Posted by scarlsson at 09:39, December 12 2012.

The Chauvels’ career took a totally different direction with their last venture, “Australian Walkabout”. Before leaving London, after post-production work on “Jedda”, the BBC had interviewed Charles and Elsa on television, with excerpts from the film. They had a huge public response to the interview, with viewers asking to know more about outback Australia. The BBC had run a series of wildlife adventure films in South Africa with a husband and wife, Armand and Michaela Dennis, but the couple had recently deserted BBC for a more lucrative offer with a commercial station. Charles received a cable from the BBC asking them to return to London and discuss the making of a similar series in Australia.

Charles was in his element, filming documentary in his beloved outback. Such a series was fairly new in Australia. It was new to Charles and Elsa, too, who now had to appear before the cameras. Their safari followed an almost diagonal route from Sydney to Darwin, via Broken Hill, Port Augusta and Alice Springs.

The thirteen half hour episodes included the Flying Doctor and School of the Air, the opal fields, horse-breaking and picnic races, the Rum Jungle uranium mine, crocodile shooting and buffalo hunting. The Chauvels got to know a range of outback people, from Aboriginal cameliers and artists, to well-sinkers, property owners and one revered flying doctor, with whom they flew to lonely outposts on the way to Lake Eyre. More in Locations and Films >

Australian Walkabout – Various Locations Outback

Excerpts from biography:

“Their two landrovers amusingly bore number plates commencing with the words BAN and BAD, perhaps not the best choice for a filmmaker. My father said that it was lucky he was not superstitious. He was driving the third vehicle, a Holden utility. On the sides of each was a large inscription, ‘Charles Chauvel’s Television Unit – Australian Expediton’. Canvas water bags hung from the front, ready for the drier places outback, and there was a battery trailer to supply light.”

“The first sight of Coober Pedy seemed surreal – just a landscape of pale-coloured mounds, with a few gaping holes and tiny tin chimneys the only evidence of habitation. A water tank accommodated the annual six inches of rain, and the only sound was the dull thud of picks below ground.”

“We flew northwest again, over the Birdsville Track to Muloorina…….we were flying low over the roofs, ready for touchdown, chooks, dogs and goats scattering in all directions. At Muloorina, the runway was marked out with sun-bleached camel bones, but I remember the plane taxiing to the front gate and the pilot tying it to a powerful hitching post. He was well acquainted with the fierce dust storms that can unexpectedly sweep in from the Simpson Desert.”

The Northern Territory and JEDDA

Posted by scarlsson at 10:00, September 14 2012.

The settings for JEDDA were eclectically-chosen from many beautiful parts of the Northern Territory, from The Centre to Mataranka, the Roper River, Beswick, Kakadu and Marrakai. Two key locations were Katherine Gorge and Ormiston Gorge, both extremely difficult to reach in the fifties, long before organised tourism. The homestead used for exterior shots was Coolibah Station, near Victoria River, with interiors replicated at Avondale Studios, Sydney. Crocodile scenes in Jedda were filmed on the Roper River near Mataranka. Rosalie Kunoth from Alice Springs (Ngarla Kunoth on screen) played Jedda and Bobbie Wilson from Darwin (Robert Tudawali) was cast as the charismatic Marbuk. Sydneysider, Paul Clarke (Paul Reynell on screen) played the part-Aboriginal head stockman, Joe.

katherine-gorge-front-pageThe Territorian identity, Bill Harney, acted as guide and interpreter for the Chauvels and their crew, and indigenous people who appeared in the film came from local communities, plus some tribal men from Arnhem Land. Making the film was a constant battle with heat, dust, crocodiles and isolation.

Excerpt from biography:

“The Jedda story was born around a campfire, by a waterhole called Kundulla. We had bivouacked near the Mainoru River on the southern edge of Arnhem Land, where the receding flood rains of the ‘wet’ leave numerous waterholes – lovely, secuded places adorned by red waterlilies and noisy with bird life. Around our campfire at night, by the light of kerosene lanterns, Charles and Elsa began to meld some of the stories they had gathered into the skeleton of a script. It was 1950, and we had spent the dry season trekking through Western Queensland, the Northern Territory and the eastern part of the Kimberley, on an adventurous five-month search for key locations, testing colour film and listening to peoples’ stories. There were plenty of good Territorian yarns, but every now and then a ‘real’ story, telling of the drama and stark reality of lives in isolated, lonely places.”

