Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 1, No. 1, 1987
Australian Film in the 1950s
Edited by Tom O'Regan

Australian film in the 1950s

Tom O'Regan

The 1950s period in Australian filmmaking is simultaneously all too familiar and all too unfamiliar. It's a period which is more often than not important for what did not happen than for what did: local cinema exhibition and distribution withdrew from film production thereby disenfranchising local producers and forcing them into what are generally seen to be either under capitalised or culturally inauthentic "location films". TV in the latter half of the 1950s failed to provide the opportunities in the film production sector that it could have, and within the arts more generally the period constitutes something of a low point. More than any other period, the 1950s is a sign of the discontinuous tradition of Australian cinema. Its meaning is generally given in relation to the period immediately before it or—more often—immediately afterwards. You go through the 1950s to arrive elsewhere—whether at the agitation for a film industry of the 1960s and the resulting film revival of the 1970s or backwards to the frustrated aspirations of the 1940s or the Cinesound years of the 1930s.

The straitened circumstances of feature production in this period are usually, in a reflex action, seen to rub off onto the films themselves. Thus the Robinson/Rafferty partnership's final lack of success is seen to be due to the intrinsic lack of quality in the films—brought about by these circumstances—rather than as Stuart Cunningham suggests in this volume because of financial overreaching and the co-production arrangements the partnership entered into. [note 1] Similarly the meritorious productions of Cecil Holmes, Charles Chauvel and John Heyer may be praised but with qualifications. It's as if the films made—no matter what their intent or their film style—necessarily have to be overdetermined by the difficult conditions under which they were produced. The marks of the difficult conditions of the 1950s have for too long come to stand in for an analysis of the films themselves. The articles by Ross Gibson, Albert Moran, Stuart Cunningham and Colin Johnson collected in this volume work to remedy this situation with analyses of 1950s films such as The Back of Beyond (1954), Mike and Stefani (1952); Jedda (1955), Captain Thunderbolt (1953) and Three in One (1956). [note 2]

Another problem dogging the examination of the 1950s is its later perception as a moment of cultural philistinism in which there was a general turning away from culture in an authoritarian political hegemony led by R. G. Menzies' conservative government. This assumption overlooks the effective importation of art-cinema discourses into both film culture and cinema and documentary experiments of the 1950s. Also it overlooks the fact that Menzies' political ascendancy was not achieved till the mid-fifties with the splits in the opposition Labor Party at both a state and federal level. Consequently the political hegemony that is seen to follow from the unbroken rule needs to be situated in the latter half of the period. Thus, arguably, there cannot be a homogeneous "social imaginary" covering this period. [note 3] Indeed the first half of the 1950s belongs more to a post-war reconstructionist imaginary of nation building in a socially (even socialist) oriented community than to the vision of the Australian Way of Life in the Lucky Country which is the usual incarnation of the 1950s. But even in the latter half of the 1950s there is a problem with this, as it was during this time that the Menzies Government began its financial support for culture. This, to some extent, undercuts any simple assertion of cultural philistinism at its heart.

The period's film production practices and its films were more varied than is generally believed. Furthermore, from the point of view of the aesthetic heritage, it can be argued that some of the more important films made since 1940 were produced in this period. This is not to substitute the image of a wellspring in the 1950s where previously there was a drought—the difficult production circumstances were just too severe. Instead it is to begin to reappraise the film output of this period.

There were not only important continuities within the period and in relation to other periods but also discontinuities. The 1950s period has important links with both the earlier 1940s period where post-war reconstructionism and a concern for documentary-realism dominate; and with the later 1960s period where ideas about national cinema, Australian content and cinema as an art form dominate. Also definite shifts can be determined within the 1950s period itself. First, TV in 1956 marks an important break inasmuch as the hopes for a revived industry led by TV that had animated the earlier part of it were dashed; and a reorientation of production possibilities began their slow regrouping. Similarly, Albert Moran insists upon a discontinuity within government documentary production in the 1950s. He argues that at the level of film style and ideological vision documentaries made in the first half of the 1950s belong with those of the latter half of the 1940s; and those made in the rest of the 1950s with those of the early 1960s. As these connections clearly spill over on both sides of the 1950s, considerations of film in the 1950s need to address developments which occcurred on both sides of this period and not be just concerned exclusively with the decade. So too it is necessary to look to the relations between feature production and documentary production on the one hand, and between film culture and other cultural spheres (cultural policy, TV, the visual arts, theatre) on the other to address phenomena which cut across them both.

Historiographically, the 1950s is known for both the restrictive circumstances of production and its "location films". I will address each in turn. Then I will discuss both the development of particular frameworks for the appreciation of films (including Australian cinema) and the interrelationship between film and cultural spheres (particularly theatre and arts policy) across the decade. Lastly in order to argue that the period cannot just be dismissed as a vacuum, I will show how events and discourses of the 1950s formed an important conceptual and institutional pre-history for subsequent developments in the 1960s leading towards the 1970s revival.


It is a measure of the downturn in film production in the early 1950s that in 1954 Cecil Holmes wrote that film making was in danger of becoming a lost tradition in Australia. [note 4] By exhuming a local tradition in the cinema he sought to prove that Australians could make films and that their production could be viable. It is a tribute to the filmmakers' ingenuity—rather than a contradiction of Holmes' argument—that in the same year Heyer made his landmark film The Back of Beyond and Lee Robinson made King of the Coral Sea. Barely four years earlier the cultural commentator Ron Conway could confidently write that the problem lay with the (inadequate) tradition not its present enunciation. [note 5]

Film, more generally, and feature film, more particularly , were to be casualities of the different emphases and priorities of both exhibition and distribution and a by now ensconced R.G. Menzies federal government. Under Menzies, the government Film Division (called the Commonwealth Film Unit in the latter half of the 1950s and later Film Australia) certainly did continue to expand. However its existence was under continual attack thoughout the 1950s leading to a number of official investigations into it. So too, as Albert Moran has pointed out, [note 6] a stylistic orthodoxy based around the "classic" documentary style became the rule after 1954, as making films for government departments rather than for its general program dominated its output.

The feature film industry fared worse. Ealing, which had been encouraged by the Labor government in various ways to remain and produce features after its 1946 experiment, The Overlanders, closed its Australian operations in 1952 after a change of federal government in late 1949 had brought the Menzies Government to power. The new government blocked a coproduction arrangement between Ken Hall and Ealing in 1951 by not allowing the formation of public companies above a certain capitalisation for films. [note 7] But the Menzies government was not wholly responsible for Ealing's departure. Ealing was unable to obtain the kind of local cooperation it wanted from Australian exhibition and distribution to continue to make feature films in Australia. [note 8] Greater Union's mangagement, for its part, was reluctant to re-invest in feature production after Chauvel's costly Sons of Matthew (1949) and their merger with the British exhibition, distribution and production conglomerate, Rank. [note 9] It did not allow Cinesound to go back into continuous feature production and indeed Smithy (1946)—a film which used Cinesound's personnel and facilities but not Greater Union finance—remains the only feature it was associated with after the war. As a consequence, local feature production became disenfranchised from the central institutions of the cinema by the late 1940s. A government more sympathetic to the notion of maintaining an Australian face in this mass media might have been prepared to bring pressure to bear upon the exhibitors to maintain a feature film production base.

