Storm Boy & Blue Fin Review
Coorong, South Australia. Ten-year-old Mike (Greg Rowe) lives in a shack on the beach with his father Tom (Peter Cummins). His mother died a few years earlier. His only friend is Fingerbone Bill, an aborigine (David Gulpilil, here billed under his last name only). One day he rescues three orphaned pelican chicks. Although he and his father set the adult birds free, one returns and becomes Mike's pet, named Mr Percival. All of a sudden there are intruders in Mike's world, from a local teacher who wants him to go to school, to hunters...
Storm Boy by Colin Thiele (1920-2006) is a very short book, barely long enough to be called a novella. Since its publication in 1963, it has been a considerable success and well known to Australian children from that time onwards. It has been adapted for stage, audio and filmed twice, and in 2018 was turned into a video game. The present film version, made in 1976, sits right in the middle of the Australian Film Revival of the Seventies, a popular and critical favourite. While rather episodic in narrative, it’s a moving and attractive-looking film. While it couldn’t be claimed as the cutting edge of Australian filmmaking from four and a half decades ago, it’s a well-made film with considerable appeal to its intended family audience.
With a script by Sonia Borg, Storm Boy was shot on location, in and around Goolwa, a town in the Coorong inlet where Thiele’s story takes place, with interiors at the South Australian Film Corporation’s studios in Norwood. Shooting took place over four weeks in May 1976. The director was Henri Safran, born in Paris in 1932 and began his career in television, first in France and then in the UK, before relocating to Australia in 1960. His first directing credits were in Australia, but he was back in the UK from 1966 to 1973, then back in Australia. Storm Boy was his cinema directing debut. He does a certainly competent job, though doesn’t overcome the story’s structural shapelessness and so there are lulls. Geoff Burton’s camerawork is superb, and does a lot to hold the film together. Greg Rowe gives an engaging performance in the lead role, with Peter Cummins and David Gulpilil fine in support.
Storm Boy opened in Australia in time for Christmas the same year, at first in the production’s home state capital of Adelaide, then in the rest of the country, and was a considerable success. US President Jimmy Carter had a private viewing in the White House, as did the Emperor of Japan, and it was requested for showing on the Royal Yacht Britannia. Storm Boy won three Australian Film Institute Awards: Best Film, Best Director and Best Actor (David Gulpilil), while being nominated for its screenplay, sound, production design and costime design. Geoff Burton was not nominated, though he did win the Australian Cinematographers’ Society’s Award for Cinematographer of the Year.
However, in the UK Storm Boy was bypassed for cinema distribution and made its debut on television, premiering on BBC2 as its main attraction for the evening of Christmas Day 1977. It wasn’t commercially distributed in this country until a DVD release in 2009. A new version of Storm Boy was released in 2019, and reviewed by me here.
Given the success of their film, it was only natural that the SAFC would look for a follow-up, and they found it in another Thiele book, Blue Fin, published in 1969. It reunited several people from the earlier production: it again starred Greg Rowe, was written by Sonia Borg, photographed by Geoff Burton, production-designed by David Copping. The original producer Matt Carroll served here as executive producer, and further down the credits list you’ll find Scott Hicks, a runner on the earlier film and second assistant director here, later to become a director in his own right, of the award-winning Shine among others. Safran did not return, so another director was recruited from television and stage, namely Hungarian-born Carl Schultz. German actor Hardy Kruger was imported to play the lead role.
We’re in a fishing village in South Australia (filmed on location in Streaky Bay). Bill Pascoe (Kruger) is a tuna fisherman, who treats his son Steve, nicknamed “Snook” (Rowe) with disdain. This is another father-son story, with the narrative showing how Snook can prove himself to his father. However, while Storm Boy is an almost all-male story (the only woman of any significance is Mike’s teacher, given that his mother is dead), in this film Snook has a mother (Elspeth Ballantyne). He also has an older sister, Ruth (Liddy Clark), who is engaged to Sam (John Jarratt), one of Bill’s crew.
With a budget almost twice the size of that of Storm Boy, Blue Fin was a troubled production, with conflicts between Schultz, Kruger and producer Hal McElroy on one hand and Matt Carroll on the other. After the film had been completed, Carroll had Bruce Beresford, uncredited, reshoot much of the cabin scenes in the last third of the film, with a double standing in for Kruger (who was required to lie injured anyway) as he had returned to Germany. Like Storm Boy two years earlier, the film was released in Australian cinemas in the run-up to Christmas, but failed to match the success of the earlier film. In the UK, it bypassed cinemas and had its premiere on television, as part of BBC2’s first Australian film season on 9 February 1982.
Again Greg Rowe’s performance and Geoff Burton’s cinematography do much to hold together a rather episodic narrative, with Rowe almost solo during the final act. Schultz would go on to make one of the major Australian films of the next decade, Careful He Might Hear You, but this film simply falls short of that and its predecessor. Maybe the root of its lack of appeal was that Storm Boy was a story about among other things saving animals, while Blue Fin is set against a background of hunting and killing them. Blue Fin is included on this Blu-ray disc as an extra.
Storm Boy was one of the first films I reviewed for Australia Day for The Digital Fix (or DVD Times as it was then) back in 2002. That was a DVD edition which was notably poor even by disc standards at the time. This Blu-ray release, encoded for all regions, makes previous releases redundant. The box carries a G rating, which is the equivalent of the British U, though the British Board of Film Classification gave Storm Boy a PG in 2009. Blue Fin was also a G. It has never been submitted to the BBFC, but it would be a likely PG if it ever was.
Benefitting from a digital restoration by the National Film and Sound Archive, in 4K from the original 35mm interpositive, Storm Boy is in the intended ratio of 1.85:1/ It looks very good indeed. Given its film origins, there is certainly some grain, particularly in low-light scenes, but that’s the nature of the beast, and it’s certainly filmlike. Blue Fin is presented in 720p in a ratio of 1.78:1, opened up slightly from the also intended 1.85:1. Given its limitations, such as the lower resolution, it looks fine, with solid colours and natural grain, and minor specks, particularly at the start.
The soundtrack for both is the original mono, rendered as DTS-HD MA 2.0 for Storm Boy and LPCM 2.0 for Blue Fin. No issues with either, which are clear and well balanced. English hard-of- hearing subtitles are available for both. I spotted no undue errors, though Mike’s teacher is rather anachronistically called “Ms Walker” when she’s clearly “Miss Walker” on the soundtrack.
The extras are mostly specific to Blue Fin rather than to Storm Boy. However, they do begin with two trailers for the latter: the theatrical (3:56) and a VHS trailer which is short enough (0:25) to be a TV spot and might indeed have been one. Specific to both films is Story Makers: Colin Thiele (25:40) made by the National Film and Sound Archive in 1988. Thiele (pronounced Tee-luh) speaks to camera and answers questions from children about his writing, and we hear and see dramatised extracts from some of his books. Including clips from the film of Storm Boy.
On to Blue Fin and Wild Reel: Greg Rowe and Hardy Kruger (9:33). unedited rushes of what appears to have been a promotional item for the film. This does mean that you get to see both Rowe and Kruger go through several takes of their speeches to camera.
Kruger gets his own profile (24:39), made for the 0-10 Network (now Network 10, a commercial free-to-air Australian television network). Interviewer Jeremy Cordeaux interviews Kruger during the filming of Blue Fin, but Kruger gets to talk about his career, including his early films in Germany and right up to date with The Wild Geese, which he had just made and which was awaiting release in Australia. Other films of his given consideration include The One Who Got Away and Flight of the Phoenix.
Finally on the disc is the trailer for Blue Fin (2:55).