Robbery Under Arms (1985)
Release Date: 29th March, 1985 at the Academy Cinema City, Adelaide
Video Release: 25th May 1988
Financed by: ITC Entertainment & South Australian Film Corporation Productions Ltd.
Budget: $7.3 Million
Australian Distributor: ITC Entertainment
International Distributor: ITC Entertainment
Captain Starlight- Sam Neill
Dick Marsten- Steven Vidler
Jim Marsten- Christopher Cummins
Ben Marsten- Ed Devereaux
Gracey- Liz Newman
Kate- Deborah Coulls
Jeannie- Susie Lindeman
Warrigal- Tommy Lewis
Aileen Marsten- Jane Menelaus
Sir Frederick Morringer- Robert Grubb
Goring- David Bradshaw
Mum- Elaine Cusick
George- Andy Anderson
Co-Directors: Donald Crombie and Ken Hannam
Producer: Jock Blair
Screenwriter: Graeme Koestveld
Screenwriter: Tony Morphett
Director of Photography: Ernest Clark
Composer (Music Score): Garry McDonald
Composer (Music Score): Laurie Stone
Production Designer: George Liddle
Costume Designer: Anna Senior
The Box Office: Despite extensive searching I could not find any box office figures for Robbery Under Arms. Although David Lowe states in his essay An Outlaw Industry: Bushrangers on the big screen 1906-1993 that the film received 'a fairly lukewarm reception...' from the 'respective audience(s).'
The Bibliographical Stuff
Crombie saw the film as a departure from previous projects,
'I must admit that when Jock first phoned my and said Robbery Under Arms!, I thought, Oh-oh another period show..you know coaches, horses, frocks..But as soon as I read the script and realised it was being done with some humour, I thought, that's it!'
In contrast, Hannam seemed to be more focussed on the filmmaking process as opposed to the films' themes: 'We have different styles of course. I think a lot of people who said two directors can't work together are in for a big surprise.'
'Arms and the men-Film Review', Cinema Papers, by Sheila Johnston and Neil Roddick, May 1985
Jock Blair believed that Robbery Under Arms was '.. a bargain in anyone's language. What we had on offer was a double length feature film for say $4 million, and a 6 hour mini series for $3.3 million. Investors have two chances to make a profit.'
'An introduction to 'Robbery Under Arms', Australiasian Film Cinema, author unknown, March 29-April 4 Edition 1985
Steve Vidler, who was cast as Dick Marsten was interviewed for TV Week and said Robbery Under Arms 'is an action-adventure story-very funny and very active.'
Cook.Steven, 1985, 'What a Steal!', TV Week (Australia), 23rd March 1985, Southdown Press, 32 Walsh St, Melbourne 3000, p 77
Sam Neill was asked what he thought of the film when first reading the script and said
'I was sure that I was going to have fun making it and I'm sure it's going to be fun to watch.'
'Starlight Robbery', That's Entertainment, March 1985, author unknown, Jeffress/Pidler Pty Ltd, Sydney 2001
Neill also believed that he would 'remember Robbery with the greatest affection too.'
Cullen.Jenny, 1985, 'Starlight's Escape', TV Week (Australia), 16th March 1985, Southdown Press, 32 Walsh St, Melbourne 3000, p 2-3
Reviews in newspapers:
' Bigger than any feature film attempted in the country, ROBBERY UNDER ARMS is a colourful, romantic adventure filled with humour..'
'An Introduction to Robbery Under Arms', Australiasian Film Cinema, author unknown, March 29-April 4 Edition 1985
'The South Australian Film Corporation, that magician of the local industry, has pulled yet another rabbit out of the hat with Robbery Under Arms. has almost every cinematic ingredient that makes for box office success in a film.'
Neville, 1985, 'Stealing With Style..Bushranger saga set to stand and deliver', paper unknown, Jeffress/Pidler Pty Ltd, Sydney 2001
'The attraction of the story is not hard to see: like a kind of prototype Dirty Harry, Robbery Under Arms plays both ends against the middle.'
