28 June 2014

The sometimes-great Australian film industry

With film technology emerging in France in the late 1800s, Australia excitedly jumped onto the new medium, and saw a period of rapid dev­el­op­ment in the industry. Inauguration of the Commonwealth 1901 was possibly the first feature-length documentary made in Australia and the first Australian film to use multi-camera coverage. It did not take long for our film industry to become one of the most creative national film industries anywhere.

The Tait family was well-known in Melbourne show business as the own­ers of the Athenaeum Hall, a concert venue which also ran film prog­ram­mes. They produced, directed and starred in what was a fine full length tale, The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), filmed at the family’s Heidelberg property. Interiors, including inside the famous Glenrowan Hotel, were constructed in Charles Tait’s back yard. This silent, four-reel film ran continuously for 60-80 minutes. Even more amazingly, with its live sound effects AND narr­ation, the film did not seem silent to contemporary audiences. Scenes were also tinted for dramatic effect.

Also in 1906 Thomas J West signed a long lease on the Palace Theatre in Sydney, showing mainly non-fiction film. He signed a first-run agreement with Pathé Frères. This was wonderful for the lo­c­al cinema goers, but Australian film making might have declined, giv­en the monopoly practices of the exhibition conglomerate compris­ing West, Spencer, Pathé, Johnson and Gibson, Tait and JD Williams. This group favoured imported material over locally produced film, based on financial factors. So although it was not until 1911 that coun­tries other than Australia began to make full length feature films, the group ef­f­ectively slowed down Australian production. Fortunately by this time, Australia had made 16 full-length films!

Crocodile Dundee (1986)

When Charles Spencer first arrived here in 1905, he made a fortune exhibiting The Great Train Robbery, directed by American Edwin Porter, a former Thomas Edison camera man. Soon Spencer became the leading exhibitor in this country. He went into film pro­duct­ion, establishing a permanent product­ion unit under Ern­est Higgins in 1908. Initially in docum­entaries and newsreels, he moved into funding dramatic feature films, starting with The Life and Adventures of John Vanethe Notorious Australian Bushranger (1910).

Now leap forward 40 years. Evan Williams said that after WW2, there was no such thing as an Australian film industry. Perhaps 2 Australian feature films were released each year, in some years none! Television reduced cinema audiences, and the main business of film production companies was the making of TV commercials. There were no state or federal government bodies supporting an independent Australian film industry, and censorship was strong.

An early push for change came in 1969 from Barry Jones and Phillip Adams, genius thinkers and writers. Together they persuaded John Gorton, the newly appointed prime minister and film lover, that something had to be done to forestall an Americanisation of our film world. Before he was deposed as prime minister, Gorton approved a grant to launch an experimental film fund. And two other proposals were gaining support — the creation of a film development fund (now Screen Australia) and a national film school. In May 1973 the finest Australian prime minister ever, Gough Whitlam, introduced legislation to set up the Australian Film and Television School.

The South Australian Film Corporation, the first of several such bodies set up by the states, was established in 1972. In 1975, with strong industry support, a bill to establish the Australian Film Commission was passed by parliament after obstruction by a conserv­ative Senate. Overnight Australians were picking up awards at Cannes, Venice, Berlin and everywhere else.

Gallipoli (1981)

The 1970s and early 80s saw a spectacular burgeoning of Australian production, with a succession of iconic titles — Walkabout (1971), Wake in Fright (1971), Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Storm Boy (1976), Breaker Morant (1980) and Gallipoli (1981). For Evan Williams, the defining films of the 1970s were Newsfront (1978) and Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978).

Generous tax concessions ensured another boom for the industry in the 1980s and 1990s. The Mad Max films, although not at all to my taste, did very well in Australia and abroad, and Crocodile Dundee (1986) went gangbusters. Strictly Ballroom (1992), The Piano (1993), Muriel’s Wedding (1994), Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) and The Castle (1997) were definitely my taste and also widely popular.

Brett Lamb says that Australian cinema has undergone something of a rebirth over the past few years. Popular hits such as Tomorrow When the War Began, Animal Kingdom and Mao’s Last Dancer have been accompanied by a new mindset among film makers and financiers that puts audience-friendly, genre-driven films before the type of introspective, art house films that have dominated the movie landscape for so long. In 2013, Screen Australia produced a report praising the local industry for producing hits including Red Dog and The Sapphires. There was a strong belief that screen stories are now more sophisticated and diverse, reflecting a more complex Australia. The enthusiasm for thought provoking TV dramas can be seen in The Slap and Redfern Now, and films such as The Sapphires.

The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906)

What is your favourite Australian film? For Evan Williams, it was Lantana (2001). For me it was Gallipoli or perhaps Breaker Morant.


Deb said...

I think Picnic at Hanging Rock was the landmark film, way back in 1975. It was haunting.

Hels said...


Based on an excellent book by Joan Lindsay, this film was an inspired choice. It was haunting alright, both the images and the music. And Peter Weir was the very cool director.

jeronimus said...

I loved 'Ten Canoes'.

Hels said...


what a cool choice. Not only have I not see Ten Canoes 2006; I cannot even say that I know David Gulpilil's work well, except for the two famous films - Storm Boy 1976 and The Last Wave 1977.

Rore said...

The newwer film Burning Man was good, also Dogs in Space. There is something great about seeing local architecture and places in good films.

Hels said...


I didn't know Burning Man 2011, but I liked the SBS review "experiential kaleidoscope of sex, love, and the numbing nihilism that accompanies a traumatic event."

You are so right about seeing our own cities and our own bush in Australian films. I adore British, German, French, Italian and Swedish films, but they do not reflect our lives.

Yvette said...

I agree about PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, though I never did 'get' what was actually happening. Still, a beauty of a film.

I also loved - can't help it - CROCODILE DUNDEE. Even if part of it took place in Manhattan. I loved the Australian part best.

Hels said...


Crocodile Dundee was the most iconic, the most instantly recognisably Australian character, yes. I have never met one of those mythical outback Australian men in my life, but people here and abroad responded instantly to his laid-back behaviour and values. And the photography was brilliant.