak, on the backs of the well-known cinema landmarks. The paradox of the Australian cinema lies in the way in which it understood itself not in its own terms, but in those constructed for Hollywood and European cinema. Australia repeated, albeit on a smaller scale, what that cinema had done and had achieved. That which should have been familiar by virtue of its being Australian was made familiar by tracing its similarities with highpoints of overseas cinema. In this way, Australian cinema was endowed with all the marks of world cinema: from the showman Ken Hall to the action director Chauvel; from the 'Lillian Gish' Lotte Lyall to the neo-realist Ordell.[12]

Recalled through the rememberance of the familiar landmarks and historic significance of Hollywood and European cinema, this lost national cinema gained its sense of significance precisely in the act of comparison itself. This comparative perspective had its origins in the absence of Australian feature production on the one hand; and on the other hand the massive presence of Hollywood on popular horizons and the British/European art film on film society horizons. The sheer weight of both naturally put what Australian product they could find in the archive into circulation as different from, yet similar to the foreign product rather than, as in the USA, France or England, where assessing the foreign cultural product is done in terms of its (dis)similarities to a mostly unspoken, taken from granted cultural identity of the local product. A further indication of this is the way that American and British film and TV do not tend to be identified as foreign (that epithet tends to be reserved for subtitled movies). They are to a large extent the taken for granted norms of entertainment and film culture. Being neither foreign nor part of the norm, Australian film/film history was eccentric, needing to be explained and understood by reference to both. The game, if you like, for the critics and their audience lay in their coming to claim the unfamiliar history, images and accents represented by these films as their own. It was not easy to do this. Lawson writes that she had to overcome an 'ingrained contempt for everything local' before Australian cinema could be worthy of rememberance.[13] To do so she took her reference points from European art cinema: when her generation of critics looked at the work of Longford, they did so 'with eyes sharpened by de Sica and Rossellini' and they thus came to perceive 'that once here, as elsewhere, movie making had been alive and very well indeed'.[14] And European art cinema was an apposite choice for comparison in more ways than one. In situating Longford and Ordell in relation to this oppositional tradition to Hollywood she invested Australian cinema with its connotations of art and quality and with its economic viability. Lawson was thus able to construct for Australian film making the past actuality and the future possibility of a cultural integrity absent from the Australian co-productions with the USA and UK of the 1950s and 1960s. At other times Lawson and the other critics constructed a mini-Hollywood in Australia during the twenties that could be repeated in the present. From Hollywood they took the necessity of a continuous film production industry.

This tradition, remember, was formed in a milieux in which Australia was seen to lack culture. Although the predominant sentiments of cultural lack and its devaluation of the old landmarks were not disputed, what was disputed was the finality of its sweeping assessments. Rather than dismissing that cultural history altogether in order to start afresh, they looked in other media like film (rather than the theatre and the stage) and other periods (than the present) to find an Australian cultural expression more to their taste. They were not so much producing a tradition for the sake of it, but were making a political affirmation of continuity. A

tradition in film making was thus a means of asserting that far from Australian culture being an empty space that needed to be filled by the familiar strategy of importing (culture and capital), there was already a culturally legitimate base to expand upon. There could be standards in Australian production achieved with reference to the lessons provided by the tradition.


Their concern to construct an Australian tradition was matched by a similar concern about the existing 'Australian' film output of the period - the location film. This was a concern that Australians speak and not be spoken for as happened in this film making. In this context, Thornhill made the crucial distinction between an 'American or English film made on location in Aukstralia' and an 'indigenous film'.[15] Through references to the success and failure of location films, an argument was mounted that Australians really wanted to see representations of their country, and ones especially made by themselves.

The box office success of The Age of Consent supported the argument for a national cinema of quality and integrity because it owed its popularity to 'the extent of audience hunger to see Australian background, Australian film and performers on screen'. This hunger had led audiences to 'accept hackneyed crudities in supposedly Australian work which they would hiss off the screen or simply walk out of it they appeared in overseas productions'.[16]

Similarly, the box office failure of Kangaroo supported the case for a national cinema because it could be attributed to the fact that it 'was an American, not an Australian film, with an American director, Lewis Milestone, and a mainly American cast and crew'. This had severely affected its plausibility and authenticity, making it 'a piece of fake Australiana' that audiences naturally rejected.[17] Kangaroo was a failure that the use of an all Australian cast, crew, writers and director could rectify. Irregular overseas projects using Australia only as an exotic location were not wanted. This argument was supported by historical evidence of the abnormally high cinema attendances for Australian produced films.[18] The location film was an aberrant phase of this film history rather than a taken for granted norm of it.

