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On this page is Pike & Cooper's introduction to this period from their definitive book, followed by a list of films made during this period.

Pike & Cooper:
Production activity during the war focused on newsreels and propaganda films made under contract to government departments. At Cinesound, feature films were formally abandoned in June 1940 for the duration of the war; staff was laid off and only a small, compact unit remained under Ken G. Hall's direction. Elsewhere, too, production resources were turned almost entirely to the preparation of propaganda and news services. The recruitment of technicians and actors to the armed services, and a crippling shortage of raw film stock (since film and explosives used some of the same materials), made feature production extremely difficult. Supplies of raw stock were limited both by government import controls and by scarcity on the international market, and often there was only enough to supply the two local newsreels.

Just before the war, the New South Wales government had legislated its first effective measure of support for feature film production. An amendment to the state’s quota legislation made it possible for the government to guarantee the bank overdraft of companies to the extent of £15 000 for each production. Four films were scheduled in the initial group of guarantees, approved in January 1940 by the state parliament—Cine-sound’s Dad Rudd, M.P., Chauvel’s Forty Thousand Horsemen, and two from Argosy Films. No further guarantees followed, and the war displaced feature production from government priorities. The few features of the period were dominated by Chauvel’s major breakthrough in Forty Thousand Horsemen. Shown widely around the world as a tribute to the Australian fighting spirit, Chauvel’s film not only helped to boost morale and recruitment in Australia but also gave the Australian ‘digger’ an international identity as an irrepressible and effective fighter. Pat Hanna’s self-effacing comic characters in the Diggers stage show in the 1920s and in his films in the early 1930s were replaced by Chauvel’s grand vision of virile heroism and

Ken G. Hall directing Grant Taylor (l) and Ron Randell in a wartime propaganda short; Bert Nicholas at the camera

national pride. His second wartime feature, The Rats of Tobruk (1944) perpetuated the image, but with enthusiasm for battle subdued in a bleak realization of the pain and suffering of war.

While feature production was all but halted during the war, other branches of the film trade prospered. People flocked to the cinemas for both news and escapist entertainment, and the audience was swelled even more by the arrival after 1942 of thousands of American servicemen. Cinema profits soared, and with them distributor income. For Greater Union Theatres, the war provided such a stimulus to trading that the heavy overdraft carried by the group throughout the 1930s was fully repaid and transformed into a healthy profit; the organization’s reports of combined trading results rose from a loss of £11 000 in 1938 to a profit of over £106 000 in 1942. Admissions to Australian cinemas reached a peak of 151 million per year in 1944-45, compared with the later peacetime figure of 133 million in 1947-48. In an industry speech, the head of Hoyts Theatres flippantly remarked that his company and Greater Union should erect a statue in honour of Hitler for what he had done to boost their business.

At the start of the war, no government department had a film unit capable of producing propaganda films in sufficient quantity for massive theatre distribution, and the Commonwealth government depended entirely on the production resources of the private sector. Up to 375 prints were required of some propaganda shorts to achieve saturation coverage of Australian theatres—for example, to allay panic buying of scarce items or to raise funds in war loan drives. To achieve results of this order it was essential that the government have the co-operation of the private trade. The Commonwealth Department of Information was responsible for the official propaganda and news programme, and a National Films Council was set up to advise it, with leading distributor and exhibitor representatives (including Norman Rydge from Greater Union, Bernard Freeman from M.G.M. and Ernest Turnbull from Twentieth Century-Fox). The government also recruited cameramen to serve as official war correspondents on overseas fronts and within Australia, but their work was edited and transformed into a theatrically acceptable form by private companies.

Propaganda films sponsored by the department made few attempts at overt ideological propaganda or to identify national goals or ideals beyond the short-term purpose of each film. Some of the more ambitious films were mini-features—short narrative films designed to make their message through an emotionally engaging drama, often featuring familiar stars such as Bert Bailey, Grant Taylor, Chips Rafferty or Shirley Ann Richards. The government’s propaganda needs were often so vaguely defined, both in style and content, that producers were given wide freedom in constructing their own films on a given subject, or even in proposing subjects themselves. Directors like Chauvel and Hall, accustomed to feature production, responded to this creative freedom and to the urgency of the war effort with vigorous and striking work. Only a little of their propaganda work is extant, but from what remains, and from contemporary reports, it seems that both men rose to the occasion. Hall’s 100,000 Cobbers (1942), a three-reel recruiting film, stands among his most polished achievements.

Australian film-makers won great public recognition for their newsreel coverage of the war, from both local and overseas audiences. At the outbreak of the war the Australian government made a decision to channel news footage to the public through the existing newsreel companies, Cinesound and Movietone; footage was offered for sale simultaneously to both companies at a nominal price, and editing and commentaries were prepared independently of each other. Although their original source material was identical, the differences in the two reels were marked: Cinesound tended to devote much more time to footage of the Australian war effort than Movietone, and Cinesound’s news magazine tended to carry a greater emotional content than its competitor. A note of dramatic urgency was characteristic of the Cinesound reel during the worst months of the New Guinea campaign, and Hall was determined to arouse Australians from their apathy by expressing his fears for Australia’s security with all the force and rhetoric he had learned as a film publicist.

