TheAussie Film Database

The Overlanders

Harry Watt

Film Credits

Cast Chipps Rafferty : Don John Heyward : Corky Daphne Cambell : Mary Jean Blue John Fernside Produced by : Ealing Studios, England Director : Harry Watt Screen Play : Harry Watt Cinematographer : Osmond Borrasaile Musical Score : John Ireland Associate Producer : Ralph Smart (uncredited writer) Assistant Director : John Heyer



The Overlanders is the story of 'one man' and his small group of drovers'journey crossing three state's of Australia and 2000 miles with over a thousand head of cattle. The film is set in 1943 outback Australia and is based on the true story of a cattle drive in 1942 organized by the government to vacate the land of people and supplies in the threat of a Japanese invasion. Depicting a 'realistic' view of Australian culture and landscape, the Overlanders gave an insight into the nature of rural Australia and it's people to the international market and the rest of the country. Plot The film the Overlanders is set in 'outback' Australia during 1943. Ellipsis plays a very large role in the structure of the film. As the story involves the two year journey of a group of drovers and a thousand head of cattle, the plot must be shortened to fit the time frame of the film. In this case approximately 91 minuets. The film begins with a voice over setting the scene and providing background information to the viewer. Such as an impending Japanese invasion and the migration of people to the south.


An introduction of the principal characters then begins. Starting with the Parson family destroying and leaving their home to avoid giving anything of benefit for the 'Japs'. Dan, our main character is then introduced. While working with cattle he is called to the boss's office. Here he and fellow workers are told to pack up the equipment and kill the cattle. This he refuses to do and he decides to 'overland' them. Around a game of two-up he recruits people for the trip. Then as they prepare to leave the Parsons join the group as well. The main body of the film then begins, depicting their journey on the stock route. A major feature throughout the film is the beautiful yet rugged land they are traveling. The drovers encounter many problems and must overcome various trial in order to make it to their destination. First they come across a wide river infested with crocodiles, due to lack of time they can't go around, so a method is devised to get the wagon and the animals across to safety without any loses.


From here there is a continual battle to make it to water before the cattle start dying from dehydration. Most of the rotation horses die from eating poisonous grass on one night and the men who came along to bring their hoses across Australia went on ahead after a dispute over when to restart the journey. The group was then force to catch and break in wild horses so their remaining ones wouldn't get worn out from the excess work they would have to perform.


Paying a visit to a small pub on the way through they continue their journey. They make it to the border were a airplane meats them to quarantine the cattle. During one early night watch the cattle is spooked and start the run away. Mary and Sinbad are in 'discussion', on Mary's watch, she mounts her horse and goes to head of the cattle. Sinbad follows trying to help the cause, however his inexperience shows as he is dismounted from his horse and is trampled by the cattle. He attains a broken arm in and is in need of hospital treatment, so Mary tries to reach the plane in time. When this fails Sinbad leaves on the wagon with Mrs. Parson and her youngest daughter. When it is discovered that the much needed water catchment they are heading for is empty, they set out for a lake they know to be the closest source. This change in cause leads them up steep narrow mountain pass. If they don't keep the cattle moving all the way along the line they will bunch up and many could be lost. As fortune would have it a tree has fallen over the pass towards the top. There is a steep drop over the edge of the path but the outback ingenuity prevails and it is removed with the minimum amount of loss. On arrival they find that the water hole is a 'bog' and if the cattle try to drink, from it they would get stuck and die. Leaving the animals a distance away and behind a rise, the group rests up and considers their next move. Alas the cattle smell the water and begin to charge in it's direction. When trying to drive the cattle away from the water doesn't work, the drovers lead by Dan dismount and with the crack of their stockwhips they stop the charge at the last moment. Once they get the stock moving again all the worries are over and there is plenty of feed and water for the remaining journey.