'Arms and the men-Film Review', Cinema Papers, by Sheila Johnston and Neil Roddick, May 1985
Critical Essays in Journals/Online:
The online text An Outlaw Industry: Bushrangers on the big screen 1906-1993 by David Lowe refers to the film as re-making the bushranger myth (p 6) but
'despite the fine central performance of Sam Neill, 'there was no new insight into the bushranging hero stereotypethe story did not justify its' re-telling'
Lowe. David, 1995, An Outlaw Industry-Bushrangers on the Big Screen:1906-1993, A Paper, accessed online at http://www.acv.net.au/~davidandjane/outlaw_20000416.pdf
Discussions in Books: Greg Kerr reflects a similar attitude to David Lowe, that '...in the sociological context of the Australian bushranger experience, too much is assumed...'
1995, Australian Film 1978-1994: A Survey of Theatrical Features, (Ed) Scott Murray, Oxford University Press, 253 Normanby Rd, South Melbourne, Australia p 175
Bryan McFarlane states the film provides 'no new insight into the bushranging hero stereotype so popular in the first decade of Australian feature films.' when discussing the merits of the representation of the bushranger ethos within Australian films
1999, The Oxford Companion To Australian Film, (Ed) Bryan McFarlane. Geoff Mayer. Ina Bertrand, Oxford University Press, 253 Normanby Rd, South Melbourne, Australia p 417
Diane Collins suggests that '..Robbery Under Arms was billed as a 'hair-raising' picture, a 'Sensation From Start to Finish'' in reference to the promotion of the film
Collins. Diane, 1987, Hollywood Down Under-Australians at the Movies:1896 to Present Day, Angus and Robertson Publishers, Unit 4 Eden Park, 31 Waterloo Rd, Nth Ryde NSW, 2113 p 50-51
The Film's Online Presence: There was little content on Robbery Under Arms on the Internet.
The main site that I was able to derive anything on the film was at Sam Neill's home page, at www.samneill.com
where there was a comprehensive bibliography on articles referring to the film and a detailed synopsis.
Robbery Under Arms does have a home page, at http://www.charlesscss.sa.edu.au/yr10/ASWC/LiReDi/robbery_under_arms.htm
The content is copied directly from the video casing. It appears to have been done by a student for an assignment.
The film's soundtrack is available for sale at http://www.1m1.com.au,
and '...it was one of the biggest film scores to be undertaken in Australia...'
There are several sites that have the video available for purchase:
These sites used a synopsis by Eleanor Mannikka of the All Movie Guide.
Many sites when typing in the title of the film actually referred to the novel, by Rolf Boldrewood, such as
http://www.selfknowledge.com/robry10.htm or to buy the text at sites like
Collecting the Info: I decided to take a backward approach in gathering data for the assignment, and searched the Internet first. I did this on the assumption that there would be little content that I could use. This proved to be correct. After finding out what I could, I accessed the South Australian Film Commission site (http://www.safilm.com.au) and emailed the government body for any articles or information they had on the film. The Commission was incredibly helpful and sent me articles and interviews of cast and crew at the time, as well as a promotional Media Tool Kit of the film containing cast/crew data and interviews.
Using a copy of a bibliography I found at http://www.ibiblio.org/samneill/articles/bibrua.html
I searched the Murdoch and Alexander Libraries for further newspaper/magazine articles of the time. I also looked for literature on the film, and found several texts with reviews and discussions on Robbery Under Arms in both libraries. The final result was quite an extensive collaboration of articles/literature and detail on the film. A lot of texts I referred to only mentioned the film in passing sentence, which I found very interesting and I think indicates that the impact of Robbery Under Arms in our cinema history is minimal.
I felt that I exhausted all feasible research methods, and that the strong lack of explicit reference material to the film is a testimony to the film as a mediocre production, rather than bad research on my part.