This rejection of the location film in favour of an indigenous cinema was also a polemic against those existing industry figures (Lee Robinson, Jack Lee, Ken Hall, John McCallum) who supported or were just working with co-production films. These were involved in the larger 'studios' in Sydney. Thornhill claimed that they had no right to the Australian film industry name as their features/tele-series were dependent ones with compromised cinematic values:

Invariably when they have entered into the production of feature films and series, it has been with overseas (mainly American) groups and film makers; and in search of the mid-Atlantic or more precisely the mid-Pacific hybrid, they seem almost eager to allow all creative decisions to be taken by 'overseas' experts.[19]

Co-productions and series of the kind that John McCallum helped set up (They're a Wierd Mob, 1966; Age of Consent) were location films. They meant a film industry where not a single member of the producers/directors guild and the Writers Guild were employed in feature work.[20] The economic realities of the local and international market place that these film makers had worked within, were part and parcel of the reality that needed changing. Their methods were too dependent upon Hollywood's whims and compromises and their aesthetic too bound to Hollywood models.

Whilst Australia needed a feature film industry, it was always a particular kind of film industry: a local film making with local creative decision making and a local outlook. Such an Australian film making would need to start with a clean slate drawing upon a past rather than the discredited exigencies of the present.


Their case for indigenous film making was further strengthened by a construction of the effects of cinema on progressive national sentiment and in turn of national sentiment on the cinema. There was even the suggestion of a possible destined relation between the cinema and Australia as a nation. As Noel McLachlan put it:

Thanks above all, to the coincidence of the invention of the moving picture and an aggressive young nationalism, Australians appeared as pioneers on the first frontier of film making.[21]

Furthermore, there was the amazing fact that:

In 1906, two men Johnson and Gibson, filmed The Kelly Gang. This was the world's first full length, multi-reel feature film and cost 800 pounds![22]

These auspicious beginnings held out the possibility of further Australian cinematic development given a resurgent nationalism and vice versa.

Cinema, more generally was a symptom of a nation's vitality and independence. As Lawson put it:

Perhaps the persistence of national film industries in countries like Mexico, Israel and Argentina has something to do with the fact that, in those countries, people felt that they were someone in particular; that national identities, often hard won and hardly sustained, must be insisted on, declared aggressively and often ... The extent to which any national cinema honestly reflects its own society is precisely the extent to which it will seem in other countries to be truthful of humanity in general.[23]

The proposed national cinema would owe its vitality and soundness as an industry to this nationalism, without which it would wither away. So too, international recognition and appreciation would flow from its cultural authenticity. As part of this case it was alleged that even the most 'idiosyncratic' directors (eg. Bergman and Bunuel) necessarily came out of a particular cultural environment which was and had to be the precondition for their genius.[24] Australian cinema's difference from other cinemas and its kinship affiliation to the cinema as a whole lay precisely in its reflecting upon and expressing its national situation. An indigenous cinema could thus enable: (1) an Australian membership of international culture; (2) a contribution to socially progressive developments; (3) a construction of Australian identities and (4) a space out of which genuinely creative film makers could emerge.

This desired national cinema would not come of its own accord. Action was required to help it along. Lawson, for instance, argued that in order to facilitate it, both film makers and the general public needed to be trained in film art.[25] This exposure to film art, when combined with an indigenous film making would provide the best form of training. By adopting this standpoint, the general promotion of the cinema and culture could be seen to complement formations of identity and nationalism. Thus a variety of political, aesthetic and creative directions were inextricably wedded to the notion of a national cinema. European intellectual traditions and cultural policies were thus rewritten in the Australian context to produce the necessity of protected, actively supported cultural industries of international standard.

Related to, but not wholly within this national cinema discourse was a set of instrumental national priorities, stressing the propaganda and advertising aspects flowing from an indigenous cinema. Noel McLachlan approvingly quotes D.W. Griffith in this respect:

All advertising, all sales efforts - D.W. Griffith once boasted - have never spread commercial America through the world as motion pictures have done. Our manners, our customs, our standards are becoming current in the most distant lands.[26]

McLachlan adds: 'What does the world know of Australia, commercial or otherwise?' A national cinema made economic sense and although this idea was not used principally to justify the industry, it was still there in the background. Later, it became more prominent with the 'export drives' of the late seventies.