Perhaps the most important historiographical question that needs to be asked here is why did a concern for the industry and an interest in it leave the government agenda in the 1950s? It certainly did not go off the agenda of other countries of an equivalent size; and barely a few years before, it had been a concern of the NSW state government with loan monies being made available to a variety of films including Chauvel's 40,000 Horsemen (1940); and of the federal government with assistance being given to the production of The Rats of Torbruk (1944) and The Overlanders (1946).

One explanation is that Greater Union's decision to get out of feature film production left the production industry without a significant lobbyist. Another is that TV usurped the feature film's audience thereby rendering it a less important cultural form. And yet another is that the Menzies government was prepared to let a production industry lapse to secure consent for its pro-American cold war policies. None seems satisfactory.

The Greater Union decision does not explain why in 1951 the federal government refused to allow Ken Hall with the backing of prominent entertainment people, to raise public money to get back into feature production in association with Ealing. [note 10] So too TV cannot explain the demise of the cinema's centrality: it was not introduced until late 1956 and it was not brought to all the state capitals until June 1960. The argument about a Menzies conspiracy against film making is too strong. It seems that the government was just not concerned with it rather than being dead against it. So the problem remains.

On this question Shirley and Adams offer a brief suggestion:

Ealing for five years were encouraged in various ways by the Labor government to remain and produce features in Australia. Now that the financial strategies of big business and Liberal/Country Party government were bypassing film production, it seemed as if the industry was facing blackout again. [note 11]

Film definitely was not as important to the Menzies government, as it was to its predecessors but that does not mean the government was not interested in organising and maintaining definitions of "the Australian." Rather it is a matter of Australianist identifications and ideologies being inculcated and articulated in and through other arenas. In his book, Inventing Australia, Richard White notes the powerful emergence of a set of discourses around the notion of an "Australian way of life" at this time which was articulated by advertisers, radio announcers, big business and governments. [note 12] Their presence might well have meant that the Menzies government did not need to support a production industry to ensure the flow and circulation of politically acceptable images. Clearly the reasons for the demise of film on governmental and industry horizons require more work than these brief speculations.

Any understanding of the depressed production circumstances of the 1950s needs to include TV. Developments within TV in the 1950s did not create the kind of opportunities in the film industry as it could have been expected to. The staggered introduction of TV (Sydney and Melbourne in 1956; Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth in 1959; and the regionals after 1961) and the related lack of networking prevented opportunities within documentary and drama, particularly filmed drama, from developing. This was exacerbated by the long delay before the simultaneous delivery of TV programs between the larger population centres became possible. These higher cost ends of TV production simply did not have either a large enough nor an integrated enough advertising market to draw on to amortise their cost. So too in the absence of video-taping, a 1960s invention, the lack of effective real time networking meant that film prints (taken off the TV screen) became the principle means of circulating Australian programming. As a consequence the costs of production of live drama were increased and its quality and audience drawing power were diminished. Furthermore, Australian TV stations had a ready pool of American programming, and British and Hollywood films to draw upon to fill their schedules. Thus the TV industry was neither able to—nor wanted to—substantially underwrite an independent film production sector as some Australian film producers had hoped that it would.

As TV stations from 1956-1959 produced their local programming in their studios, the Australian film industry in this period benefitted more from the advent of TV in Britain and the USA and their demand for programming. Thus we find Lee Robinson producing documentaries for American TV (see the interview with him in this volume); and Chauvel producing the documentary series Walkabout (1959) for the BBC (see Cunningham's discussion of Chauvel).

Furthermore, the demand to modernise film production infrastructure came towards the end of the 1950s not so much from the needs of TV programming itself but from the needs of TV advertisers to develop local advertisements of sufficient standard. Indeed, if one counts commercials as TV programming, in many ways filmed commercials destined for the national market were the first sustained nationally networked programming on commercial TV. Advertisers at least were able to produce for a national market and so were able to utilise higher budgets.

Another related consequence of both the introduction of a TV service in the late 1950s and related changes in radio accompanying it was the debates over Australian content which developed after 1956. The importance of the loose coalition of groups—the Labor Opposition, sections of the Liberal Party, trade unions, and independent producers—associated with Australian content made it politically important. [note 13] The Australian content debates were not wholly due to the effect of TV's introduction—they also owed themselves to the relative decline of opportunities within cultural production, and particularly in radio, which was related to the significant incursion by American groups into the music industry, radio drama, and certain sections of the publishing industry (including comics). When coupled with the diminishing importance of the British Empire, and the related perceptions of Australia as part of such Empirist imaginings, these developments led to the perceptions of a need to develop a specifically Australianist inflection and Australian identity. TV as the dominant medium by the late 1950s was particularly looked to to develop such an identity. The existence of these debates encouraged the development of Australian content regulations for TV which began to be implemented at the end of our period in 1960. These debates were important to the film revival and will be assessed later. But before a discussion on the possible effects of 1950s film industry circumstances upon later periods, it is necessary to examine the location film in more detail and developments within film culture.


The "location" film has tended to be seen as Hollywood in Australia in the wake of both the late 1950s Hollywood location shooting for films such as On the Beach (1959) and Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1959) and the national cinema campaigners' vitriolic attacks on them in the 1960s. [note 14] Indeed this, and only this, understanding of "location film" has informed subsequent critical discussion. However, if we were to expand the definition of the "location film" then we would be able to incorporate the inflection given to shooting "on location" in Australian filmmaking practices in the 1950s.

This Australian based "location" shooting of the 1950s was importantly informed by the documentary movement, rather than by Hollywood. The significant catalyst for the Australian "location film" was the docu-drama, The Overlanders, filmed on outback location. Its international and local success, coupled with the Australian presence of Harry Watt in the latter part of the 1940s as its outspoken advocate, made it a touchstone film. It set a new agenda for Australian filmmakers and critics alike which lasted into the 1950s.

Furthermore, at least five different kinds of "location films" were produced in this period. First, there is the documentarist and docu-drama "location film" involved in Ealing's and the government Film Division's Australian practice. Second, there is the location shooting of Cecil Holmes in the first half of the decade which draws upon stylistic ensembles used in European art-cinema (see Cunningham's "Nascent Innovation" in this volume). Third, there is the "landscape exploitationism" of both Lee Robinson and Chips Rafferty throughout the 1950s (addressed below and in "Nascent Innovation"). Fourth, there is the 1950s film and TV output of Charles Chauvel with its singular ideology of location (addressed extensively by Cunningham in "Chauvel, The Last Decade" and the Aboriginal novelist Colin Johnson in "Chauvel and the Centering of the Aboriginal Male"). Fifth, there is the actual Hollywood location filmmaking of Lewis Milestone (Kangaroo,1952), Stanley Kramer (On the Beach) and Leslie Norman (The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll).

