Australian Film Ep 1

The History of Australian Cinema 1930s - 2010s

Hi Leila here from Study in Australia TV

Today I’ll be telling you all about the History of Australian Cinema over the past decade.

So let’s start with the origins of Australian cinema back in the 1930s.

Although the origins of Australian cinema can be traced back to the early 1900s, it wasn’t until the beginning of the 1930s that talking films emerged, thanks to the American invention of superior, special sound equipment which revolutionised the entire industry, making silent films a thing of the past.

As a result, several major Australian production companies were born, modelling themselves largely on Hollywood examples, out of which more than fifty major releases saw the light of day throughout the decade.

One such example, The Sentimental Bloke, directed by FW Thring, was an adaptation of an earlier film of the same name which had originally been released in 1919 as a silent movie.

The reimagined version was developed in 1932 and modernised using the prose language of the era, while the characters were also fleshed out to be more three-dimensional and befitting in a version with audible dialogue, allowing for fuller characters and more complex relationships to be explored.

The film was, for the time, quite expensive to make, particularly by Australian standards, where budgets had been minimal compared with American films, and even though it went on to be a local success and even deemed one of the most popular Australian films of the year, it lost a lot of money and didn’t come close to breaking even.

Abroad it fared worse, receiving mostly negative reviews and making little profit to offset it’s already struggling status. According to the director, he underestimated many of the studio costs associated with making the film, and felt that was where the film’s financial struggles began.

At a time when filmmakers and creatives were still learning about the craft, particularly with the dawning of talkie films, it seems a fair assumption that knowing how a films budget might compare to its potential to earnings capacity would have been quite the guessing game, with much trial and error in these earlier years.

1933 saw the release of a historically relevant film In the Wake of the Bounty, directed by Charles Chauval, based on the true story of a group of crewmen aboard a royal navy ship in 1789 who seized control from their captain, setting him and many other crew members adrift and later settling in Tahiti, with various consequences.

The film combined documentary footage with scripted reenactments, utilising several actors including a young Errol Flynn in one of his first acting roles, who of course later became internationally famous and successful.

However, the film itself experienced numerous setbacks and struggles while in production. During the shoot period, Chauval and his wife and camera operator sailed to Pitcairn Island and later Tahiti in order to film locals for use in the finished production. They encountered very dangerous conditions including cliffs and treacherous waters to navigate, all of which was almost in vain when their footage was temporarily confiscated by customs officials when passing ports back in Australia.

As if that were not enough, the Australian censorship department tried to censor much of the footage for showing bare chested tribal women, for example, as well as some violence they managed to capture, but the censors were later overturned.

While the film was only moderately successful at the box office, it was, however, critically well received, despite criticisms about some of the acting, and became somewhat of a classic, with several remakes occurring in later years.

Moving onto the 1940s..

With World War II a stark reality of life at the beginning of this decade, the films produced reflected less fictional feature length ideas, and began to focus more readily on the documentary format with many war related subjects, honing in on the ramifications of a world at battle.

1942’s Kokoda Front Line, directed by Ken G Hall, was the first Australian film to win an Academy Award. It won best documentary for its coverage of the life of Australian troops on the New Guinea frontline during the war.

While the director was the one to receive the award as well as much of the credit for the film’s success, it has long been considered to be cameraman and photographer Damien Parer who was deserving of the recognition for capturing much of the footage of his own accord. Parer was sadly shot and killed while capturing more war footage two years later in Micronesia.

His footage in Kokoda Front Line became the first ever that Australian’s saw of their countrymen fighting in World War II. It is, therefore, considered a war propaganda film and as such, when it was first released, people formed long queues on the streets and around the blocks outside Sydney cinemas in order to get a glimpse of the action.

A Yank in Australia, released two years after Kokoda Front Line, was one of only a handful of comedies being produced in Australia at the time, most likely due to the seriousness generated by the climate of war.

However, director Alfred J Goulding set out to make, not only a comedy during this period, but a comedy about the war, which was a risky move for obvious reasons.

The film was about two journalists from New York sent to cover news of the war in the South Pacific. However, they become marooned on the Aussie coastline along with two other rival reporters whose boat has sunk. After the group is rescued by a third party, they set out to stop a plot by the Japanese to invade Australia.

The film was held up in post production and took two years to complete. Upon its release, however, it was met with scathing reviews, with critics slamming every element including the script, production values and performances. Unsurprisingly, A Yank in Australia performed dismally at the box office, despite achieving a limited international release.