The heterogeneous collection of nationalist and cinema-as-art figures elaborated above were also overlaid with a notion of cinema as 'popular' art, located between art and commerce. Indeed, cinema's commercial nature was seen to be the precondition for both its cultural significance and artistic reality. This was part of an argument for a 'national industry ... geared to commerce rather than culture'.[27] To support such an industry in the way that was needed, government and public alike would need to overturn the conventional distinction between 'highbrow culture' (which was worthy of assistance) and 'mass entertainment' (which was not). Thornhill elaborates:

To argue that a country can ... do without [mass entertainment] films is in most cases to speak from a particular view about what culture is. It is a rarefied view, with strong overtones of spiritual and moral uplift. More important, it is one which sees culture as very much the province of a certain social group and the product of a certain kind of education. 'Popular culture' in this view is a contradiction in terms. Such thinkings regards cinema as 'mere' mass entertainment, contributing nothing to the culture of a country and hence dispensible.[28]

An Australian feature film industry would be part of a larger process of democratising culture in populist terms. With a change of attitude towards film, a recognition would come that 'good film' can and does come out of a 'highly commercialised industry'. This was recognised 'in most European countries' where 'the cinema is regarded as a serious art form ... with its own criteria of judgement'.[29] In this way, Antonioni and the popular narrative films of Hollywood were drawn together without any sense of contradiction.

The idea of a commercial film industry producing art necessitated a different approach to feature film making than to the other performing arts. This was reflected in the kinds of institutions that the critics urged upon the federal government and the particular ways 'quality' film art would be achieved.

The UK and Europe (like Vincent) provided the precedent to follow. There, government, in providing part of the finance for individual films had created a form of commercial viability. Whilst their financial results were said to be not so different from those of the more commercial Hollywood cinema, film directors and writers under this form of government patronage had greater creative freedom to produce good films.[30] The government, by providing this stimulus would not only help establish a commercial industry, but would also facilitate the scale of production essential to the development of good cinema: 'We will never have our John Ford's or Michelangelo Antonioni's until there is an industry'.[31]

The irregularity of production had created a situation in which Australian features were 'too often ... just plain bad'.[32] Quality then was dependent upon quantity. Quality through continuity in film production in Australia could only be achieved in an ongoing commercial industry. Cultural policy needed to create an industry to assist the production of quality cinema rather than to pursue the more piecemeal forms of assistance given to other arts.


The campaign for a national cinema explicitly distanced itself from TV. Changes within Australian TV accompanied by the advent of the third commercial station in SMBA after 1964 were integral to the importance attached to feature film over TV. The third commercial station did in fact produce contradictory effects. Although it reduced the advertising revenues of each station, although it reduced station operating hours, and although it allowed the Americans to increase the price of their TV series (because there were now four stations - including the ABC - bidding for the output of the three American networks), it did in fact have the intended effect of increasing Australian content overall on TV. There was simply just not quite enough American product to go around now: local production became more necessary.[33] But the type of programming that resulted was generally unacceptable to the national cinema campaigners.

SMBA stations now looked to local production to plug the gaps created by the third license and to diminish their dependence on the USA by reducing the pressure upon their American series purchases.[34] And with the federal government under pressure from a wide cross section of the community to concede to drama content demands, this local production needed to accommodate the additional expense of local drama. Given the context of limited advertising revenues this drama had to be produced as cheaply as possible - but drama, unlike other programming genres, could be sold overseas thus allowing for some of the extra costs to be met. Hector Crawford came up with an Australian version of the long running, repetitive format, TV series that American and British TV had been developing when Channel 7 gave the go-ahead for Homicide in 1964.[35] Made on a shoe-string - yet still expensive to the SMBA stations - this series was the first Australian drama series to achieve high ratings. It ran for eleven years and some 509 episodes were made. Its success made Australian programming central to the overall ratings of TV stations in SMBA. Of course this was a particular kind of drama program which relied upon an industrial infrastructure designed to minimise costs at every turn.

This new situation in TV provided consistent employment to a number of people from actors to directors to scriptwriters whose creative aspirations could not be met within these long running, quickly produced and minimally rehearsed series. Also the economics of this new situation meant that high-production cost, limited episode serials with a longer preparation time were not possible without fundamentally altering the structural face of Australian TV. Paradoxically the third commercial stations produced more drama - but locked Australian produced drama into a particular king of tele-drama production technology which could only produce further frustrations with the face of Australian TV. For the cinema critics, like a number working at Crawford's in this period, a state sponsored feature film making came to be seen as the answer.

Their low opinion of TV had its roots in both the lack of opportunities within local TV that might have gone some distance in satisfying demands for creative, innovative and satisfying work for its personnel; and also in the taste for the 'movies' that film societies and mainstream cinema exhibition had created (the ideology of the 'big screen'). Thus if TV was referred to at all by the critics it was in pejorative terms. TV's creative workers were 'prostituting their [artistic] talents' in making TV advertisements where they languished for lack of creative opportunity.[36]

The local tele-dramas (Homicide, Skippy, Division 4) were at best 'high quality mediocrity' offering little creative scope.[37] The basis of a new industry with aesthetic intentions could not be formed out of this. The only value locally produced TV had for these critics was as a (technical) training ground for future feature film makers.[38]

However, these critics faced difficulties promoting this concept because TV was central to discussions of future film policy directions. Through their polemic,a they forged a separate identity for a (feature) film industry. This identity was basic to putting cinema upon a secure independent footing so that it could be agitated for and, in theory at least, acted upon without any necessary references to TV.

