For the Term of His Natural Life (1927 film)

Last updated

For the Term of His Natural Life
Directed by Norman Dawn
Written by Norman Dawn
Gayne Dexter (titles)
Based on novel by Marcus Clarke
Produced byNorman Dawn
Starring George Fisher
Eva Novak
Dunstan Webb
Cinematography Bert Cross
Len Roos
John William Trerise
Edited by Katherine Dawn
Norman Dawn
Mona Donaldson
Australasian Films
A Union Master Picture
Distributed byUnion Theatres (Australia)
Standard Film (USA) [1]
Release dates
  • 20 June 1927 (1927-06-20)(Australia)
  • 1 October 1927 (1927-10-01)(UK) [2]
  • 4 June 1929 (1929-06-04)(U.S.)
Running time
102 minutes
Budget£50,000 [3] or £60,000 [4]
Box office£40,000 (by 1928) [5] or £50,000 (by Dec 1928) [6]

For the Term of His Natural Life is a 1927 Australian film based on the 1874 novel by Marcus Clarke, directed, produced and co-written by Norman Dawn. It was the most expensive Australian silent film ever made and remains one of the most famous Australian films of the silent era.



After an argument, Ellinor Devine reveals to her husband, Sir Richard, that he is not actually the father of their son, also named Richard, but that he was fathered by her cousin, Lord Bellasis. Sir Richard throws his son out and storms off in a rage. Shortly afterwards, Richard Junior finds his biological father dead in the forest. Only the viewer and an unidentified witness know that Lord Bellasis has actually been killed by his own son, known as John Rex. However, it is Richard Devine who is found next to the body and arrested. Thinking that his father killed Bellasis, Richard wants to protect his mother's reputation and gives his name as Rufus Dawes.

The convict ship that brings Dawes to Tasmania also carries the new governor Vickers and his wife and his daughter Sylvia. The commander of the ship is a brutal man by the name of Maurice Frere. With the Vickers is a young girl, Sarah Purfoy, as a nurse to the child. However, she really is the fiancée of John Rex, convicted for forgery, and tries to help the convicts take the ship. The rebellion is led by a murderer named Gabbett. They fail when Dawes overhears their plans and manages to warn an officer while being brought to a quarantine room for the sick. Gabbett decides to claim that Dawes was the actual ringleader.

A few years later, Frere comes to visit Vickers and shows interest in Sylvia, who has grown to be a beautiful young woman. Gabbett has come back after an escape and hints that he cannibalized his comrades to survive. Dawes, who is kept in solitary confinement on an island before the coast, attempts to drown himself. Frere has brought Vickers the order to give up the settlement and move to Port Arthur. Vickers embarks the convicts and sails with them. A smaller boat is supposed to carry Frere, Mrs Vickers and Sylvia, but is taken by John Rex, who maroons the three on the abandoned shore. Dawes finds them there a few days later and manages to inspire in them a new will to live. Sylvia especially takes to him very much and convinces him to make a boat, but Mrs Vickers dies before they can leave and makes Dawes promise to look after her daughter. The three survivors are found later by Vickers who has started to search for them. Frere takes the credit for saving Sylvia, who is herself unable to remember a thing after waking. Dawes is put back into prison.

Later again, it is shortly before the wedding of Sylvia and Frere. John Rex has been captured and Sarah Purfoy begs Frere to save his life by saying that he left them food and weapons. She threatens to reveal his past with some of the women in the settlement to Sylvia and Frere complies. Dawes, who also testifies, is shocked to find that Sylvia cannot remember him. He escapes on the night of the wedding to speak to Sylvia but is apprehended. The next day, a young convict named Cranky Brown is sentenced to a flogging for escape despite the protest of the reverend North and Dawes is ordered to carry out the punishment. He refuses to do so after Brown faints and is flogged himself. Upon finding that Brown is dead, Dawes curses Frere.

John Rex has planned another escape with the help of Gabbett. Dawes refuses to leave with them but asks Rex to post a letter for him. John Rex manages to escape with Sarah's help, while Gabbett and five other man get lost in the wilderness. Gabbett again starts killing and eating his comrades to survive. When he arrives at the shore, he is found by a group of sailors, who kill him. Rex reads Dawes letter in Sydney and understands his striking resemblance to Dawes, since they have the same father. He returns to England, where Ellinor Devine first accepts him as her son, but begins to become suspicious when he starts spending the family fortune. She confronts him with the fact that Richard was illegitimate, and Rex confesses to what happened.