Upon reaching Queensland they were celebrated hero's and boarded the plane home leaving Sinbad there. The film is of a western genre using techniques from both documentary and feature films. Voice overs are used throughout to explain technical details and as an elliptical technique. My Thoughts Although the Overlanders was a landmark in Australian film at the time of it's release, I feel that it holds little interest or appeal in today's social. It is very slow moving and relied heavily on the then relatively unknown Australian landscape to interest the audience. There were quite a lot of 'events' in the film but they weren't played up or dramatized, possibly in an attempt to inhance 'realism' but only succeeded in detracting from the story. Even moments of tension, such as when the bullocks charged to the bogged water hole, contained very little build up of suspension as would be expected in the more contemporary market. Although romance was deliberately down-played in the film I felt it would have been more effective if elaborated on more before the 'kiss', between Sinbad and Mary, to create more expectation and desire in the viewer for it to happen or alternatively left out completely. The audience gain no satisfaction in the kiss because there was no build up to show they were 'meant for each other' or were overtly interested in each other. The film did however have a lot to offer from the historical sense. It provides an account of a 'true story' from our past and the impression our people had on outsiders (Harry Watt). Made as a propaganda film on the Australian war effort it shows the gallant and hardworking Aussie to the rest of the world, after all that's how we all are. I also found interesting Watt's interpretation of Aboriginals in our community. Those still living indigenously were points of interest contained in the landscape, while those who came on the drive were not developed as individuals and barely spoke. This is an accurate representation of the worth Europeans placed on Aboriginals at the time. Critical Interest (then and now) The film the Overlanders was highly acclaimed both in Australia and overseas. Critics and public alike were enthralled by the sweeping landscapes and the innovative documentary-drama film technique adopted by Watt. It was viewed in Europe as an art house film due to the relative lack of film material emerging from Australia at the time, and more importantly the lack of knowledge the European community had of the land and it's people. Up until the past five or ten years many people living outside of Australia have still been under the impression that we share the streets with kangaroo's and have a koala family up the gum tree in the backyard. So we can imagine the awe of critics and patrons when presented these early pictures of our 'wide brown land' all those years ago. Today the film still holds value to most of its viewers. Not generally for the outstanding nature of the film in terms of what is produced today but rather for it's historical worth. The film not only provides a realistic insight into Australia as it was but was a cornerstone of change in both Australian and international cinema. Concepts involving the outdoors now proved possible, the doco-drama where information was given as much importance as entertainment came to be, and the structure which the Hollywood western followed was developed. On the Australian scene it was the first step in forming a reputable industry. Arts technology was lacking in Australia before and during the production of The Overlanders. Most of the equipment, dolly tracks, tripods, mike booms right through to reflectors had to be built in order for production to go ahead. Also by mixing with the established British film personnel new ideas and up to date methods were bestowed upon struggling Australian hopefuls. After Watts second Australian film Eureka it lead to an increase in funding to the industry from the Australian government and by overseas interests, and led to increases in pay for both actors and directors. Circumstances of Production and Release The Australian Government complained to it's monarch, Britain, that there was not enough propaganda involving the country and it's contribution's to the war effort. Englishman Harry Watt was subsequently sent to Australia, by Ealing Studios, to investigate the possibility of making a film. During his five months traveling the land in only three of our seven states he discovered five ideas he felt would be suitable for the production of a film. These were all dropped. Although their was no outdoor cinema in the day and production house equipment was poor in Australia, Watt could see this uncharted country could produce multitudes of worthy film material. The idea for this experimental film was spawned at a war time food office where a government minister was telling the story that became the Overlanders. In 'You start from Scratch in Australia' Harry Watt explains his decision to create a war related film was based on the film The Rats of Tobruk, a reconstruction of Australia's part in the siege of Tobruk, as war films in the climate at the time would gain army cooperation. The circle of film production was then almost immediately put into action. Leaving a researcher in Sydney Watt took a photographer to the Northern Territory on a three week trip that established the locations where the film would be shot. They also spent four days on a cattle run to aid Watt in the construction of the script.


