Neil McDonald. 'The Making of Cinesound's Assault on Salamaua'. In T. O'Regan & B. Shoesmith eds. History on/and/in Film. Perth: History & Film Association of Australia, 1987. 101-5.


Neil McDonald

I should say at the outset that this paper on the making of Assault on Salamaua is a sequel to my paper on Kokoda Frontline that I gave at the 1983 History and Film conference. However, in the case of Cinesound's Assault on Salamaua, the written sources are infinitely richer. Not only do we have the cameraman, Damien Parer's, very full dope sheets, but also his own plan for the footage. Finally we also have Parer's diary for the time he was with 2/3 Independent Company.

Even more fascinating, the compilation film Sons of the Anzacs, released in 1944 and unviewable for nearly 17 years includes yet another version of the same material which is narrated by Parer himself. Early in 1985 the Australian War Memorial struck a viewing print of Sons of the Anzacs thus making the film available for its first public screening in forty years. We are now in a unique position to study both the Cinesound newsreel and the relevant extract from Sons of the Anzacs.

Damien Parer was not, in the strict sense, a newsreel cameraman. Until his resignation in 1943 he was accredited to the Department of Information (DOI). Under an agreement between the government and the newsreel companies, the DOI cameramen's negatives were processed at the Cinesound laboratories with lavender's made available to each of the newsreel companies. The original remained the property of the Crown and was lodged at the War Memorial.

Regrettably, their viewing prints reflect the random order of processing by Cinesound's lab technicians. The rolls of film from Parer's camera seem to have been spliced together without reference to his dope sheets. These rolls were supposedly "lost" until the Head Librarian at the War Memorial, Michael Piggott, found them in a filing cabinet and suggested I examine them. This discovery formed the basis of this paper. Now, for the first time, we know precisely when each shot was taken. Also, it is possible to see what Parer's own ideas were for editing his footage. By editing from video masters taken from the Memorial's 16mm viewing copies my film research students and I were able to then put the individual shots in the order indicated by Parer's dope sheets.(1) This provided an invaluable record of the film work which helped inform this paper.

In the rest of this paper I will: firstly discuss Parer the cameraman and filmmaker; secondly, I will consider the footage, as far as I can ascertain, as it came out of Parer's camera; thirdly, I will examine the Cinesound newsreel Aussault on Salamaua produced by Ken Hall and edited by Terry Banks (both of whom have been interviewed for this paper); and fourthly I will discuss the relevant sections from Parer's contributions to Sons of the Anzacs.

Before any discussion of the films it is essential to understand something about Parer the person and cameraman. One of the main problems is that since his death a formidable legend has developed of a devoutly religious daredevil cameraman sharing the hardships of the soldiers in the field, and as a result winning the trust and admiration of the AIF (Australian Imperial Force). All of which is true, but the real Parer was much more complex than this charming icon of popular mythology. He was well read in the film theory of the 1930s, and brought to his task as a war cameraman a clearly defined conception of what his role should be. As early as 1940, soon after he was first appointed, Parer outlined his approach to his new job in a letter to the famous still photographer, Max Dupain:

(1) To build a true picture of the Australian soldier in movie and stills.

(2) To make good movie single subjects showing cause and effect (something after March of Time idea) of why we are here, what we are doing in the long range perspective as it affects us and Australia.

(3) To keep newspapers and newsreels supplied with really hot spectacular news.(2)

At first, in the Western Desert, Parer concentrated on single subjects. His close friend, Ron Maslyn Williams, who was the Unit's writer, would prepare dope sheets that were virtually scripts indicating how the footage should be edited together with an appropriate commentary.

However, as the newsreels became increasingly important as propaganda, Parer seems to have been influenced by the head of Cinesound, Ken G. Hall. Hall urged the cameraman to go for his shots and leave the construction of the narrative to others. Evidence of Hall's influence on Parer is provided in a note entitled "Advice of Newsreel War Cameraman" dated October 1942, but contained in a notebook of 11 May 1943. Parer wrote:

In all stories plan for a start, middle and finish. Reaction shots are always of great value. If possible, unposed reaction shots are the goods. Don't pan the camera too much just because you have a beaut tripod; it makes the shots too long and annoys the cutters.

All of which is identical to the advice the Cinesound chief gave his own cameramen. What seems likely is that the note itself was based on a discussion between Hall and Parer.

During the retreat from Kokoda, when the cameraman was so short of stock he was confined to one or two takes a day, this advice proved invaluable. But shooting this way meant surrendering the construction of the narrative to others. Parer could not help but be aware that the structure of his most famous film, Kokoda Frontline, had been created at Cinesound by intercutting the footage shot during the retreat with material taken earlier during the cameraman's journey to Kanga Force directly ouside Salamaua.