Some years later again, Dawes is on Norfolk Island. Frere is on his way there to restore order. He quickly finds out that Dawes is the core of a rebellious "ring" whose members avenge every punishment through violence. The heavy punishments to which he sentences Dawes break him after some days. Reverend North becomes a close friend of Sylvia and when he visits Dawes in the hospital, the latter begs him to talk to Sylvia. Frere quickly learns about their friendship and after North infuriates him, he revenges it by punishing Dawes. One evening, he finds North and Sylvia in an embrace and suspects his wife to cheat on him. After he strikes her, Sylvia takes the next boat to the mainland; to her father. North goes to visit Dawes and confesses to him that he witnessed the murder of Lord Bellasis but did not tell anyone because Lord Bellasis held banknotes that North had forged. He gives Dawes his coat and tells him to go and see Sylvia. A storm breaks loose. The ship is about to sink as North frees the Norfolk Island convicts, who go after Frere. Sylvia recognises Dawes shortly before the ship sinks; at the same time, the convicts kill Frere. The next morning finds Dawes and Sylvia on a plank in calm waters.




The novel had previously been filmed in 1908 and 1911. Australasian Films had made five films since reactivating production in the mid 1920s but none of them had made much international impact. They thought a big budget version of the classic novel might prove popular with overseas as well as Australian audiences. [8]

The project was originally budgeted at £15,000 to be directed by Raymond Longford and starring Frank Harvey. Australasian, however, wanted an American release, and accordingly hired an American director, Norman Dawn, and imported American stars. Australasian promised Longford work on other films, but soon allowed his contract to lapse. [3]

Norman Dawn was in Australia to make a series of scenic shorts and was offered the job by William Gibson of Australasian. The budget was raised to £40,000. [9]

During pre-production, questions were asked in the Commonwealth Parliament whether the film should be exported because it depicted Australia's convict past. [8] Hollywood was making an increasing number of films on location around this time such as Chang, The Trail of '98 and The Covered Wagon, and For the Term of His Natural Life was grouped with these. [10]

Differences from novel


Gibson claimed he tested Australian actors to play the leads but was unable to find people of sufficient quality. [8] Accordingly, four main roles were given to Americans, Eva Novak, George Fisher, Steve Murphy and Katherine Dawn, who arrived in Australia in August 1926. The cast also included:


Filming began on 10 August 1926. Great attempts were made to ensure the authenticity of sets and costumes with period costumes being borrowed from Hobart museum and duplicated. [11] After some studio scenes shot at Australasian's Bondi studio, the unit shifted to Port Arthur. Dawn had originally planned to film the Hells Gates and Grummet Island scenes at their original locations in Macquarie Harbour, but his plans changed during the shoot. [12] According to the Hobart Mercury, "he said the cliffs at the Gate, and the general appearance, were not such as he had visualised for his picture...In regard to the scene where Rufus Dawes is chained to Grummett Rock, this could be got close to his base of operations." Instead, several establishing shots were taken of Macquarie Harbour and the town of Strahan. [13]

In October, the unit returned to Sydney to film prison interiors at the studio. An old sailing ship, the Inca, had been reconditioned and was used for scenes in Sydney Harbour. The prison escape scene was shot on the banks of the Parramatta River near Ryde at a cost of £1,200 for one day's shooting. Other scenes were shot at the convict-built gaol at Berrima and Wombeyan Caves. Throughout production, a trio of musicians played mood music on the set to help the cast with their performances. [3]

The budget eventually blew out to a reported £60,000. [14] Some have even claimed it went as high as £70,000 [15] although Stuart F. Doyle of Australasian put the official figure at £50,000. [16]


The movie was an enormous success at the Australian box office but did poorly overseas, in part due to the emergence of talking films in 1928. [17]

US release

The presence of American stars and directors meant the film was publicized in the US but was not released there until 1929. It was estimated the combined losses of this film and Norman Dawn's follow-up, The Adorable Outcast (1928), came to £30,000. [18] Cinesound Productions announced plans to remake it with sound in 1932 but this never seems have been seriously pursued. [19]