The clashes in the pages of the now defunct theatrical magazine Masque in 1967/8 between Thornhill and Ken Hall crystallise the different film industry programs in operation at the time.[39] Hall's arguments in particular are worth dwelling upon because they show what film industry production agenda was being displaced by the national cinema campaign. Hall opposed the basic tenets of the national cinema campaign: its pro-cinema stance; its aesthetic priorities and ambitions and its stress on the need for state assistance. He had definite ideas as to what Australian film making should do and that was to produce films for TV. Feature film production was a dead end:

... there is little or no future for the Australian producer making films with theatrical release as his major goal. There will be the occasional freak success at the box office of A Weird Mob but it may be another ten years before that happens again.[40]

The question: 'why is there no Australian film industry?' was a non-question for Hall, because there was already an active film industry. It made half hour dramas, news, features and commercials for TV.[41] The aspirations of the Australian film production industry needed to be projected onto the same horizons:

The pattern the young Australian producer must follow is in my view very obvious - to tailor films directly for the rapacious TV market, world-wide.[42]

Having no particular aesthetic reason for privileging the feature film (or drama for that matter) as forms in their own right, the eminent feature and newsreel director/producer for Cinesound in the thirties and forties

saw no sense in focussing energies upon the cinema. The Australian cinema market was just too small. TV had removed the basis of Cinesound's populist viability in low budget films for the 2,500 theatres in Australia and New Zealand.[43] There had been numerous theatre closures and the cinema-going habit had declined. Furthermore, with a perceived international trend towards fewer and fewer, usually larger budget features gaining greater proportions of the overall box office receipts, Australian cinema's ability to compete was much harder than it was in his day.

Although Rank's buying into Greater Union after the war coincided with the end of his feature film career, Hall did not see foreign ownership of exhibition and distribution as a pressing problem. For him the Australian film production's problems were structural to the industry rather than due to any distortions within it. Consequently, there was not, in his mind, a strong case for governmental action. It would more likely create - not rectify - distortions. Instead, the pressing need was to ensure the commercial viability of the Australian TV production industry. This commercial thinking needed to prevail over the aesthetic aspirations of proponents of a national cinema:

Art must wait ... at least until we can afford it, until there is in fact an industry in operation making pictures, consistently getting them on TV, making adequate returns to backers, keeping large numbers consistently employed.[44]

Consequently, legislating for art and attempting to produce film art were ill-affordable luxuries. Hall's was the logic of entertainment business; not subsidised culture-in-the-interests-of-the-nation.

Although Peter Finch, Errol Flynn, Cecil Kelloway and Rod Taylor had departed for overseas during Hall's active career, he could not see their departure as anything other than a natural situation.[45] Rather than being a sign of an absence of culture and opportunity in Australia, their departure was a recognition of the fact that the centre of world film production was Hollywood. Retaining talented creative personnel in Australia was therefore not possible so using it as an argument to support a local film industry was misconceived. He had no time for the notion of Australian artists in exile.

He dismissed the intensely melodramatic soundings of the images of Australian cultural backwardness being used more generally to demand increases in arts funding and more specifically to naturalise the case for government assistance to feature film making. His reply to the 'exiled' playwright Alan Seymour's remarks upon Hall's earlier Masque contribution to the film industry debate is exemplary in this regard:

[Seymour is] ... in grave danger of drowning in a welter of self pity ... 'Was I in prison all the time I lived in Australia' he plaintively asks ... 'years of stagnation in a city suburb' (my own fault nobody elses) ... 'I look back on Australia as a cold country, feelingless, hostile to me'. He now lives in Turkey which seems a suitable background. The Turks are a hardy race. Really Mr Seymour, such melodrama! Even the Henry Lawson he so despises would not dare to turn it on like that. 'The image Australians have of themselves - kind, easy going, tolerant, egalitarian, lovable' - he continues, 'seems to contain many lies. Most detestable is the sleepy uncomfortableness of fat, middle class Australians in this uncomfortable world' (ed. this comment was directed at Hall). There are of course absolutely no fat, sleezy, middle class people in his beloved Europe. Obviously, they all migrated to this intellectual wasteland long ago. If I were young again I would not want to live in the cold, bitter world of Alan Seymour. I hope he gathers no disciples. His run-for-cover kind are of no use in the construction of anything - particularly a country and a culture.[46]

The focus upon TV, the rejection of aesthetic aspirations, the need for commercial film packages, the rejection of 'small' state subsidised features and the refusal of images of backwardness, constituted an attack on virtually every tenet of the quality film aspirations. Consequently it is not surprising that Hall's industry prognostications occasioned a venomous rejoinder from Thornhill.

