Wednesday, 2 April 2008


Chips Rafferty

There is an old joke that says that the streets of Australia are clean because they sweep up all the rubbish, turn it into television programmes and export it to the U.K. Unfair ? Well, despite the fact that I once formed a mild addiction to THE SULLIVANS, I have seen HOME AND AWAY and NEIGHBOURS which makes me think the joke might have some truth behind. Despite the stupid sporting rivalry between Australia and England which is mostly based on the way we throw cricket balls at each other (yes, yes, I know I should have said bowl but life is too short to worry) we share a lot in common with our cousins down under. They’ve given us Rolf Harris, Skippy, Joan Sutherland, Kylie Minogue, Paul Hogan, XXXX, Bryan Brown, Nicole Kidman, Jack Thompson etc. In this article I salute the Australian film industry (who made the first film of more than one reel in length and were among the first to convert to sound) by highlighting a ten of my personal favourites from down under.

1.Chips Rafferty. Absolute Australian icon of my youth. Long before there was Paul Hogan there was Chips Rafferty. Tall, rangy and, seemingly, never without his bush hat, Rafferty seemed to be in every film even remotely connected with Australia made during the 1950’s and 6o’s whether he was the star, as in EUREKA STOCKADE or making sure that imported stars like Robert Mitchum didn’t get lost in the outback in THE SUNDOWNERS. I hope that somewhere down under they’ve erected a statue to good ol’ Chips.

2.Peter Weir. This young director garnered much attention and critical praise for his film PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK. The true story of some missing girl students in the Australian outback appealed to may because of Weir’s wise decision not to offer explanations thus allowing the movie to be all things to all viewers. THE CARS THAT ATE PARIS was an offbeat satire of cannibalized cars and outback nastiness. My personal favourite of Weir’s early years was THE LAST WAVE an apocalyptic thriller with Richard Chamberlain wandering into Aborigine Dream-time…truly weird and unsettling. GALLIPOLI and THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY catapulted Weir into the bigtime. All these years later with MASTER AND COMMANDER : THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD Weir proved that he was still a force to contend with.

3.Peter Finch. Finch was at the EUREKA STOCKADE before he headed for London under the sponsorship of Laurence Olivier, leaving behind him a successful career in Australia as a stage and radio actor. Ironically Finch was only half Australian on his father’s side and had actually been born in London in 1916. He had been raised in France and India before arriving in Australia in 1926. I first became aware of Peter Finch in the Fifties when he appeared as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Walt Disney’s THE STORY OF ROBIN HOOD AND HIS MERRIE MEN and later in such films as ROBBERY UNDER ARMS and THE SHIRALEE. Although English by birth Finch was regarded by most people as an Australian and this impression was enforced by the films he made down under. It is not an exaggeration to call Finch a “great” and there were many roles of distinction before Finch was cast against type in THE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE. Other outstanding performances followed in THE PUMPKIN EATER, FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD, SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY and his final film NETWORK for which he won a posthumous Oscar.

4.Ned Kelly. The infamous Bushranger and Australian folk-hero was the subject of one of the very first Australian films, THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG in 1908. Since then Australia hasn’t done much with Kelly, at least not filmwise. In 1970 Kelly was a gift to the British film industry when somebody decided it would be a good idea to cast Mick Jagger as Kelly (it must have seemed a good idea at the time) in Tony Richardson’s NED KELLY. I was physically attacked by a drunken Australian for even mentioning this film in a London pub – he seemed convinced that I had something to do with the film which according to him starred a “Pom Poof” in the role of his hero. A couple of years back it was the American’s turn to tackle the legend in NED KELLY starring the late Heath Ledger. They did a pretty good job of it as far as I was concerned. But one can’t help wondering why the Australians haven’t made more of Bucket Head Ned over the years?

5. Russell Crowe. I first noticed Crowe in THE QUICK AND THE DEAD and he really got my attention in GLADIATOR and even more so in MASTER AND COMMANDER : FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD. There have been a few stinkers along the way but I’m always interested to see what he does next and regret that we never got to his stab at Davy Crockett in the remake of THE ALAMO – a project he quit when producer Ron Howard withdrew.

6.Aborigines. At first glance the Australian Aborigine would seem to occupy a cinematic position similar to the Red Indians/Native Americans in American films, but in reality there are great differences, As far as I know the Aborigines have rarely, if ever, been shown as the aggressive marauder. Even when films have not dealt with the bad treatment of these native Australians (and I’m sure that there must have been a few films redressing the balance in recent years) they seem to have been depicted with a certain amount of respect – given credit for their ancient skills and endurance. More often than not there is an element of mysticism surrounding them (THE RIGHT STUFF, THE LAST WAVE) and they can disappear into the landscape at will (CROCODILE DUNDEE II) to the mystification of the whiteman who is totally out of his depth in the outback(WALKABOUT) which all enforces the feeling that they know a lot more about the the nature of the world than their fellow countrymen. It’s a fascinating subject and one that almost certainly would repay further exploration...picture shows the great Aborigine actor David Gulpilil.

7. Michael Pate. I paid tribute to this talented actor in my review of the film HONDO which appears elsewhere on this blog.

8. Errol Flynn. What is there new to say about the biggest star ever to come out of Australia. At his best there were few, if any, who could even begin to challenge Flynn as the greatest action star of Hollywood’s Golden Age. His THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD has never been bettered and titles like CAPTAIN BLOOD, CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, THE SEA HAWK, THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON, NORTHERN PURSUIT, OBJECTIVE BURMA etc talk for themselves. Hail the Hero.

9. Rod Taylor. This likable actor was always a plus in any film he appeared in whether it was great, like Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS or awful like SEVEN SEAS TO CALAIS. I won’t spend any more time on Rod as Terry Frost paid a great tribute to him on his PALEO-CINEMA PODCAST No.10 which is another good reason to check it out.

10. How to end ? I am a bit of a loss although tempted to say RAZORBACK, that low-budget film about a ton of homicidal Pork….or maybe the wonderfully villainous Frank Thring (who sentenced Mick Jagger to death in NED KELLY and was a wonderful King Herod in KING OF KINGS)…..but no, the decision goes to the MAD MAX trilogy. Not just three films but a whole genre really of post-apocalyptic road movies. The first was an edgy low-budget effort which was followed by ROAD WARRIOR the wildly enjoyable (and much imitated) action classic and the coda with Tina Turner no less which wound things up nicely and even came close to evoking real beauty, Just writing this makes me want to see them again.


Terry Frost said...

Agree with everything you said about my countrymen and women. But there's also Guy Doleman (Born in New Zealand, but his career started in Australia), Guy Pearce, directors Fred Schepisi and Gillian Armstrong, Barry Humphries, Bryan Brown... we do tend to punch above our numerical weight a bit ;-)

Terry Frost said...

Oh yeah, and Dame Judith Anderson.