Return to Oz: A History of Australian Cinema I (1896-1968)

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By Roderick Heath

Soldiers of the Cross

Part One: 1896-1968

1. Pioneer Spirit

Filmmaking technology first came to Australia in the hands of Maurice Sestier, one of the Lumiere Brothers' [Wikipedia] many globetrotting cameramen, who arrived in Sydney in 1896, not a month after the first exhibition of films by Carl Hertz in Melbourne. Sestier shot several short travelogues of such edifying spectacles as Sydney Harbor and the crowds filing onto ferries and trams, and opened the Salon Lumiere on Pitt Street specifically to screen them, making him both Australia's first filmmaker and professional exhibitor. Sestier's film was too slow to capture the racing horses at the Melbourne Cup later in the year, so he settled for shooting the crowds instead. Sestier decided there was no future for cinema in Australia and auctioned off his camera two years after arriving, leaving for France with all his films. Nonetheless his work had made an impact, inspiring a small number of followers who made documentary shorts and news reels which proceeded to tantalize crowds. 

Of course, random shots of commuters and bushland were never going to fascinate paying patrons for very long. The idea of creating a fiction feature film may have been in many minds, but the man regarded as the first to accomplish it was an unlikely figure: Major Joseph Perry of the Salvation Army's Magic Lantern and Photographic Department. Perry, an Englishman residing in Melbourne, had shot a few short documentaries, and his first stab at a new kind of cinema was part of an early multimedia experience, with portions of his film shown in alternation with slides, sermons, and hymn singing, as part of a religious lecture. This movie, entitled Soldiers of the Cross, was essentially a series of illustrative sequences portraying the grisly fates of early Christian martyrs.

Soldiers of the CrossPerry's opus was shot on the tennis court of a Salvation Army girls' home in Melbourne, utilizing hastily made sets and costumes, and, by all accounts, some clever trick photography. The first advertisements for the exhibition of Soldiers of the Cross appeared in newspapers on September 14, 1900. Perry not only helped invent the concept of the feature film, for his work, at 900 meters, was more than three times as long as The Great Train Robbery, made three years later, but he also helped define the historical religious epic. Still photographs from Soldiers, all that remains of that vanished work, reveal images of the Roman decadence that readily prefigure the likes of Quo Vadis? and Ben-Hur.

By the time The Great Train Robbery was produced, Soldiers of the Cross had already been exported to the United States and shown across that country. Australia, even more so than the US, was an extremely young country ripe to be colonized by a new idea and mode of communication. In fact, it wasn't even actually a country yet, being a year away from Federation when Perry's film was released, and an anything-goes openness to innovation was immediately apparent in Aussie cinema. Six years later, another defining work arrived in the shape of The True Story of the Kelly Gang, a prototypical western about the infamous, egomaniacal Irish bushranger Edward "Ned" Kelly and his band of fellow bandits. This would-be epic was produced by two theatrical entrepreneurs, brothers John Henry Tait (1871-1955) and James Nevin Tait (1876-1961), and written and directed by a third brother, Charles (1869-1933).

The True Story of the Kelly GangTheir film, which took over six months to produce, was mostly shot on location, on a property outside Heidelberg, Victoria, belonging to Charles' wife Elizabeth Veitch, who also got to play Kelly's sister Kate in the film. Victorian Railways were nice enough to let them tear up a section of rail and endanger a real engine to recreate one of the gang's escapades. The resulting motion picture reputedly ran for two hours, the longest movie made anywhere until that point, and to keep the audiences interested, actors were employed to speak dialogue behind the screen during screenings.

Apart from fascinating snippets portraying Ned Kelly's final, armour-clad rampage and downfall, The True Story of the Kelly Gang is, like Soldiers of the Cross, today a lost film, and so whether or not it was more than a landmark of running time is impossible to judge. These hand-made productions, both of which had used family and friends as cast and crew, as well as taking cues from the theatrical culture of the era, were probably typical in their combination of amateurish and professional reflexes. In the next few years, the first of several versions of the popular novels Robbery Under Arms by Rolf Boldrewood, and For The Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke, appeared on Australian screens. Both initial adaptations of these were the work of Charles MacMahon (1853-1917), another theatrical personage. MacMahon and John Gavin (1875-1938), a stage actor who turned to directing action-adventure films like Moonlite, Ben Hall and His Gang, and The Drover's Sweetheart (all 1911), helped define, in following the Taits, a recognizable domestic genre.

The True Story of the Kelly GangThese were romanticised versions of rugged incidents and periods in Australian history, which can be handily described as, in essence, Aussie Westerns, springing from the soil of a new nationalism and idealisation of the conquest of a difficult continent, accompanied by a fascination for rogues and outlaws who fought against the police and symbols of authority. This reflected a history defined by a quiet but very real schism between imported Imperial authority itself, and the settlers who came with their blessings, and a necessary identification with the flag and ethos of the British Empire, and the convicts, social outcasts, resentful Irish, and of course the native Australians being squeezed out and decimated by the colonial process, who also composed the populace of a nascent nation.

The chief archetype that arose to synthesise these disparate personas was of a dry-witted, no-nonsense, instinctively decent masculine hero. These were the types celebrated by popular writers like Charles "Banjo" Patterson, Henry Lawson, and Tom Collins in establishing a national mystique immediately before and after Federation. At the same time, the possibility of other cultural influences were being edited out of that mythos with the same purpose as they were being edited out politically, thanks to the adoption of the "White Australia Policy" after Federation, severely limiting any migration for all but, in essence, immigrants from Britain.

The real-life inspiration for 'Moonlite' Early Australian history offered plenty of material for filmmakers: mythic realms of convicts, outlaw rebel figures, stockmen and farmers and loggers and all the other brawny supermen of the colonization, with the odd threatened female and threatening aboriginal thrown in for flavor. Three-quarters of a century later, when the film industry revived from a long slump, and the cyclical fascinations of the public returned to an interest in national heritage, such subjects would again hit the screens in films like The Man from Snowy River (1982). But a government ban on films about bushrangers imposed in 1912 hurt the young industry in general, and film production began to rapidly shrink, a decline hurried along the entry of Australia in the First World War.

These cinematic pioneers had little subsequent impact on the course of Australian cinema. Joseph Perry remade Soldiers of the Cross as Heroes of the Cross in 1909, and would later resign from the Salvation Army to move into film distribution. Charles MacMahon died in Britain after moving there in 1917. John Gavin would move to Hollywood a year later, acting there in Westerns and comedies, before returning to star in his directorial swan song, Trooper O'Brien (1928). The Taits, after forming their own production company, Amalgamated Pictures, in 1909, eventually returned to theatrical ventures.


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