Posted by Susan Doll on April 28, 2014
In the fall I am teaching a course on World Cinema, and I may include a section on Australian film. As luck would have it, TCM is airing its own tribute to the Australian New Wave every Friday night for the month of May. The Aussie New Wave refers to that period during the 1970s and 1980s when Australia’s revitalized film industry released a number of critically acclaimed films (Breaker Morant; Gallipoli; My Brilliant Career) that launched the careers of several talented directors (Peter Weir; Bruce Beresford; Phillip Noyce; Gillian Armstrong). These films were especially popular in the United States, and many of the stars and directors ended up in Hollywood. I thought I would use my research on the Australian film industry for a series of blog posts in support of TCM’s Friday night Oz fest.
Australia’s cinema history goes back at least as far as America’s. In the late 1890s, Australians began recording snippets of everyday life on film, which is similar to the origins of cinema in America, Britain, and France. A collection of these “flickers,” such as a brief glimpse of the Melbourne Cup, would be shown in vaudeville theaters as one “act” on the bill. Compared to the cinema pioneers from other parts of the world, Aussies were not afraid to produce long films. In 1900, a combination film and slide show titled Soldiers of the Cross produced by the Salvation Army ran over an hour. Six years later, Australia may have produced the first feature-length film, The Story of the Kelly Gang, which was roughly 80 minutes. That’s two years before the French were making feature-length films of classic plays, and eight years before D.W. Griffith’s four-reel Judith of Bethulia and Giovanni Pastrone’s 12-reel Cabiria.
While the American film industry was in the throes of relocating from New York-New Jersey to Hollywood, Aussies were busy producing films with “pure Australian atmospheres” as one culture critic noted. That would become their hallmark—making English-language films that were distinct from American and British movies by exploiting uniquely Australian imagery, subjects, and characteristics. However, the industry was already experiencing the problems that would plague it from the 1910s till the 1970s—limited distribution and exhibition.
The first era of Australian film peaked in the early 1920s with such silent classics as The Sentimental Bloke (1919) by the country’s first major director, Raymond Longford, and A Girl of the Bush (1921). However, as the decade progressed and Hollywood films dominated the international market, Australian filmmakers found they could not compete with the stars, technical sophistication, and big budgets of American films. New theaters were constructed to exhibit the latest Hollywood hits—not to show home-grown movies. Back in the States, Hollywood studios were acquiring theater chains and distribution outlets in order to control the industry; likewise in Australia, American studios bought up distribution companies and movie houses, further pushing local films out of the market. Finally, the coming of sound buried Australian filmmaking because the producers could not afford the investment in technology.
While Hollywood was experiencing a Golden Age from the early sound era to the 1950s, Australia struggled to produce just a few feature films. Charles Chauvel’s Forty Thousand Horsemen, a WWI tale about the Australian Light Horse Cavalry produced during WWII, became the country’s first international hit. Within a year, it had shown on every continent of the world. The film dramatizes the last successful cavalry charge in military history—when the Australians charged the Turkish-held town of Beersheeba, Palestine, in 1917. The Australians were already in WWII fighting in the Sahara when Forty Thousand Horsemen was released, making it significant to the war effort at home. In later years, the film was shown regularly on television, bonding generations together in its valorizing of an important event in Australian history. The combination of wartime friendship and the re-creation of a historical battle in Forty Thousand Horsemen are echoed in Gallipoli, making the latter’s tragic ending resonate differently with Australians than with international audiences.
Distribution and exhibition continued to be an issue for the Australian cinema. Whenever a homegrown movie was released, a Hollywood film had to be bumped from the distribution schedule and from theaters. Because distribution and exhibition were controlled by American studios and financial institutions, bumping a Hollywood feature might create resentment and cause future problems. There were quota laws, but the quota was so low (theaters had to show only 8% Australian movies) that it made little difference; plus, the laws were seldom enforced. The eventual result was that the Australian cinema industry shut down during the 1940s and did not resume until the 1970s. That is what makes the Aussie New Wave so important; it not only brought international attention to Australian films but it rebooted the country’s industry.
In 1970, the Australian Film Development Corporation (later, the Australian Film Commission) was formed after the government decided to push for the development of the arts. A film bank was started to finance Aussie productions, and distribution and exhibition problems were improved. Three years later, the Australian Film School was launched. The school’s first graduates included New Wave directors Phillip Noyce and Gillian Armstrong.
Though directors cultivated individual styles, the films featured common characteristics that attracted Australian audiences. Films with subject matter based on Australian history became a logical choice to entice native audiences, particularly if the Australian perspective on a historical event had been overlooked. Australia boasts wide open spaces and landscapes with unique formations and foliage. The harsh landscape defines the rugged individualism prized by the Australians as well as a kind of mystical or spiritual connotation related to but not exclusive to Aboriginal culture. The environment or setting often seems to be a character itself in Australian films.
