The Flare And Falter History Of Australian Cinema: I Have No Fear Or Shrinking

The outbreak of the First World War slowed down the success of Australia’s blooming film industry, and saw changes to distribution and production still in effect today. 

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From 1910 to 1914 and the outbreak of WW1, Australia was one of the most prolific countries in terms of film output. Over 100 narrative films were released in Australia during this time, including The Fatal Wedding, about a besotted woman who ruins a marriage and The Man They Could Not Hang about a prolific and lucky criminal. Both these films, now lost, saw success both financially and critically, and were screened for many years. The Australian public’s enthusiasm for film had spread to the media, and films were reviewed and discussed in both local and national newspapers.

When we think about the relationship between the First World War and Australian cinema we think of films set in this time, such as 1981’s Gallipoli, but it is difficult to fathom how the war impacted the film industry. The feasibility of making films, financially and practically, was drastically changed during war times. The war shaped the film industry in many ways, and today we still see the fruits of the labour of filmmakers during this period in how we make and distribute cinema. Many films were commissioned during this time by governments or authorities, obviously dictating the content and nature of cinema. This period also saw the consolidation and organisation of cinematic producers whether independent or as part of a studio.

The production, exhibition and distribution of film in Australia from its inception in 1906 to 1912 was handled largely by independent producers and seperate companies. These companies, which included West’s Pictures, Spencer’s Pictures and The Amalgamated Pictures Company, merged into The General Film Company of Australasia in May of 1912. This conglomerate handled the distribution and production of Australian films from then on, and is still the largest movie exhibitor in Australia and New Zealand, now operating under the title of Event Cinemas.

This was both the foundation and the destruction of Australian film. Though this consolidated group assisted in establishing the means of distribution of films in Australia with the goal of allowing access to more screenings to a wider public more often, having a larger media group with the capacity to sign deals with America undoubtedly damaged the national industry.

Hollywood thrived during WW1, both in their output and in their content. Influenced by the war, films were used as patriotic encouragement, not to the extent of propaganda but as a bond between the public. While European filmmaking was at a standstill due to their involvement in the war, California was relatively free, and many people migrated there to find fame and riches in the ever expanding world of motion pictures.

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This period of time saw the expansion of American film. War dramas and the first blockbusters came to fruition, filmmakers experimented with advancing technologies and open-air sets, creating the style of film we now associate with Hollywood and high-budget production. It seems heartless to laud the profits of this industry when its success came at the suffering of much of the rest of the world, but it is an important factor in filmmaking today. Europe, and for that matter Australia, are still struggling to catch up with America in terms of film output and quality, as the nation still soars as the capital of motion pictures. Despite Europe’s invention of motion picture capturing technologies and Australia’s innovation and determination in regards to narrative film, the boom WW1 gave to American filmmaking is still evident to this day.

In Australia, there was a sharp decline among public interest in films during and immediately following the war. In 1912 the government banned bushranger films, which, seeing as the success of film in Australia was largely due to the public fondness for The Story Of The Kelly Gang, had a catastrophic impact on the Australian industry. The Theatres and Public Halls Act of 1912 was a direct response to the content of films, banning what was considered by the regulatory authorities as ‘objectionable’ content. This was expounded upon as ‘scenes suggestive of immorality or indecency, executions, murders, or other revolting scenes; scenes of debauchery, low habits of life, or other scenes such as would have a demoralising effect on a young person; successful crime, such as bushranging, robberies, or other acts of lawlessness’. With the health of the younger population apparently in mind, the Australian government essentially doused the initial flare of Australian cinema, and encouraged it into a faltering.

On top of this, The General Film Company of Australasia merged and restructured and became known as The Combine. The Combine held little interest in Australian films as it grew in power as a group and demonstrated a preference for imported cinema. Public decries and accusations by Australian actors did little to help this as the war raged on, and eventually the success of The Combine put many independent Australian distributors out of business. This crippled the industry. While the world was on fire and many Australians looked to each other for support and companionship, The Combine paved the way for American films to dominate the market, as they still do today. The growing power of Hollywood and the capabilities of American filmmakers, thanks to the freedom and prosperity of California, began to take over the world. Following the war, 94% of films exhibited in Australia were American.

Photo Credit: TW Paterson

It is interesting to notice the ways in which film and the film industry emulate and influence daily life. Even today, though the hub of the worlds manufacturing is in China, America dominates in terms of fashion trends, music, cinema and social media habits. It is easy to say that this dynamic is changing due to widespread disappointment at American power systems and distrust of American politics, and this is true, but the fact remains Australians have fallen under the influence of our larger, more glamorous sibling.

WW1 was a trying and desperate time for Australia, a time when the resilience we are known for as a people was recognised by the world. In 1915, a popular silent film was released in Australia titled The Martyrdom Of Nurse Cavell. Based on the life of wartime nurse Edith Cavell, the film follows her life during the war and details her assistance in the escape of Allied prisoners of war. Despite public pleas and embassy assistance, Cavell is sentenced to be shot, as she was in truth, by a German firing squad. As she prepares for death she states, “Tell my friends I give my life willingly for my country. I have no fear or shrinking. I have seen death so often, it is not fearful or strange to me.” The Australian attitude of resilience and courage is exemplified in our response to the faltering of our film industry, for the post-war period saw no fear or shrinking.

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