Thornhill replied by mocking Hall's credentials as an elder statesman of Australian film.[47] Hall was no less than an activist against film in Australia especially when in the twenties, as a publicity man for Greater Union, he earned his living by promoting and helping to create a demand for Hollywood's products. Similarly, in the thirties as a film producer, he enjoyed unparalleled support from the exhibition and distribution complex, yet he still insisted film producer's complaints about the exhibition/distribution machine were unfounded. In the fifties and sixties Hall 'toed the Sir Norman Rydge and Sir Frank Packer line in Australian popular culture'.[48] Whilst as chief executive of Sydney's Channel 9, he claimed the group 'could not afford any live (video-tape or kinescope) drama, that there was not the talent available and that people only wanted American tele-drama'.[49]

Similarly in the present of 1968, Hall was continuing his activism against Australian film by promoting a program of commercial TV production for the world market. The two alternatives that Hall touted, the USA network/UK TV sales and international general release features, would both allow creative control to pass out of Australian hands. An aesthetic impoverishment and an inevitable underemployment of Australian creativity would be the result. It would also leave the real distortions of the market caused by foreign dominance of exhibition and distribution to remain unchecked. Hall was defending once again the same old iniquitous status quo that had done such disservice to Australian cultural production.

Thornhill set the sixties critics more modest position against that of Hall and by implication many in the existing industry. The low budget feature production strategy of this position did not imply either a lack of quality nor a diminution of audience appeal, it simply involved a different kind of viability. The Hollywood scale of production and profits in the record breaking The Sound of Music were the 'dream time' - an unrealistic goal for Australia.[50] Instead, an Australian cinema committed to low budget production would seek its economic viability much further down the line in returning to its producers its significantly lower production costs. According to Thornhill, this low budget cinema had worthy precedent. Acknowledged masters such as Alfred Hitchcock were 'doing technical and artistic wonders on budgets not much higher than those of the quota quickies'.[51] Likewise, many low budget films, so called sleepers had become 'prestige pictures' with their box office success. Contrary to Hall, neither success nor quality could be ruled out in low budget features.

The economic viability of this low budget cinema would need to be predicated upon two things: governmental assistance to production and governmental intervention into the industry to secure both a fairer deal for producers and to ensure exhibitor and distributor involvement in Australian production.[52] Concrete actions like exhibitor and distributor finance and release contracts were needed to facilitate finance raising for feature films. Government assistance to ensure these actions would not be an interference with free enterprise but a recognition of existing constraints within the market.

Australian film needed to forge its own separate identity along European lines and not dream of cracking the Hollywood markets. It was literally a new industry that was being demanded. Phillip Adams in his exchange with Hector Crawford over the need for a film school (that Crawford denied) argued for a new industry totally separate from the TV industry:

... it seemed to me that we need a film school not to prop up the industry as it exists - making Homicides and TV commercials - but to help create a new industry, making feature films of international standard.[53]

This new film industry was intended to rival the existing TV one; even to eventually supplant it. The perceived low standards of Australian TV seemed to make a new industry that much more imperative. Such an industry would fulfil the hopes of playwrights like Alan Seymour, that a much needed change in the face and priorities of Australian culture and society could be achieved. To achieve this only certain people were qualified to speak with any authority and they were not existing media personnel nor the existing Australian film and TV production institutions. The old guard, like Hall, should have no place in the new industry. So the 'realists', (products as they were of the fifties and sixties experience of film making without government assistance) needed to be ignored.

These ideas came to some sort of fruition. When a film industry was set up industry figures such as McCallum, Robinson and Hall were all pointedly absent from the government committees. Cultural figures such as H.C. Coombs, Peter Coleman and Barry Jones were there instead.[54]


There is one last feature of the critics' agitation that has not been examined and that is how they attempted to wed a feature industry to wider political and social discourses. A new feature industry was firmly associated with progressive (non-high-brow) positions within cultural politics. It was also proposed as part of a wider liberal (as opposed to a conservative) agenda. Thornhill described Hall's position as the conservative option. It would maintain not just the structural status quo within the cinema but also the political and social status quo. He described his own position as avowedly 'radical' - even 'socialist' because it called for change and new developments involving a more interventionist state in cultural spheres.[55]

The project of the feature film was espoused by people whose political and social beliefs were oppositional. Sylvia Lawson, for example, recollects that for her, the agitation for a film industry became inextricably tied to issues around the Vietnam war and women's liberation - not just arts issues.[56] They clearly saw, and sometimes promoted the priority of the film industry as an integral part of a wider range of liberal (and radical) issues. Whether a feature film industry was firmly placed there is not the issue, rather it is that they attempted to have a state sponsored feature industry recognised as a culturally and politically progressive measure.