Within Australian feature production the prevailing move to set stories "on location" had a lot to do with the cottage industry conditions under which production operated. The already undercapitalised existence of the film industry was exacerbated by the withdrawal of major institutional backers and the demise of the "national studio", Cinesound. As a consequence studio and post-production facilities failed to be modernised after the war in Sydney. These conditions favored independent filmmaking projects which relied upon existing locations—principally the landscape—rather than both crafted and deliberate set design and technical effects in editing and processing. In a sense this trend to location shooting and minimal set construction could also be situated within wider changes in independent production: first, it could be justified as the modern trend, certainly it was the trend in other undercapitalised industries—particularly the predominantly European art-cinema output—which was shown on Australian film society schedules. Second, it could be located in the increasing demands for spectacle—as black and white film stocks improved, as colour film became more popular in film production, and as American feature production responded to the significant incursion of TV into its markets. With this concern for spectacle came a rise in the standards of imaging required to be acceptable: studio work like back projection and model construction needed to be increasingly sophisticated and therefore more capital intensive to be "authentic". As a consequence it became easier to shoot on "location"—despite the attendant logistical difficulties—than to mount a studio production.

There were also a set of strategic and ideological reasons for going on location. These had to do with perceptions about what kind of Australian filmmaking would be acceptable in international and local cinema markets and notions about Australia and Australians stressing "the outdoors" gaining powerful local and international currency.

Below I will examine three of these location projects—that of the "documentarist location film", the work of Cecil Holmes, and the landscape exploitationism of Robinson and Rafferty.


The late 1940s saw the Australian ensconcement of documentary notions and appreciations in our film making. As Moran points out in his article "Nation Building: The Post-War Documentary in Australia", the style of documentary adopted in Australia owed itself not just to John Grierson's ideas about realism and the accompanying "classic" style of documentary filmmaking but also to ideas about docu-drama and lyrical documentary being developed by English film makers such as David Lean, Harry Watt and Humphrey Jennings during the war. Of these British filmmakers one in particular is of especial significance to Australian film history: and that is Harry Watt and his The Overlanders.

The Overlanders was set in and filmed on location in northern Australia, it charted an epic war-time cattle drive from the Kimberley's in north-western Western Australia across the Northern Territory to the Queensland coast to save cattle that would have been otherwise slaughtered in case of Japanese invasion. The drive, a true story, was instigated by a northern drover (played by Chips Rafferty).

In a sense, the making of The Overlanders on northern locations became just as important, just as symbolic as the film's subject was. Its director, Harry Watt, against all of the conventional wisdom to the trade, went on location to Alice Springs to make his film. He urged Australian film making to choose its subjects from the huge, exciting, hard country, that "had never been used by them (Australian film makers) at all." [note 15] It needed to go on location, to get out of its Sydney studios and the bush around it:

Studying these [Cinesound and Chauvel] films convinced me of one thing—that studio facilities and equipment were so poor that indoor films were useless to attempt in Australia and that had been the basic mistake of Australian film makers. I set out to find an almost 100% exterior subject. [note 16]

It seemed now as if "the physical surroundings of a studio....serve (d) as a barrier to recreating the national character." [note 17]

The Overlanders was projected as an alternative production model to those represented by Ken Hall and Charles Chauvel (then seeking to reassert themselves in the commercial industry after the war); and its local and international success made it a plausible one. This higher budgeted, quality, "location film" was presented as superior to a filmmaking which was characterised as studio based, confined to locations near Sydney, and owing much to American melodrama. A rise in standards in Australian filmmaking were to come from being freed from narrowly confined studio locations/ studio productions with their inbuilt tendency to formula. Watt was being grossly unfair to Chauvel here as most of Chauvel's films were made on location and involved just as much commitment to "presenting Australia". So what really distinguishes his filmmaking from Chauvel's is the documentary realism in its "locationism" not "locationism" per se. [note 18]

The Overlanders' location shooting owed itself to a complex lot of additional ideological and economic factors. First, it was a film made on Australian location by a British film studio—Ealing—seeking to open a permanent production base in Australia making internationally circulable films. Certainly inadequate Australian studio facilities encouraged location shooting, but this location shooting can also be seen as a desire by Ealing not to duplicate its British studio operations: Ealing and Watt would not have been looking to the Australian production of something that could be easily produced within British studios. In addition, the Australian government had requested and indeed was prepared to assist in the production of a film which would dramatically show the Australian contribution to the war outside as much as inside Australia.

Mixing voice over documentary narration by Chips Rafferty with the fictional telling of the story, the film eschews a tight narrative structure—it was episodal and anecdotal. The main romantic interest is disrupted by the man's broken arm. Other characters disappear and are not seen again. So too the film tends to de-dramatise incidents—threats such as a crocodile come to nothing. There is hardly a close-up in the entire picture and one of the few times they occur is when the men get off their horses to stop the stampeding cattle by eyeing them off. This absence of close-up works to de-individualise the on-screen characters leading the viewer to infer not so much a psychological explanation for their action but a social explanation. The film's understated acting, its absence of extreme close up, its use of voice over, enhances its socially representative claims of delivering an Australian essence. Chips Rafferty was, The Sydney Morning Herald proclaimed, "the Australian everyman in speech, action and character". [note 19] By making the film the filmmaker, Watt, became an ambassador, bringing to Australian and overseas audiences the maintenance of ordinary lives and community in exotic outback surroundings.

In doing this The Overlanders was reflecting the optimism and priorities of post-war reconstruction. This post-war reconstructionism drew upon a long standing pioneering/developmental ethos to promote itself. In it Australia appeared as a zone of possibilities: the Australian continent existed as a dramatic, imaginative space where emptiness could be converted to fullness, where undreamed of potential could be realized, and where distance was symbolically banished. In the process the outback became a metaphor of Australian society and its character. It was a mythic setting, revitalising the Australian nation and its rural and secondary industries.

For Australian film making/appreciation this film helped give an Australian shape to documentary-realist film making. In doing so it established both a certain fetishisation of the bush and landscape through shooting on diverse locations; and an emphasis upon an episodic anecdotal narrative in which psychology played a minor role. The Overlanders was an intellectually acceptable Australian film—and it was realist not melodramatic, individual not formulaic, documentary not genre. Heyer saw it as providing Australians with their first feel of the country on film. Others—such as the writer George Farwell saw it as being successful because of Watt's attempt to make it "real" and his eschewal of Hollywood norms. [note 20] In many ways it is Australia's first art-film.

On the other hand government documentary location filmmaking had a variety of sources. Location shooting was a necessary part of its brief to show real workers in real conditions dealing with their problems. But this does not explain in itself the trend towards an outback image within it. That trend had to do with a number of factors. First, commercial exhibitors both in Australia and overseas were more interested in screening Australian exotica as shorts. Second, post-war reconstructionist imagery utilised the image of the outback pioneer to justify its dual policies of the extention of primary and secondary industries. Third, outback locations mirrored a move within Australian visual culture more generally to chart not so much the semi-arcadian pastoral scene but the starker outback accompanying the adoption of more abstract artistic practice. Finally this emphasis upon the "outback" as a location for both documentary and feature production could also, as Ross Gibson suggests in his discussion of The Back of Beyond, be seen as a more general move within folklore towards a retelling of the heartland stories of the explorers. The documentary and docu-drama filmmakers were concerned to use Australia as a subject and put it in the foreground making it an active ingredient rather than the background for the action. Because of this it was necessary for filmmakers to move outdoors and to go on location. [note 21]

In addition as Albert Moran argues, there was, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, much more interplay between feature film production and documentary practice than there was to be later on in the 1950s; and documentary production itself incorporated a hybrid mixture of drama and documentary absent in later documentaries of the 1950s and early 1960s. Indeed documentaries in this period might not only incorporate drama elements but might also include lyrical and European art-cinema modes. The incorporation of these elements could be particularly seen in the activities of a number of the government Film Division's prominent documentarists such as John Heyer, Ron Maslyn Williams, and Lee Robinson.