The 1950s saw many progressive changes in Australian cinema. With World War II firmly in the past, life was moving on and more hope was in the air, along with increasing abundance and a population boom. Consequently, more production companies were forming and finance for film was growing.

The latter part of the decade also saw the commencement of The Australian Film Institute, a non-profit organisation which nurtures Aussie film culture and generates projects and engagement with the viewing public. It quickly became a highly respected and coveted body, serving somewhat as a yardstick for the quality of Australian cinema, which is still the case today.

Throughout the 1950s, there was a noticeable trend of British companies teaming with Australian ones to make a slew of movies, often based on existing literature with rural themes which would showcase the unique Australian outback landscape.

The film, Jedda, which was the first in the region to be shot in colour, is one such example and was shot in 1955 in a remote part of the Northern Territory.

Another film to be directed by Charles Chauvel (who had become one of the busiest and most respected Australian filmmakers), Jedda was also notable as being the first film to have Indigenous Australian actors in its leading roles - Robert Tudawali and Ngarla Kunoth.

After Jedda’s mother dies giving birth, she is adopted by a European couple who raise her very separately from her own Aboriginal culture. When Jedda is older, she is forbidden from learning about her own people, but is one day lured and abducted by an Aboriginal man and her life takes a sharp turn into new territory.

The film won a number of high profile, international awards and gained a reputation as one of the most influential Australian movies, considered to raise the bar and set new standards for the quality of Aussie cinema.

The production, however, was not without its setbacks. The crew was regularly challenged by the heat-sensitive colour film they were using in a very hot climate, meaning it needed to be stored in caves immediately after being shot, to save it from deteriorating, which delayed the schedule and made the entire process more tedious and time consuming.

An entire roll of film was also decimated in a plane crash en route to England where it was to be processed, so many scenes needed to be re-shot from scratch. Also, one of the actors in Jedda, Wason Byers, was arrested during production after stealing a number of cattle, which resulted in further delays.

Despite being a critical success, garnished with much respect and accolades, Jedda was only moderately successful at the Australian box office and performed comparatively poorly overseas.

The end of the decade saw the release of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, another British-Australian co-production and directed by Leslie Norman, based on the Ray Lawler play of the same name.

The drama comedy plot explores the lives of two sugarcane cutters who spend their annual vacations in Sydney with their mistresses until the relationships begin to change and veer into new directions.

As a theatrical play, it has long been regarded as one of the most historically significant works in Australian literary history due to its portrayal of authentically Australian life and people. It was, however, criticised for not translating well to film, and ultimately being a second rate version of the play, with some critics even deeming it boring and slow. The movie’s changed ending (into a more decidedly happy one), also drew its share of derision, as did its choice of casting, which some considered to have missed the mark with some of its international actors failing to master the Australian accent.

Onto the 1960s now..

Some would argue that Australian cinema seemed to lose its way in the 1960s, with a prominent lack of noteworthy productions and few sizable hits.

The Sundowners, released in 1960 and directed by Fred Zinnemann, is an exception to that after becoming the third highest grossing film of 1961 in Australia and receiving five Oscar nominations and an array of other award acknowledgments.

Considered to be one of the first Australian Western’s shot in techni-colour, several high profile Hollywood stars such as Deborah Kerr, Peter Ustinov and Robert Mitchum were signed on, no doubt adding to the film's broader appeal, and a vastly experienced crew was secured in an attempt to do the film as much justice as possible.

Another look at life in the Australian outback, The Sundowners is about a family of sheep drovers who are always on the move. While some of the family members have a desire to leave the nomadic lifestyle behind and finally settle down in one place, other members are against it and the film explores the events that take place in deciding which choice will be made.

The flick was lucky to ever see the light of day considering the novel on which it is based only made it into the director’s hands by mistake, when he received a copy of it rather than a different novel he was supposed to be sent.

Additionally, ill health and even death amongst the cast meant that more than one actor had to be replaced, delaying the shoot's commencement, while weather was another factor that caused delays on location in New South Wales and South Australia as it oscillated between hot and cold extremes, much to the chagrin of the cast and crew.

With two thousand sheep required to be transported eight hundred miles to appear in various scenes, and fans constantly harassing some of the bigger names in the cast, it was a wonder the production wasn’t even more delayed than it was.

It wasn’t until the middle of the decade, in 1965, that another worthwhile hit surfaced titled They’re a Weird Mob, based on a novel by John O’Grady and directed by Michael Powell.

