The 100 Greatest Australian Films of All Time: Part 2 (1971-1982)

The Cars That Ate Paris - greatest Australian filmsWell here it is, Part 2 of our five part series on the 100 greatest Australian films of all time. While Part 1 focused on the earliest beginnings of the nation’s cinema through to the end of the 1960s, here we’ll be exploring the birth of the Australian New Wave in the 1970s. This was an era of creative resurgence for Aussie film, with a number of fresh young filmmakers producing an array of great cinema of both the lowest and highest order.

Artistically ambitious works like Picnic at Hanging Rock sat in stark contrast to irreverent Ozploitation films like The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, but all were a part of a fresh and lively industry. Visiting directors like Nicolas Roeg and Ted Kotcheff used the Australian landscape and people to create exotic new visions, whilst locals like Bruce Beresford, Peter Weir, and Fred Schepisi created new visions of Australian identity. This was an incredible era for Australian cinema. And so, without further ado, here is Part 2 of our series on the 100 greatest Australian films of all time.

Walkabout (1971)

Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of James Vance Marshall’s novel starts in a far more acrid manner than its source material. While the novel sees two children stranded in the outback by a plane crash, the film has them taken out to the desert by their deranged father, who intends to kill them before taking his own life. Presumably, Roeg wanted to emphasise the disparity between the madness of the civilised world and that of the native boy who helps these stranded children survive in the outback. He succeeds magnificently – the film is flawless. And the young indigenous boy, David Gulpilil, would soon enough become an iconic actor of the Australian screen.

Admittedly, Roeg isn’t an Australian director, but the nature of the subject matter makes this an appropriate addition to the list.

Wake in Fright (1971)

Another contribution from a non-Australian director, Ted Kotcheff brings us his vision of a nightmarish rural Australia, in which the affable larrikinism of an outback community conceals chronic alcohol abuse and degenerate behaviour fuelled by boredom. The narrative covers the events of one day and one night, when an educated Sydney man finds himself temporarily stranded in the aforementioned town. His initial contempt evaporates as circumstances see him become complicit in the behaviour he once saw fit to judge. Stunning cinema – read more here.

The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972)

Bruce Beresford directs this irresistible adaptation of the infamous Barry Humphries’ scripted comic strip. Barry McKenzie, a deliberately exaggerated representation of the typical ocker Australian of the 1970s, travels with his aunt Edna (soon to be Dame Edna) to experience the cultural offerings of England. Neither country escapes unscathed in this crass but very endearing comedy classic.

Alvin Purple (1973), AKA The Sex Therapist

If Barry McKenzie is crass, then Alvin Purple skates the fine line between crass and soft-porn. Cashing in on the sexual liberation of the 60s (which in Australia didn’t really arrive until the early 70s) Graeme Blundell stars at the young man whose remarkable sexual magnetism sees him unable to escape the perpetual advances of naked women. Blundell’s natural innocence makes this far more amusing than one might expect, even if what were once perceived to be progressive representations of sexuality now look decidedly backwards. Not exactly profound stuff, but it was unique enough to make this the most commercially successful Australian of all time, up to that point. 

The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)

Early on in his career Peter Weir directed this satirical tale of a rural town with the ironic name of Paris, in which the locals survive by deliberately causing car accidents and salvaging the wrecks. A must see, if only for the crazy cars!

Stone (1974)

One of many films on this list that might prove contentious, what Stone lacks in technical proficiency it makes up in sheer audacity. One time feature film director, Sandy Harbutt, also stars as the cop who goes undercover and joins a bikie gang in order to investigate a murder. Hated by critics, and lapped up by Australian audiences, the film rode heavily on the use of real-life bikies as actors and extras. Much has also been made of the similarities between this film and Mad Max, with many believing the latter would never have existed without this film.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

As mentioned earlier, in the period following the silent era through to the 1960s, the Australian film industry was in a period of slow entropic decline. The films made during this subsequent Australian New Wave were quite diverse, however it is Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock that is held up as the most exemplary example of the period.

