Bitter Springs Review
Australia, the early 1900s. Farmland has become scarce around the coasts, so many settlers move into the interior. One of them is Wally King (Chips Rafferty), who acquires some land from the government and leads his family, including his wife (Jean Blue), son John (Charles Tingwell) and daughter Emma (Nonnie Piper). Coming along are stockmen Mac (Gordon Jackson) and Tommy (Tommy Trinder) and Tommy’s son Charlie (Nicky Yardley), and Indigenous stockman Blackjack (Henry Murdock). However, when they arrive at their land, they discover that it, and the permanent waterhole known as Karagarni (or “Bitter Springs”) is home to an Indigenous Australian tribe...
Bitter Springs was Ealing Studios’ third production made in Australia, and while it’s not entirely successful, it’s certainly of considerable interest, especially as a rare film of its day to deal with relationships between white and indigenous Australians.
Ealing’s first Australian-made film, The Overlanders (1946), directed by Harry Watt, had been a considerable success, so the Studio decided to make more films in the country. Eureka Stockade (1949) followed, again directed by Watt and also with Chips Rafferty, who had become a star because of the earlier film. Then came what was originally called Pepper Springs, intended to be a comedy about new immigrants to the country. (This does sound a little like Michael Powell’s film of a decade and a half later, They’re a Weird Mob.)
The director this time was Ralph Smart, who had been born in England, breaking into the film industry at the end of the 1920s, coincidentally working with Powell on several quota quickies in the 1930s.. He had served in the Royal Australian Air Force in World War II, and had been one of the writers of The Overlanders. He had written and directed Bush Christmas for the Children’s Film Foundation in 1946. He’s credited with the story for Bitter Springs, though the script was the work of W.P. Lipscomb and M. (Monja) Danieschewsky.
Production began in May 1949, with South Australia outbidding Queensland to host the production, which was shot in the Flinders Ranges. Unseasonal rain caused delays and the film finished in November, two months behind schedule. Tommy Trinder was included in the cast (top-billed) at producer Michael Balcon’s insistence. The ending was changed, from Smart’s originally much darker and bleaker one to a rather perfunctory illustration of cooperation and coexistence between races. There was controversy about the fact that the 130 Indigenous extras had nowhere to stay due to an oversight, and actor Henry Murdock was not paid the same as the white cast – Ealing wanted to, but the Department of Native Affairs vetoed it.
With its scenes of settlers driving livestock (sheep this time, rather than cattle) across the great wide landscape, Bitter Springs does evoke The Overlanders in many scenes, and like that film it draws heavily on the iconography of the western. Chips Rafferty gives his role some shading, beginning as a more-than-borderline racist but moving towards a mutual understanding of the Indigenous peoples he meets. These characters are certainly “othered” in this film, speaking their own language throughout, interpreted mainly by Blackjack but not otherwise translated. Incidentally, we only see men and children onscreen. You wonder if the women may have caused censorship problems because of semi-nudity back in 1950.
The film features early roles for white Australians Charles Tingwell and Michael Pate, both of whom went on to long careers, and also the Scottish Gordon Jackson, who had been in Eureka Stockade and is now best known for his British television roles of the 1970s in Upstairs, Downstairs and The Professionals. Jean Blue had appeared in the two earlier Australian Ealing productions. Nonnie Piper was a model who had been in Charles Chauvel’s Sons of Matthew the previous year, along with Pate. There are hints of romance between Emma and both Mac and Tommy, but nothing much comes of it. The film does make heavy weather of her tomboyishness (“Lady in trousers!” says Charlie when he first sees her) and it’s a Significant Moment when she appears in a dress. Child actor Nicky Yardley had appeared in Bush Christmas. Henry Murdock (sometimes spelled Murdoch) had been in The Overlanders and continued to act until the end of the decade.
As for Tommy Trinder, he had been a star back in Britain, especially in wartime. He seems to be here mostly to provide comic relief, but it’s a little half-hearted and for much of the film he’s on the sidelines. His salary was at the time the highest paid to an actor in Australia. He has a further Australian cinematic connection in that in his last film, Barry McKenzie Holds His Own, he plays Bazza’s convict granddad.
As a production, there’s much to impress about Bitter Springs, particularly Gordon Heath’s black and white photography of the landscape, and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s score. The action scenes, when they come, are well staged. It remains a worthy attempt at dealing with the issue of Australia’s original inhabitants, who of course at the time had no legal right to their land. Despite some inevitable and baked-in compromises, the film remains worth your attention.
It wasn’t, however, a commercial success, premiering in Adelaide on 23 June 1950. It opened in London on 6 July at the Gaumont, Haymarket. Its lack of success curtailed Ealing’s plans to make further films in Australia. The two that they did make, The Shiralee (1957) and The Siege of Pinchgut (1959) combined location work in the country with the rest of the films shot in the studio back in England.
Bitter Springs is released by Network as a Region B Blu-ray. The transfer begins with the film’s 1950 U certificate, but now it’s a PG for, as per the BBFC, “racist terms and moderate violence”.
The film was shot in black and white 35mm at the then-standard Academy Ratio (1.37:1) and that’s how it’s presented on this Blu-ray. The transfer is derived from a scan of a 35mm combined print. The remastering notes (inside the sleeve) advise that there are still faults, such as dirt, scratches and the occasional missing frame. This is true, but there’s nothing too distracting and the results are certainly pleasing, with detail, grain and greyscale seeming accurate.
The sound is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 2.0, and it’s clear and well balanced. There are English hard-of-hearing subtitles available on the feature and I didn’t spot any errors other than a handful of typos.
The disc extras are a self-navigating image gallery (6:59), displaying posters and production stills, and a trailer (2:29) which has a big spoiler near its start. Also in the package is a printed reproduction of the film’s pressbook, though it’s small enough to require a magnifying glass to read most or maybe all of it.
Bitter Springs is available to buy from June 29th
Bitter Springs (1950)
Dir: Ralph Smart | Cast: Chips Rafferty, Gordon Jackson, Jean Blue, Tommy Trinder | Writers: Monja Danischewsky (screenplay), Ralph Smart (from an original story by), W.P. Lipscomb (screenplay)