The Charles Chauvel Collection Review

This review is dedicated to the memory of Mike Sutton, longtime contributor to this site and for a while editor of the film section, who passed away in November 2015. It's in thanks for his longstanding support for my work here, and he always had good words to say about the Australia Day review specials which I have done every year since 2002. It would have been Mike's forty-fifth birthday today.

The world's first feature-length film (defined here as over an hour) was made in Australia: 1906's The Story of the Kelly Gang. There was a local film industry up until the mid-1950s and then from the late 1960s it revived. However, earlier Australian cinema is hard to assess: some of it is lost and those that aren't are all but impossible to see short of taking a flight to Australia and spending time in an archive. However, some names do stand out in that period. Raymond Longford (1878-1959) made all but one of his feature films in the silent era, including versions of the often-filmed The Sentimental Bloke (1919) and On Our Selection (1920). Ken G. Hall (1901-1994) was active from the late silent era to the 1946, with popular comedies such as the 1932 version of On Our Selection, and Dad and Dave Come to Town (1939, and the screen debut of Peter Finch) and romantic dramas such as The Silence of Dean Maitland (1934). He owned his own studio in Sydney, Cinesound, which also made newsreels: he was the model for Don Crosby's company boss in Newsfront. He was the first Australian to win an Oscar, for the 1942 short documentary Kokoda Front Line! and with the coming of television to Australia was the general manager of Channel Nine for ten years. Paulette McDonagh (1901-1978) produced films with her sisters Phyllis and Isabella. Her final film, the now-lost Two Minutes Silence, was the last Australian film directed by a woman until the 1970s – not until, as is often cited, Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career from 1979, but actually the 1975 16mm-shot The Golden Cage, directed by Ayten Kuyululu. And then there is Charles Chauvel (1897-1959), subject of the current box set. While at least the last four of his seven sound films had British cinema releases, all of them were long before I was born; none of them have been released on VHS or disc and as far as I can trace none of them have had television showings here. So I can honestly say that I have not had an opportunity to see any of them before now. Let's hope that more pre-Revival Australian cinema becomes available.

Charles Edward Chauvel was born in Warwick, Queensland, the second of four children in a farming family. He broke into the film industry as a production assistant, often being in charge of the horses due to his experience with them growing up. He worked in Hollywood for a year, before returning home and raising finance to make his first features as a director, the silent films The Moth of Moonbi and Greenhide, both released in 1926.


Both films are partly lost, and the first disc in this box set presents what remains of them: 31:02 for the former and 34:28 for the latter. It's impossible to assess either now, as only fragments survive. Both were romantic melodramas, a form Chauvel showed an affinity with throughout his career. They each ounterpoint the wholesomeness of the countryside to the decadent city, maybe a bias for a country boy like Chauvel. The Moth of Moonbi, based on a 1924 novel The Wild Moth by Mabel Forrest, tells of Dell (Doris Ashwin) who comes into some money (£500) and leaves the country town of Moonbi for the bright lights of Brisbane, and is the toast of society until her money runs out, so she returns chastened back to Moonbi and her left-behind sweetheart Tom (Marsden Hassall). Chauvel built Brisbane's first studio to shoot the interiors. The budget wasn't limitless though, and Chauvel himself appeared on screen as an extra, including playing an aboriginal stockman in brownface.


Greenhide reversed the pattern: Marjory (Elsie Sylvaney) leaves the city to live on her father's farm, run by station manager Greenhide (Bruce Godwin), and they tackle cattle rustlers. This film was significant in more ways in Chauvel's life: Elsie Sylvaney, four months younger than him, was the stage name of Melburnian Elsie (Elsa) May Wilcox. They had met when he had seen her on stage in Brisbane and approached her to audition for the role. They were married the following June and she collaborated with Charles on all his future films.

Chauvel's two films were reasonably successful in Australia, Queensland in particular, but he drew a blank in trying to sell them to the United States. This was due to poor timing: the talkies had arrived and the studios couldn't sell their own silent films, let alone any from another country. Soon after, the Depression hit and Chauvel worked as a cinema manager in Australia. His and Elsa's daughter Susanne was born in 1930.