The Critical Stuff
Everything about the 1985 version of Robbery Under Arms said blockbuster. It had the largest budget in the history of Australian filmmaking at the time (to be later beaten by Max Max III-Beyond Thunderdome). The production was jointly funded by Robert Holmes a Court's international production company, ITC Entertainment, and the South Australian Film Commission. Robbery Under Arms '..took Australian film-making into a new direction-the simultaneous shoot, one for cinema, one for television'. (Media Tool Kit:1985) Such a schedule had never been undertaken in the country before. It was the fifth remake of the 1899 literary classic Robbery Under Arms, by Rolf Boldrewood.
The film traces the actions of the Marsten brothers who succumb to the impetuosity of a tossed coin, and participate in the theft and subsequent sale of 1500 stolen cattle. From thereon in, under the leadership of the mysterious Captain Starlight, the young brothers evolve from petty criminals to outlawed bushrangers as they and Starlight 'terrorise the countryside in the late 19th century.' (Mannika: All Movie Guide) Love, adventure and mateship prevail as the gang seek to evade the determined policeman hot on their trail, Sir Frederick Morringer.
The critical reception of Robbery under Arms at the time of release and in modern works is mainly severe. From the highly publicised hype surrounding the film, it failed to live up to expectations. Even with a cast and crew of the calibre of Donald Crombie, Ken Hannam and Sam Neill.
Much of the criticism at the time and in the present is over romanticising colonial Australia and elevating the role of Starlight to something of an imperial bourgeois. Starlight's true motivations and reasons for becoming a bushranger were never fully revealed within the film.. Harry Oldmeadow was particularly scathing in his summary of the film as having a '..sprawling and disjointed plot.. superficial treatment of the colonial themes, the stereotypical female roles andconfused use of disparate generic elements..' (1999: p 417)
Kerr states that Robbery Under Arms is a '..conventional exercise in storytelling, galvanised by an impressive mixture of romance, adventure and morality.' (Murray:175)
As well as omitting much in the way of detail and back-story concerning the central protagonists, there is a universal consensus that the film didn't contribute anything original in the representation of the bushranger myth (Lowe: 7). Greg Kerr commented that '...his motives for becoming a bushranger are barely touched.' (Murray:175)
Much of this criticism has been blamed on the fact the project was shot as a miniseries/film combination, to the film's expense. Eleanor Mannika highlights this in her synopsis of Robbery Under Arms:
'Originally intended as a series on television, the sequences have been cut to fit into a continuous 2.5 hour movie÷unfortunately deleting background on the main protagonists and their lovers.'
The most interesting and unusual aspect to the film (and text) is that the action is viewed from an outlaw's perspective. The narrative is exposed from the emotions and actions of Dick Marsden (Steve Vidler), Jim Marsden (Chris Cummins) and Captain Starlight (Sam Neill). This technique humanises the plight of the protagonists as their status escalates from petty thieves to hardened criminals. In fact, the lack of positive exposure the viewer receives of Inspector Morringer and other policemen inverts the law-abiding role to that of a 'baddy'.
Despite critical condemnation, I found Robbery Under Arms an interesting commentary on imperial and minority themes. The colonial text highlights problems within society our national public has with the monarchy and racial issues. The relationship between Captain Starlight and Warrigal (Tommy Lewis) can be perceived as an ironic statement of reconciliation, particularly in the modern day. One scene that stands out to me in conveying this, is at the commencement of the film, after a successful train theft, Starlight and Warrigal celebrate. Starlight looks up to a portrait of Queen Victoria, and laughingly declares-
'Let me make a toast old boy, to the Queen!'
In which Warrigal replies
'To the Queen!'
The subtext I derive from this is a satirical salutation to the imperialist monarchy. In toasting the Queen in such a manner, the role of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal is subverted. The majority/minority racial power structures blur with the brotherly camaraderie of Starlight and Warrigal.
Another interesting element of the film is the romance generated between three heterosexual couples. This contrasts starkly with O'Regans' generalisation that Australian films 'eschews heterosexual romance structures' (1996). The 'normal' marriage of Jim Marsden to Jeannie is one event in the film that challenges this perception. The ceremony is held in a church, the characters embark on a honeymoon, and the love between them appears, by all accounts, genuine. I would go so far to say that the film displays elements of normalcy to become more identifiable, thus endearing to the audience. This stems back to the narrative being viewed from the criminals' perspective, and that we are encouraged to endorse their actions, from the humanisation of the characters.
