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.”

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.”



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!””

Great Mackarel Beach

Great Mackarel Beach was backed by bushland and a little stream doubled for the movie as Sydney’s famous Tank Stream. The technical crew, equipment and scores of extras were taken there by boat; they played convicts and soldiers bringing ashore their supplies and building their first huts.

“Heritage” was an ambitious film to make, requiring elaborate sets, costuming and hundreds of extras. The story was patriotic and traced 150 years of Australian history through two pioneering families. Outdoor shooting locations ranged from the Burragorang Valley and Copmanhurst, NSW, to Canungra, in southeast Queensland. At Canungra, Chauvel organised a grand-scale movie picnic, an opportunity for local people to watch some scenes being shot. With the cooperation of Queensland railways and a Brisbane radio station, an estimated 4,000 people descended on the little village of Canungra, some by train and many in their own cars. The CWA set up tea stops along the way! In those days it took about 2 hours to reach Canungra from Brisbane.

The sets depicted the historic arrival of the ‘bride ship’ at Sydney Town, portion of the Governor’s residence in 1831, pioneers’ cottages and Sydney’s ‘Bull’s Head Inn’ – all within the Efftee Studios, Melbourne.  Peggy (Mary) Maguire, one of the daughters of a family who owned Brisbane’s iconic Bellevue Hotel, won the role of the pretty Irish girl from the bride ship, with whom the pioneer falls in love. A few years after the film, the Maguires went to London and became known as the ‘marrying Maguires’, owing to the five daughters’ notable marriages in England. The acting was stilted, but the settings were stylish and the film was launched with a vigorous and imaginative publicity campaign. The film was made during the depression. When extras were called for, hundreds of people applied, glad to get work for a few days, so there was no shortage of sailors, soldiers, convicts and ladies of the town. The 1935 Commonwealth prize for filmmaking was a Government attempt to encourage the struggling Australian film industry. The prize, 2,500 pounds, was a huge boost to Charles Chauvel and his small company, Expeditionary Films, and it seemed to set the pattern for many of his later films, bearing out his comment “Australia is a magnificent canvas upon which to paint our pictures”.

Funny things can happen in movie-making –  here is an excerpt from the biography:

“The scene inside Bull’s Head Inn was ready to shoot, until someone noticed that there was no actual bull’s head above the entrance! Studio staff panicked. As an exterior shot of the inn was required, Charles dispatched a props man to quickly find a bull’s head. The unlucky man contacted every second-hand or antique shop he could find, to no avail. He eventually went to an abattoir and persuaded the workers to give him a recently-severed head. It looked just right when pushed through the flimsy wall of the studio set, but proved disconcerting to the actors on the other side. All through their scenes, they could see the gory part of the new studio ‘prop’, with its blood slowly oozing down the wall.” (Australian Screen Online)