Consequently, although Parer made no attempt to influence Cinesound or Movietone's editing of his material, for his stories on the guerillas of Timor and the Bismarck Sea battle, he still prepared elaborate dope sheets with detailed suggestions as to possible narrative structures that were very similar to the "scripts" written by Ron Maslyn Williams. As well, Parer never abandoned his belief that his films were part of the permanent record of the Australian soldier at war.

All of this is apparent in a particularly revealing diary entry of 9th June 1943, a few days before he joined 2/3 Independant Company to make what he termed his "infantry film." desire to do an infantry section film is mounting.... The idea is growing more vivid every day. It could turn out better than the Kokoda Trail film and quite different. When suggesting the idea to Ken Hall, he was somewhat doubtful as to whether it could be put across in a non- dialogue film. I disagree, it can be done. It can be portrayed in the gesture, the faces, the eyes, the everyday incidents of self sacrifice, the hundred trivialities of life. This life that is so far removed from our own is one where men are seen at their finest. No fake; dinkum half light (of a man) climbing up the sticky ridge, (telephoto lense for unposed close ups), helping a wonderful cobber.

Parer then describes an incident which I believe is based on something he observed on the Kokoda trail, possibly at Eura Creek Village. Certainly the passage is strongly evocative of images from Kokoda Frontline.

The rain, massively sleet, pelting down runs off the grass roof of the native's lean-to. The camera tilts down, a wounded lad; a close-up of his sweating face, his cobber is with him, this wonderful mateship is the common thread with the last wars' Anzac and, for the first time in our newsreel coverage of this war, we are working with a clear central theme.... its propaganda value is a by-product. It is the truth Will Dyson painted in the last war. The greatest binding force in our army is mateship. This is found in the infantry platoons and sections.(3)

Parer's reference to Will Dyson is particularly significant. He made a similar comment to the official war historian, Gavin Long. Maslyn Williams also recalls Parer examining very closely a collection of the artist's drawings entitled "Australia at War - A Winter Record" with an introduction by G.K.Chesterton. What I believe Parer found in Dyson was a distillation of the way individual and group portraits of the lives of soliders at the front could be as much a part of the Anzac legend as action scenes. Parer, when he had the stock, frequently recorded minute details of the everyday life of the AIF both in the Western Desert and even in New Guinea. The famous war correspondent, Osmar White, who accompanied Parer on his two journeys in 1942, recalls that the cameraman would become concerned that the action scenes he filmed because of their inherent drama, would give a false impression of the war experience as a whole.

Although there are some quite spectacular action scenes in Parer's unedited footage, the simple close-ups of the drained, exhausted faces of the ordinary soldiers are profoundly moving and, if anything, excel the achievements of the cameraman's model.

To shoot the Salamaua footage Parer had 2 cameras, one with 100 ft. magazine - 1 minute and the other with 300 ft. - 3 minutes - also limited amount of stock. To reload he had to use a change bag or, as Osmar White recalls, "do strange things under a groundsheet." Consequently, even though he would swap cameras Parer had to confine himself to brief telling shots. He didn't have the luxury of following action in detail. Also he did run out of film at crucial times. Perhaps the most famous example is during the Bismarck Sea battle when Parer persuaded the famous pilot Torchy Uren to head back into the flack so that he could get the shots he missed when he was reloading.

A note in Parer's diary about the most famous shot of the New Guinea campaign - the sequence showing the man being assisted - is quite revealing.

This afternoon a lad, assisted by a good Anzac, came along the track. He had a dressing over his forehead covering his eyes, and his arm was in a sling. I got a walking shot of him. He rested.... and Gordon Ayle took him forward. I went along. The rain started to come down, and as Gordon was helping him across the creek a line of carriers passed them. I got a long shot of the bloke and a close-up. They are the best two I have done so far. Perhaps it's a copy of George Silk's blinded digger (sic)... but it's effective just the same.(4)

This is quite different from Silk's shot which, as he told me, was taken almost on reflex with the photographer barely looking through the viewfinder. Actually, Parer's shot is an inversion of Dyson's "wine of victory" drawing, except the sequence is unashamedly heroic, while Dyson's is a bitter comment on the futility of war - at least for the Germans. Taking the diary entry and the sequence itself together, we can see that what Parer is doing is isolating a particular incident which, because of its pictorial value, can function as a symbol of mateship and the Anzac spirit.