Robbery Under Arms was originally intended to be a television mini-series. It was when Jock Blair '..sat down with a calculator and shooting schedule that ran to 28 feet of paper, he costed the series at $6 million.' (Media Tool Kit:1985) The cost was too high, and he made the decision to split the costs of such a hefty series with a theatrical film release. To secure funding, the script was touted to investors as being a double profit opportunity.
The script required a huge $7.3 million that took the South Australian Film Commission just 15 days to raise (Cinema Papers: p 55). ITC Entertainment promptly put up half the amount required, and speedily purchased national and international distribution rights, after the South Australian Film Commission agreed to fund the other half.
The miniseries and film were shot simultaneously. Approximately $4 million was allocated to the film, with the remaining $3.3 million reserved for the series. The shooting took place over a 20 week period in 1984, and was filmed entirely in South Australia- in the Flinders Ranges, Adelaide Hills and salt water flats north west of Adelaide.
The project had two different target audiences in mind, so two writers of differing scope were hired, Tony Morphett and Graeme Koestveld. The South Australian Film Commission then asked Ken Hannam and Donald Crombie to co-direct, and both had turns in directing the series and film. Once again, the production created a precedent in the country by having two directors of international repute co-work together to create a large scale double release.
The directors cast young newcomers to the Australian acting scene as the central protagonists. Steve Vidler (Dick Marsten) had just graduated from NIDA , and it was Chris Cummins (Jim Marsten) first major acting gig. The only two actors hired with established careers were Sam Neill and Tommy Lewis (The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith). Likewise, the leading female roles were given to actresses 'no more than a year out of acting school.' (Cinema Papers: p 57)
Post-production saw the television series cut first, with editing of the film completed after. According to Crombie, the film was created from cutting down segments of the miniseries and '..putting in the least amount of storythen edging material back in until we were absolutely sure that it was the best story...in the shortest time.' (Cinema Papers: p58)
The film premiered on the 29th March, 1985 at the Academy Cinema City in Adelaide.
The Film in Relation to Previous Works?
Both Donald Crombie and Ken Hannam are noted for their contribution in reviving the Australian film industry in the 1970s. Ken Hannam directed Sunday Too Far Away (1975) which depicted '..the vernacular working-class shearer against the employer grazier..'(O'Regan:1996: p 263). The film itself achieved critical acclaim (O'Regan: 1996) and international recognition. Hannam cemented the 'ocker' style films that would dominate the first half of the 1970s national cinema. He also directed Break of Day (1976), Summerfield, Dawn and The Assassination Run. Hannam's last film was Strathblair, which he directed and produced in 1992.
Donald Crombie's outstanding '..women centred..' (O'Regan:p 36) film, Caddie (1976) won an AFI award, as was widely recognised as reflecting the hardships of females in early 20th century urban Australia. The proximity of Sunday Too Far Away to Caddie seems almost coincidental. Donald Crombie also directed other AFI award winning films: The Irishman, Cathy's Child and The Killing of Angel Street. His most recent works include Selkie (2000), Fire (1995) and Rough Diamonds (1994) (MSN online).
In relation to the previous works of Hannam and Crombie, Robbery Under Arms embodies the grandiose capabilities of both directors. The film itself was the last large scale attempt in the 1980s to recreate the romanticised colonial ruralism of outback Australia. The collectivity of the film can even be interpreted as a collided outcome of the decisions both directors made in taking on the project.
The outcome of the films' mediocre success cannot be overlooked in the careers of the two directors. In my opinion this film was a central pivot in their careers: both Hannam and Crombie's directorial efforts from thereon in were of mediocre status.
Similarly, Jock Blair's career took a plunge after the release of Robbery Under Arms. The only other film he produced that received acclaim was Playing Beatie Bow (1986). His most recent efforts as Executive Producer are Golden Fiddles (1991) and Grim Pickings (1989).
The Film's Value in Contemporary Australia?