Documentaries in this period articulated a post-war reconstructionist discourse. Thus we find the documentary filmmaker and playwright Catherine Duncan advocating in 1949 that our documentary films intended for migrants be infused with "our (pioneering) spiritual climate" because:

Australia most needs tough citizens, as hardy pioneers as ever crossed the inland deserts from Adelaide to Darwin. Independent people, who won't expect anything more than space and opportunity for their energies. It needs some of the passion and persistence that cut the first farm out of the virgin bush. It needs some of the rough poetry and comradship of men around a campfire. [note 22]

If Australia was a hard, untamed land, then Australians were hardy and wilful enough to meet the challenge. In drawing upon post-war reconstruction discourses it established its own socially representative types in which was promoted an interest in the ordinary within extraordinary, exotic surroundings. The influence of this imagery can be seen as late as 1959 when John Heyer retrospectively summarised "the image of Australia on the screen" as:

... in essence the image of nine million people building a new nation...From Cape York to Tasmania the image reflects a young and vigorous people building on an old, isolated land...the foreground of the image is always new and always concerned with day to day problems and adventures of living rather than with traditions, the fine arts, or research. [note 23]

On a continuum with The Overlanders and Watt's later Eureka Stockade (1949) is John Heyer's documentary The Back of Beyond (1954). This film is arguably one of the most important films—let alone documentary films—made in this country. When John Heyer was given a brief by the Shell company to make a documentary film reflecting the essence of the Australian character he chose an outback mail run on the Birdsville Track. The Back of Beyond is full of its quota of images of ordinary people doing everyday things under extraordinary conditions. Men sit in lounge chairs reading the paper with a desert, stretching to infinity, for a living room. For relaxation jazz records are played on a wind up gramophone and used to dance to amidst sandhills. In surroundings empty of any sign of life on the Birdsville Track, a woman and her children wait in Sunday best for the mail truck to take them to town. Children's tracks on a desert lead to an infinity that is their death.

Just as The Overlanders breaks down its feature film style by its use of documentary elements and shooting styles, so too does The Back of Beyond break down its documentary style by the inclusion of dramatised anecdotes. The film digresses from documenting the journey of the mailman Tom Kruse to show a legend of the track in which young girls get lost in the desert and again when the Aboriginal Malcolm, remembers his time at a now deserted Lutheran Mission, in the ruins of which Tom Kruse and he spend the night. These two events are only loosely connected to the main documentary thread which provides its pretext.

If Heyer's film continues much of the post-war reconstructionist brief of "representing" Australia, it also, as Ross Gibson points out, transforms it in particular ways by finding not only a successful community operating on the Track but also failures on the Track: there are ruined mission stations, the bones of dead animals in trees and on the ground, and the dingo and the snake seem everpresent threats.

Gibson goes onto claim the film's singularity in Australian film history in terms of its imaging of landscape and figures in it. There is no doubt that the film represents not only a significant extention of the documentarist locationism pioneered by Watt but also the incorporation of styles of imaging becoming familiar in the visual arts in Australia and becoming known in film societies through European art cinema.


The connection with European art cinema is particularly relevant in the discussion of the feature output of Cecil Holmes. Three in One (1956) and Captain Thunderbolt (1953) as Stuart Cunningham notes juxtapose "international stylistic ensembles virtually untouched in the Australian cinema: expressionism, social realism, neo-realism, Soviet social-class typage." (see "Nascent Innovation" in this issue). Three in One is made up of three stories. One based on a Henry Lawson short story is called "Joe Wilson's Mates", another is called "The Load of Wood" and the third story is called "The City".

Cunningham goes on to note that

Ross Wood's cinematography.... exploits new stylistic possibilities for reworking Australian space and theme. Its use of high, low, and canted angles codes outback spaces in the first episode "Joe Wilson's Mates". Night-for-night shooting the wood stealing sequences in "The Load of Wood", the sequences of the young couple wandering the streets in "The City" are powerfully drawn neo-realist and social realist reprises. The spare, halting staging of figures in the Australian landscape, especially the long burial sequence in "Joe Wilson's Mates" (see the slide) ... bear effective comparison to no earlier or contemporaneous film except Back of Beyond. (p.3)

Cunningham goes on to argue that Captain Thunderbolt is a masterly example of a stylistic confidence that "demonstrates that Holmes could not only quote from the international art and political cinema traditions but appropriate them for the purposes of politicising a central "national fiction". (p. 4)

As successful as these films were as films from a contemporary vantage point they were given virtually no cinema exposure in Australia. Scandalously, Captain Thunderbolt was not released here until four years after its completion. It made its money in other English speaking and non-English speaking markets. [note 24] Similarly, Three in One received its first complete Australian screening in 1959—but not in a cinema but on TV. Ken Hall picked it up for Channel 9 in Sydney whilst he was general manager there. [note 25] It is surely ironic that two of the three filmmaking projects that incorporate stylistic elements from European art-cinema so competently—Holmes' and Ron Maslyn Williams' Mike and Stefani should have had such a shoddy treatment by the film trade in the former case and their producing organisation (Film Division) in the latter.


Another indication of the importance of the documentary to the feature film output of this period is provided by the career of Lee Robinson (an interview with him is published in this volume)— first in the government Film Division making documentaries incorporating docu-drama elements in the late 1940s, and then as a feature director in his own right with partner Chips Rafferty in the 1950s. If Robinson's locationism grew out of his documentary work it increasingly owed itself less to a documentary realism than to a location exploitationism.

Lee Robinson took the general fetishism of the outback and locations animating The Overlanders to an extreme. In an article he wrote in 1949 whilst making government documentaries in the Northern Territory, he articulated a bizarre series of suggestions for films. They were to be set in the Northern Territory frontier "land of Australians in their truest sense", and Aborigines, in particular, were to be good subjects because having no sense of time, they did not mind the retakes of shots necessary for film production. The outback, it seemed, carried the secret of the "real Australia": there one would find the quintessential landscapes and Australians. [note 26]

What is valuable about these ideas is that they meshed so well with his own feature film production strategy. This was a strategy which made much of exotic natural locations both to minimise set construction costs and to take advantage of a perceived national, but particularly international, market for Australian exotica.