The pre-production period was very hectic, as the writing, casting and equipment collection was done mainly by Watt himself with the aid of a very small 'work force'. On top of this a thousand head of cattle (complete with drovers) and suitable horses had to be found. The horses required had to be suitable for filming purposes, meaning they needed to look like feisty racers and behave in the controlled manner of a dog. Because it was war time during the filming permits, coupons, priorities and passes had to be applied for and collected before any filming could commence. Staff on the shoot, including actors and drovers, consisted of thirty five people, only six of them having any previous experience with feature films. With pre-production complete, this group loaded up two Dakotas and headed for Alice Springs. All the heavy equipment and horses were sent by rail taking about a fortnight to arrive. Five months of filming could then begin. During the filming there were many trials to overcome, most of which relate to the old cinema saying, 'never work with children or animals'. In this case the animals caused a number of problems. There was a pnerropneumonia scare that threatened the lives of the cattle, a horse fell on Chipps Rafferty who was luckily harmed very little, and another horse died in a wagon pulling accident. The more human related problems occurred when the second lead nearly took his eye out with a stockwhip and the leading lady eloped. Fortunately this happened near the end of filming and scenes could be rearranged around her. While on location the 'rushes' were only seen fortnightly on a small projector screen. Their were two principal locations for the film, one MacDonald range country Alice Springs was directed by Watt, the second was directed by John Heyer. This was situated along part of the Murranji track which runs 1500 miles, west to east, across Australia. Starting in Western Australia and ending in Queensland the track covers a vast amount of terrain, from grassy plain to rugged valley's. Interior shots of the film, few though they were, were shot in a Sydney production house. Editing also occurred here. After the final product had been established there is very little information as to the circumstances of it's release and directly afterwards. We do know that it was released in 1946 both in Australia and Britain. Shortly following this it was shown in other European countries such as France. It was most popular, both in Australia and overseas. In fact my grandfather remembers seeing it at the time and the enormous hype surrounding it, " was a big, everyone I knew went to see it." Box office figures are also hard to obtain for this period, however if we accept this account of the films rating we can be sure they were high, especially in terms of population percentage. Where does the Film Stand in the Careers of the Director Harry Watt was an established documentary film maker in England where he helped create this popular genre. The Overlanders was his first feature style documentary and it is of popular opinion that it was the best film he ever made. After the completion of the film he when on to direct another Australian film in Eureka Stockade the aptly named film based on the events of the Eureka stockade. This was more of a feature film than the Overlanders but it still had the strong Australian feel and was based on actual events. He reopened Pagewood studios to do the editing and this became Ealing studios headquarters. He then returned to work in England, although he did work on some Australian productions again. One of which was the Siege of Pinchgut which he produced, and he also spent time directing parts of a controversial film called Indonesia Calling. This was made by Joris Ivens and Axel Poignant was behind the camera. The film was banned from export because of the risk of offense to other countries. The film concerned the liberation of the Netherlands Indies and was considered anti-Dutch by the censorship board. the Cinematographer Osmond Borrodaile also came over for the filming of the Overlanders after establishing a career in England. He was an award winning cameraman and of high acclaim. He went on to film such screen classics as the Four Feathers, the Thief of Bagdad and Scott of the Antarctic. the Producer For the production company Ealing Studios, although well established in Britain, it was their first film made in Australia. They also went on to make Eureka Stockade under the direction of Harry Watt. After the production of this film Ealing established a branch here and produced many more films. the Lead Actor Chipps Rafferty held the lead in the Overlanders which was one of his first films. He went on to become an Australian acting legend and was in a multitude of films including Eureka Stockade(1449) and the Sundowners (1960). He was the John Wayne of Australian cinema and there was even a biographical film made about him. Position of Australian Cinema The uptake of this particular film has little bearing on the position of Australian films in the contemporary market. The Overlanders was popular for it's 'unseen' quality. People where intrigued by the 'new' land of Australia, what it looked like and the inhabitancy. Tom O'Regan states in his book Australian National Cinema, 'The Australian and British cinemas are mostly mundane cinemas, seen to lack distinction and great value.' I feel this statement applies to the film despite it's popularity and sums up the critical view of Australian cinema as a whole. The film success wasn't due to it's entertainment value, instead it was seen the introduction to Australia. The Overlanders was an innovation in that it developed the doco-drama style of film making and was the forerunner to many Hollywood westerns. In some circles the Australian cinema industry is still seen to be innovative. The greatest innovation that springs to mind was the Mad Max series of films from George Miller. Starting on a low budget this style of film has been emulated a number of times, most recently in Waterworld(1995). It still remains however, that the popular opinion of Australian cinema, even in Australia, is fairly low. Tending to copy the popular styles at the time, makes it harder to achieve success due to the smaller budget Australian cinema attracts. Australian film 'artist' are not seen in the same negative frame. We produce many creative minds but because most of our talent head for the glitter (and money) of Hollywood a great hole is left in our industry. Recently there has been a trend towards joint productions with the US giving the productions more cash flow while increasing the status of the Australian film industry around the world, for example Babe and Shine. It still remains that the majority of Australian cinema is seen as mediocre. Usually it holds very little value both as an art and in monetary terms. As production and finance increases and the next generation of film makers emerge, having learnt from the past, we can expect the industry in Australia to develop. Hopefully outgrowing it's former criticisms. Situation of the Film in the Australian National Cinema. The Overlanders is a classic Australian film, produced in the very early stages of the Australian cinema industry. It's value of historic in nature for the industry and of the country. The filming introduced Australia to many techniques and technologies use in film, enhancing our knowledge and beginning a revolution in the industry. Production of films increased subsequent to the release and success of this one. The European market was introduced to Australian film and culture. From a national perspective it provided a reasonably accurate record of the events of that time and our culture. Although it has a high value as an historical piece, in relation to Australian cinema itwouldn't rate very highly with me. When you consider the year it was filmed in and that it is one of Australia's most popular films on release, it must be stated that the Overlanders is truly one of Australia's classics.