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JEDDA (1955) – The Northern Territory

“Jedda” is the story of an Aboriginal girl caught between two cultures, and the tragic consequences. She has been raised on a remote buffalo station in the Northern Territory by a white woman mourning the death of her own baby. It is understood that she will eventually marry Joe, the part-Aboriginal head stockman, but when a wild Aboriginal man arrives at the station looking for work and tries to attract her attention, she is mesmerised by his bearing and strange tribal customs. He abducts her and takes her on a long journey to reach his own tribe, at the same time pursued by Joe and the police, who  want him on a charge of murder.

The chase sequence reveals stunningly beautiful landscapes from Central Australia to Kakadu, and the waters of Katherine Gorge. The film was shot in Gevacolour, under gruelling conditions in the outback, and achieved three firsts in Australian filmmaking – the first all-Australian feature film in colour, the first to cast two indigenous people in the starring roles and the first Australian feature accepted at the Cannes Film Festival. The script was loosely based on three true-life stories, the character of Marbuk inspired by Nemarluk, the Aboriginal fugitive and resistance fighter of the thirties. Processing and final post-production work was achieved at the Denham Laboratories, in the U.K.

Excerpt from biography:

“What a challenge my father had confronted! He was accustomed to challenges, but this one was monumental – experimenting with colour, when there were no film laboratories in Australia able to process it, and planning to star two untrained Aboriginal people in a script that at the time would prove controversial. Film Industry colleagues shook their heads and told him it would be “death at the box office.” When production plans were underway and Charles seeking extra funding, he secured an interview with the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies. He always believed in going to the top first. Menzies was scathing in his criticism of the idea. Later, though, the Federal Government granted a petrol allowance for the location unit, through Northern Territory Administration. Perhaps they didn’t want them to do a  ‘Burke and Wills’.”


The saga of making “Sons of Matthew” equalled the drama of the story itself. After reading Bernard O’Reilly’s books, “Cullenbenbong” and “Green Mountains”, Charles and Elsa wrote a script inspired by the pioneering exploits of the famed O’Reilly family, who carved a trail into the mountains of the McPherson Ranges, to claim land on the Plateau.

The story traced the adventures of the film’s O’Riordan family, their five sons and two daughters, so the cast of adults and their junior counterparts was large. Together with technicians, the unit numbered about seventy when they arrived in southeast Queensland. They were hit with the state’s wettest season in forty years. The rains lasted for many weeks, and the film crew were temporarily marooned at Round Mountain, surrounded by floodwaters. The delay caused costs to soar, but with determination they finally succeeded in filming dramatic action scenes that required the climbing of tortuous trails, rock-hopping over waterfalls and coping with mud, leeches and stinging vines. John Ewart later remarked “I didn’t know I would have to be an athlete as well as an actor.” Thelma Scott, who played the mother, said that the locals christened them “Chauvel’s Commandos”.

“Sons of Matthew” was arguably Chauvel’s best film. His last, “Jedda”, was the bravest, but ‘Sons’ was technically a better production. After W.W.11, the film was a welcome relief to war-weary audiences and said to have boosted post-war immigration. It was widely released overseas and in America was renamed “The Rugged O’Riordans”.

Excerpt from Biography:

“The unit’s work force had the daunting task of hauling camera and lighting equipment up the mountain by flying fox and down 300 ft. to the ravine, somehow keeping it dry while setting up wind machines and batteries of 5,000kw lamps. The cameras were within metal sound-blooping with weighty battery boxes. More than a thousand feet above sea level, with cloud-topped peaks above, there is little sunlight at Natural Arch, so studio lamps were concealed around the perimeter and protected from the rain by heavy glass covers. The work gangs had to first slash through tangled undergrowth, cutting a path to the location and driving iron spikes into rocks to support flying fox cables that would span the gully. Now and then clouds billowed from the mountain peaks, bringing more rain to the already sodden forest.”

Years later, Michael Pate said “What you saw in “Sons of Matthew” was a sort of osmosis between us and the land, and that is what Chauvel wanted…..Charles had the ability to encourage other people to develop their own acting skills, but also to realise his vision.”


Posted by scarlsson at 10:00, June 28 2012.