The movie was restored by Graham Shirley and screened at the 1981 Sydney Film Festival. [20]

It was based primarily on an incomplete Australian release, comprising less than half of the original film; an American release, provided by the American Film Institute, consisting "almost entirely of variant takes and out-takes" which were usually of lesser quality; images reused in the 1933 Cinesound Productions travelogue Ghosts of Port Arthur; outtakes and stills from the National Film and Sound Archive; and new intertitles for the remaining gaps. [20]

Related Research Articles

Port Arthur, Tasmania Town in Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur is a town and former convict settlement on the Tasman Peninsula, in Tasmania, Australia. It is located approximately 97 kilometres (60 mi) southeast of the state capital, Hobart.

Matthew Brady Notorious Tasmanian bushranger

Matthew Brady was an English-born convict who became a bushranger in Van Diemen's Land. He was sometimes known as "Gentleman Brady" due to his good treatment and fine manners when robbing his victims.

Cinesound Productions

Cinesound Productions Pty Ltd was an Australian feature film production company, established in June 1931, Cinesound developed out of a group of companies centred on Greater Union Theatres, that covered all facets of the film process, from production, to distribution and exhibition.

For the Term of His Natural Life is a story written by Marcus Clarke and published in The Australian Journal between 1870 and 1872. It was published as a novel in 1874 and is the best known novelisation of life as a convict in early Australian history. At times relying on seemingly implausible coincidences, the story follows the fortunes of Rufus Dawes, a young man transported for a murder that he did not commit. The book clearly conveys the harsh and inhumane treatment meted out to the convicts, some of whom were transported for relatively minor crimes, and graphically describes the conditions the convicts experienced. The novel was based on research by the author as well as a visit to the penal settlement of Port Arthur, Tasmania.

<i>Mr. Chedworth Steps Out</i> 1939 Australian film

Mr. Chedworth Steps Out is a 1939 Australian comedy film directed by Ken G. Hall starring Cecil Kellaway. Kellaway returned to Australia from Hollywood to make the film, which features an early screen appearance by Peter Finch.

Arthur Shirley Australian actor

Arthur Shirley was an Australian actor, writer, producer, and director of theatre and film. He experienced some success as a film actor in Hollywood between 1914 and 1920.

<i>Grandad Rudd</i> 1935 Australian film

Grandad Rudd is a 1935 comedy featuring the Dad and Dave characters created by Steele Rudd and based on a play by Rudd. It was a sequel to On Our Selection, and was later followed by Dad and Dave Come to Town and Dad Rudd, MP.

The Pioneers is a 1926 Australian silent film directed by Raymond Longford. The script had been written by Lottie Lyell but she had died by the time filming started. It was considered a lost film but some surviving footage from it has recently emerged.

Alfred Rolfe, real name Alfred Roker, was an Australian stage and film director and actor, best known for being the son-in-law of the celebrated actor-manager Alfred Dampier, with whom he appeared frequently on stage, and for his prolific output as a director during Australia's silent era, including Captain Midnight, the Bush King (1911), Captain Starlight, or Gentleman of the Road (1911) and The Hero of the Dardanelles (1915). Only one of his films as director survives today.

The Adorable Outcast is a 1928 Australian silent film directed by Norman Dawn about an adventurer who romances an island girl. The script was based on Beatrice Grimshaw's novel Conn of the Coral Seas. It was one of the most expensive films made in Australia until that time, and was Dawn's follow up to For the Term of His Natural Life (1927). It did not perform as well at the box office and helped cause Australasian Films to abandon feature film production.

Those Who Love is a 1926 silent film, produced in Australia, about the son of a knight who falls in love with a dancer. Only part of the film survives today and it is held by the National Film and Sound Archive.

<i>For the Term of His Natural Life</i> (1908 film) 1908 Australian film

For the Term of His Natural Life is a 1908 Australian silent film based on the 1874 novel by the same name by Marcus Clarke. The film is an adaptation of MacMahon's stage adaptation of the novel.

The Life of Rufus Dawes is a 1911 Australian silent film based on Alfred Dampier's stage adaptation of the 1874 novel For the Term of His Natural Life produced by Charles Cozens Spencer.

The Lady Outlaw is a 1911 Australian silent film set in Van Diemen's Land during convict days.

