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

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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

Pic­ture.

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

To­bruk.

“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

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