We’re in Queensland! No other town in Australia has featured as much in Charles Chauvel’s films as Canungra. The little town tucked into the foothills of the Great Dividing Range, in the Gold Coast hinterland, was the location for scenes in his 1935 film “Heritage”, his second war film, “Rats of Tobruk” and then the epic “Sons of Matthew”. Canungra was first established by timber-cutters, but today is a hub for The Scenic Rim, an area of tourism, wineries and horse studs. It is the gateway to the Lamington National Park and Mt. Tamborine – two of Chauvel’s key locations for his pioneering drama, “Sons of Matthew”. The film gave Michael Pate his first leading role as the oldest son, Shane, and the youngest was played by John Ewart, later familiar to Australian film and television audiences.

Another major location base was the O’Reilly’s homestead on the Lamington Plateau. Well known today as a tourist resort, in the 40’s it was a farmhouse that sometimes took in paying guests. At O’Reilly’s, Charles and Elsa Chauvel wrote the first draft of their “Sons of Matthew” screenplay, and many of the films’ rainforest scenes were shot on the Plateau.

Not to be forgotten are the other locations used in the Scenic Rim, where the Chauvels received great assistance from local people – in Rathdowney, the Darlington Valley, and Numinbah.

Excerpt from book:

 “It was a tough initiation for some of the technicians, as many had never ridden a horse. They made an exhausting ascent up the narrow, rock-strewn trails of the Saddleback, behind bellowing frightened cattle –  it was, after all, what the O’Reillys had done! One bullock slipped over the edge of the trail, but its fall was checked by a tree, and after twenty minutes of hard work the men were able to pull the bulky animal to the top. Not only the cattle were afraid on this journey. During lunch break, Bernard O’Reilly had casually killed a death adder, remarking that they were in adder country. The crew and cast were nervous for the rest of the day, turning over every rock or log they sat on.”

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Currans Hill, Narellan NSW

Posted by scarlsson at 10:00, April 24 2012.

Currans Hill today is deemed a suburb of Camden. In 1942 it was a bare hill surrounded by farmland. Chauvel found it the perfect location for his ‘town’ of Tobruk, a portion of which was reconstructed on the hill according to official war photographs.

Excerpt from biography:

“There were unexpected diversions for farmers in the Narellan district, early in 1944. On Currans Hill, normaly a quiet, rural location, war suddenly and noisily erupted. Bewildered residents watched as the Hill was invaded by truckloads of equipment and people – some in uniform with weapons, others with cameras.

 A sealed road was laid. On either side of it carpenters erected white-painted buildings and what appeared to be ruins of a church. Why erect something already ruined? When the ghostly structures were complete, a fierce storm blew the set down, the day before it was needed. It was patiently repaired, before bren-gun carriers rolled in and soldiers poured into town. From the sky, planes bearing the dreaded enemy swastika swooped low to bomb everything the carpenters had completed. Locals no doubt thought the whole operation was lunatic. Complaints were received from nearby farmers that the noise had affected the laying of hens and three cows had gone off milk.”

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A story of Aussie heroism in the Tobruk chapter of World War 1, when men of the AIF, living in dugouts and conducting silent raids at night, held Tobruk against the German forces for an exhausting eight months.

“Rats of Tobruk” was a hard-working production made under wartime conditions; finance and equipment were scarce, major studios closed and many actors and personnel had joined the armed forces. It was not the blockbuster of its predecessor, ‘Horsemen’, but a sincere portrayal of the Australian soldiers’ mateship and stoicism while defending Tobruk. It was generously assisted by all three armed forces, in order to ensure authenticity.

The film starred Peter Finch, Grant Taylor and Chips Rafferty. They were given temporary leave to appear in the film – once again it was seen as a wartime morale booster. The romance and comedy segments were made almost at the last minute, to comply with the demands of the film’s backers, and are out of step with the rest of the film. In USA, the American version titled “The Fighting Rats of Tobruk” cut some of these giving the film a better flow.

As the same troops had been shipped to New Guinea to fight the Japanese almost immediately after their withdrawal from Tobruk, Chauvel included a final sequence filmed in Canungra Gorge, southeast Queensland; this was to bring the story in line with events that had recently taken place.

Partly ruined portions of the town of Tobruk were reconstructed on top of CURRANS HILL, near Narellan, NSW, where bombing raids were filmed. Other locations were at SINGLETON, NSW, where scenes of a massed German tank attack were filmed on a nearby plain, and KURNELL, where the sandhill country was used again for shots of desert warfare at night. CANUNGRA GORGE, Southeast Qld. provided the New Guinea background.