In the Wake of the Bounty (66:45) wasn't the first film about the 1789 Mutiny on the Bounty: Raymond Longford had filmed his own version in 1916. Chauvel began production in 1932, spending six months shooting footage on Pitcairn Island (Elsa becoming the first Australian woman to set foot there) and then in Tahiti, before filming the interiors at his friendly rival Ken G. Hall's Cinesound Studios. It's an odd film, beginning as a reconstruction of the mutiny and its aftermath, told in flashback by an old sailor. Then, thirty minutes in to a film which runs only just over an hour, we get a caption, “Tahiti, 1932” and a narrator telling us that “Tahiti today is a beautiful dream of the past”. The rest of the film, barring one brief dramatised scene, is pure travelogue, made up from the footage the Chauvels shot on their trip. Some of this, featuring bare-breasted Tahitian dancers, caused it to be seized by customs on the Chauvels' return to Australia and it took a protest by Charles to have it released; cuts had to be made by the censor before the film's commercial release. The film was sold to MGM in the USA, who were making their own version of the story. The dramatised scenes were removed and the film released as a travelogue. However, people had noticed the actor Chauvel had hired to play Fletcher Christian: a young Tasmanian called Errol Flynn. Chauvel had met him in a Sydney bar and had asked him if he'd acted before: Flynn replied that he'd try anything once. This was his first film and his only Australian one. Within a couple of years he was in Hollywood and a major star.

Allowances have to be made for In the Wake of the Bounty, in its way an experimental film. The dramatic scenes are a little creaky and Chauvel would later improve his handling of actors and dialogue. But the on-location travelogue footage is first-rate and you can sense Chauvel developing his sense of the epic which would serve him well in his future films. Some of the documentary footage is a little deceptive: the canoes carried by Tahitian men were made for the film.


In 1933, the Australian Federal Government announced a £2500 prize for the best Australian film made in 1934. Chauvel determined to win that prize with his largesr-scale production yet, a self-consciously patriotic epic on the making of a nation. The result was Heritage (93:48), mostly set in the early years of the Australian colony. James Morrison (Franklyn Bennett) is a young man in the colony engaged to Jane (Margot Rhys) but has a rival for his affections in the shape of Biddy O'Shea (Peggy Maguire, just fifteen at the time), fresh off the "wife boat" from an Irish orphanage. Near the end of the film, we flash forward through Australia's rise to federation and nationhood to the present day of the 1930s, via a montage of stock footage and newspaper headlines, to the descendants of James and Biddy, played by the same actors. Heritage won the competition, with Ken G. Hall's The Silence of Dean Maitland in second place. It's fair to say that Heritage is am unabashedly patriotic view of American history, and a very white one: it depicts the country as a second Britain though with different scenery and halfway round the world, something made explicit in a line of dialogue which compares Sydney to London except the latter is somewhat further away. Australia's indigenous population turn up as threatening others, a view not unexpected at the time and one that Chauvel would certainly modify later in his career.


Uncivilised (81:47), Chauvel's final feature of the 1930s, is pure melodrama in the vein of The Sheik, Rudolph Valentino's huge hit of a decade earlier. Beatrice Lynn (Margot Rhys) is an author commissioned to find Mala, a legendary white man who heads an aboriginal tribe. Abducted by Afghan trader Akbar Jhan (Ashton Jarry) who uses her to gain entry to Mala's village so that he can sell narcotics to the people, and there she meets Mala (Dennis Hoey). Removed from civilisation – hence the title – Beatrice succumbs to desire for this unreconstructed man of nature, something of a dry run – in theme if not characters and locale – for Chauvel's last and most famous film, Jedda.

Elsa Chauvel was the film's assistant director (under the pseudonym Ann Wynn) and also doubled for Margot Rhys in scenes where she had to ride a camel. Rhys and Hoey share a skinnydipping scene, quite eye-opening for a 1936 film, given that Australia has historically been at least as censorious as the UK and USA as far as cinema viewing went, especially given that Hollywood was by now under the control of the Production Code. Indigenous peoples are more in evidence here than they were in Heritage, and were played by real tribespeople. The fact that they came from two rival tribes gave the filming of the battle scenes a certain edge they might not have had otherwise. Dennis Hoey, brought over from Britain for the film, clashed with Chauvel and the aborigines on the production took a dislike to him as well.

After Uncivilised Charles and Elsa wrote the screenplay for the Australian western Rangle River, which was directed in 1936 by Clarence G. Badger. It was released in the UK (cut by the BBFC) under that title and in the USA as Men With Whips. In 1937, Charles produced a short film, Screen Test, a semi-documentary about how screen tests are conducted. He appears as himself and is credited with directing the Australian scenes, which are the beginning of the film, the bulk of which was made in America and directed by S. Sylvan Simon (who also appears as himself). This short film is available as an extra on the Blu-ray of Jedda but not the DVD.