Interestingly, the movie reflected the changing cultural landscape of Australia at the time in the form of the increasing amount of European immigrants to the country, as the plot of the film covers a newly arrived Italian named Nino to Sydney, who initially struggles to assimilate with some of the Aussie slang and cultural norms, but eventually falls in love with a local.

There is an underscore of subtle racism throughout the production between some of the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Irish characters, an element of which would not be considered acceptable by today’s standards.

Nevertheless, They’re a Weird Mob was a massive box office success in Australia, and although much less successful abroad, has been credited with rejuvenating the struggling Australian cinema industry, and paved the way for what is known as the “New Wave” films of the 70s.

Let’s talk about the 1970s now..

This “New Wave” of cinema that emerged throughout this decade, also referred to as the Australian Film Renaissance, was a revival in global popularity of Aussie movies, especially in the United States, and consisted mostly of films that would showcase colloquial Australian culture.

One such prolific flick that helped to do that, was 1975’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, directed by Peter Weir, which employed two trademarks of modern Australian film: beautiful cinematography and stories about the chasm between settlers from Europe and the mysteries of their ancient new home.

The filmmakers wanted to achieve the look of an impressionist painting for Hanging Rock and used a novel technique in that of draping various veils over the camera lenses to create an ethereal, dreamy atmosphere, which had not been seen in quite the same way before.

Much intrigue surrounded the film at the time due to the widely circulated belief that its storyline about schoolgirls who go missing at the rock and are never seen again was based on a true, unsolved mystery, although this theory was later debunked. Nevertheless, a culture of fear about Hanging Rock in Victoria still exists today.

The film was a critical and commercial success, nominated for multiple awards and has inspired other directors such as Sophia Coppola with other films such as The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antionette.

Later the same decade saw the release of Mad Max in 1979, which went on to become one of the most successful Australian films ever.

Filmed on a budget of $400,000, it earned more than $100 million worldwide and held the Guinness record for most profitable movie with the highest box office to budget ratio of any motion picture at the time.

Set in a Dystopian future Australia about a policeman trying to stop a violent motorcycle gang, the film, which went on to spawn three sequels, was the first to be shot in widescreen and put Mel Gibson on the Hollywood map.

Director George Miller has described making Mad Max as absolute guerilla style, meaning they often had to do things with barely any money and just make use of what tools they could get hold of, often improvising along the way. Even the editing of the picture took place in someone’s lounge room and kitchen rather than in a studio.

Upon its release, the film polarised critics, possibly due to its low budget feel and brutal content, and was also banned in New Zealand and Sweden for its violence, although those bans were later lifted and it went on to win multiple awards.

This leads us into the 1980s..

Riding high on Australia’s increasing profile born in the previous decade came a slew of ambitious projects in the 80s, such as 1986’s Crocodile Dundee, directed by Peter Faiman and starring Paul Hogan.

About an American reporter who goes to the Aussie outback to meet a quirky crocodile poacher, it was deliberately designed and intended to appeal to the American market with a $10 million budget and very commercial-friendly values. The flick succeeded in what it set out to do, becoming the highest grossing film of all time in Australia and the highest grossing Australian film worldwide, turning into somewhat of a global phenomenon.

Despite its success, many Australian audiences and critics resented the representation of Aussie’s as being ocker and simple, with international versions having to tone down some of the slang used simply so that Americans, for example, could understand it. However, after its success, and putting Australia much more firmly on the world’s radar, it became regarded as a fantastic advertisement for the country.

1988’s Evil Angels, directed by Fred Schepisi, could not be more different in tone and subject matter than Dundee, and was about the true story of an Australian mother, Lindy Chamberlain, who was accused of murdering her baby in the outback after insisting the child was taken by a dingo.

The drawn out court case lasted for years and was one of the highest profile incidents in recent Aussie history, resulting in Chamberlain being imprisoned for a time but later proven innocent.

With a budget of $15 million and a cast of 350 along with 4,000 extras, the film was one of the most expensive and elaborate ever shot in Australia and managed to secure Hollywood bigwig Meryl Streep in the leading role, who went on to be Oscar nominated for her performance.

Despite such hefty ingredients and mostly favourable reviews, the movie was a complete bomb at the box office, failing to recuperate even half of its budget, yet still went on to seep into popular culture with the line “The dingo ate my baby” appearing in mainstream shows such as Seinfled, The Simpsons and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

By the time Australia entered the 1990s, after having established its cinematic scene as a respected, capable and financially viable industry, there appeared more opportunity for irreverence and risk taking.