Set during the 19th century, and based on a Cliff Green novel of the same name, the film relates the eerie story of three girls who go missing during a school excursion to Hanging Rock, a natural landmark to be found in rural Victoria, Australia. Loaded with a palpable sense of repressed sexuality, the film’s tone and ambiguous conclusion result in a truly unique sense of mystery. Released under the guise of being a true story (a tactic that has been repeated a thousand times since), the film resonated not only with local audiences, but at an international level as well.

The Devil’s Playground (1976)

Fred Schepisi has had some success in the US with films like Roxanne (1987) and Fierce Creatures (1997), but well before all that he directed this (partially) autobiographical coming-of-age drama about a young boy attending a catholic seminary. Tensions between sexuality and faith are dealt with in a frank and non-sensationalistic manner, and Schepisi’s first feature has come to be recognised as a significant achievement.

Storm Boy (1976)

Growing up, this was a film that tended to occasionally pop-up at odd hours of the day or night, and I’d seen it many times in fragments before actually watching it from beginning to end. Based on a book by Colin Thiele, Henri Safran presents us with the tale of a young boy living with his reclusive father on the South Australian Coast. When he takes on the duty of looking after a group of young pelicans, he must deal with the rewards and dramas that come with such a responsibility.

Mad Dog Morgan (1976)

Dennis Hopper travelled to Australia at the height of his drug-addled phase to star in this Phillipe Mora directed oddity. Skirting an odd line between quality cinema and Ozploitaiton, there is something about the hysterical performance of Hopper that keeps the film afloat. The plot? The life and times of infamous bushranger, Dan “Mad Dog” Morgan.

Hopper was something of a disgrace during his time in Australia, and was eventually deported after a violent drunken night that included a rowdy visit to the gravesite of the real Dan Morgan. Hopper once claimed that while he was in Australia he was caught driving with a blood-alcohol content so high that he was the first person in the nation’s history to be banned from driving for life. This is very unlikely, but it’s a good story.

Don’s Party (1976)

Bruce Beresford’s adaptation of the David Williamson play of the same name might not resonate with viewers much today, but at the very least it’s a fascinating look at the cultural zeitgeist of mid-70s Australia.

When Don decides to hold a party on the night of the Australian 1969 election, the ideological tensions between his guests become quite apparent. 

Long Weekend (1978)

Colin Eggleston directs this Everett De Roche scripted Ozploitation classic. A married couple, whose relationship is clearly in a state of decay, elect to spend a weekend camping. Soon enough, their obnoxious arguments and lack of respect for the natural world seem to be inciting nature to react… violently.

The Last Wave (1977)

A bizarre fusion of paranoia and apocalyptic imagery combine in this unique effort from Peter Weir. When a lawyer finds himself representing a group of aboriginal men on trial for murder, he develops some kind of transcendental connection with one of the men, played by David Gulpilil. Was the dead men killed via a curse, and does recent strange weather suggest the beginnings of an apocalyptic end to civilisation? Fascinating stuff!

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978)

Fred Schepisi directs another classic, this time the late 19th century set tale of a young aboriginal man attempting to ingratiate himself into the white community, only to be continually exploited. Eventually snapping and committing an act of murder, the young man’s mistake sees him become an outlaw.

This is based on Thomas Keneally’s book of the same name, based upon the actual events that resulted in the demise of Jimmy Governor during the same period. International readers will best know Keneally for Schindler’s Ark, which would later be adapted by Steven Spielberg into Schindler’s List.

The Getting of Wisdom (1978)

Bruce Beresford directs this coming-of-age tale, detailing the trials and tribulations of a young girl enrolled in a prestigious girls’ school in late 19th century Melbourne. Presented with a cheeky emphasis on the unintentional manifestations of sexuality in a more repressed time, The Getting of Wisdom holds up remarkably well.

Mad Max (1979)

This was a no-brainer, of course. George Miller’s low-budget exploitation film, set in some sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland, stood out primarily due to disproportionately good cinematography and stunt-work. Watching this trailer, it’s interesting to note that it has an American-redub, a tactic used in the American market to better engage with local audiences.