To summarise, the disparate arguments deployed in the campaign for a national film industry were unified in the call for an Australian cinema as a cultural program. The cinema was an art form and therefore worthy of funding on the same cultural and artistic grounds as the performing arts. Cinema contributed significantly to the cultural life and self understanding of the nation. But as popular culture, cinema could view its industrial aspect without qualms (and even as an advantage over more elitist cultural forms). Support for cinema would help democratise arts policy. Unlike TV it could offer greater scope to creativity, and more generally, it was seen to be a politically progressive measure.

Clearly nationalism, popular culture, a critique of TV and the appreciation of 'good cinema' do not sit together easily, but in the context of a political, strategic, campaigning discourse, these different priorities were subsumed as mutually reinforcing arguments for feature film production. Although they were different notions, each implying different eventualities, types of film genres and appreciation strategies, all could irresistibly point to the necessity of the desired object: an Australian feature film industry. This eclectic collection of motivation and arguments for an industry produced the effect of a coherent, forceful, plausible and appealing case for Australian film making. Because Australian cinema seemed to mean all these things (art form, industry, studio, directors, stars, genres, national self expression), a diverse social, cultural and political clientele could gather around it. Whilst the project of the feature film was espoused by people who saw their political and social beliefs as being radical and oppositional, what they argued for and how they argued could find favour across the political spectrum.

Their agitational discourse formed a basis upon which cultural elites and decision makers within governments could recognise the necessity of a feature production industry. Its influence was such that by 1970 John Baxter was talking of an intellectual establishment incorporating a feature industry into a portfolio of liberal goals like abortion law reform and freedom from censorship.[57] An Australian film industry was appearing on the agenda of people like H.C. Coombs, now moving from the Reserve Bank into arts administration (and aboriginal affairs and environmental protection), and Liberal Party stalwarts, such as the NSW politician, Peter Coleman who had a keen interest in cultural policy.[58] (Coleman became the NSW Opposition leader in the late seventies.) For them, the film industry became integral to the new directions in arts policy they were pursuing. A film industry was inserted upon a cultural policy agenda. The tenets of the agitation thus formed the basis upon which politicians, arts advisers and bureaucrats could recognise the film industry and articulate their program for it. Indeed the agitational discourse subsequently came to be important precisely because the existing demands for a film production industry became taken up by the federal government through its expanded commitment to the arts. If such a commitment had come through the Post-Master General's Department (the Communications Ministry of the day) and its advisory body the ABCB then the kind of institutions that would have been recommended, the target of that policy and the kind of discourses that would have been produced to rationalise action upon it would have been different. TV would have been a priority, commercial pressure would have been greater, production support would have been oriented more to the existing industry (not antithetical to it) and some kind of attention would have needed to be paid to the structures of Australian TV.

Instead a film industry emerged on arts policy horizons as a peculiar kind of art form - inasmuch as commercial considerations were to be important to it. This idea of a 'commercial industry', tied as it was to a polemical appreciation of popular culture vis-a-vis high culture, won cultural policy support for an extensive program of film production and not just a limited number of arts sponsored features. It enabled cultural and governmental audiences to think that special financial and infrastructural priorities over and above that supplied to other cultural forms were essential to film activity.

The association of film with arts issues had other important repercussions. Whilst a commercially based film industry was part of the industry agitation and integral to the charters of the state and federal film bodies that were later established, the emphasis upon film as a cultural policy initiative removed it to some extent from a purely commercial calculus. As long as the feature film was moderately successful, was able to be inspected for signs of a national character and was talked about, it could remain a legitimate object for government subsidy on commercial and cultural grounds.

The irony here was that despite the fact that a market good - a commercial industry - was (to be) established, the feature film nonetheless was part and parcel of a program that was antithetical to the market place. This goes some way to explaining the establishment of an industry in an obviously precarious market and of the continuation of the Australian film industry into the eighties. Promoted as a prime instance of a government's and a culture's interest in non-material values, the form the film existed in, its material value, was to be within the film market place. It was this oscillation between the commercial and the non-commercial, that helped ensure the Australian feature film's place amongst conservatives and liberals alike and helped ensure, by the same token, that commercial considerations and cultural considerations would be firmly wedded together in a meaningful relation.


The agitational discourse has been analysed not so much to agree or disagree with the arguments but rather to consider the fact of its enunciation. It is to examine the positions and viewpoints articulated and the institutions which both prompted these discourses and stored and distributed them.