You can find the same thing in Parer's descriptions of the funeral of the NCOs. It's clear that he was profoundly moved at the ceremony, but this is how he concludes the entry - "It was the most moving ceremony I have ever seen, not a man looked in the camera. The last shot I took was from underneath, showing the huge figures silently beside the grave as the service came to a close." It seems to me that Parer was quite consciously myth-making: finding incidents that could virtually become icons.

Obviously, this footage is an invaluable record of an aspect of the New Guinea campaign. Together with sources such as the war diary of the 2/3 Independent Company, this visual material can be used to construct an account of what the official history terms "the battle of the ridges." But it is important not to give the photographic evidence a spurious objectivity. Parer was undoubtedly a good reporter, but he was a patriot first. Unlike his friend, the still photographer George Silk, he very carefully avoided showing any Australian dead bodies. Also, Osmar White recalls that on the Kokoda Trail Parer was very upset about the treatment handed out to a wounded Japanese officer by his Australian captors. However, the cameraman did not film the incident. Above all, Parer was a participant in the events he was recording. This is demonstrated by a letter the Commander of the 2/3 Independent Company wrote to the Prime Minister about Parer's role in the Timbered Knoll engagement.

But although Parer was far from being an objective observer, he did have a lively awareness of the strategic problems involved in this kind of engagement. When the cameraman trudged up the Kokoda Trail in 1942, he did so in the company of two of the best correspondents of the second world war, Osmar White and Chester Wilmot. White recalls Parer listening closely as the two correspondants discussed tactics with officers like Brigadier Potts. Typically, the cameraman's concern was how to get this on film.

This footage reveals that Parer had learnt a great deal from these discussions. A map(5) showing roughly where each roll of film was taken, suggests that Parer strove quite deliberately to portray the battle for the ridges from a variety of perspectives. Consequently, he is able to provide photographic evidence of the importance of aerial droppings, the way periodic straffing from the air of enemy positions was linked with the bombardment by the artillery of the Japanese foxholes as well as taking some hair raising shots of the engagements at the Timbered Knoll and the Vicker's Position.

Using this footage, together with other photographic and documentary evidence of this and similar engagements of the New Guinea campaign, it would be possible to reach some conclusions as to how typical this kind of action was, and what this material tells us about the tactics employed during this phase of the war in the Pacific.

In considering the newsreels made from this material, we are confronted with a quite different set of issues. What we are investigating is how the war was perceived in Australia during this period, and why the newsreel companies chose to treat Parer's footage the way they did. Actually, two separate newsreels were made from the Salamaua material, one by Cinesound and the other by Fox-Movietone. As Cinesound had the greater impact, it is their version that I will be concentrating on.

Vital to an understanding of Cinesound's Assault on Salamaua are the attitudes of the company's producer-in-chief, Ken Hall. He received very little guidance from the monumentally incompetent DOI which left him to his own devices. Indeed, the one statement I have been able to unearth about propaganda policy is a letter from Hall himself to the secretary of the DOI. In it he rejects the notion of telling

..the men in the street to do this or that.... we want him to leave the theatre believing that what he heard from the screen epitomises what he has been thinking himself all along.. Create the ideal, make your subject think it is his idea.... and you have got him where you want him.

Parer's stories gave Hall a golden opportunity to "create the ideal" and to combat home front complacency by celebrating the heroism of the Australian servicemen.

For Kokoda Frontline Hall hit on the idea of having the intense, patently sincere, Parer introduce the newsreel himself, and he returned to the format for Assault on Salamaua. But, as he explained to me, the Cinesound chief had an additional motive for using Parer's footage to emphasise Australia's role in the war. Always intensely nationalistic, Hall had been exasperated by the way MacArthur used his communiques to minimise the Australian contribution. Parer's stories had given him a means whereby he could redress the balance.

Its worth noting that Hall includes two shots which do not come from Parer's Salamaua footage. The first is the opening shot of Salamaua itself. This was taken by Parer himself in 1942 from a tree lookout, when he covered the exploits of Kanga force. The final shot of the feet of the soldiers comes from Kokoda Frontline. Hall and his editor also play around with the actual chronology, but Assault on Salamaua is still excellent propaganda. The tight editing, a characteristic of Hall's later features, the dramatic narration, combined with Parer's superbly composed visuals, not only celebrate the courage and sacrifice of the Australian servicemen but encourage the audience to identify with the events on the screen.