With war brewing, Chauvel turned to a story he had long wanted to make, one he had a personal connection to. His uncle, Sir Harry Chauvel, had been the commander of the Australian Light Horse during the Sinai and Palestine campaign of the Great War. Charles raised funding via Herc McIntyre of Universal Pictures' Australian arm, a longstanding friend and associate. Forty Thousand Horsemen (91:32) is nothing if not overtly Australian, a tribute to the ANZACs of the past, beginning as it does with what would become the Australian national anthem, “Advance, Australia Fair” and continuing with another well known local song, “Waltzing Matilda”. In fact the film helped to popularise both. The story concentrates on three ANZACs, Red (Grant Taylor), Larry (Pat Twohill) and Jim (Chips Rafferty, or “Chips” Rafferty as he is billed here). But it begins in Jerusalem in 1916, German troops arrest a French wineseller and his daughter Juliette (Betty Bryant) goes into hiding disguised as a boy and in that guise save Red's life in battle. The film is notable for its climactic horse charge, recreating that of the Battle of Beersheba with a hundred horsemen released by the army for one day during the New South Wales sesquicentennial celebrations. The charge was shot with four cameras and is undeniably impressive, completely overshadowing the rather creaky dramatics earlier on. The film was successful on its release in December 1940 (the following August in the UK and USA), though Chauvel, who had been persuaded to sell his rights for £2000, saw none of the profits.


When World War II broke out, Chauvel was forty-two. Turned down for military service because of flat feet and a duodenal ulcer, he still wished to contribute to the war effort. The war had virtually shut down film production in Australia but it says something of Chauvel's standing by then that he was able to make not one but two features between 1940 and 1941, of only nine full-length non-documentaries in total in that time. The Rats of Tobruk (also known as The Fighting Rats of Tobruk, 96:04), made in 1944 and for which Charles and Elsa cowrote the script, returned to a war theme, but one more recent, the African campaign only two years before the film was made. Made with the collaboration of the miltary, It follows the template of the earlier war film by concentrating on a group of three men joining up: that perennial Australian theme of mateship coming to the fore, one often found in Australian war films. These men are cattle drovers Bluey (Grant Taylor) and Milo (Chips Rafferty, now without his inverted commas) and visiting Englishman Peter Linton (Peter Finch) Romance involves the woman left behind, namely Kate Carmody (Pauline Garrick), the beloved of Bluey, and Sister Mary Ellis (Mary Gay) whom Peter falls for when she treats him in hospital. Again it's an anglophile look at Australian history, with Australian Finch (in his first leading role) playing an Englishman. It's telling that other than Rafferty none of the cast speak in any kind of broad Aussie accent, and Linton gets speeches where he quotes Shakespeare and, in one key scene, Rupert Brooke's poem, "The Soldier", with its lines “A corner of a foreign field that is forever England” which are very appropriate in this context. The film has an epilogue where two of the three (and no spoilers from me) move on to New Guinea and the Kokoda campaign.


While making The Rats of Tobruk, Chauvel read Bernard O'Reilly's books Green Mountains and Cullenbenbong. They formed the basis for his next film, Sons of Matthew (104:06), for which he and Elsa cowrote the screenplay, with narration provided by Maxwell Dunn. Set in the later nineteenth century, the story centres on the five sons of Matthew and Jane O'Riordan (John O'Malley and Thelma Scott) – another British influence here, as the parents of this emblematic Australian family are by original Irish and English respectively. The story tells of the O'Riordan sons' efforts to establish a farm in the virgin rainforest of southern Queensland. Given that this is a Chauvel film – and possibly with Elsa's scripting input showing – we have another heroine who is independent and as capable as the men, in the shape of Cathy McAllister (Wendy Gibb) who is raised by the O'Riordans from infancy when her parents die, and a rivalry for her love develops between brothers Shane (Michael Pate) and Barney (Ken Wayne). It's melodrama, but it's sincerely done and more nuanced melodrama than in the past and as a physical production the film is undeniably impressive.

With this film, the Chauvels hark back to the history of their country, fashioning a patriotic piece epic in scale if maybe not in running time. However, the film shows how far Chauvel had developed as a filmmaker since Heritage, only a decade and a half earlier. The production was an arduous one, with heavy rain, landslides, illness, broken ribs and faulty batches of filmstock disrupting the schedules and pushing the film well over budget. It took some eighteen months to complete. Some of this comes across on screen, with impressive scenes of nature at its wildest, culminating in a cyclone partly filmed in Cinesound Studios. Cast as the eldest brother Shane was Michael Pate, who had played four uncredited roles in Forty Thousand Horsemen. at the start of a long career as an actor. He later became a producer with The Mango Tree in 1978 and the following year both produced and directed Tim, an early leading role for Mel Gibson.

