From Ned Kelly to Mad Max: The Cinema Down Under, Part 1

austkellyposterIn 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.

austblokeThe 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.

16 Responses From Ned Kelly to Mad Max: The Cinema Down Under, Part 1
Posted By swac44 : April 28, 2014 5:10 pm

Now this is a series I can sink my teeth into, much as I would an Australian meat pie (if you’ve never had one, they’re not like a traditional steak & kidney pie or chicken pot pie, they’re a handheld treat available at every corner shop and gas station in Aus.). I highly recommend the documentary Not Quite Hollywood about the rise and fall of the Australian film industry, when it was largely fuelled by exploitation pics like the “Bazza” MacKenzie films and Mad Max.

I’m a little biased, my partner is an Australian and we have a rather large library of antipodean films and TV shows, and find that there’s almost always something interesting about the ones we’ve picked (although some of the early ’70s sex comedies can be a bit hard to take at times). Both the use of the country’s gorgeous landscape and a love of outsized characters give most of their productions a unique flavour no other country can capture. Can’t wait for the next instalment, Susan!

Posted By Susan Doll : April 28, 2014 7:30 pm

Swac44: Can you give me the titles of some Aussie films that might be good for my class, or I can at least get our library to order them. The more I read about Australian film, the more I want to include a section on it in my fall course.

I always learn so much from my readers.

Posted By Doug : April 28, 2014 9:05 pm

Australia has both charms and unsoothed savage beasts-great to read of the land down under which most of its inhabitants believe to be the top of the world.
I mentioned a great TV series here a while back which deals with Australia in the 1920′s, “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”. An episode from the first season dealt in part with a movie murder which had happened back in about 1907.
Sort of movie related, though he was more of a radio star, I recall reading in Fred Allen’s autobiography, “Treadmill To Oblivion” about his tour through Australia back in the 1910 era when he was still “Freddie James”, a comic juggler.
If you want to catch the current flavor of Australia, you might check out:
radio comedians who have some great adventures on their podcast.
Many Hollywood stars visit their show while touring down there-great fun.
“The Sapphires” from 2012 is a pretty good show.
There’s a lot to discover down there.

Posted By Richard Brandt : April 29, 2014 12:23 am

Second the recommendation for NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD! Aside from the staggering number of interviews they must gave conducted…it seems as if they talked to just about everyone still alive who had been in Oz films from the 1970′s on, including Jacki Weaver talking about the obligatory toplessness for Ozploitation actresses!…it has great-looking transfers of scenes from Australian films of the period, many of which are still fairly hard to find Stateside. Maybe my new favorite documentary!

Posted By swac44 : April 29, 2014 12:28 pm

I can send you a list of the films we have Susan, but maybe I should do that in email or a FB message so I’m not clogging up the comments here with lists of films. A lot of the titles we have came from Australia, so they require a region-free DVD/BD player, but a number of Aussie genre films have been recently released in North America by Severin Films, including the aforementioned vampire thriller Thirst. Here’s a link to a review of the series, including a disc of “Ozploitation” trailers that is 165 minutes of over-the-top glory (in many cases, a trailer is all you need to see of some of them, like Pacific Banana or Alvin Purple Rides Again).

Posted By swac44 : April 29, 2014 12:34 pm

If you do have a region-free player, Australian DVD company Umbrella Entertainment carries a substantial catalogue of down-under cinema, from all genres, and have a catalogue worth perusing.

A couple of recent Australian titles I can recommend include the features Red Dog, a heartwarming tale of the effect of one stray dog on a troubled NW Aus. mining community (sounds sappy, but it’s a lovely film, with a lot of major Aus. actors); The Black Balloon, about a family coping with an autistic son; and Tracks, based on a true story about a young woman’s desire to cross the outback by camel, recording her progress for National Geographic. Not quite as recent, but thoroughly enjoyable, is the action/crime/comedy Dirty Deeds, which is available on a N. American DVD, and probably streaming as well.

Posted By michaelgsmith : April 29, 2014 2:18 pm

Suzi, if you’re looking for titles to show this fall, you may find my Australian/New Zealand Cinema Primer useful. I watched a lot of Australian films solely for the purpose of writing this blog post and ended up being really impressed with some of the lesser-known titles (e.g., NEWSFRONT):

Posted By swac44 : April 29, 2014 2:52 pm

That’s a great list Michael, I’ve seen 9 out of the 10, and the 10th title is coming up on TCM, so I can cross it off my list. Amazingly, the one I haven’t seen is *not* Young Einstein. I feel bad I didn’t mention Wake in Fright (a.k.a. Outback) considering I introduced a screening of the new restored version. Strangely, it’s directed by a Canadian (Ted Kotcheff, hot off of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz).

