Why write a list of the 100 greatest Australian films? While recently browsing through a book on the history of Australian cinema, it occurred to me that most Australian film buffs and cinephiles actually have a very limited concept of the nation’s cinematic output. Except for those films that first garner significant positive attention internationally, Aussies are often very reluctant to bother seeing the great movies being produced in their own backyards.
A perfect example lies in the recent release of the Australian horror film, The Babadook, which faded into oblivion upon its initial local release before subsequently garnering significant critical and commercial attention internationally. As a result, local audiences are now paying a little more attention. There are many reasons for this tendency: cultural-cringe, poor marketing, and a perceived tendency in Australian films to be either too serious or too broad. The result is that a lot of people (both within and outside of Australia) miss seeing many films which they would probably thoroughly enjoy. And so, to help those who might be interested in broadening their knowledge of the nation’s cinema, I’m pulling together a five-part series of articles on the 100 greatest Australian films of all time, running from The Story of the Kelly Gang in 1906, right up to the recent release of The Rover. And so, without further ado, here is Part One.
The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906)
This film, which details the events that led to the demise of Australia’s notorious 19th century bushranger, Ned Kelly, is most notable for being the first feature-length film ever made. Which means it’s probably also the very first feature film to be banned – a year after its release, complaints that the film glorified crime and incited criminal activities resulted in its being removed from circulation in many parts of Australia.
Unfortunately, no complete print of the film exists, but anybody with an interest in Australian film should get a copy of the most complete version.
The Sentimental Bloke (1919)
Generally revered as Australia’s most significant silent film, Raymond Longford directs this irreverent celebration of the Aussie character. The narrative is simple enough – Bill, a drunken “larrikin” headed down a path of self-destruction, must correct his behaviour in order to win the love of a woman.
For the Term of His Natural Life (1927)
Based on the Marcus Clarke novel of the same name, this is a landmark for Australian silent film. The film follows the adventures of Rufus Dawes, a man wrongly convicted of murder who is subsequently sent to an Australian prison colony. For those with an interest in Australian history, both this film, and the source novel are well worth the time.
His Royal Highness (1932)
W. Thring directs this light musical comedy starring the charming George Wallace. Wallace plays a stagehand who, after taking a knock to the head, dreams up a fantasy world in which he is a great king. This might lack the formal sophistication of similar films of the era, but it beautifully encapsulates the irreverent Australian spirit.
In the Wake of the Bounty (1933)
This early feature film – an account of the events that unfolded during the Mutiny on the Bounty in 1789 – is most notable for the debut of Robin Hood himself, Australia’s own Errol Flynn. It was only two years later that he became a star with the release of Captain Blood.
Kokoda Front Line! (1942)
Kokoda Front Line, a very short documentary made during the height of WWII, was the first Australian film to ever receive an Academy Award. But in retrospect, the film’s most significant contribution is in providing contemporary audiences with a greater understanding of the local perspective during this tumultuous period.
Forty Thousand Horseman (1940)
Charles Chauvel was one of the finest early Australian filmmakers, and this (along with Jedda) marks the highpoint of his career. Chauvel introduces us to three young men assigned to the Australian Lighthorse Cavalry during WWI, who wind up fighting at the Battle of Beersheba. It is here that they partake in what has often been (wrongly) referred to as the last successful cavalry charge in history. The subject matter was particularly pertinent at the time, given the onset of WWII a year earlier – a fact that leads many to view the film as propaganda.
The Overlanders (1946)
Released after the end of WWII, this Harry Watt directed classic provides an account of the adventures of a group of drovers during the war. As things heat up, the group elect to move their 100,000 cattle away from Northern Australia in the fear that a Japanese invasion from the north is inevitable.
Interestingly, the film’s production was initiated by complaint to the British government that Australia’s contribution to the war effort was not being sufficiently recognised. Those who’ve seen Baz Luhrmann’s Australia may recognise that he has borrowed heavily from The Overlanders.
Bush Christmas (1947)
In some ways, this film occupies a similar place in Australian culture to that which It’s A Wonderful Life plays in the United States. Making an appearance each year around Christmas time, Bush Christmas follows the innocent adventures of five kids in pursuit of horse thieves. The filmmaking is simple and the acting is stilted, but there is something incredibly authentic and moving about the film’s representation of a far simpler way of life. Special stuff.
While this trailer is quite offensive by contemporary standards, it’s worth noting that Jedda was significantly more progressive than it appears (it was also the first Australian film to be shot in colour, despite the trailer).
The film’s plot is particularly loaded when viewed retrospectively by an audience aware of the horrible injustices that resulted in the Stolen Generation. When Jedda’s mother dies, circumstances result in her being raised by a white woman, who attempts to shut Jedda off from her indigenous culture. Soon enough, Jedda’s curiosity leads her to find out more about where she came from. She falls in love with a half-caste stockman, but a tragedy prevents them from being together.
On The Beach (1959)
Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins star in this Stanley Kramer directed apocalyptic vision of a world decimated by nuclear war, in which the crew of an American submarine escape from the initial catastrophe and station themselves in Melbourne, Australia (the hometown of Yours Truly). As unsurvivable radiation approaches, the residents of the city attempt to ignore their own impending doom. However, when a strange signal begins to emanate from the supposedly obliterated city of San Francisco, the crew of the submarine elect to investigate.
Given a lukewarm reception at the time, On the Beach is now regarded as an undeniably significant Cold War entry into the apocalyptic genre.
The Sundowners (1960)
Some shaky accents aside, Fred Zinneman’s account of the lives of a family of Australian drovers is still looked on with great affection and enthusiasm by a country that hadn’t received quite such glamorous international attention before. Deborah Kerr, Robert Mitchum and Peter Ustinov all play key roles in this epic look at the lives of Aussie battlers.
They’re A Weird Mob (1966)
The second last collaboration between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, They’re A Weird Mob would be a near perfect way to end this list if Powell hadn’t returned to make another film just three years later. Bridging the gap between the innocence of early Australian cinema, and the creative rupture that came with the Australian New Wave of the 1970s, this outsider’s look at 60s Aussie culture is a must see for anybody with even a passing interest.
The narrative concerns the arrival of an Italian writer to Australia in the mid-60s. Unfortunately, the job he’d lined up has evaporated, and this enthusiastic immigrant is forced to make his own way. Always funny, and occasionally scathing, this is exceptional cinema.
Age of Consent (1969)
Michael Powell returns to Australia once more for this affable tale of an Australian artist (James Mason) attempting to recapture his mojo, and the young woman who promises to be his next muse. Uneven, eccentric, and another example of the difficulties of the Australian accent (there is a common tendency for people to misinterpret it as somewhere between cockney and South African), this is a delightful piece of cinema despite itself, and a great way to cap things off before entering into the Australian New Wave cinema of the 1970s.
Click here for:
- The 100 Greatest Australian Films of All Time: Part 2 (1971-1982)
- The 100 Greatest Australian Films of All Time: Part 3 (1982-1995)
- The 100 Greatest Australian Films of All Time: Part 4 (1996-2004)
- The 100 Greatest Australian Films of All Time: Part 5 (2005-2014)