Under Robinson the location film shifted from its documentary realist moorings and came to involve, as Cunningham points out, a filmmaking that incorporated established B grade Hollywood protocols, set in the "different" Australian surroundings. [note 27] Without the financial support of the large local exhibition chains the film entrepreneurs had to secure overseas investment and look to successful international release before the project could get off the ground. His film packages were put together to secure this. In the absence of ongoing feature film production what counted as marketable was limited. The demands of this kind of location film involved using a familiar format to offset the "different" Australian background (accents, landscapes, etc.):

There's a key rule that seems to apply in this business: that you don't try to present a new background and a new format in the one film. If you have a new background (like Australia) with a film such as The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1959) you try to introduce a completely known format into that background so you don't try two things at once. [note 28]

The fact that both Robinson and Watt claimed to be making location films demonstrates how much the term shifted over the course of the Menzies years. Robinson was operating under different conditions than Watt. He was an Australian based independent trying to raise money from overseas and local sources in order to attract the kind of international distribution commitment that would make up for an absence of Australian exhibition backing. Further, none of the features he was involved with received the federal government assistance Watt was given. It could be argued that he could not afford to produce different kinds of films that Watt, with his British studio backing and near automatic access to exhibition and distribution, could. Instead, what Robinson and his partner Chips Rafferty tried to do was to start a viable B-feature operation that would run as the second film on a theatrical double bill, and which would utilize the exotic—the Australian inland (The Phantom Stockman), Thursday Island (King of the Coral Sea, 1954), New Guinea (Walk into Paradise, 1956), and South Sea Islands Stowaway (1958). As Robinson later told Graham Shirley:

We were trying to do...something that was Australian within an international format. Because we didn't have the name artists to play with, we didn't have the top writers, we didn't have the top directors, the one thing we did have—great backgrounds. [note 29]

In a sense Robinson does not do his own work justice here. By and large his films have tended to be ignored—it's been as if his comments about their production circumstances come to stand in for an analysis of the filmmaking practice itself. Partly because they were made for international audiences, they do not seem to be about the formation of national identity—despite the emphasis upon landscape and location within them. The lack of attention to his work is surely attributable to the way in which his locationism does not call up culturalist or even developmentalist discourses about Australia which could be seen to be part of nation building.

The unease, rejection even, of this filmmaking owes itself to the sense of opportunism generated by its use of landscape. At times the story line seems to exist, rather like that of a Hollywood musical, in order to permit the virtuouso display of scenery. In King of the Coral Sea Chips Rafferty the King of the film's title, brings Bud Tingwell his absentee play-boy boss up to a hill on Thursday Island and the camera dutifully follows his pointing out of the islands and scenic attractions of the area. These displays need not be just of the landscape itself they can and do often include in this film virtuouso camera work—particularly in spectacular sequences of underwater camera shooting which are clearly in excess of what the story line required. Perhaps the most direct instance is the fight between Rod Taylor and the suspected villain in about three foot of water just out from the shore which becomes the pretext for the use of underwater photography. Some of the effect of this photography is lost to us today since we have become so used to spectacular underwater effects in colour.

What is certain is that not nearly enough sustained attention has been given to the output of the Robinson/Rafferty partnership. Cunningham takes up some of these issues in "Nascent Innovation"—not only does he address the particular kinds of "action filmmaking" undertaken but he also focusses upon the changes wrought in Rafferty's star persona in them.

Robinson's subsequent TV work in the 1960s involved the same kind of production philosophy of overseas finance and exotic background: Skippy features the kangaroo and the bush of the Blue Mountains; Boney a part Aboriginal police investigator in outback surroundings and Barrier Reef was self-explanatory. As independents, the fifties and sixties entrepreneurs had to be successful with each film to continue in any kind of continuous operations. It is surely a tribute to Robinson that he was able to make film and TV programs over such a long period.

Under these conditions it's no wonder that the location film became what it is consensually understood to be—Hollywood film shot on Australian location. Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr played Australian drovers in the Australian "western" The Sundowners (1960). Ernest Borgnine played a cane cutter in The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1959). Peter Finch played the Queensland jackaroo alongside the English actress Virginia McKenna in A Town Like Alice (1956)—to name but a few. All were projects initiated outside Australia and were backed by American and British studios—the steady flow of these productions in the 1950s did, as Adams and Shirley note, keep local actors and technicians in work. [note 30]


If commercial success was not to be had from the incorporation of art cinema discourses into film production, the one place in which art cinema discourses were successful was in the appreciation of film by film societies and film festivals. Although film societies had existed before the Second World War, they are significantly a post-war development in Australia. [note 31] Film societies and later Film Festivals broadened what could be experienced as cinema. They created a market for foreign language films in Australia—thereby locking Australia into the international art cinema market. They showed, often for the first time, Russian cinema. They picked up difficult Hollywood and other English language features that exhibitors would not touch and so gave them the screenings they would not have obtained previously. They provided a venue for the screening and discussion of Australian, British and Canadian non-commercial short and documentary films.

Film societies both reflected and reflected on the changes within international and local film making. Take local film production first. With the documentary experimentation of the 1940s and early 1950s and Ealing's Australian presence for The Overlanders and Eureka Stockade (1949) film societies provided a critical though sympathetic audience for local film. Aiding this was the fact that prominent documentarists such as John Heyer were also in the forefront of the film society movement: also another film society stalwart and a great proselytiser of the documentary ideal, Professor Alan Stout, had served on the National Film Board briefly. [note 32] These Australian experiments with non-Hollywood styles of filmmaking were appreciated in film societies as film art—albeit art with a social purpose.

With the changes in Australian film in the latter half of the 1950s some of the initial film society enthusiasm for the documentary waned as a stylistic orthodoxy in the classic documentary prevailed at the Commonwealth Film Unit. By this time too, the classic documentary was starting to be seen as old fashioned documentary practice in the context of documentary experiments in the late 1950s—ethnographic film or the "freer", more direct cinema later associated with cinema verite. Also waning was the enthusiasm for features produced in Australia with the prevalence of Hollywood location films and the move in Robinson's coproductions off-shore. Film intellectuals lamented the lack of a local filmmaking on more favourable cultural and aesthetic terms other than those the international industry had provided. [note 33]

In "Two Discourses on Australian Film" Albert Moran and I suggest a clear distinction in film society and film intellectual's appreciation of the cinema between the "discourse of the documentary" in the late 1940s and early 1950s and "the discourse of the feature film" in the late 1950s and 1960s. [note 34] Despite this difference at the level of discourse they have important similarities. Both represent an intellectual and aesthetic response to the cinema and furthermore the feature film was always central to film society consideration. So too some documentary film practices of the early 1950s (Maslyn Williams Mike and Stefani and John Heyer's output particularly) clearly show the impact of European art cinema rather than just documentary ideas. Finally, the virulent debates over the use of drama in documentary in the film society literature of the 1940s provide further confirmation of the extent to which documentary in the 1940s and early 1950s needs to be seen in relation to feature film—rather than as an entity in its own right. [note 35]

The real difference then between the two sides of the decade was the diminishing social importance of film in terms of aiding post-war reconstruction and national development and its replacement by a perceived cultural importance of film as an art and as the expression of "the personality" of a "people" or its director. [note 36]

At a related level it did become easier for film societies to screen continental art-films. As the decade progressed European industries had sufficiently reorganised and recovered from the Second World War to look to expand their output and markets. Second, the advent of film festivals out of film societies—Melbourne in 1952 and Sydney in 1954 being the most significant—gave art-cinema an Australian showcase. These festivals tied Australia into mainstream international art film markets—with a good proportion of the product showcased finding its way onto local film society schedules and commercial art-house venues after the festivals. Finally, the incorporation of art-cinema styles within Hollywood film production itself made for a broader acceptance of art-cinema.