Bibliography of Filmmakers Interveiws Information under this heading was difficult to obtain. Using various periodical index books such as The Subject Index Periodicals 1946-1456 Index to Periodicals 1946-1959, Trustee of NSW Library Publications, Australian Public Affairs Information Service 1960-1975 Australian Film Index. I was unable to find any relevant references. However in the International Index to Periodicals, H. W. Wilson Company, April 1946 to March 1949 I found two references different magazine articles New States and Nation, n 32: 264, Dec. 1946 Spec, n 177: 364, Nov. 1946 These articles and the ones below (Critical Essays in journals) could contain the interviews conducted at the time of release but the incomplete collection at both Murdoch and Alexander libraries meant I couldn't read the articles and discover their content. In 1949 Harry Watt wrote a personal account of his thoughts on the filming of the Overlanders which was published by Penguin Film Review. Titled 'You Start from Scratch in Australia' it provide the clearest insight into the directors and writers mind, in the lack of any available interview material. Bibliography of Critical Essays in Journals Image et son. n 75\76, October 1954, p.40 (in french) Documentary News Letter. volume 6, n 55, January\Febuary 1947, p.75 Motion Picture Herald, volume 165, n 3, 19th October 1946 Kinematograph Weekly, n2058, 26th September 1946 Bibliography of Discussion in Books Barr Charles (1993) 'Ealing Studios' - Revised edition, Studio Vista (1977)Vista (1993) Cunningham Stuart (1991) 'Featuring Australia', Allen and Unwin Australia Pty Ltd. Shipman David (1984) 'The Story of Cinema' - volume 2, from Citizen Kane to the Present Day, Hodder and Stoughton

Halliwell William K.(1985) 'The Filmgoer's Guide to Australian Films', Angus and Robertson

Edited by Morgan Albert and O'Regan Tom (1985) 'An Australian Film Reader', Currency Press

