A History of Diggers on the Big Screen

Still from Gallipoli (1981)

As well as a full morning of ceremonies and events, Anzac Day in London this year will be marked by a special screening of Peter Weir’s WWI classic Gallipoli (1981) at the Hackney Picturehouse. Hosted by the London Australian Film Society, the screening begins at 9pm with a special introduction by Dr. Ian Henderson from the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies at King’s College, London.

Now, just about anyone who’s studied at an Australian high school since the mid-1980s will have seen this classic at some stage, and along with Breaker Morant and The Lighthorsemen, the film also holds a place as an established classic of Australia’s new wave. But, just as films like Breaker Morant attest, there is more to the Anzac spirit than those brave souls who landed on the beaches at Gallipoli and more to films about diggers than Peter Weir’s perennial classic. So, to celebrate the screening and mark the day that Australians and New Zealanders remember their fallen, The Far Paradise takes a look back at soldiers in Australian films before the new wave of the 1970s…

Defending the Empire

After years of films about bushrangers, convicts, gold miners and squatters, the first Australian feature film with a war theme came in 1911 with Alfred Rolfe’s Mates of the Murrumbidgee, which follows a now-familiar pattern tracing the lives of young men from homestead to battlefield. The Boer War setting was much appreciated by contemporary audiences, who cheered a film that was said to ‘keep fresh the memory of those brave Australian boys who fought their way to victory’.

Two years later came Australia Calls (Raymond Longford, 1913) a rather more sinister, xenophobic affair which imagines an invasion by an Asiatic menace, as a propaganda piece imploring Australians to beware the ‘yellow peril’. Epic in scope, the long build-up to ‘war’ culminates in Australian forces fighting a fierce, fictionalised battle with their Asian invaders in the streets of Sydney.

The Great War

Unsurprisingly, the arrival of the Great War spawned a whole slew of war films, although not all of them directly concerning Australian troops. George Dean’s A Long, Long Way to Tipperary (1914) was based on the popular wartime song and concerned the fortunes of an Irishman serving in the British Army, whilst Alfred Rolfe’s The Day (1914) was a pure propaganda piece depicting the brutality of German soldiers in Europe. The Martyrdom of Nurse Cavell (John Gavin / C. Post Mason, 1916), Nurse Cavell (W.J. Lincoln, 1916) and La Revanche (Lincoln, 1916) all recounted events surrounding the tragic martyrdom of an English nurse executed by German firing squad in Belgium. Similarly, The Joan of Arc of Loos (George Willoughby, 1916) relates the tale of a young French peasant girl who evades German invaders to assist the Allied effort, and The Murder of Captain Fryatt (John Gavin, 1917) recounts the gallant stand made by the English commander of a merchant ship against a German submarine.

Still from THE HERO OF THE DARDANELLES [Source: http://www.woolaroo.com.au/yassarmistice/hero.htm]

The Hero of the Dardanelles (1915)

Australian soldiers were well covered, however, with two films directed by Alfred Rolfe with the assistance of the Department of Defence: Will They Never Come? (1915) was the story of two brothers, one who dutifully enlists in the armed services, whilst the other continues a frivolous obsession with sport, whilst the more significant The Hero of the Dardanelles (1915) recreated the landing of Anzac troops at Gaba Tepe (Gallipoli) and premiered in Melbourne less than three months after the actual events took place.

That same year, Anzac exploits in the Dardanelles were combined with a tale of espionage at home in Within Our Gates (Frank Harvey, 1915), whilst German spies also featured in For Australia (Monte Luke, 1915) and How We Beat the Emden (Rolfe, 1915), which used documentary footage to dramatise HMAS Sydney’s sinking of a German boat off Cocos Island. The prospect of a full-scale German invasion of Australia was the premise of both If the Huns Came to Melbourne (George Coates, 1916) and Australia’s Peril (Franklyn Barrett, 1917), whilst Murphy of Anzac (J.E. Mathews, 1916) returned the focus to Turkish battlefields for the first cinematic realisation of the legend of Private Simpson and his faithful donkey.

Between the Wars

As the war drew to a close, Australian filmmakers opted to focus on less burdened fare such as Raymond Longford’s romantic and comedic adaptation of C.J. Dennis’ The Sentimental Bloke (1919). The following year, however, Longford directed a sequel – Ginger Mick (1920) – which focused on the Bloke’s ‘cobber’ as he heads off to war and the horrors of Gallipoli. Nevertheless, following a brief flourish of war-themed films during World War I, most Australian filmmakers returned to the familiar filmic ground of bushrangers, convicts and settlers.