The development of these film institutions encouraged the consolidation of a discourse of film appreciation whose principle focus was upon continental art cinema and in consequence upon feature film. In this new discourse of film appreciation, feature films were seen not only as the creative expression of their makers—usually directors, but also as "the distinctive art form of our generation." [note 37] Film's task was to express not to inform or enlighten. And like the traditional arts, film had "masterpieces" and traditions through which the "personality" of a people could be articulted. [note 38]

The concern of film societies in the 1950s was rather more with establishing the credentials of film as an art form worthy of the same consideration as other arts—than with espousing a program for Australian filmmaking. Yet polemical ideas about Australian film were in gestation in the 1950s. They needed to have film as art consolidated both institutionally and as a widespread community perception before any polemical program based on feature film as a cultural good could be espoused.

A good index of the state of discourse towards the end of this period is given by Neil Beggs in his article "First Words on Australian Film". Writing in the Melbourne based Film Journal, he urged an attention to feature production and derided both the government documentaries and the Grierson ideals of documentary film making. [note 39] The community ideal—the proposal to bring the state, its politics, its actions to the people through the vehicle of the documentarist as a social instrument—was cast as an ideology with Stalinist overtones. In government service, filmmakers had been deprived of the chance to function as artists. The blindness of authority and the routinisation of production on government films produced assembly line films which treated their subject matter only superficially. Direct government involvement in film production spelt propaganda. Accordingly, the problem solving role of the documentary ideal was taken over by the feature film. The feature film rather than the documentary was more likely "to give us insight into and an appraisal of the problems we face." [note 40] In consequence, establishing a feature film industry was now argued as a goal for socially and politically conscious people. [note 41] The feature film by contrast represented authenticity and variety in the face of mass entertainment. Furthermore, the feature film could not only claim to be an art form in its own right, but it could help sustain other art froms such as music, writing and dance through its incorporation of them. Beggs consequently urged that the government should not consider film as a propaganda instrument but as a cultural form; not as entertainment but as an art form. The feature film with the articulation of this discourse was becoming a candidate for arts subsidy. [note 42]

This position of Beggs reflected the way in which the film societies were becoming prepared to see themselves as polemicists for film production. This outlook of the film societies drew upon ideas that were circulating at the time around the intrinsic value of cultural activity to public life.


For all of the problems the Menzies era brought to Australian film making, it saw the emergence of extended cultural subsidies outside traditional areas of concern. After 1954, extensive support for cultural activities outside state run broadcasting systems became established as an integral part of Federal government responsibilities. And this happened in most affluent western countries at this time. Perhaps this support had something to do with the Keynesian government managed economy and the notion of the welfare state. Coming under the broad rubric of the community's welfare, cultural support could parallel the increased emphasis upon secondary and tertiary education in a period of post-war affluence. Indeed the initial plans for a national theatre came initially from a federal committee on post-war education! [note 43]

Cultural support became acceptable to the Menzies Government as an apolitical and non-instrumental policy goal. Art was in a separate sphere to politics. The state of Culture in Australia rather than the formation of an Australian culture seems to have been the priority which Menzies accepted when his government provided federal funds—on condition of private donation—for the establishment of the Elizabethan Theatre Trust in 1954. The Trust's name is symbolic here—it owed itself to the Queen's impending visit. [note 44] This was scarcely a republican program. Australian contributions would further the cause of Culture in Australia.

This was a small beginning but a beginning nonetheless. Government matched the funds raised from the general public. The local and international success of The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll in 1956 established the prestige of the Trust and ensured it a public profile. [note 45] This play so central to Australian culture in the 1950s is addressed in this volume by Jane Cousins (see "Gender and Genre in The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll"). Ballet, opera and puppets were added to the Trust's responsibilities in the first ten years of its operation. In 1958 a training school for theatrical actors, directors and producers—The National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA)—was established. It provided a steady stream of personnel for subsidised theatre and later TV. Regular financial support from government became established as a principle in the performing arts by the early 1960s. [note 46]

Initially, a national theatre was as much about Australians performing international plays—Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Ibsen etc—as it was about showcasing Australian writing. With the advent of TV in Sydney and Melbourne in late 1956 much the same kind of culturalist expectations were entertained. TV would, it was hoped, provide for the Australian performance of the international repertoire as much as showcase Australian writing on TV. Some of this came to fruition particularly in the ABC—but not as much as was hoped. It was only when programming changes within TV both locally and internationally in the early 1960s produced a need for new material that this changed to firmly include Australian writing.

There are two things worth commenting on here. The first is that government support gained considerable impetus from the difficulties experienced within cultural production generally in this period. In the cinema, radio and TV particularly acting, writing and directing roles either seemed to be dinimishing or (in the case of TV) were practically non-existent. Actors, writers and directors seemed to be leaving Australia "in droves" for lack of domestic employment. Australia, it seemed, was unsympathetic to its artists. Cultural subsidies, it was felt, could arrest this slide.

The second thing to comment on is the particular Australian inflection—in particular a discourse of cultural lack—which was rhetorically given to both the calls for governmental support for culture and its actual carrying out. In this discourse Australia lacked but needed culture and cultural activity in order to approximate a civilised and modern society. These ideas began to be widely articulated from the late 1950s. They gained credence from the difficulties within cultural production generally in this period mentioned above.

John Douglas Pringle's much discussed 1958 best seller Australian Accent provides a useful compendium of the criticisms levelled at Australian culture. [note 47] Cultural inadequacies were seen to be present on a number of levels. In all forms of mass art and entertainment there was a general crudity. Commercial radio and TV broadcast uniformly dreadful programming, and its newspapers were amongst the worst and most vulgar in the world. This crudity in the mass media was complemented by a "terrifying crudity in the manner and pursuits of the masses, whose intellectual interests seem almost entirely limited to the study of the racing form." Educated classes were no better. Good conversation did not exist and abstract ideas were looked on with suspicion. In consequence there was an impoverished attitude to the arts. No reverence or intense emotion surrounded their Australian experience. Because of this, the artist and intellectuals of the community were exposed to mass indifference and hostility. Australia encouraged its creative thinking people to desert it. [note 48]

Supporting this view was what Rowse has identified as the "new criticism" in Australian letters which established the historic failure of Australian culture to produce genuine novelists (except perhaps Patrick White), dramatists or masterpieces. [note 49] These criticisms, like those of Pringle, did not disqualify Australia from producing great Literature , great cultural objects. Australia had just not done so. Through an exposure to culture, it was hoped that it could, and with that would come a change so that artists could be recognised and made comfortable, appreciated and respected. The Australian cultural experience needed deepening by a greater exposure to the Arts. The aim was for Australia to gain cultural parity with the rest of the world. This criticism endorsed conceptions of art and culture as things in their own right separate from extraneous social and political considerations. The community was to benefit not so much materially but spiritually. [note 50] This conception of culture as an a-political social good contributed to the kind of support conservatives in government came to give the arts after 1954.

The need for an Australian base of cultural production could be asserted only so long as doing so maintained the integrity of international critical, aesthetic and intellectual culture. Because what was important at this stage was establishing culture in Australia rather than a distinctively Australian culture, a transnational culture that could take a local shape rather than a national culture, these developments were quite sealed off from feature film developmentq.

These more general conceptions about culture informed the discussion and thinking on film addressed above. Their importance to an understanding of Australian film in the 1950s lies in the extent to which they provided a support and context for the development of cinema as art and the feature film as art form with its own masterpieces and canon. Film society discourses and educational strategies towards the end of the 1950s significantly meshed with the aesthetic proclivities and apolitical nature of much of this discourse.