Successful on its Australian release, the film was shortened to 77 minutes in the UK and USA and retitled The Rugged O'Riordans. One of the scenes removed was Wendy Gibb's naked swim, discreetly shot but leaving no doubt of the actress's nudity. There's also an all-male skinnydipping scene early on, Doubtless neither would have passed the British or American censors of their day: the BBFC still cut the film for an A certificate. None of this would cause a problem nowadays, though some dangerous-looking horsefalls early on are hopefully convincing fakes or the BBFC might not be able to pass them were this film submitted to them again.

Chauvel's next film, which began production in 1952, was Jedda and I will be reviewing that separately.

The Disc

Released in association with the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, Umbrella Entertainment released all seven of Chauvel's sound features separately during 2014 and 2015, with Jedda also released on Blu-ray, and they are all still available separately as I write this. The present box set collects those seven discs and adds an eighth – containing The Moth of Moonbi and Greenhide, which is at present not available outside this set. The eight discs are all dual-layered and in NTSC format, encoded for all regions.

All the films were shot in 35mm, all in black and white except for Jedda (the first Australian feature in colour) and all in Academy Ratio (1.37:1) except for the two silents which were 1.33:1. The transfers are all 4:3 as you would expect, though the two silents and Jedda are anamorphically enhanced while the others are not. The results are very variable. The two silents – more than half of each no longer existing – show a plethora of scratches and other damage. Of the sound films, Forty Thousand Horsemen is in the worst shape, being very soft with blown-out highlights, possibly transferred from a cinema print. In the Wake of the Bounty is quite soft too, Heritage less so. On the other hand, Uncivilised, The Rats of Tobruk and Sons of Matthew are impressively sharp and detailed. Jedda has had a digital restoration, and I will talk about that in more detail in my review of the Blu-ray.

If I were reviewing The Moth of Moonbi and Greenhide disc separately it would score a zero for its soundtrack. Not because it's a bad soundtrack but because there isn't one: both silent films – or rather what's left of them – are presented mute. The sound films all have mono soundtracks, as they would have had in the cinemas, rendered here as Dolby Digital 1.0, though for some reason Uncivilised and Jedda it's Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono. I can't complain about these: given the limitations of the time (especially the 30s films) these are professional jobs of work with music, dialogue and sound effects well balanced, and an impressive range in Sons of Matthew especially – see or rather listen to the cyclone sequence especially. What none of the sound films have, regrettably, are any hard of hearing subtitles.

The same extra appears on all eight discs, and the Jedda Blu-ray as well: the 2014 documentary The Big Picture (74:03|). It's a runthrough of Chauvel's life and career, subdivided into sections for each film. There are contemporary interviews with Susanne Chauvel Carlsson (who died in 2013: the documentary is dedicated to her), who wrote a book about her famous father, and Ric Chauvel Carlsson, her son and Charles and Elsa's grandson. From the archive we hear from Charles Chauvel (via newsreel footage from the time) and an audio interview with Elsa, plus Betty Bryant, Ken G. Hall, Chips Rafferty, Herc McIntyre and, quite extensively, Michael Pate, who reveals that he shouts something during the cyclone sequence of Sons of Matthew which is not what you hear on the soundtrack, but which amused some lipreaders in the audience at its premiere. There are some major spoilers here though, especially for Jedda. The documentary is presented in 16:9, anamorphically enhanced, though that does mean that the plentiful film extracts are cropped.

Other extras include self-navigating stills galleries on all the discs except for the two silent films: respectively, these run 2:36, 2:33, 1:47, 3:11, 2:01, 3:31 and 4:48. As well as on-set photographs, they also include lobby cards and domestic and foreign posters, including a Swedish one for Sons of Matthew emphasising Wendy Gibb's and showing more in its painting than is on the actual celluloid. Trailers are included for Forty Thousand Horsemen (3:39), The Rats of Tobruk (2:43), Sons of Matthew (2:43) and Jedda (2:19, in black and white though the film itself is in colour). It's worth mentioning that the Jedda Blu-ray has two extras which are not on the DVD: the short film Screen Test and, confusingly, mute screen tests for Jedda itself.

8 out of 10
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out of 10

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