Shirley Graham and Adams Brian (1983) 'Australian Cinema : The First Eighty Years' - Revised Edition, Angus and Robinson Edited by Morgan Albert and O'Regan Tom (1989) 'The Australian Screen' Penguim Books Brand Simon (1985) 'The Australian Film Book' - 1930 to today, Dreamweaver Books Molloy Bruce (1990) 'Before the Interval' - Austrlian Mythology and Feature Films, 1930 - 1960, University of Queensland Press Edited by Ina Bertrand (1989) 'Cinema - In Australia - A Documentary History', NSW University Press Pike Andrew and Cooper Ross (1980) 'Australian Film' - 1900 to 1977, Oxford University Press Edited by Murry Scott (1994) 'Australian Cinema', Allen & Unwin Pty Ltd. On line Presence (sites with information of the Overlanders) Yahoo Web Searcher From Tom O'Regan and Albert Moran eds., An Australian Film Reader. Sydney: Currency Press, 1985. The Man From Snowy River and Australian Popular Culture... -- Gibson - Continuum:The Australian Journal of Media & Culture vol. 1 no 1 (1987)Contents. Australian Film in the 1950s. Edited by Tom O'Regan. ON "THE BACK OF... -- 1950s Oz film - Continuum:The Australian Journal of Media & Culture vol. 1 no 1 (1987)Contents. Australian Film in the 1950s. Edited by Tom O'Regan. 'Australian film in... -- Yahoo cont. Moran - Continuum:The Australian Journal of Media & Culture vol. 1 no 1 (1987)Contents. Australian Film in the 1950s. Edited by Tom O'Regan. Nation Building : The... -- Cunningham: 1950s - Continuum:The Australian Journal of Media & Culture vol. 1 no 1 (1987)Contents. Australian Film in the 1950s. Edited by Tom O'Regan. 'Nascent Innovation :. -- Robinson - Continuum:The Australian Journal of Media & Culture vol. 1 no 1 (1987)Contents. Australian Film in the 1950s. Edited by Tom O'Regan. KING OF THECORAL SEA. -- Oz Film & TV - Film & its nearest neighbour: the Australian film & television interface. Tom O'Regan. A considerably abridged version of this essay appeared as "The... -- The Best Films of 1946 - The Best Films of 1946. Excellent. Best Years of Our Lives, The (William Wyler) Black Narcissus (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger) Dead of Night... -- RW94 Course Guide - WAR MOVIE GUIDE TO RESPONSES TO WAR 1996. This is a combined bibliography and guide to the films shown in the 2nd and 3rd Year Level Subject8009/8157:... -- Lycos Overlanders (The) - suite from the film Australian Film Industry Australian Film Industry FACT SHEET JANUARY1995 Australian Film Industry How it started Governm... Post-war Australian Film - The Man From Snowy River Home; Post-war; Gatherings; Links; Courses; Bibliography; The Man From Snowy River and Australi... Lycos cont. Cunningham: 1950s Continuum:The Australian Journalof Media & Culturevol. 1 no 1 (1987)ContentsAustralian Film in... Gibson Continuum:The Australian Journalof Media & Culturevol. 1 no 1 (1987)ContentsAustralian Film in... Excite HotWired: Rough Guide - Australia Basics URL: Summary: Gradually, however, the combine squeezed the life from Australian cinema, which continued to decline as the powerful Hollywood studios got into their stride and entered the Golden Age of Talkies. In the Fifties the British Ealing Studios and MGM set up production companies in Australia, knocking out the odd outback drama watered-down for international consumption (but not success). E! Online - Fact Sheet - Chips Rafferty URL:,12,12893,00.html Summary: E! Online - Fact Sheet - Chips Rafferty. contain begin with match Chips Rafferty Filmography: The Wackiest Ship in the Army (1961). DCA - Artbeat October 96 News briefs URL: Summary: There was also some concern that many of the top films were made recently in fact, of the 100 films on the list, only 24 were made before 1970. To put the list in perspective, here are the top five films from each era in the order they appear in the top 100. Australian Film Industry URL: Summary: From 1945 to 1965 many American and British companies used Australia as a location for films such as The Overlanders (1946) and On the Beach (1959). The excellent calibre of material being produced by Australian filmmakers clearly demonstrates the nation's maturing film culture. Moran URL: Summary: By contrast members of the "documentary approach" group were interested in the social and aesthetic side of the documentary. The newsreel group were primarily technicians while the documentary people were directors and production assistants.

Presence online and in the literature

The Overlanders has an excellent on line presents on the internet, although I haven't compared in with other films, the information available covers almost all the material you can find in books on the subject. Tom O'Regan has however, provided most of the sites I have shown above. Of the 19 sites O'Regan was responsible for 11 of them, and at least 3 of the remaining 8 contained very little information concerning the subject. I have provided lists and descriptions of the sites to be found in Yahoo, Lycus and Excite. Web Crawler was not listed as it contained no relevant sites. When searching under 'the Overlanders+film+Australian cinema' Infoseek produced over 20,000 sites. When scanning the first few pages I could see only one related site which had already come up in another program, so I abandoned the search. My attempt to find box office information failed but I rang FTI and the Film and TV library to see if they had any idea, alas their research also failed.

html author: Mia Donovan
This page was produced as part of the Australian Cinema Unit at Murdoch University