The first official Australian team of war correspondents sent to the Middle East included the brilliant young cameraman, Damien Parer, the writer and editor, Ron Maslyn Williams, the still photographer, George Silk, and a sound technician, Alan Anderson, all of whom were placed under the control of Captain Frank Hurley. Parer soon came to challenge Hurley’s fame as a photographer, especially with his spectacular front-line footage of the war in New Guinea, often taken at considerable personal risk. The public also responded to the winning frankness of his personality in newsreel commentaries and radio broadcasts. A deeply committed Catholic, Parer tried to capture on film the moment of truth when men on the front line were most aware of life and death. His determination to record human experience in war was in strong contrast to Hurley’s romantic images of battle-scarred landscapes and the machinery of war. In September 1942, Ken Hall brought Parer into the Cinesound studio to film a personal introduction to a newsreel survey of the entire New Guinea action. This particular edition of Cinesound Review, subtitled Kokoda Front Line, was shown widely in America and England and received Australia’s first Academy Award as the best documentary of 1942. Parer soon won offers of work from the American newsreel companies, and in October 1943 he joined Paramount. He was killed in September 1944 filming American front-line action on Peleliu Island.

The propaganda and information carried by the newsreels reached a large audience. In 1941, some 70 per cent of theatres in Australia and New Zealand screened the Cinesound Review. The business of specialist newsreel theatrettes boomed during the war: in 1942 there were thirteen such theatrettes, including six in Sydney, showing films to an estimated audience of 60 000 each week. In addition, propaganda films were distributed widely in South-East Asia and the Pacific, wherever the war permitted, and for this purpose a special newsreel compiled from both Cinesound and Movietone was issued regularly in a number of languages.

The years of the war were thus a period of heightened activity for all areas of the industry, even if the number of feature films declined. Of the two major directors, Chauvel managed to complete two features, but for Hall the industry was simply marking time: the war closed with the reputation of his studio enhanced by its public service activities and by its Academy Award. It had also served as the operational base for the film unit of the U.S. Signal Corps after 1942 and had helped the Americans to prepare their regular newsreel for American troops in the South-West Pacific. Hall was buoyant with optimism that feature production would resume without delay after the war, and he had many plans ready for implementation. In May 1944 he wrote: ‘It’s an extraordinary thing that after nearly five years in the doldrums we find ourselves overwhelmed with opportunity.’


Dad Rudd, M.P. (Ken G. Hall, 1940) Cinesound Features, prod. Ken G. Hall, wr. Frank Harvey, Bart Bailey, dp George Heath; Bert Bailey, Connie Martyn, Yvonne East, Fred MacDonald; 83 min.stories by Steele Rudd

Forty Thousand Horsemen (Charles Chauvel, 1940) 40000 Horsemen, wr. Elsa Chauvel, dp George Heath, additional exterior photography Frank Hurley, Tasman Higgins; Grant Taylor, Betty Bryant, Chips Rafferty, Pat Twohill, Michael Pate's debut film - as an extra; WW1

One Hundred Crowded Years (H. H. Bridgman, 1940) dramatised documentary? including Treaty of Waitangi, 1840; NZ

Rewi's Last Stand (Rudall Hayward, 1940) aka The Last Stand: An Episode of the New Zealand Wars; Frontier Films Ltd, wr. Rudall Hayward, source Cowan's history, dp Rudall Hayward, Edwin Coubray; Leo Pilcher, Ramai Te Miha, Henare Toka; NZ; 5750ft, 64 min.

Wings Of Destiny (Rupert Kathner, 1940) dp Arthur Higgins; espionage thriller


Power And The Glory, The (Noel Monkman, 1941) aka The Invaders dp Arthur Higgins; action

Racing Luck (Rupert Kathner, 1941) dp Tasman Higgins; comic adventure; final appearance of Raymond Longford

That Certain Something (Clarence G. Badger, 1941) Argosy Film, dp Arthur Higgins; Megan Edwards, Thelma Grigg, Georgie Sterling, Lou Vernon; film director looks for a girl with 'it' [Badger also made the film called It (1927) with Clara Bow as the 'It' girl.]


Cinesound Review: Kokoda Front Line (Damien Parer, 1942) dp and commentary Damien Parer; shared 1942 Academy Award for Short Documentary with John Ford's Battle of Midway; Australia's first Oscar; Parer shot the footage for the Dept of Information, which let Cinesound use it (Shirley & Adams: 166) Parer was killed at work on Peleliu, Caroline Is, October 1944

Yank In Australia, A (Alfred J. Goulding, 1942) wr. Alfred J. Goulding


None: the first of three years (the other two are 1948 and 1963) in which Australia did not release a single feature film


Rats Of Tobruk, The (Charles Chauvel, 1944) Chamun Productions, wr. Charles & Elsa Chauvel, dp George Heath, music Lindley Evans, sound Jack Bruce, L. J. Stuart; Grant Taylor, Peter Finch, Chips Rafferty; war; 95 min.

Red Sky At Morning (Hartney Arthur, 1944) aka Escape At Dawn in 1951 re-release; Austral-American Productions, wr. Hartney Arthur from play by Dymphna Cusack, dp Rupert Kathner, sound Mervyn Murphy; historical romance set 1812; 55 min.


Harvest Gold (Kevin Murphy, 1945) Supreme Sound System, prod. Harold Gray, dp Arthur Higgins; Joe Valli, Harry Abdy, Tal Ordell; agricultural drama; sponsored by Caltex; 55 min.; Murphy was a technician and pioneer in sound recording

Garry Gillard | New: 17 June, 2022 | Now: 17 June, 2022