1994’s Muriel’s Wedding was one such example of a flick that took a huge gamble with a titular character the antithesis of most leading ladies in all her unashamed awkward, portly and socially inept glory.

The producers spent big on the rights to the use of Swedish band ABBA’s music for the soundtrack, (a request that ABBA initially denied, but later relented on), yet cast Toni Colette, a completely unknown actress, in the lead role, furthering the level of uncertainty as to whether a film with an unknown lead could attract an audience.

The risks paid off, however, as Muriel’s Wedding was a reasonable hit and came close to double its budget at the box office.

Examining the life of Muriel, a young social outcast in rural Australia who steals money from her parents to finance a holiday where she hopes to find her true love, the film was the quintessential ‘Aussie battler’ scenario, with down to earth, unpretentious characters leading a simple life and yearning for more, it once again showcased Australian culture and landscapes to viewers further afield.

Later adapted into a hit musical, it even spawned the catch phrase “You’re terrible, Muriel”, still popular today in local culture, and became a cult classic, particularly in the UK and solidified Australia with a reputation for eccentricity.

Likewise, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, released the same year made a similar impression and became a surprise worldwide hit and also became a very popular musical.

Written and directed in 1994 by relative newcomer Stephan Elliot, the film was initially rejected for finance by multiple sources, and it took much time for Elliot to garner interest in the project.

Set primarily in rural, outback Australia, Priscilla is about a drag queen performer, who, after agreeing to perform at a casino in the remote location of Alice Springs, convinces two of his performer friends to accompany him.

The film was groundbreaking for its positive portrayal of gay characters, who, until that point, had only been represented in derogatory or tokenistic ways. The film put the Aussie gay community on the mainstream map, which was long overdue.

Priscilla was lapped up by a global audience, with many Aussie-isms including slang, humour and cultural idiosyncrasies further penetrating the American psyche.

Babe was another popular family comedy film produced in 1995, directed by Chris Noonan starring Magda Szubanski with voice overs by Miriam Margolyes and Hugo Weaving.

It’s an adaption of the 1983 novel The Sheep Pig, which told the story of a talking pig who wanted to perform the farm duties of a sheep dog, of all things. The talking animal visual effects took seven years to develop and largely made the film a box office and critical success. Grossing $254 million worldwide and bagging seven Oscar nominations, winning the Oscar for Best Visual Effects.

Later that decade in 1996, Shine was released, a biographical drama based on the life of David Helfgott an acclaimed concert pianist who suffered a mental breakdown due to trauma caused by an abusive father.

Directed by Scott Hicks and written by Jan Sardi, Helfgott is played by Geoffrey Rush who won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance of a manic but brilliant Helfgott. Shine grossed $35.9 million at the box office and was met with critical acclaim for its compelling, inspirational story telling.

Another classic comedy drama, The Castle, was written by the screenwriting team Working Dog Productions, a group of well-known Australian writers and performers.

Apparently, the film took just five weeks from original inception to final cut, with the filming taking only 11 days, on a meagre budget of $750,000. Directed by Rob Sitch and starring Michael Caton it grossed $10.3 million and gained widespread acclaim in Australia and New Zealand for its satirical representation of a working class Australian blue-collar family.

The film’s title was based on an English saying ‘a man’s home is his castle’ and is a facetious portrayal of a delusional Caton’s belief of life in the lap of luxury. Faced with a developer’s compulsory acquisition notice the family band together to fight the impending eviction. The well adopted Caton catch cry ‘Tell him he’s dreamin’ stems from this, which became an Australian joke whenever anything was deemed to be undervalued.

The 2000s saw arguably the most eclectic mix of Australian films emerge, from animation such as the hugely popular Happy Feet to Indigenous drama with Ten Canoes, which was the first feature to be completely in Australian Aboriginal languages.

With varied success rates, the initial half of the decade produced very few large box office returns. Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge in 2001, however, was a major exception and made nearly $200 million and won 7 major awards with many other nominations.

Credited with totally revamping the musical film genre, Moulin Rouge was a co-American production about a love triangle between a poet, a glamorous courtesan and a jealous duke, and set in early 1900s Paris.

Ripe with singing, dancing, lavish costumes and unashamed romance, it was a worldwide hit and proved that Aussie staple Luhrmann was still able to deliver on a grand scale.