The line-up on TCM this Friday includes Breaker Morant, Gallipoli, Tim, Mad Max, and Road Games, all released between 1979 and 1981. The director of Breaker Morant, Bruce Beresford, opened the door for the New Wave when he made The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972). After high school, Beresford had left Australia looking for film work. He found a job in Nigeria as an editor, then moved to London where he took a position as the head of production at the BFI, a job he detested because of internal politics and jealousies. At the end of his term, he returned to Australia just as things were starting to happen in the revitalized film industry. The Adventures of Barry McKenzie is in the tradition of low-brow, working-class character-driven comedy that goes back to The Sentimental Bloke, but critics were unkind in their reviews. Beresford thought his career was over before it began, but Barry McKenzie actually launched him as a director. He had made five films by the time he discovered Breaker Morant in 1979. His screenplay was based on a play by Kenneth Ross, which was a highly theatrical interpretation of the real-life story of Harry “Breaker” Morant. Morant was an Australian officer in a British unit arrested with two of his men for executing prisoners during the Boer War. Beresford researched the Boer War and Morant’s career with the British unit to expand the narrative, which revolves around the infamous trial. Funded by the relatively new South Australian Film Corporation, Breaker Morant was shot in six weeks for $800,000—a budget that included re-creating Boer battles.
In America, critics drew parallels between the Australian officers’ actions and the moral quagmire that was the Vietnam War. Though Beresford clearly sides with Morant and his men, the Australians did shoot down the surrendered enemy soldiers and a civilian missionary in cold blood. This fact prompted many to compare the situation to the My Lai Massacre. But, this isn’t an American film, and the subtext doesn’t fit an American perspective. The real villains are the British officers, who are contemptuous of the Australians. The Australians do the Brits’ dirty work but aren’t worthy of their respect. The British click their tongues and push for a guilty verdict, even though they know that the Australians were following British orders.
Breaker Morant makes a provocative companion piece to Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, the story of the volunteer Australian and New Zealand army deployed by the British in the invasion of Gallipoli during WWI. As in Breaker Morant, the uptight, straight-laced British officers are products of a class system that looks down on the Australians and New Zealanders as less valuable because they are . . . well, not proper Brits. Trapped in trenches on the beaches, the Australians and New Zealanders are used to draw fire from Turkish cannons so the more “valuable” British troops can continue an offensive nearby. With Breaker Morant and Gallipoli, the directors bitterly distinguish the Australian version of history from that of Britain, though the two countries were on the same side in world conflicts.
Breaker Morant and Gallipoli introduced several prominent Australian actors who eventually ended up in Hollywood films, including Bryan Brown, Jack Thompson, and Mel Gibson—who also stars in Tim and Max Max. Gibson’s good looks and penchant for action flicks quickly turned him into a Hollywood movie star, and his recent offscreen antics have alienated many fans, but his performance in Tim revealed a talent for acting and an undeniable charisma. Viewers will be captivated by Gibson at age 23 playing a mentally handicapped young man who falls in love with a 40-year-old woman, played by Piper Laurie. At the Australian Film Awards, Gibson won Best Actor for his role in Tim.
Max Max and Road Games round out this Friday’s selection from the Australian New Wave. Both are genre flicks that the Australian film industry was less than thrilled with, preferring to focus attention on their more prestigious efforts. Directed by Richard Franklin, Road Games is a thriller about a killer preying on women in the Australian backwoods. With a Hollywood cast that includes Jamie Lee Curtis and Stacy Keach, and an American scriptwriter, Road Games seems the least connected to the Australian New Wave. Mad Max may be a member of the New Wave family, but at the time of release, it was considered the black sheep. The film was a modest success in its home country upon initial release, incurring the wrath of reviewers and the newly formed film establishment. A member of the Australian Film Commission called it “the exploitation movie to end exploitation movies.” Director George Miller, who graduated from medical college as a doctor, created an astonishing action film with state-of-the-art stunts that rivaled those in Hollywood. However, Miller’s budget was a low $350,000 to $400,000, because the funding came from private sources. Miller knew the Australian Film Commission or other state-supported organizations would not fund a violent futuristic action thriller that columnist Phillip Adams (also a movie producer) called “the dangerous pornography of death.” Shot in 1977, Mad Max was not released until 1979. The film was picked up for distribution by Village Roadshow and released internationally. It was a minor success in the U.S., where it was released in a dubbed version, because the American distributor AIP was wary of the Australian accents. It broke box-office records in Germany and Japan, where it was considered a cult film. Mad Max became the highest grossing Australian film to that time. Its spawned two sequels, the terrific Mad Max II (The Road Warrior in America) and the regrettable Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
Of the group of New Wave directors discussed above, Beresford, Weir, Franklin, and Miller all made the move to Hollywood. Tim would be the only directorial effort by Australian actor Michael Pate, who had spent his life working in American films and television series.
Stay tuned for Part II of my brief series on the Australian New Wave.
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