It is hard to estimate the position of Robbery Under Arms within the boundaries of contemporary critical and market horizons. A mediocre film can have significant current contemporary critical value. It is determining the system of value by which the film is to be measured that dictates the film's position in current Australian society.
An example of this is considering the film in relation to current critical techniques employed when analysing a film. One style is to demythologise a film. Tom O'Regan refers to the term as:
Demythologising becomes a means to project a future in which the bad things it identifies can be made good.' (1996:p338)
Robbery Under Arms demythologises itself against the spectrum of the novel. Though demythologising is a term referred to the type of critique applied when analysing a film, the style manifests itself within Robbery Under Arms. The negative attributes of the text are attempted to be positively stressed through the film medium. The inherently challenged elements of the film, such as the non-racial relationship between an English aristocrat and a native Aboriginal are foregrounded to overlook the 'unrealistic ness' of such an occurrence in colonial nineteenth century Australia. In turn, this conveys the overwhelming irony that underlies the whole film. In this context, Robbery Under Arms has important value. A lack of published critical engagement does not mean that a film is of low analytical importance.
Similarly, the film has modern critical relevance in terms of examining how a film situated in the 'period' boom of the 1970s/1980s failed to originally depict the bushranger ethos. From a modern perspective, one can critically compare how Robbery Under Arms failed in comparison to other films of the genre. Kerr suggested that the reason was because the film assumed too much, rather than actually explaining to the audience (1995:175). This theory was published in 1995 and is an example of a critical system employed from a current standpoint. This has particular relevance for Robbery Under Arms, considering the large budget, extensive marketing strategies and subsequent hype.
In contrast, the market value of the film from a modern standpoint seems insignificant. The lack of box office records to indicate how the film faired upon release and in the present displays that Robbery Under Arms has little market present in the now.
The film in Relation to Australian National Cinema (as a medium sized English language cinema)?
'..we can define and espouse Australian cinema and Australian culture as a separate and relatively autonomous entity in the cinemaand Australian cinema and society as a collection of film-making projects and social modalities that are a part of the. larger cinema and culture' (1996:p102)
Our national cinema is an individual body in a larger Hollywood film culture, defined by independent social constraints and public attitude. The place of Robbery Under Arms in all this is a meshing of Hollywood style production and conservative national identity.
The implicit 'Australianness' of Robbery Under Arms cannot be disputed. The film was funded by an Australian government body, and an Australian owned production company. The cast and crew were Australian. The film was shot in Australia. Yet the production methods were essentially Hollywood in concept and budgetary capacity.
What has resulted is a polished production conflicting heavily with the (still) rather conservative outlook of the Australian film-going public. The overt commercialism of the film perhaps caused audiences to judge it more harshly, than if the film had been less publicised. An extension of this is that the film can then be viewed as working testimony of what styles are/aren't accepted in a national cinema. The rejection of the film is in turn, a rejection of the film style. In this capacity Robbery Under Arms becomes a visual antithesis of Australian attitudes and perceptions.
The technical advancements resulting from the miniseries/film shoot brought Australian film-making closer to Hollywood methods and set a benchmark for the national industry. Yet the disappointment of the final outcome shows that dominant Hollywood-style methods didn't have a place in 1980s national cinema. It is the arising negativities of Robbery Under Arms that cements the films place in our medium sized national cinema. Hollywood film is not Australian film.
1996, O'Regan.Tom, Australian National Cinema, Routedge, 11 New Fetter Lane, London EC4P 4EE
1988, The Imaginary Industry-Australian Film in the Late 1980s, (Ed) Susan Dermody and Elizabeth Jacka, Australian Film Television and Radio School, PO Box 126, Nth Ryde NSW, Australia 2113
1985, Media Tool Kit-Robbery Under Arms, Author Unknown, courtesy South Australian Film Commission, 3 Butler Drive, Hendon Common, Hendon South Australia, 5014
Information on Donald Crombie and Ken Hannam from www.msn.com
'Arms and the men-Film Review', Cinema Papers, by Sheila Johnston and Neil Roddick, May 1985