Les reviews the Network DVD release of this 1976 epic adventure series set in Australia during the early 19th century…
During the early 1970s the Australian film industry, having almost disappeared by the late-60s, experienced a renaissance in production largely due to government-funded initiatives. This was followed shortly after by the massive international success of the so-called Australian New Wave which had its first major hit in 1975 with Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. The production infrastructure that had been created and the new fashion for period Aussie drama was not lost on the TV companies and one of the first fruits of this new creative impulse was Luke’s Kingdom. A frontier tale set in the Australian outback, Luke’s Kingdom was first transmitted in 1976 and was one of a series of co-productions shot in the 70s on Australian locations for international broadcast. I would swear the exterior set for the frontier town was the same one used in The Lost Islands the following year. But I may be wrong. Anyway, spanning the period 1829-1834, it tells of the Firbeck family’s experiences as new immigrants in the then-penal colony. The father, Samuel (Gerard Maguire) is a retired naval officer and his three adult children, Jason (James Condon), Luke and their sister Jassy (Elisabeth Crosby) accompany him from England as he attempts to establish a sheep farm on land he has been bequeathed. Of the three siblings, Luke (Oliver Tobias) is particularly headstrong and constantly challenges his father’s decisions as head of the family and his brother’s loyalty to their father. When the land his father is expecting to farm proves to be already taken, Luke forges ahead with his plan to ‘squat’ on vacant land nearby and establish a ranch by rounding up stray livestock lost from neighbouring ranches.
Although ostensibly a period drama set in rural Australia this does employ many of the tropes associated with American Westerns – the ‘untamed’ land inconveniently inhabited by indigenous tribal peoples, the rough frontier town with a hotel-cum-brothel run by a feisty madame, military garrisons and warring ranchers. However the dominant aesthetic is taken from the revisionist Hollywood Westerns that became popular in the early-70s with their emphasis on the grime and squalor of frontier life. Being an Australian production the series also has an earthier, more matter-of-fact approach to the seamier side of life than a glossy US show would have and this is most definitely not family viewing. I couldn’t imagine something like The High Chaparral or The Virginian regularly featuring blowsy whores and bare-breasted native women. The other principal difference with a US western is in having the presence throughout of both serving prisoners and ‘ticket of leave’ men and women i.e. paroled prisoners now eking out a living as labour for hire.
The plot structure uses a serial ‘arc’ story telling of the family’s continuing struggles to survive while also using a story-of-the-week format to bring in guest stars for a single episode, some of the calibre of Jack Thompson, with the ranch being the base against which their stories are played out. Luke’s illegal activities in establishing a squatter’s ranch allow plenty of opportunity for conflict with the penal colony’s governing body who refuse to recognise his claim to the land. He also has to contend with rustlers, travelling conmen, escaped prisoners, aboriginal raids and cut-throat gangs amongst others. Notwithstanding the period setting, most episodes also feature brief contemporary scenes with Helen Morse (in a fetching variety of tight tee-shirts) wandering dreamily around the ruins of the old ranch-house and reading excerpts from Samuel Firbeck’s journal as an introduction to that episode’s events. These are pretty much redundant and jar somewhat with the period material.
Of the cast, Oliver Tobias with his dark good looks, brooding intensity and mane of glistening raven hair effortlessly embodies Luke Firbeck. He has a natural rapport with the camera, looks completely at home on horseback and is unafraid of the many physical demands made on him. He had already found fame in Arthur of the Britons a couple of years earlier and this was his first subsequent TV lead. The character as written requires him to be sullen and taciturn yet irresistible to the ladies (and, no doubt, a few gentlemen too) and this he carries off magnificently. He is definitely a Bad Boy. In all his TV work, Tobias has tended to underplay his characters which, in this setting, makes a sharp contrast to the more ‘traditional’ performances of the rest of the cast which includes many veteran character actors. This works to his benefit as the contrast makes him a still centre while all around him are gurning away – you would not believe the number of toothless Aussie character actors there were in those days. However I’m sad to say there is no sign of the usually ubiquitous Reg Lye. Unusually, the character of Luke, although physically appealing in a smouldering way, is relatively unsympathetic as a leading man. He displays a ruthless and decidedly cruel streak and is motivated by just two things – his desire to succeed as a rancher by any means and his quasi-incestuous love for his sister Jassy. In the early episodes it’s clear that he is very protective towards her but the true nature of this doesn’t become apparent until mid-series when she receives a proposal of marriage from an army officer. At that point we discover she has a slight physical handicap (‘crippled’ as her father so kindly puts it). Despite this she presses ahead with the marriage rather than remain on the shelf which provokes violent jealous outbursts from Luke and some uncomfortable moments of physical intimacy with her as he pleads with her to change her mind. It’s left quite ambiguous as to just how physical their relationship is but it’s definitely not your average brother-sister thing.
There are thirteen episodes lasting approx 52 minutes each split across four discs. Each episode is split into eleven chapters which are not menu-accessible.
Transfer and Sound
Shooting the series entirely on film (16mm perhaps judging by the graininess) on location gives an air of authenticity to it which is also aided by the general levels of grime all around. You can entirely believe that the niceties of civilisation are on the far side of a vast ocean. However the prints used for the transfer have been subjected to much wear and tear over the years. While there is no obviously jarring damage such as awkward edits caused by damaged sections being removed, there is a certain amount of dirt visible throughout, most noticeably during the opening credits and there is the odd bit of picture wobble due to sprocket-hole wear. The image is dark and grainy and very contrasty, particularly in interiors. But that was the standard aesthetic for the time this was made. However the colours appear still to be well-balanced and the washed-out look would probably have been an original feature of the cinematography. Colour saturation was never a strong point with that type of film stock but the muted palette suits the general air of drudgery of the setting. As always with these releases, as long as the visuals stay consistent the eye soon adjusts and the shortcomings no longer dominate. The mono sound is clear and the dialogue is helped by the old-school diction and the need to re-dub much of the vocals due to location filming.
As usual with Network releases there are no subtitles. There is a brief gallery on disc one of production stills and promotional photos.
This series was an unknown quantity to me and I was expecting some kind of glamorous frontier adventure with a noble family at its centre along the lines of The High Chaparral Down Under. What we have instead is an intense and very un-glamorous family melodrama similar to the Mallen series but with a strong social conscience tacked on. Which just happens to be set in Australia. Against the background of the family intrigues and the machinations of the Heathcliff-like eponymous anti-hero, the writers tell stories of the injustices experienced by the colonial prisoners and, particularly, the ticket-of-leave people. They, as much as the protagonists, face a futile fight against a hostile environment and a corrupt legal and administrative system. For its time, the production values are high and the series features some of the best talent that Australia had available both in front of and behind the camera including directors like Peter Weir. If you like intense family melodramas with full-blooded performances and a more relaxed frankness than you would see in UK/US productions of the time, this is for you.
Luke’s Kingdom is a web-exclusive release available through Network DVD’s website. Click here to find the product on their site.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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