“The Flare and Falter”- The Definitive History Of Australian Cinema. New FIB Book and Documentary Series: Have A Drink?

The 1970’s saw the emergence of Australian cinema as a distinctive and scintillating challenge to international competitors with the rise of the Australian New Wave movement.

Photo Credit: HeyUGuys

After starring in five films as James Bond, Scottish legend Sean Connery resigned from the role. The casting team compiled a list of potential replacements, among them two Englishmen, a Dutchman and two Australians. One of these Australians, George Lazenby, landed the role after impressing the production team with his Bond-like style and quick temper, a trait attributed to coming from Australia.

Lazenby, who had previously worked as a model and only ever appeared in commercials, was the youngest actor to portray Bond, and the first non-European to do so. Though he only made one film as Bond, 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Lazenby can be considered one of the first Australian ‘action-men’ that became in demand in Hollywood, and assisted in Australian representation in overseas cinema.

The 1970’s proved to be the most fruitful, revolutionary and exciting period for Australian cinema. This time is often referred to as Australian New Wave, an era that defined a new flare of interest overseas in Australian stories, actors and landscapes. While this period in history saw Australian writers and directors portraying life in Australia more authentically and ambitiously than before, it also marked the emergence of Ozploitation films. Australia was still wrestling with itself and its overseas reputation, fluctuating between realism and satire.

Photo Credit: The Guardian

John Gorton, Liberal party member and Australian Prime Minister from 1968-1971, was a welcome ally to Australian arts and the film industry. Where before Australia had suffered from overseas legislations necessitating British and American films be shown in Australia, Prime Minister Gorton initiated funding for the arts in Australia and fostered the growth of an independent Australian film industry.

Furthermore, Gorton’s successor following the brief run of William McMahon, Gough Whitlam, leader of the Labour Party and Australia Prime Minister from 1972-1975, continued to support the Australian film industry and initiated funding assistance to filmmakers from state governments. This surge in political and financial support to the film industry after decades of neglect and dismissal coupled with a shift in the style of films being made in Australia and the availability of new technologies formed the genesis of the second real flare in the history of Australian film.

1971 saw the release of Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout. While the film is a joint British-Australian venture based on a British novel, the film is set in and was shot in Alice Springs, and can be considered one of the first films of the Australian New Wave movement. The film revolves around two children who are abandoned in the Australian outback and are taught how to survive by a young Indigenous boy.

For the first time in film history, the Australian outback was not presented in a satirical fashion or as some sort of holiday retreat, but as a bleak, harsh landscape where beauty is found in the roughness of the surroundings. The film was a commercial failure and was also prohibited by various boards for scenes of nudity. It also suffered from uninformed reviewers descriptions of ‘savagery’. However, Walkabout set a new standard and introduced a new way of looking at Australia that would be emulated and explored through the next two decades.

1971 also blessed the world with the release of Wake In Fright, which along with Walkabout was one of the two Australian films entered into the 1971 Cannes Film Festival. Wake In Fright was considered a lost film until 2009 when the films editor found the negatives in a bin marked for destruction. The subsequent painstaking restoration and re-release of the film has cemented its reputation as one of the best Australian films ever made.

Based on Kenneth Cook’s novel, the film follows the journey of a school teacher who plans to head back to Sydney from his post in a small country town. He first catches a train to a town the locals call ‘The Yabba’, where he loses his money in a game of two-up and subsequently forfeits any chance of his flight home. The town and its inhabitants take hold of the teacher as he gets drawn in further and further to a life of hard-living, hard-drinking and the brutal reality of life in small town Australia.

The film was extremely successful in France and in the United Kingdom, but Australian audiences found it hard to tolerate. There are reports of audiences standing up during early screenings and proclaiming ‘That’s not us!’. There was much controversy around the kangaroo hunting scene in which real hunters were filmed shooting and wrestling kangaroos. The films production team eventually had to fake a power failure in order to get the hunters, who were drunk and becoming more and more sloppy and barbaric in their methods of murder, to stop.

Perhaps the brutality of the film and the uncompromising lives of the characters hit too close to home for Australian audiences, but following its re-release Wake In Fright has been considered a pinnacle of New Wave cinema as well as an early example of ‘Australian gothic’. This style, focusing on the harsh conditions of Australian life and its psychological as well as physical toll, influenced and initiated highly successful bands such as Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds and The Triffids. In fact, Nick Cave once called the film ‘the best and most terrifying Australian movie in existence’.

Picnic At Hanging Rock, directed by legendary filmmaker Peter Weir, was released in 1975 during the peak of the Australian New Wave movement, and helped to draw international attention to the quality of films being made in Australia. Based on Joan Lindsay’s highly acclaimed novel, the films impressionistic, ethereal style coupled with the beautiful but unforgiving landscape of the Australian bush led to the production of a truly unique and brilliant work of art. International audiences began to recognise Australia as a distinctive and fascinating voice in storytelling and filmmaking. The haunting quality of Picnic At Hanging Rock and the lingering unsolved mystery presented a real challenge to overseas audiences, creating an interest in the Australian landscape and style of living.

Photo Credit: NFSA

Picnic At Hanging Rock and many other Australian films released in the 1970’s perked up the ears of filmgoers overseas and led to the formation of a new style of filmmaking not only in Australia but internationally. The next decade was just as fruitful.

Subscribe to FIB’s Weekly Alchemy Report for your weekly dose of music, fashion and pop culture news!