Excerpt from biography:

“On the sandhills, engineers wired the dunes with thirty-two large, explosive devices. Climatic conditions delayed and frustrated the team. Sandstorms filled in the trenches faster than they could be dug and buried the guns. In wet weather it was necessary to keep removing the detonators. For night scenes of the Australian soldiers attacking enemy gun positions, Chauvel had a huge dynamo hauled across the sands, to provide the arc lights needed. On fine nights, this provided a Sound and Light show for Cronulla residents who lined up along the seafront eight miles away, to watch the Very lights exploding and floating down like miniature fireworks.

On the set it was a world of dust, barbed-wire, guns and noise, as tin-hatted Australian diggers aimed at German infantry advancing behind shellfire. Years later one of the extras told a reporter that Chauvel offered a bottle of beer to the man who ‘died’ most convincingly!”

Forty Thousand Horsemen – 1941

There was a swashbuckling element of adventure behind the making of ‘Horsemen’, yet this film was a turning point in my father’s career. He was said to have matured as a director, with a greater sense of realism. It was a timely morale booster, as W.W.11 was looming and Australian men would soon be enlisting. When a contingent of Light Horse was in Sydney for the city’s sesquicentenary, in 1938, Chauvel seized the opportunity to feature the horsemen in the film’s desert marches. He gained the Army’s permission to use the Light Horsemen, initially for one day only. This audacious gamble was his ‘shop window’ and the catalyst for the rest of the film, both creatively and financially.

While action scenes were filmed on the sandhills of Kurnell, the eastern village of El-Arish, constructed for the film, became our second home. Technicians, actors and equipment had to travel over seven miles of sandy track each day to reach the location. When vehicles bogged, everyone had to get out and lend a hand, including the actors. The Assistant Director found El-Arish’s minaret a useful vantage point from which to shout orders to the cast or technicians.

With the story following the exploits of three larrikin Aussie soldiers, “Forty Thousand Horsemen” gave Chips Rafferty his first starring role and established his lanky, humorous persona. Betty Bryant played the beautiful French girl, Juliette, providing the film’s love interest. There was an eccentric mix of Australian, ‘Turkish’ and ‘German’ soldiers, some stunt riders, Arabs, camels and horses. Those in Turkish and German uniforms cheekily declined to eat their lunch with the Aussies! In his spare time, my father studied French and Italian films; I believe the results are evident in ‘Horsemen’, particularly in lighting and visual imagery. The film’s interiors, including a market in Cairo and a portion of Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, were constructed and filmed in Cinesound Studios, rivalling those of “Heritage” in scope.

The charge on Beersheba was re-enacted and filmed on flattish ground near Orange, NSW, where there was an Army encampment at the time.

“Forty Thousand Horsemen” could be seen as Chauvel’s blockbuster; certainly it was the best-loved of his films. It opened in 1941 and was successful both in Australia and overseas, making a good profit for its backers.

Excerpt from the biography:

“Thanks to Chips’ ad-libbing, the market scene in which the three soldiers – Red, Jim and Larry – see the pretty French girl, Juliette, carrying a large basket of oranges, became a comical highlight of the film. When Red sees the girl and says cheekily to his pals “Do you see what I see?!” Chips was supposed to say something about “…a little dish from up the Nile”, but he didn’t like the lines, so in the first take, after “Do you see what I see?!”, Chips replied, with an ecstatic grin, “Oranges!””


Posted by scarlsson at 10:00, February 8 2012.

What a difference between Kurnell today and the sweeping sand dune country that we saw in 1938.

The sandhills of north Cronulla/Kurnell stretched for about 250 miles and provided a convincing stand-in for the Sinai Desert. The ravages of sand-mining and landfill operations, 4WD driving and horse riding have since reduced them to a small area used today for fitness training.

Excerpts from biography:

“The men were in the saddle at 3 a.m., waiting for the dawn shots Chauvel wanted. The sky was overcast and a slight drizzle began, filling Charles and Elsa with apprehension. These sand dunes, with their shifting shadows and wind-tossed crests, seemed to embody all Charles’ hopes for the film.”

“The horsemen milled about in the dawn light, silhouetted against the sky as they formed their lines and rode softly along the crest of the dunes. Long lines of mounted men made new shadows on the pristine sand, as they circled the dunes or ploughed over the top, the horses’ hooves sending up plumes of sand. They were re-enacting the movements of former Anzacs in Sinai, who had been keenly aware that they were following an historic route, with maybe the ghosts of earlier armies.”

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