Another recommendation, although I’m not sure where you’d find a copy, is The Picture Show Man, a 1977 film about the adventures of a travelling projectionist in the silent film era, who travels the country showing movies to remote communities. It also captures a time when many people in Australia watched films in the outdoors, due to the climate. I visited one of these open-air cinemas in Darwin, in the Northern Territory, which is also famous for its rainy season (generally just referred to as “the wet”). Thankfully, they also have an indoor cinema for nights with inclement weather.

Here’s the trailer:

Posted By michaelgsmith : April 29, 2014 2:58 pm

I’ve heard of THE PICTURE SHOW MAN and I’d like to see it. Thanks for the link to the trailer. Another Australian film I tried hard to see but which I couldn’t track down a copy of was Jim Sharman’s THE NIGHT, THE PROWLER.

Posted By swac44 : April 29, 2014 3:41 pm

The Night, The Prowler is available in Australia, if you have an all-region DVD player (or AnyDVD installed on your computer).

Posted By swac44 : April 29, 2014 3:43 pm

More on The Night, The Prowler, including the trailer:

Now I’m thinking I need to get a copy…

Posted By Susan Doll : April 29, 2014 6:18 pm

Richard, Michael, and Swac44: Thank you so much for the suggestions. I am making notes on your comments as we speak.

Posted By swac44 : April 29, 2014 7:12 pm

Unfortunately, not very much of pre-1970 Australian film is readily available on home video (can’t speak for streaming video services, but I have my doubts there). One curio that I came across, and can be viewed on YouTube, is a Michael Powell feature, made after Peeping Tom made him a bit of a pariah back home, called They’re a Weird Mob, about an Italian immigrant’s attempt to find work and settle down in mid-’60s Sydney. It’s an enjoyable film, probably just a work-for-hire project for Powell, with lots of character and insights into Australian society.

The film is also a late career entry for the aforementioned Chips Rafferty. Rafferty also appears in a delightful childrens’ adventure from 1947 that was released on DVD in North America by MGM/UA Home Video called Bush Christmas about a plucky bunch of youngsters who go after a stray horse that’s wandered off into the wilderness. Or was it stolen? I think it’s been written about before on Morlocks, but I’ve seen it a few times in bargain bins, and it’s definitely worth a watch, for viewers young and old.

Posted By Cool Bev : April 30, 2014 1:04 pm

I hope you are going to see Peter Jackson’s Forgotten Silver, a mockumentary history of the Australian film industry. It includes phony examples of Australian films from all early eras, showing how they were the first to discover most of film’s inventions.

Posted By swac44 : April 30, 2014 2:40 pm

Because I know how riled up it makes my Aussie g/f to be mistaken for a Kiwi, it should be noted that Forgotten Silver is set in New Zealand, not Australia. But that doesn’t make it any less brilliant. Good choice, Bev!

But yeah, it’s like asking someone from the Bronx if they’re from New Jersey.

On a more modern note, last night I watched the recent Aussie road trip musical Bran Nue Dae (released in North America with the phonetically correct title Brand New Day) which is a vibrant tale of a young Aborigine man’s attempt to escape the strict confines of a religious school in Perth and get back home to his family and girlfriend in the remote NW Australian town of Broome. Set in the early ’60s, it has great songs and location work (I even spotted the sign for the Fremantle Herald, which I had my picture taken under a few years back) and lots of faces familiar to Australian moviegoers. Geoffrey Rush is the best known cast member, but there’s lots of talent on the screen.

I understand it got fair-to-middling reviews back home, but even when its being a bit cornball (referencing favourite Aus snacks like Cherry Ripe chocolate bars and fast food Chiko Rolls), I still got a kick out of it.

Posted By swac44 : May 7, 2014 8:39 pm

Some other early Australian-themed movies (made by England’s J. Arthur Rank Corporation, I believe) are available from VCI Home Entertainment. 1952′s The Australian Story features Maureen O’Hara in a story about a con-artist (Peter Lawford) trying to swindle an Aussie rancher out of his holdings.

1957′s Robbery Under Arms is set in the 19th century outback, about a cattle rustling caper gone wrong.

Haven’t seen either of these films, but they have decent casts (the second film features Peter Finch and David McCallum) and look worth watching.

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