The 1970s revival owed much to the developments of the 1950s such as—the extention of cultural institutions and government filmmaking, as well as the consolidation of film appreciation discourses and notions of Australian culture. These developments form a necessary, but not sufficient, backdrop to the more immediate lobbying and government intervention of the late 1960s and early 1970s. They should not be seen as teleological antecedents for the more fully fledged development of a national cinema in the 1970s: there are simply too many differences between the conditions under which 1950s film production operated and those of the "Revival". Rather, the specific developments within film production, film appreciation, and cultural policy provided some of the conditions under which the 1960s lobbying and 1970s governmental subvention emerged. This is despite the fact that some of these institutional developments and discourses did not necessarily concern the feature film.

The federal government's involvement in documentary film through its own Film Division signified an acceptance of film production as one of the roles of government. This naturalized direct government involvement, so giving the agitation for a feature industry a valuable precedent to draw upon. Further, this government and other corporately sponsored documentary film making, led to the involvement in film production of a number of intellectuals. As their documentary work was appreciated as the work of intellectuals both at home and abroad, film production became seen as a possible avenue for intellectuals to do creative work. With this documentary involvement came an implantation of a set of concerns around documentary and realism within filmmaking practice.

The decline in film production for the cinema after 1950 helped the idea of a government subsidised film production industry to get off the ground. Not only did it show the difficulty of an unassisted industry surviving, but it also weakened the lobbying power of what industry there was, thus enabling other groups, particularly cultural policy makers to make the running. Because the production industry was structurally independent of exhibition and distribution and without institutional backers, it was unable to marshall the kind of support that it once did. Its weakened state, its separation from entertainment capital, its poor relations with exhibition and distribution, its need to involve itself wherever possible with overseas companies on "location films" and its involvement in TV on similar terms all allowed the national cinema campaigners—film critics, cultural policy makers—a space in which to effectively argue their case. These campaigners might not have had this space if the production industry had remained as central to the cinema in Australia as it had been in the 1930s. If Cinesound had persisted as a studio, the industry may not have been so receptive to cultural policy leading industry policy. As it stood, industry figures could only be grateful for these people putting a film industry back on the public agenda.

The development of film societies and of film festivals played a role in establishing film—documentary and feature film—as an aesthetic object in its own right. In so doing it became possible to argue for the insertion of feature film on cultural and ultimately policy horizons. In the absence of federal support for film as an industry, cinema's aesthetic claims provided a way of placing film within the performing arts umbrella at a time of expanding federal commitment to the support of culture.

The film societies and festivals also provided a regular public forum for the development of views and polemic on a national cinema which helped develop a profile for Australian film making. Two examples stand out here: first the recognition and promotion (albeit in a small way) of an Australian tradition in the cinema; and second the criticism of the existing feature film output and the espousal in its stead of other film production models.

Film societies and festivals, by showing the art-house cinema of Europe and Japan provided different models and sets of expectations about Australian cinema. If a negotiation of Hollywood norms was all that was possible before, what was possible now was a negotiation of European art-cinema and British docu-drama. Australian film could be modelled on another kind of cinema. The early film society appreciation of The Overlanders was the most public instance of a genre of film criticism which persists into the present. Films of the revival like Caddie (1976) and Newsfront (1980) were praised in the same vein as it, whilst The Man from Snowy River (1982) and Harlequin (1980) were damned in the same way that Hall and Chauvel were for making generic, melodramatic, formula films that were more Hollywood than Australian. [note 51]

The growth of federal support for the performing arts after the formation of the Elizabethan Theatre Trust in 1954 encouraged arguments for the inclusion of filmmaking as a performing art alongside opera, ballet, and the theatre. Without the substantial expansion of arts subsidies that began in the 1950s, the extensive film subsidy that characterised the 1970s would not have been possible.

Whilst the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) was established in 1958 to provide a steady stream of trained personnel for subsidised and unsubsidised theatre, it also came to provide a steady stream of acting and design competences for the cinema and TV towards the end of the 1960s.

The rapid growth in the subsidised arts sectors in the 1960s was in part legitimated by a perception of an Australian cultural lack: Australia was seen to need culture. Gaining from its credibility, feature film agitators of the 1960s utilized this discourse to advocate feature film production as a means to partially fill this lack. If actors, writers and directors seemed to be leaving Australia in droves for lack of domestic employment and appreciation a feature film industry could always be posited as a means to help bring them back, to help create opportunities, and unlike TV, offer considerable creative scope for cultural expression along the way.

Developments within the theatre were of particular importance here. The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll's local and international success in 1956/7 with an Australian theme, accent and look did much to legitimate the argument that cultural authenticity could underwrite rather than be the kiss of death for international circulation. This last point seemed proved when a Hollywood version of the play (featuring Ernest Borgnine and John Mills as canecutters) failed and came under considerable criticism not only for its lack of authenticity. It seemed that if it had been an Australian production then it might have been a more successful film. These arguments formed the basis of the arguments for a national cinema and importantly informed the criticism of Australian filmmaking going the route of co-productions.

As a consequence of 1950s developments within TV, a subsidised film industry independent of the stations was increasingly looked to within and outside the production industry as a means of providing higher quality and higher cost forms of programmings—particularly drama programming that the service seemed incapable of providing. If there had been a viable independent film production sector within TV in the late 1950s then the idea of a government subsidised film production industry would not have gotten off the ground in the way that it did. TV showed how difficult it was for an unassisted industry to develop in Australia, in so doing it strenghened the hand of demands for assistance, whether in the form of government support or mandatory levels of Australian content regulation on TV. Thus arguments for government action to assist an Australian film production industry were first developed within TV, rather than within the feature film. Having been developed in so public an arena they could always be taken across to feature film production.

TV in the 1950s was important to the revival in at least two more ways. First, the Australian Content issue within TV provided a rhetorical underpinning to the arguments that were subsequently advanced for a national cinema. Second, the fragmented development of Australian TV placed obstacles in the development of national networking, which in turn meant few opportunities to sustain a film production industry producing higher quality and higher budgeted TV programming. This situation favoured arguments for a feature film industry being developed—particularly in the light of the fact that subsidies were being made available on the grounds of "artistic" production in other spheres.


Australian film in the 1950s is proposed here as a site for renewed attention which would seek, not so much a look or an essence to the period, but on the contrary would distinguish the lines that criss-cross it. These lines—discourses, strategies, techniques, conditions—connect and disconnect the 1950s to the present and to its past. Thus we find both lines of continuity and discontinuity—within different filmmaking projects, within strategies of film appreciation and exhibition, within arguments for cultural subsidy, within the different sectors of TV, and within spheres of cultural production other than film and TV. And we also find the blockages and connections that separate and join these different arenas—each from the other, each to the other.

This article is intended to set the terrain for the collection of articles on Australian film in the 1950s which follow. These articles diverse as they are in their objects analysed, their outlook and methodology, share the same commitment to illuminate the significance of, and the different aspects to, audio-visual culture in Australia in the 1950s. Whether it be Colin Johnson's polemic comparison of Aboriginal representations in Jedda with those in contemporary films such as The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) and The Fringedwellers (1986); or Jane Cousins' study of gender and genre in The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll; to take two instances—what emerges is the local instance in the 1950s which frames the present and in doing so repositions the past as a productive, and even crucial site, in the formation of subsequent representations.


