The Overlanders Review
1942. World War II is at its height and as Japanese forces move southwards, Australia fears invasion. Plans are made to relocate from the Northern Territory to Queensland. Bill Parsons (John Nugent Hayward) is one such, leaving his home with his wife (Jean Blue) and daughter Mary (Daphne Parsons). Rather than having to leave valuable cattle behind or destroy them, Dan McAlpine (Chips Rafferty) proposes what seems impossible: to drive 100,000 head of cattle 2000 miles across the frequently inhospitable wilderness.
The Overlanders was a project initiated by the Australian government so that their contribution to the war effort would not go unrecognised, and is based on a true story. Michael Balcon responded enthusiastically to the idea of making a film in Australia, and the opening titles follow Ealing's credit with the proud words “Their First Australian Production”. Scottish director Harry Watt had begun his career in documentary, co-directing the 1936 classic Night Mail before graduating to features in 1943 with Nine Men. That was also a World War II subject, set during the African campaign though exteriors were shot in Wales. However, arriving in Australia in 1944, he decided to make The Overlanders entirely on location, with a mainly local crew (Canadian-born DP Osmond Borradaile being an exception) and a mixture of professional and non-professional actors. This was the only film for John Nugent Hayward and Daphne Campbell and the first of two for Helen Grieve. Much of the film was shot around Alice Springs.
The film certainly shows Watt’s roots in documentary, though that is as much to do with a second unit directed by future documentary director John Heyer (best known for the award-winning The Back of Beyond, from 1954) who marshalled five hundred head of cattle bought for the production. Generically, the film draws heavily on the western, to such an extent that it created a small trend of Australian oaters, soon nicknamed “meat pie westerns”.
This was an early lead role for Chips Rafferty (born John William Pilbean Goffage in 1909), who had held a number of jobs (including, relevant to this role, cattle drover) before moving into acting in the late 1930s. The film was a great success both in Australia and the UK and made him a star. Rafferty was not classically handsome and at 6'5” had the same problem Christopher Lee later had by being too tall for romantic leads in any case. However, rather like Jack Thompson did a quarter-century later, he embodied a certain Australian type: the unpretentious, rugged masculine man, more at home in the great outdoors than in an urban setting. He had previously acted in the previous local productions Twenty Thousand Horsemen and Dad Rudd, MP (both 1940) and one of the lead roles in The Rats of Tobruk (1942).
He went on to star in many of the films made over the next decade in Australia: the Ealing productions Eureka Stockade (1949, also directed by Watt) and Bitter Springs (1950), the Children's Film Unit production Bush Christmas (1947), the locally-shot Hollywood production Kangaroo (1952) and the family films Smiley (1956) and Smiley Gets a Gun (1958). In the next decade he worked for Michael Powell on They're a Weird Mob. Powell's film provoked debates as to whether Australia could have a film industry again, and Rafferty's final film was one of the key harbingers of its revival, Wake in Fright. Shortly after he finished work on that film, he died of a heart attack, aged sixty-two.
The Overlanders tells a very simple story, but is none the less effective because of that. Nowadays, CGI would run rampant through a film like this (see the cattle-drive sequence in Baz Luhrmann's Australia for an example) but inevitably the fact that there are real cattle on screen (later sold off by the production) on genuine locations certainly gives this film the edge. You can feel the blazing heat and the perils along the way – including some crocodiles – keep the film tense, though a budding romance between Mary and sailor “Sinbad” (Peter Pagan) lightens the tone appropriately.
As a patriotic piece the film certainly does its job. This was the only film score by composer John Ireland. The supervising editor was Leslie Norman (father of film critic Barry) who later went on to direct the later Ealing Australian production from 1957, The Shiralee (though in that case interiors were shot back home at Ealing Studios). Ealing continued to make films periodically in Australia through the 1950s, finishing with the company's last film, The Siege of Pinchgut (1959), also directed by Harry Watt, which again had its interiors shot in England after location work in Sydney.
In Sydney, The Overlanders opened at the Lyceum Theatre on 27 September 1946 and in London at the Leicester Square Theatre on 3 October. One person who saw the film on its first release was seven-year-old David Stratton: it was the first film he had seen from the country he would later call home and in which he would establish himself as a festival organiser, critic, writer and broadcaster, which continues to this day. It was also the first Australian film I ever saw, on television on BBC2 on 4 August 1977 as part of an extensive season of Ealing films. It’s not known if the 1960s band The Overlanders – best known for their cover of The Beatles’ “Michelle”, a number one single in 1966 – had any connection with this film though.
The Overlanders is a Region B release from Network. The BBFC cut the film for a U certificate back in 1946. It’s not known if the cut material survives or not, whatever it was, but this release is uncut, still with a U.
The film was shot in black and white 35mm and Academy Ratio. That ratio, 1.37:1 is respected by the Blu-ray transfer, which is a mixed bag. Parts of it are sharp as they should be, with the contrast and greyscale so vital to monochrome accurate. However, other parts of it are quite soft, especially darkly-lit scenes. There’s also a fair amount of damage to the dupe negative used for this transfer, but it’s not distracting.
The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered in LPCM 2.0, and is clear and well-balanced. English subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing.
The only extra on the disc is a self-navigating gallery (7:14) of posters, press-kit extracts and stills. Also in the box is a small booklet with further press-kit extracts and advertising samples, though you may need a magnifying glass to read some of it.