The agitational discourse was not a single discourse with always given effects, but rather a (constructed) family of discourses locked into diverse contexts of cultural production. The central tenets of this agitational discourse, its language, its priorities are still with us today. They were made official. But the relation between its past and its present enunciation it not linear, not one of cause and effect, but more precisely one of appropriation and transformation. This agitational program thus needs to be distinguished from its apparent repetition as something of an official celebratory orthodoxy in the present. There were different enunciative contexts involved in one being an agitational discourse and the other a celebratory one.[59] Those who agitated assumed among other things that recognising an indigenous tradition would in itself involve that much more: whether it be a clear idea of the structural dominance of Hollywood or the need for cultural and national independence and change in institutional and social relations. So too, the agitational discourse was only one of a number of contending discourses in the late sixties whose future within policy making was by no means assured (although it was finding increasing favour with arts policy makers but not communications policy makers). A salutary reminder of this is provided by John Baxter. His 1970 comments upon both how Australians really had a temperament unsuited to film, conditioned as they were to the beach, sloth and hedonism and upon how little of cinematic worth would come from a state aided feature production, went against the grain of the film industry movement.[60]

The celebratory discourse on Australian film of the present is no longer attached to ideas of developmental and social and structural changes. It is the celebration of arrival, not of coming into being; a self congratulation of its fact, not its potential. So too the national culture it is seen to express is now constructed as a single Australian culture overriding ethnic and social differences; rather than a national culture which was to be the projected outcome of an equal contribution from Australia's diverse social elements.

Whilst the relation between the agitational discourse and that uttered later is an uneven one of appropriation and transformation, it is perhaps fair to want to see in this agitational discourse, at the very least, a limiting of the possibilities of what could come. The stature of culture, and a national culture was left intact. Australia was to have a cultural industry like other nations, and in an unspecifiable way, this cultural industry would promote, indeed prop up, national interests as well as representing Australia abroad.

In one of the few dissenting articles of the period, Barrett Hodsdon questioned the function of both the valorising of the early Australian cinema and the cultural nationalist bases which framed discussion of and legitimated government involvement in film.[61] For Hodsdon, the early Australian film had very little bearing on a present industry:

The much vaunted Australian film industry of the silent and sound period can only be viewed today as remnants from the historical curiosity shop ... The feature fiction film was basically a surrogate located within the traditions of Hollywood narrative and dramaturgy, using Australian frontier society as a backdrop ... The propagandising that has occurred for the Australian cinema of the past is an attempt to establish some continuity with the present when none of value exists.[62]

For Hodsdon, the combination of fallacious argument when combined with the unearthing of relics could only result in ad hoc and unsuccessful policies for feature film making and have a crippling effect on film culture in general.

Hodsdon certainly threw into sharp relief the nature of the claims advanced. But it would be rash to assume that a more coherent government strategy based on less fallacious arguments would have achieved the effects Hodsdon argued for. Film production and evaluation strategies as a rule dispense with the assessment of the validity of arguments. They are used to advocate and publicly legitimise government involvement in the feature industry and to a lesser extent, they are used to assess projects and allocate funds. For both these purposes, the connections between agitating, government, funding and critical assessment are mobile and fluid. They cannot be judged according to a single set of coherent criteria, they are not fixed and do not produce uniform effects.

The coherence or incoherence of any given set of statements appears in this context to have little to do with their strategic efficacy. In this case, the desire for Australian films, the interest in their specificity and the notion of Australianness as a crucial asset in the marketing of Australian films were all produced through the public circulation of the agitational discourse described here.


1 Tony Buckley also produced and directed a documentary called The Forgotten Cinema (1967) for Ajax Films in Sydney. Involved with Buckley in this project was the prominant ABC TV personality Bill Peach who wrote its narration.

2 Noel McLachlan, 'What's on at the Flocks?', Meanjin, v. 25 (Dec. 1966), p. 506.

3 Lawson, 'Not for the Likes of Us', p. 28.

4 The Vincent Report, pp. 20-24.

5 Michael Thornhill, 'The Australian Film Industry Observed', Masque, no. 5 (May/June 1968), p. 9.

6 The Vincent Report, p. 28.

7 Thornhill, 'The Australian Film?', p. 30. This did not mean however that locally based multinationals like the exhibitors and distributors were not called on to invest in Australian films.

8 As Lawson wrote:

Australian had for thirty years its own film stars; its own father figures, dashing horsemen and honest youths, vile adventurers, other-woman types and sweet-girl-next-door types. The actors were accomplished, the cinematographers and film editors frequently brilliant and among the directors at least one, Raymond Longford was outstanding. ('Not for the Likes of Us', p. 29).

9 Colin Bennett, 'Film Trail Blazing with Chauvel', The Age, 5/5/1973.

10 Lawson, 'Not for the Likes of Us', p. 29.

11 McLachlan, p. 506.

12 The most complete elaboration of the tradition is provided in the three compilation documentaries: The Forgotten Cinema, The Pictures that Moved and The Passionate Industry.