One notable exception was Daughter of the East [aka The Boy of the Dardanelles] (Roy Darling, 1924), a film written and financed by a Greek cafe owner named Adam Tavlaridi, which traces the story of a man born to English parents in Turkey, whose romance of an Armenian girl is interrupted by the outbreak of war. Disguised as a Greek, he makes his way to Anzac
Cove to join Allied forces, where he fights alongside Australian troops. Soldiers at home was the theme of The Spirit of Gallipoli (Keith Gategood / William Green, 1928), which promoted the value of military training in peacetime and, despite being the work of two army trainees and a cast of amateurs, it gained Australian and New Zealand distribution with the Fox Film Corporation.

From Depression to War

With the spectre of the Great Depression looming large, this disinclination to tackle gloomy war themes continued throughout the 1930s, with only a handful of exceptions. Three mates serving with the Light Horse regiment in Palestine formed the focus of Fellers (Arthur Higgins / Austin Fay, 1930), Australia’s first war-themed feature of the sound era (although it was largely silent, with a pre-recorded music score and segments of synchronized dialogue in the final reel). Adapted from a popular stage show by Pat Hanna – a New Zealander who saw active service on the Western Front – Diggers (F.W. Thring, 1931) took a tragicomic approach to the hardships of two Aussie ‘cobbers’, played by Pat Hanna and George Moon, serving on French battlefields in 1918.

Poster for Diggers in Blighty

Diggers in Blighty (1931)

Dissatisfied with Thring’s tinkering on Diggers, Hanna reworked more sketches from the stage show for Diggers in Blighty (1931), which followed the two cobbers as they unwittingly help British spies on the French front and are rewarded with ten days’ leave in England from which prototypically Bazza McKenzie-esque antics ensue. Also set in Britain, but decidedly at the other end of the spectrum, pioneering female filmmakers the McDonagh sisters made their own contribution to Australian war-themed cinema with Two Minutes Silence (Paulette McDonagh, 1933). Adapted from a bleak, anti-war play by Leslie Haylen, the film is set on Armistice Day in London, where four people gather and reminisce about their bitter experience of war.

Straightened Circumstances in the 1940s

The outbreak of a second major war in Europe understandably led to a renewed interest in Australia’s wartime exploits, and Charles Chauvel’s Forty Thousand Horsemen led the charge in 1940. Explicitly intended to inspire a new generation of willing soldiers for the Allied effort, the film traced the exploits of Anzac troops in Palestine during the First World War, focusing on a trio of Lighthorsemen – played by Pat Twohill, Grant Taylor and Chips Rafferty – who are both selflessly heroic and unashamedly Australian. Chauvel paid further tribute to the digger spirit with The Rats of Tobruk (1944), which also followed a trio of men – with Peter Finch taking the place of Pat Twohill – who join the Australian Infantry Forces at the outbreak of the war and serve together in defence of the allied stronghold of Tobruk in North Africa.

Set against the backdrop of war and the perceived threat of Japanese invasion, The Overlanders (Harry Watt, 1946) was a domestic tale of a hardy band who drove a mob of cattle ‘clear across a continent’, at one point crossing paths with soldiers driving north on the new road and headed, inevitably for the frontlines of battle. Between a downturn in local production and a desire to bury the bitter memories of war and focus on more cheery fare, Australian feature filmmakers largely refrained from the depiction of Australian soldiers in the aftermath of the Second World War.

It would take a flourishing of nationalistic Australian filmmaking in the 1970s  to return Australian audiences to foreign battlefields, with films such as Michael Thornhill’s Between Wars (1974), The Odd Angry Shot (Tom Jeffrey, 1979) Breaker Morant (Bruce Beresford, 1980) and the Anzacs TV series (1985) bringing new, often highly critical perspectives to the previously unquestioned heroism of Aussie diggers abroad in conflicts ranging from the Boer War to Vietnam.

Gallipoli (Weir, 1981) screens at 9pm tonight at the Hackney Picturehouse in East London. The special Anzac Day screening is presented by the London Australian Film Society and will be introduced by Dr. Ian Henderson from the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies at King’s College, London.

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