Essentially, the newsreel presents a series of highly concentrated impressions that blur the distinction between the two quite separate engagements at the Vicker's Position and the Timbered Knoll. Why this was done was explained to me by the film's editor, Terry Banks: "What we had was a piece of the action which we had to make represent the whole picture." This is why Hall saves his best sequence for the end even though it was taken three weeks before the funeral. Assault on Salamaua concludes with one of the most powerful images of sacrifice and mateship to emerge from the Second World War. No way was the Cinesound chief, who told me that "as soon as (he) saw it (he) knew (he) had one of the best shots of the War", going to let its effect be dissipated by placing it in the middle, whatever the dope sheets indicated.

What I would now like to do is to turn to the Sons of the Anzacs. This was a compilation film prepared for the War Memorial with a commentary written by Parer's friend, Chester Wilmot, and delivered, for the most part, alternately by Peter Finch and Wilmot himself. According to Sons of the Anzacs associate producer, Mervyn Scales, by Reel 11, this technique had become rather monotonous, so he persuaded Parer to write and deliver his own narration for the Salamaua footage.

I also believe Parer influenced the editing. So far I can't prove this and I must concede that there are marked divergencies from the plan the cameraman appended to the dope sheet, and the arrangement of the material in Sons of the Anzacs. However, Wilmot was a close friend and it would have been incredible, given his reputation for checking and cross-checking, if he hadn't discussed this material with Parer. Also, unlike both the newsreels, this extract makes it clear that two engagements were photographed, not one - which is the same as Parer's own suggested plan.

Finally, the cameraman's commentary is quite extraordinary. It's written as though he is witnessing the events shown in the film. Although it is a little spoiled by his inexpert delivery, which makes it clear he is reading from a script, the narration does seem to be a recreation of Parer's own feelings when he shot the original material.

Even though Sons of the Anzacs lacks the impact of the newsreel, this sequence with Parer has considerable merit. It follows the actual chronology distinguishing carefully between the two engagements Parer filmed. Moreover, Sons of the Anzacs' treatment of the material is far more historically accurate than many modern compilation films.

The strategic significance of supply lines, aerial dropping, straffing and the role of artillery, all emerge much more strongly than in the newsreel. Even Parer's comment on the sound of a machine gun - "There's that blasted woodpecker" - which would have had to be recreated in the studio - is almost certainly based on the cameraman's own recollections. Lieutenant, later Captain John Levein, who led the attack on the Timbered Knoll confirmed that Sons of the Anzacs use of sound was on the whole accurate.

I should mention that this is not the only innovative use of sound in Sons of the Anzacs. The sequence showing the dawn attack on Bardia is accompanied by "We're off to see the Wizard". This seemed somewhat bizarre until Bronwyn Binns, who researched the Western Desert Campaign for the tele-series The Sullivans pointed out to me that this is what the troops were supposed to have sung as they went into action.

What this kind of analysis demonstrates is that the treatment of film, particularly actuality film, as an historical source must be more subtle and discriminating than it has been in the past. It is simply not good enough for For Love or Money to use a shot of Lotte Lyall from The Sentimental Bloke, a fiction film made in 1919, to illustrate women at work during the 1914-18 war. I should add that the makers of the film have realized the problem and issued a book that correctly attributes their extracts.

Whenever possible the historian should examine the unedited footage and whatever documentation that has survived. He or she is obliged to reach beyond the narrative structures of the conventional compilation film. This is why I have some reservations about Tony Barta's history course.(6) The danger here is that students could be encouraged to use the forms of the historical documentary before they are thoroughly familiar with the visual source material.

At the same time it would be ludicrous, with the benefit of hindsight, to condemn Ken Hall - or Frank Capra for that matter - for their free use of actuality footage. We must evaluate their work in the context of the 1940s. Above all, the newsreel Assault on Salamaua is vital evidence of the way these events were perceived at the time, and should be considered as such.

One final comment: I think you might have gathered that Damien Parer was, by modern standards, a rather old fashioned Christian gentleman. It seems to me a delicious irony that this man, who believed in such supposedly outmoded concepts as mateship and the Anzac legend, should be pointing the way towards the more discriminating documentaries of the future through the meticulous documentation of his superb photography.


1. We restrained ourselves from making too many deductions on the basis of internal evidence when a particular shot was not listed on the dope sheet. After all, we were using a video copy of a 16mm reduction from a 35mm print and had no idea as to the state of the orginal material. Consequently, we placed doubtful shots at the end.

2. Parer to Max Dupain, 14/12/1940

3. Parer diary, Mitchell Library Manuscript, 10971, Item 1.

4. Parer diary, 13th July 1943.

5. The map was prepared by my student, Mark Wilmott, who was also our tape editor.

6. See Tony Barta, "History, Film and Video for History Students" in this volume.

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