Michael Bodey on the legacy of Charles Chauvel
The legacy of Australian director Charles Chauvel is finally being celebrated with the rerelease of his classic films, writes Michael Bodey
FOR more than a century Australian actors have ventured overseas to perform. Although the names of Clyde Cook, Enid Bennett, Lotus Thompson, Judith Anderson, Alan Marshal and co may not resonate like those of today — Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman or Chris Hemsworth — they formed part of a strong Australian contingent taking on Hollywood in filmmaking’s early days.
Yet, while the acting fraternity found a home in Los Angeles, several 20th-century Australian directors — Raymond Longford, Kenneth Brampton and Ken G. Hall among them — steadfastly remained in their homeland to make movies well before the bloom of the Australian new wave in the 1970s.
The consequences of that decision are arguably underplayed. Would Australia, or successive federal governments, have had the gumption to build a film industry here in the 70s were there not a history of competent and culturally resonant films being made against the odds before that time?
Certainly, those films are under-appreciated when compared with the films made in the US between 1920 and the late 60s. Most Australians would have seen a Hollywood film from the 1930s or 40s, but could they say the same about an Australian film of the same era?
Local distributor Umbrella Entertainment is redressing that issue while amassing a strong collection of local titles. It has focused on rereleasing (on DVD) television series including
Number 96 and Young Doctors, but also a growing line-up of feature films and ephemera from
BMX Bandits and Dimboola to We of the Never Never.
But much of its fare is post-70s feature film. Which makes Umbrella’s decision to acquire the rights to remaster a series of films made and produced by Charles Chauvel significant.
“It’s really wonderful to see the films get the justice they deserve after all these years,” says Chauvel’s grandson, Ric Carlsson.
“Viewers are going to see a different side of Australian cinema that we didn’t realise we had. We look at our industry as beginning in the 1970s from Picnic at Hanging Rock, Caddie and onwards but really we mightn’t have had the industry without the likes of Ken G. Hall and Charles Chauvel carving out a path.”
Chauvel’s resume as a director and producer, unlike that of other Australian film pioneers such as Longford and Hall, was relatively concise and of consistently high quality.
Longford and Hall were prolific but their careers had definite peaks; Longford about 1920 with the release of The Sentimental Bloke and Hall a decade later with his own Dad and Dave films, such as the remake of On Our Selection.
Conversely, Chauvel made nine commercial feature films as a director and producer between 1926 and 1955. Six of them — In the Wake of the Bounty, Forty Thousand Horsemen, The Rats of Tobruk, Sons of Matthew and Jedda — may be considered among the most significant handful of pre-1970s Australian films.
“He only made nine feature films but they were all good feature films,” Carlsson says. “Each film he made, he tried to make the best film he could.” Yet the films are rarely seen, let alone lauded. “I don’t disagree people have a notion that Australian cinema all moved forward only from
The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (in 1972),” says Jeff Harrison, Umbrella Entertainment’s founder and managing director.
One of his company’s guiding principles is to “restore Australian films for Aussies”. Although he appears to have a clear cultural objective, such films have also proven to be a commercial proposition. Harrison admits he “sort of stumbled into” restoring Australian films when sev-
eral re-releases worked within the DVD market, including Malcolm, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, The Big Steal and Picnic at Hanging Rock.
The key attribute to many of those restorations was presenting them in their original cinema wide-screen format, not the abridged, made for TV screen 4:3 format that blighted the video age.
The subsequent high-definition restoration of catalogue titles has only broadened the commercial and viewing opportunities for older films as digital and TV outlets view the films in a different, more attractive light.
“The moment we started to put films back into the correct aspect ratio, the TV stations looked at them again,” Harrison says. “The HD thing crystallised it for us, it’s been fantastic. The fall-off of DVDs hasn’t been helpful but I’m taking a long-term view on it.”
Chauvel’s family had long been hoping for a reconsideration of his works. Carlsson says he toyed with the idea of partnering with a couple of Australian distributors before Harrison met him and his mother, Sue Chauvel Carlsson, Charles and Elsa’s daughter, in 2012.
Sue Carlsson was a passionate advocate for her parents’ work (Elsa Chauvel was an important collaborator on all the films) as a researcher and restorer. She was awarded the Ken G. Hall Film Preservation Award by the National Film and Sound Archive, as it happened, only months before her death in March last year.
And unlike the catalogues of many other Australian producers and directors, the rights to the Chauvel films were, by and large, traceable or manageable.
