As the Olympic Games continue in Beijing, Gary Couzens looks at the life story of a great Olympian of the past. Dawn! is the biopic of Australian swimmer Dawn Fraser, released on DVD in Australia by Umbrella Entertainment.
Dawn Fraser is one of the greatest swimmers in Olympic history. Over three games (Melbourne in 1956, Rome in 1960, Tokyo in 1964) she won four gold medals and four silvers. In her individual event (100m freestyle) she won gold three Games in a row, becoming the first of only two swimmers to have done this. She held the world record between 1956 and 1973, and was the first woman to swim 100 metres in under a minute. However, her behaviour outside the pool was often controversial.
Dawn (played by Bronwyn Mackay-Payne) was born in the Sydney suburb of Balmain, New South Wales, in 1934 and her potential was spotted when she was a tall, tomboyish teenager. However, at the Tokyo Games, she angered Australian officials by marching in the Opening Ceremony against their wishes, and by wearing a different costume to that supplied by the sponsors. She also allegedly climbed the flagpole at Emperor Hirohito’s palace to steal the Olympic flag. In 1965, the Australian Swimming Union banned her from competitive swimming for ten years, forcing her retirement. She married her boyfriend Gary (John Diedrich). Although the marriage was short-lived, it produced a daughter.
Writer/producer Joy Cavill had previously made a documentary about Dawn, 1964’s The Dawn Fraser Story. She had worked in radio and television, in the latter case on the Skippy TV series and its big-screen spin-off The Intruders. She wrote the screenplay and attracted finance from the South Australian Film Corporation. Jack Gold and Ralph Nelson were considered to direct, but in the end the job went to Ken Hannam.
Hannam was a native of Melbourne, but had spent much of his career in Britain, working for television. He had returned to Australia in the 1970s and had made three features: Sunday Too Far Away, Break of Day and Summerfield. Hannam went from post-production on the last-named to pre-production on Dawn! without a break. It was a complex production, including shooting in Japan. The Melbourne Olympic Pool was available for only one day, for a scene involving four hundred extras.
Dawn! works as well as it does due to the ability of its director and DP Russell Boyd, who ensure that the film is always watchable if never going very deep. Unfortunately there’s an obvious stumbling block that Cavill and Hannam don’t really overcome. They had to find an actress who could not only resemble the real Dawn (who acted as a consultant on the film) and who could pass as an Olympic-standard swimmer…and who could handle the acting demands of the part. In the film Dawn ages from sixteen to her thirties, and experiences a range of emotions from triumph to deepest tragedy, not to mention a bisexual love life. Bronwyn Mackay-Payne was nineteen when the film was shot (1977) and had never acted before. Tall and graceful in movement, she certainly looks the part and is convincing in the swimming sequences, which are mostly in the first half of the film. However, in the remaining part of the film, she seems unduly gauche. There have been great performances from non-actors throughout cinema history, but this isn’t one of them. Bronwyn Mackay-Payne has yet to make another film.
The film was released in 1979, but failed at the box office. It did not receive a British cinema release, but has had showings on television.
Ken Hannam returned to work for British television. His last Australian film was 1985’s Robbery Under Arms, co-directed with Donald Crombie and shot simultaneously as a TV miniseries and a feature. It was a resounding and expensive flop, and Hannam continued to work on the small screen until his death in 2004.
Throughout this decade, Umbrella Entertainment have done a very good job in releasing Australian cinema from the 1970s onwards onto DVD, usually with some extra content such as a commentary or featurette. Their all-regions release of Dawn!, from 2005, is not one of their best presentations.
The feature is presented in a ratio of 4:3, not anamorphically enhanced. Despite the presence of some archive footage in the film, that is most definitely not the correct ratio. The IMDB says 1.66:1, though that is an unusual ratio for a 70s Australian film. 1,75:1 or maybe 1.85:1 are more likely, and the compositions looks fine if you zoom the film to 16:9 on a widescreen set. That aside, this is not an especially good transfer. There are signs of print damage and some heavy grain, which can be excused – due to the Eastman Colour stock available at the time, Australian films of the period often look grainy by today’s standards. However, the transfer is interlaced. Another question is raised by the running time, which is almost that of the cinema release (usually credited as 109 minutes), though in the case of this DVD that includes a minute and a half of play-out music. There are signs of ghosting and other artefacts, so this could be a standards conversion, though why an Australian DVD of an Australian movie would be mastered from a NTSC source is a mystery.
The soundtrack is mono, as the film was exhibited originally. It is mixed rather low, and I found I had to turn it up more than usual, but there are no issues with clarity or lipsynch. There are no subtitles available, which is according to Umbrella’s long-term, and regrettable, policy.
The only extras on the disc are trailers for other, sports-themed, DVD releases from Umbrella: A Thousand Skies, Dalkeith, The Games and The Four Minute Mile.
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