The Back of Beyond Review
The Birdsville track is a 325-mile road across the centre of Australia, through some of the most inhospitable desert in the country. The Back of Beyond follows mailman Tom Kruse as he makes for him a typical journey once a fortnight from Marree, South Australia, along the track to Birdsville, Queensland, taking in the people and the remote communities he meets on the way.
The Back of Beyond, shot in 1952 and released in 1954, has claims to be the most successful documentary ever made in Australia. (For example, in Cinema Papers' 1996 poll of 100 Key Australian Films, it's in there at number fifty-eight. It's certainly the most prominent film of its maker John Heyer's long career.
Born in Tasmania in 1916, Heyer (pronounced “Higher”) entered the Australian film industry in 1934, working on amongst others Charles Chauvel's films Heritage and Forty Thousand Horsemen. His directorial debut was the documentary New Pastures, sponsored by the Milk Board. Heyer worked with director Harry Watt on Ealing Studio's first Australian production The Overlanders, a production which gave Heyer his sense that the great Australian story was the country's landscape, with humanity in constant conflict with it. With his appointment as the head of Shell's Australian Film Unit in 1948, he was asked to make a film to capture that essence, and in the meantime promote Shell's presence in the country.
In the planning stages for a year, The Back of Beyond was shot over six weeks in 1952. Conditions were trying to say the least, with temperatures often hitting fifty degrees, and sand destroyed audio recordings made on location, so the film had to be completely rerecorded in post-production. Heyer's documentary-making was influenced by the British documentary movement, exemplified by Robert Flaherty and Heyer's old employer Harry Watt, and you could see The Back of Beyond as a continuation of this, transplanted to a completely different landscape and climate. While Kruse was a real mailman and this is a real journey we follow him on, Heyer clearly stages some scenes for the camera and includes dramatisations, for example a story of lost children late on in the film. The heart of the film is Kruse's encounters with the people he meets along the way, such as the men and women in remote settlements and individuals such as Kruse's travelling companion William Henry Butler with his record player, Bejah Dervish (billed simply as “Bejah”) the camel driver, Jack the Dogger (who hunts wild dingoes) and Joe the Aboriginal rainmaker. Taking his cue from the classic Night Mail, with its poetic narration written by an actual poet (W.H. Auden), Heyer does the same, with the narration written by another poet, Douglas Stewart. Stewart would later publish a book of poems, The Birdsville Track, inspired by his experiences in working on this film. Tom Kruse was awarded the MBE, the only Australian mailman so honoured.
The Back of Beyond premiered on 9 May 1954 in Adelaide. Although the review in the Monthly Film Bulletin (April 1954) indicates that the film was released in 35mm, much of its distribution was non-commercial in 16mm, largely aided by Shell's own distribution network. It's estimated that 750,000 Australians saw it in its first year. It was shown at the 1954 Venice Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prix Assoluto.
The film's British release is unusually interesting, as it premiered on the BBC Television Service (at the time the only channel) on 24 May 1954, a showing to mark Empire Day, only fifteen days after the Australian premiere. It had a second and so far final showing on 26 July, both of those before it was shown at that year's Edinburgh Film Festival. Although not conclusive (but likely earlier candidates entered into BBC Genome draw a blank), this could mean that this was the first Australian film to be shown on British television. You have to wonder if any Australian films were shown on television anywhere else, particularly as the country itself did not have its own television service until 1956. (What was the first Australian fiction feature shown on UK television is a matter for continued research, though it would have to precede Smiley first shown on BBC2 on 26 December 1967.) The Back of Beyond picked up a BAFTA nomination for Best Documentary, though it lost to Arne Sucksdorff's Swedish film The Great Adventure. The Back of Beyond's distribution seems to have followed a similar pattern to that in Australia, largely non-theatrically in 16mm. It wasn't submitted to the BBFC until 1968, when it was given a U certificate.
Umbrella's all-regions DVD release is on two discs: a DVD-9 containing the main feature and extras, and a DVD-5 containing Back to the Back of Beyond, of which more below.