One of the difficulties in re-releasing or restoring older titles is tracking down the rights holders, most of whom are dead, or documents confirming ownership. The pioneering years of Australian cinema are especially complex given the number of films that were made with British studios and co-financing or desperate scrounging for funds from disparate sources by the likes of Hall or, later, Chips Rafferty.
Umbrella met the Carlssons at the right moment. “I think so but we had a history of doing it,” Harrison recalls. “That helped a lot as well.”
And, as it happened, Umbrella was just as keen as the Carlssons.
“We never stop being asked about Jedda,” Harrison says of Chauvel’s last film, a groundbreaking 1955 feature that was not only our first colour feature but the first to star two Aboriginal actors (Robert Tudawali and Ngarla Kunoth) in the lead roles.
The Chauvel films, beginning with next week’s first releases Forty Thousand Horsemen and The Rats of Tobruk under the Charles Chauvel Collection banner, were scanned and cleaned, with the improvements in sound quality and syncing particularly noticeable.
“They’re not pristine because you’re dealing with old films and even with great Hollywood films it depends on the original material you work with on how well you can restore them,” says Carlsson.
The releases will be accompanied by extra material including the new featurette The Big
Elsa Chauvel sent some of the family’s material to the National Library and Sue Carlsson had been methodical in keeping mountains of photographs, memorabilia and film stock from her parents.
But much of it, including film prints, was kept in their garages in Queensland.
Despite that, the first two films scrub up very well. Viewers will be surprised, says Carlsson, beyond the clarity of the 70-year-old prints.
“Hopefully they’re going to see an Australian film industry before the renaissance, when some damn good films were made,” he says.
It is important to appreciate these films were made well before the establishment of film and acting schools, Carlsson adds.
And they were made during a period when Australian filmmakers didn’t have access to the same film infrastructure or equipment as the American and British industries.
Chauvel went so far as to travel to Hollywood to school himself in the craft.
“He felt we were seeing too many American films and wanted to make Australian films for Australian people,” Carlsson notes.
“Charles was offered money to go and live and work in the United States and would have been comfortable, but he was such a perfectionist and individual he thought he’d stay and carve a path here and stick to his principles.”
Chauvel’s parochialism shows in his movies. They are broadly heroic, revelling in examples of Australian mateship, toil and battle.
His economic means didn’t always match his screen ambition. Yet, for the most part, he composed with conviction, managing, for instance in Forty Thousand Horsemen, to transform the sand dunes of Kurnell on Botany Bay into the site of the Battle of Beersheba, in southern Palestine during World War I.
And he picked the mood. Chauvel could be painted as a nationalist but his portrayals of Australians at war arrived during World War II when the country needed a lift in spirits.
Whereas later generations could look back on screen with melancholy at our noble losses at Gallipoli or elsewhere, Chauvel re-enacted a more triumphant Australian push into the two world wars, including the Battle of Beersheba, which is considered “the last successful cavalry charge in history” and casting screen heroes Rafferty and Peter Finch as leads in The Rats of
“He wanted Australians to watch Australians winning the war and being a part of that success,” Ric Carlsson says.
“All the films my grandfather made reflected a time and a place that they were made.
“We have to look at the films with the eyes of that era and not with the critical, cynical eyes of 2014. But some of them are very contemporary.”
The first two films arrive ahead of coming re
leases for In the Wake of the Bounty and, argua
bly Chauvel’s greatest film, the rural
melodrama Sons of Matthew, before Jedda.
“I’d love to keep finding more people who do this stuff because it needs to be done,” Harrison says of the missing older Australian films.
“I’d like to do more old stuff; I know Chips Rafferty had a production company (Southern International), so we want to find those films. And hopefully we’ll make a quid from it too!”
The Rats of Tobruk and Forty Thousand Horsemen are released on DVD and download through Umbrella Entertainment next week.
The Rats of Tobruk will be screened, for the first time in 50 years, on the big screen at a special 70th anniversary event at the Australian Cinema for the Moving Image , Federation Square, Melbourne, tomorrow at 3.30pm.
Opposite page, Charles Chauvel in the director’s chair, top, and with wife Elsa; this page, clockwise from left, Chauvel on the set of The Rats of Tobruk; Grant Taylor, Peter Finch and Chips Rafferty in The Rats of Tobruk; scene from Forty Thousand Horsemen; and the Chauvels’ grandson Ric Carlsson