My Brilliant Career (1979)

Women are far under-represented in early Australian cinema (or most cinema for that matter), so Gillian Armstrong’s contribution is a welcome addition. Judy Davis plays a young woman in late-19th century Australia, who openly flaunts her dreams of a far more grandiose and independent life than the one she is currently living. When the arrival of a handsome man on the scene makes things far more complicated, a difficult decision must be made. Based upon the novel of the same name by famed Australian author and feminist, Miles Franklin.

Breaker Morant (1980)

During the Boer War, three men are put on trial for the unauthorised execution of prisoners. While there is no question that they committed the act, it soon becomes clear the prisoners are scapegoats for a much more institutionalised problem. Told with a uniquely Australian dryness, this may still be the finest work of Bruce Beresford’s filmmaking career.

The Club (1980)

This one will admittedly be quite inaccessible to non-Australian audiences. Bruce Beresford takes the reigns of this seminal, but perhaps rather archaic looking film about Australian Rules Football. Dissecting the nature of the game and the politics behind the scenes, the script is an adaptation of the David Williamson play of the same name. Aussies may notice the appearance of many significant Australian performers, including Graham Kennedy, Jack Thompson and John Howard (the actor, not the former Prime Minister).

Road Games (1981)

Richard Franklin, perhaps best known for his direction of the first Pyscho sequel, first proved his credentials with this Hitchcockian thriller starring Jamie-Lee Curtis and Stacy Keach. Everett De Roche’s screenplay combines beautifully with Franklin’s cold-gaze in this tale of a truck-driver and hitchhiker who find themselves in a cat-and-mouse game with a deranged serial killer.

Puberty Blues (1981)

Bruce Beresford directs another wonderful coming-of-age film, set against the backdrop of a far younger and more innocent Australia. Driven not so much by plot as it is by the day-to-day activities of teenagers attempting to garner the attentions of the opposite sex, this film provides a timeless window into a vision of youth that is both radically different and incredibly familiar in the present day.

Gallipoli (1981)

Peter Weir’s tale of a young athlete (Mel Gibson) who enlists in the military during WWI is held in high-esteem by Australians of all ages – and for very good reason. The Battle of Gallipoli is recognised to this day in Australia as one of the defining moments in the formation of this very young nation’s identity, and has contributed significantly to the country’s egalitarian ethos – the belief in the ‘Aussie Battler’. Weir captures this spirit in a film that recognises the sacrifices made by the more than 10,000 Australian and New Zealand troops who died during the Gallipoli campaign.

Turkey Shoot (1982)

What is one of the worst Australian films of all time doing on a 100 Greatest Australian Films of All Time list? Ironic appreciation goes a long way, folks. Brian Trenchard-Smith’s train-wreck dystopian vision of a world in which political prisoners are hunted down by bored billionaires is much loved for many reasons: cheap and gratuitous gore, awful dialogue, a hairy animal-man… the list goes on. Beware the remake… Ozploitation aside, sometimes irony isn’t enough.

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James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

16 thoughts on “The 100 Greatest Australian Films of All Time: Part 2 (1971-1982)

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  6. It really was a golden age, wasn’t it? I imagine some of the same reasons that led to a resurgence in American film in the late ’60s and ‘early ’70s affected Australian cinema as well, but do you think there were any Australia-specific explanations for why so many exciting and innovative movies seemed to appear in such a short time period?

    • Absolutely! There were a few things that happened around that time. A lot of creative energy was being generated by the counterculture trends of the era, and the federal government began to provide funding opportunities for the local film industry. And luckily, many of these films resonated enough internationally to warrant the investment.

  7. Great stuff James. Many of my favourites here, not just as Australian films, but as films generally. The marvellous, ‘Walkabouit’, ‘The Last Wave’, ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’, ‘The Getting of Wisdom’, ‘Breaker Morant’, and ‘My Brilliant Career’, Judy Davis at her feisty best. I am eagerly anticipating the next article in this series, as I am sure many more great films will be featuring.
    Best wishes from England. Pete.

  8. Have seen and enjoyed a number of these films but have to share that I saw GALLIPOLI as a high school kid and it was the first time a film affected me quite so deeply. I had shed a tear now and then during movies before – but this one left me still crying uncontrollably in the car on the way home (which was unhandy as I was the one driving…). Tough to watch but it remains one of my all-time favorites.

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