Shot in 35mm, The Back of Beyond is transferred to DVD in its intended ratio of 1.33:1. The image is in good shape, with some mild flickering and speckling but nothing distracting. Contrast is strong, as you would expect from the harsh light of the places where this film was shot.
The soundtrack is the original mono. It's slightly hollow-sounding, betraying the fact that the film was entirely postsynchronised. There are unfortunately no subtitles available for the hard-of-hearing on this or any other of the features.
Three other Heyer documentaries make up the extras on the second disc, two of them shorts, one also feature-length. First in chronological order is Journey of a Nation (10:51), which he made for the Australian National Film Board in 1947. It's a film with a definite purpose, urging for a standardisation of the rail gauge across Australia's six states. At the time the film was made, so says the narration, the gauge had to be changed at each state border. A common gauge would improve efficiency and enable the faster transportation of produce from west to east – still four and a half days though. This was finally achieved, though many years after this film was made. This documentary is still in the style of the British poetic-realist documentary school which had influenced Heyer: Night Mail is a clear antecedent. The DVD transfer, in the intended ratio of 1.33:1, begins with a caption stating that it has been made from archival sources, though it's in good shape, with good contrast and solid blacks, with some minor scratches and speckles here and there.
Let's Go (9:51), from 1952, was made for the Shell Film Unit. It's very much an advertisement for the company, showing a family on the road unaware of where to go, where to get petrol and when the garages will be open. What you need, of course, is the Shell Touring Service! Apparently also shot in 35mm, this transfer in the ratio of 1.33:1 (also with a caption stating it is from an archival source) is quite soft and quite likely from a tape source.
In 1976 Heyer made The Reef (74:03), a feature-length documentary about the Great Barrier Reef. We begin however, with a talk to camera by HRH Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh, giving something of an official seal to the proceedings, and talking about how this great natural wonder of the world is in danger of being destroyed by the activities of humanity, something more relevant today. After that, we spend the best part of an hour dealing with the history of the Reef and some attractive photography (by Ron and Valerie Taylor) of its lifeforms. We also get a sepia-toned sequence telling the story of a woman and her child fleeing an Aboriginal attack onto the reef and dying of thirst there. While it's an attractive film to look at, it lacks the focus of The Back of Beyond. Then we're back to the Duke, with the final ten minutes or so being a montage of images of the Reef with a music score. That last may have been snipped when The Reef was given a UK cinema release, most likely as a supporting feature, in 1979, cut to sixty-three minutes. The film had showings on BBC2 on 14 March 1981 and 7 December 1982. It didn't get a commercial release in Australia until 1981, when it supported a reissue of The Back of Beyond. The DVD transfer also has a caption saying it is from archival sources. It's in a ratio of 1.33:1, though given the intended cinema audience it was most likely framed for a wider ratio, such as 1.75:1 or 1.85:1. The elements the transfer was made from appear to have been in decent shape.
Finally on disc one, is a self-navigating stills gallery, running 1:26.
Disc Two has just the one item, and no menu: Back to the Back of Beyond (82:03), a 1997 documentary made for Australian television by Robert Francis, shown on the Seven Network. It was shot in 16mm and is presented in 1.33:1, as you would expect from a pre-widescreen-era television production. Heyer had been based in London since 1956, promoted to Shell's Executive Producer, Films and Television, although he frequently travelled to his home country. We meet him at the Savile Club in London, with his old friend and fellow film director Pat Jackson, who had worked on Night Mail and made his debut with the documentary Western Approaches. They met at Harry Watt's wake in 1987. The film comprises their reminisces, with appropriate film clips. Meanwhile, we see the now octogenarian Tom Kruse still driving along the Birdsville Track. During the film we have an overview of Heyer's career. Even past eighty he still had plans to make a film of Xavier Herbert's classic Australian novel Capricornia, but finance was not forthcoming and the film was never made. There's a sense that this documentary is a possible last chance to have all three together while they were still around. Heyer died in 2001 at the age of eighty-four, Jackson in 2011 at ninety-five. Kruse's last journey before he finally retired was the subject of the 2001 documentary Last Mail from Birdsville. He died in 2011 at the age of ninety-six.