Then came The Dish, also released in 2000, a historical comedy drama representation based on a true story of the Parke’s Observatory facility in NSW and the role it played in relaying live footage of Apollo 11’s mission in 1969 to the Moon.
The satellite dish at Parkes was used by NASA throughout the Apollo mission to receive signals in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Dish was again written by Working Dog Productions and directed by Rob Sitch, starring Sam Neill. It grossed $18 million in Australia but on Rotten Tomatoes the film holds an outstanding 96% rating.

Shaking up the genres even further was 2006s Kenny, a mockumentary about a fictional character and his job dealing with portable toilets. It was one of the first feature length Aussie mockumentaries and was lauded for its technical prowess in the cinematography, sound and editing departments.

The production was largely a family affair, made by a filmmaking novice father (Clayton Jacobson) and his two sons and grandson, for which Kenny was their debut feature. It became another example of Australian cinema that showcased downtrodden, simple Aussie battler characters whose naivety and unpretentiousness formed a huge part of their appeal.

The film was a big success, especially compared to its modest budget and paved the way for other, left of centre style mockumentaries, with some critics even dubbing it the best Australian comedy in years.

Rounding off this decade was another Baz Luhrmann epic romantic drama titled Australia, starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman.

Australia was set in the late 30’s in the Northern Territory, against a dramatized backdrop of the bombing of Darwin during World War II. It received mixed reviews from critics but grossed $211 million on a budget of $130 million and received an Academy Award for Best Costume Design.

That brings us to more recently released films in the 2010s..

In the current era, the Australian film industry continues to produce a steady amount of films each year with mixed results, but struggles with readily available financing and to compete with the output of the American market, which is far larger.

Moreover, the most successful Australian actors and filmmakers are frequently lured by the opportunities Hollywood offers and seldom return for projects, meaning there are less available experts.

Nonetheless, recent quality gems have still forged ahead, such as the 2010 crime drama Animal Kingdom, inspired by true people and events from the notorious Mafia ganglands of Melbourne, which became critically acclaimed winning 36 different awards and receiving 39 nominations including best supporting actress at the Oscars.

In 2015, the film was named as one of the top 50 movies of the decade so far by The Guardian and has since been developed into an American TV series.

A family favourite for animal lovers, Red Dog, was then released in 2011. Direct by Daniel Taplitz and set in the north west Pilbara region of Western Australia against red dirt planes.

Red Dog is based on a true story of a Kelpie cattle dog’s devotion to his owner. The actual dog Koko, lived back in the 70s, was well known for his travels through the Pilbara region and hence a statue in his remembrance still exists in Dampier, one of the towns he often returned to on his travels.

Red Dog boxed $21 million on a budget of $8.5 million and was nominated for seven AACTA, Australian Academy of Cinema & Television Arts Awards, which it won Best Film.

The Dressmaker, released five years ago, about a woman who returns to her small rural hometown with her sewing machine, was another flick to make big waves, becoming the eleventh highest-grossing film of all time at the Aussie box office.

However, despite attracting international star Kate Winslet to the leading role, and other heavyweight players such as Liam Hemsworth and Judy Davis, the film received mixed reviews. Still, this didn’t stop audiences flocking to see what was yet another example of life in outback Australia with simple folk living simple lives.

Probably one of the most recent box office successes was Lion, released in 2016.

Lion was a joint Australian British biographical drama directed by Garth Davis in his feature directorial debut staring Dev Parel, Nicole Kidman and David Wenham. Based on a true story, separated from his family in India and adopted to an Australian family Patel’s character Saroo sets out to discover his birth mother and find his brother who he was separated from as a 5 year old.

This moving film was commercially successful making $140.3 million at the box office on a budget of $12 million and received six Oscar nominations and won two BAFTA awards for Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay.

The more popular releases after this were Hotel Mumbai, a joint Australian, American and Indian production based on the 2008 hotel attacks in Mumbai.

Storm Boy based on the novel by Australian author Colin Thiele about a Pelican and a boy, starring Geoffrey Rush.

And Ride Like a Girl directed by Rachel Griffiths in her feature film directing debut starring Teresa Palmer and Sam Neil based on the true story of Michelle Payne, the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup in 2015.

More recently, Australian cinema has been impacted by the Covid worldwide pandemic, with many shoots being halted and many industry people out of work.

However, there is still much hope for the industry as funding bodies such as Screen Australia and the Australian Government arts grants play their part to keep the scene alive and ensure more great Aussie projects will see the light of day.

We can’t wait to see more great Australian movies in the near future!

I hope you enjoyed our historical look at Australian Cinema, we certainly have had some great Australian talent.

Stay tuned for the next Study in Australia TV episode.

Bye for now!

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