1. See Stuart Cunningham, "Nascent Innovation". I am particularly grateful to Cunningham and Rita Shanahan for their detailed comments on an earlier draft. [back]

2. Ross Gibson, "On The Back of Beyond"; Moran, "Nation-Building: The Post-War Documentary, 1946-1954"; Cunningham, "Chauvel, The Last Decade" and "Nascent Innovation"; Johnson, "Chauvel and the Centering of the Aboriginal Male". [back]

3. This is a concept developed by Thomas Elsaesser with reference to German Cinema. It has been taken up in relation to Australian cinema by Stuart Cunningham, Susan Dermody and myself. See Elsaesser, "Film History and Visual Pleasure: Weimar Cinema" in Patricia Mellancamp and Philip Rosen eds. Cinema Histories, Cinema Practices (Los Angeles: University Publications of America, 1984), pp. 47-84; Cunningham, "The Text in Film History" Australian Journal of Screen Theory, nos. 17/18 (1986), pp. 34-48; Dermody The Screening of Australia vol.2 (forthcoming); O'Regan, "Rethinking the Revival" in Tom O'Regan & Brian Shoesmith eds History in/and/on Film (Perth: History and Film Association of Australia, 1987). [back]

4. Cecil Holmes, "Film in Australia", Meanjin, v. 13, no. 2 (Summer 1954), p. 191. [back]

5. Ron Conway, "Australian Films Grow Up", Monthly Film Guide, Dec. 1950, pp. 20-21. [back]

6. Albert Moran "Documentary Consensus: The Commonwealth Film Unit, 1954-1964" in O'Regan and Shoesmith History in/and/on Film. [back]

7 Brian Adams & Graham Shirley, Australian Cinema: The First 80 Years (Sydney: Currency Press/ Angus & Robertson, 1983), p. 183. [back]

8 Adams & Shirley, p. 182.

9 Ken Hall, Australian Film: The Inside Story (Sydney: Summit Books, 1980), pp. 155-164. Hall provides here a bitter personal account of these happenings. His point, and it is a point that we should all remember today, is that the Rank purchase of half of Greater Union need not have meant a decline in Australian film activity. It was Norman Rydge, an Australian representing the the Australian capital side of Greater Union's organisation not the British end who put an end to continuous feature production in Australia in the post-war period. For a more impartial view see Andrew Pike, "The history of an Australian Film Production Company Cinesound, 1932-1970", MA Diss., ANU, 1972, pp. 203-206.

10. Pike, "The History of Cinesound", p. 212.

11. Adams & Shirley, pp. 183-4.

12. Richard White, Inventing Australia (Sydney: George Allen & Unwin, 1981), pp. 158-166.

13. For a discussion of Australian content see Tom O'Regan, "Aspects of the Australian Film and TV Interface", Australian Journal of Screen Theory, nos. 17/18 (1985), pp. 5-33

14. For an account of these attacks see my "Australian Film Making: Its Public Circulation", Framework, nos. 22/23 (1983), pp. 31-36.

15. Harry Watt, "You Start from Scratch in Australia", in Penguin Film Review No. 9 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1949), p. 10.

16. Ibid, p. 11.

17. Albert Moran, "Australian Documentary Cinema", Arena, no. 64 (1983), p. 92.

18. For a discussion of Chauvel's "locationism" in his pre-war films see Stuart Cunningham, "The Sentimental Age: Chauvel, Melodrama, Nationality", Framework, nos. 30/31 (1986), pp. 40-59.

19. Sydney Morning Herald, 30/9/1946.

20. George Farwell, "Cinema can be Art", The Australasian Book News, v. 1, no. 9 (March 1947), p. 381.

21. Moran, "Australian Documentary Cinema", p. 91.

22. Catherine Duncan, "As Others See Us", Sight and Sound, v. 17, no. 65 (1949), p. 14.

23. John Heyer, "Geography and the Documentary Film", The Geographical Magazine (London), Spring 1957, p. 234.

24. Adams & Shirley, p. 187.

25. Adams & Shirley, p. 189.

26. Lee Robinson, "Photogenic Frontiers", The Film Monthly, Aug. 1949, p. 11.

27. The films incorporation of B grade protocols can be seen in terms of their production values, a production and narrative slackness, and understated performance. See Cunningham, "Nascent Innovation".

28. Lee Robinson, "Subsidies and the Arts", Quadrant, Jan./Feb. 1966, p. 18.

29. Quoted in Adams & Shirley, p. 201. For their account of this Robinson/Rafferty partnership see Ibid, pp. 200-204.

30. Adams & Shirley, p. 209.

31. Their development is related to the development of 16mm as an exhibition medium which dramatically reduced the costs of handling and screening film. The loosening of restrictions on the importation of film in the 1940s and 1950s and the advent of a National Film Board.

32. For examples of Stout's proselytising see "Our Future in Films", Sydney Morning Herald, 27/5/1944 and 28/6/1944; and "The Documentary Film", Current Affairs Bulletin, v. 5, no. 2 (1949).

33. See Tom Weir (Fitzgerald), "No Daydreams of Our Own", Nation, 22/11/1958. Reprinted in Albert Moran & Tom O'Regan eds. An Australian Film Reader (Sydney: Currency Press, 1985), pp. 144-149.

34. Albert Moran & Tom O'Regan, "Two Discourses on Australian Film", Australian Journal of Screen Theory, nos. 15/16, pp. 163-173.

35. For a discussion of these debates see Moran, "Nation Building".

36. See Weir and Neil Beggs, "First Words on Australian Film", Film Journal, no. 15 (March 1960), pp. 37-47.

37. Weir, p. 144.

38. Weir, p. 148.

39. Neil Beggs, pp. 44-46.

40. Ibid, p. 47.

41. Ibid, p. 38.

42. Ibid.

43. For an account of the campaign for theatre subsidisation and its subsequent implementation see Leslie Rees, A History of Australian Drama, v. 1 (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1978), pp. 240-268.

44. The name seems to have been chosen in part to play upon Menzies' extreme loyalist sympathies to win support. See H.C. Coombs, A Trial Balance (Melbourne: Macmillan, 1981), pp. 237-239.

45. Rees, p. 256.

46. Coombs writes that by 1959 the Commonwealth had accepted responsibility for regular financial support. It matched on an increasing basis the funds provided by the states, private donations and membership subscriptions. Coombs, p. 240.

47. John Douglas Pringle, Australian Accent (Adelaide: Rigby, 1978 rept. Chatto & Windus, 1958).

58. Pringle, p. 117 (ref. mass media), p. 116 (ref. crudity of the masses), p. 118 (ref. absence of good conversation), p. 136 (ref. desertion of creativity).

49. Tim Rowse, Australian Liberalism and the National Character (Melbourne: Kibble Books, 1978), pp. 191-245.

50. James McAuley, "Literature and the Arts", in Peter Coleman ed. Australian Civilization: A Symposium (Melbourne: Cheshire, 1962), p. 124.

51. For an extended discussion of this point see Stuart Cunningham, "The Sentimental Age: Chauvel, Melodrama, Nationality", pp. 40-43.

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