13 Sylvia Lawson, 'Towards Decolonisation: Some Problems and Issues for Film History in Australia', Film Reader, no. 4 (1980), p. 64.

14 Ibid.

15 Thornhill, The Australian Film?', p. 30.

16 Lawson, 'Australian Film', p. 22.

17 Thornhill, 'The Australian Film?', p. 30.

18 This was a point that all the compilation documentaries consistently and graphically made.

19 Thornhill, 'The Film Inquiry', Lumiere, no. 19 (Dec. 1972), p. 26.

20 Thornhill, 'The Australian Film Industry Observed', p. 10.

21 McLachlan, p. 505.

22 Thornhill, 'The Australian Film?', p. 21.

23 Lawson, 'Not for the Likes of Us', p. 30.

24 Ibid., p. 31.

25 Lawson, 'Australian Film', p. 24.

26 McLachlan, p. 507.

27 Lawson, Australian Film?', p. 21.

28 Thornhill, 'The Australian Film? ', p. 29.

29 Ibid.

30 Thornhill, The Australian Film Industry Observed', p. 11.

31 Editoria, SCJ, no. 3 (Winter 1967), p. 1.

32 Michael Thornhill, 'How Can You Like What You Haven't Seen', Australian, 10/10/1970.

33 For an account of the immediate impact of the third commercial station see Davidson, pp. 11-26.

34 This argument about competititon increasing Australian content is drawn from Albert Moran's important forthcoming study The Australian TV Drama Producers (Sydney: Currency Press, 1985).

35 See Albert Moran, 'A Specific Australian Consciousness - Crawford Productions', (unpublished paper, Griffith University, 1982).

36 McLachlan, p. 506.

37 Phillip Adams, 'Adams' Rib', Australian, 4/12/1972.

38 McLachlan, p. 509.

39 Ken Hall kicked the controversy off with his article, 'Why is there no Australian Film Industry?', Masque, no. 2 (Nov/Dec. 1967), pp. 24-28; Alan Seymour replied in Letters to the Editor, Masque, no. 3 (Jan/Feb. 1968), p. 3; Hall then entered the debate again with 'The Australian Film Industry Observed', Masque, no. 5 (May/June 1968), pp. 5-8; Thornhill also entered the debate in this issue to criticise Hall's earlier position with 'The Australian Film Industry Observed'.

40 Hall, 'Why is there no Australian Film Industry?', p. 27.

41 Ibid., p. 28.

42 Ibid., p. 27.

43 Ibid.

44 Hall, 'The Australian Film Industry Observed', p. 5.

45 Hall, 'Why is there no Australian Film Industry?', p. 27.

46 Hall, 'The Australian Film Industry Observed', p. 5.

47 Thornhill, 'The Australian Film Industry Observed', p. 11.

48 Ibid.

49 Ibid.

50 Ibid., p. 10.

51 Ibid., p. 11.

52 Ibid., p. 10.

53 Adams, 'Adam's Rib'.

54 Albie Thoms notes:

That the government should have entrusted its film planning to Adams, Jones and Coleman and ignored completely film makers like Hall, Lee Robinson and Jack Lee is absurd, just as was the preponderance of Film Australia, ABC and AFI people on its boards and committees over the years. (Book Review, Filmnews, v. 7, no. 9 (Oct. 1977), pp. 12-13).

55 Thornhill, 'The Australian Film Industry Observed', p. 11.

56 Sylvia Lawson, private conversation Griffith University, May 1982.

57 John Baxter, The Australian Cinema (Sydney: Pacific Books, 1970), p. 98.

58 Peter Coleman was and remains a figure of considerable stature in both political and cultural fields. He has been editor of The Bulletin, has edited collections of essays and written a number of books. Perhaps the best known book he is associated with is P. Coleman (ed.), Australian Civilization. Barry Jones was quiz king of a popular TV quiz program BP Pick-A-Box. He later became a member of federal parliament and is now Minister for Science and Technology. He has authored and edited a number of books including Barry Jones (ed.), The Penalty is Death (Melbourne: Sun Books, 1968).

59 These celebratory discourses will be examined in Chapter 9.

60 As Baxter put it:

The traditional Australian of today is not a cinema-minded person. He does not think in images, nor in the electric arcs of film. His existence, fragmentary and spare, feeds on passing things, not the deep continuing convictions that sustain great art. But cinema is a means of enlarging experience, of expanding consciousness. With a national film movement Australia might at last leave the beach, face the larger realities of life here. (p. 109)

61 Barrett Hodsdon, 'State of False Consciousness', Cinema Papers, v. 1, Issue 2 (April 1974), pp. 126-127.

62 Ibid., p. 126.

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