Australasian Films, full name Union Theatres and Australasian Films, was an Australian film distribution and production company formed in 1913 that was wound up in the 1930s to merge into Greater Union. The Union Theatres and Australasian Films dominated cinema in Australia in the 1910s and 1920s.

Hartney J. Arthur was an Australian actor, writer and film director, who worked in stage, radio and film.

For the Term of His Natural Life is a 1983 Australian three-part, six-hour television miniseries based on the classic 1874 novel of the same name by Marcus Clarke. Each episode aired for two hours on Nine Network on 23 May, 30 May and 6 June 1983.

Jack Cato Australian photographer and photo historian

John Cyril "Jack" Cato, F.R.P.S. was a significant Australian portrait photographer in the Pictorialist style, operating in the first half of the twentieth century. He was the author of the first history of Australian photography; The Story of the Camera in Australia (1955)

Edward Irham Cole was an Australian film director and theatrical entrepreneur who specialised in Wild West shows.

Isle of the Dead (Tasmania) Protected area in Tasmania, Australia

Isle of the Dead is an island, about 1 hectare in area, adjacent to Port Arthur, Tasmania, Australia. It is historically significant since it retains an Aboriginal coastal shell midden, one of the first recorded sea-level benchmarks, and one of the few preserved Australian convict-period burial grounds. The Isle of the Dead occupies part of the Port Arthur Historic Site, is part of Australian Convict Sites and is listed as a World Heritage Property because it represents convictism in the era of British colonisation.


  1. "The Film Daily - Lantern: Search, Visualize & Explore the Media History Digital Library". 28 June 2013. Retrieved 6 December 2015.
  2. "The Film Daily - Lantern: Search, Visualize & Explore the Media History Digital Library". 28 June 2013. Retrieved 6 December 2015.
  3. 1 2 3 Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper, Australian Film 1900–1977: A Guide to Feature Film Production, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 138–40.
  4. "CINESOUND PRODUCTIONS". The Sydney Morning Herald . National Library of Australia. 6 August 1934. p. 5. Retrieved 4 August 2012.
  5. "EVA NOVAK GONE". The Daily News . Perth, WA: National Library of Australia. 4 May 1928. p. 10 Edition: HOME (FINAL) EDITION. Retrieved 4 August 2012.
  6. The bulletin, December 1928, retrieved 20 April 2019
  7. "EVA NOVAK". The Mercury . Hobart, Tas.: National Library of Australia. 23 July 1926. p. 11. Retrieved 4 August 2012.
  8. 1 2 3 "A TASMANIAN FILM". The Mercury . Hobart, Tas.: National Library of Australia. 24 July 1926. p. 11. Retrieved 4 August 2012.
  9. "A £40,000 FILM". The Advertiser . Adelaide: National Library of Australia. 23 July 1926. p. 20. Retrieved 4 August 2012.
  10. "AUSTRALIA IS STORY SETTING: "For the Term of His Natural Life" Filmed George Fisher Completes Tale of Convict Life Antipodes Offer Numerous Thrilling Experiences AUSTRALIA IS EPIC SETTING" Kingsley, Grace. Los Angeles Times, 26 June 1927, pg. C-13.
  11. "FOR THE TERM OF HIS NATURAL LIFE". The Mercury . Hobart, Tas.: National Library of Australia. 15 September 1926. p. 5. Retrieved 4 August 2012.
  12. "PORT ARTHUR PICTURE". The Mercury . Hobart, Tas.: National Library of Australia. 2 September 1926. p. 9. Retrieved 4 August 2012.
  13. "CINEMATOGRAPH PARTY". Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860–1954). 27 September 1926. p. 2. Retrieved 23 October 2018.
  14. ""THE TERM" AT LAST". The Daily News (Perth, WA: 1882–1950). Perth, WA: National Library of Australia. 24 June 1927. p. 11. Retrieved 4 August 2012.
  15. Australasian Gazette – 70,000 Pounds Production Nears Completion, Australian Screen Online; accessed 5 December 2015.
  16. "MOTION PICTURE CONTROL". The Examiner . Launceston, Tas.: National Library of Australia. 30 July 1928. p. 5 Edition: DAILY. Retrieved 4 August 2012.
  17. "WRONG THEMES". The Daily News. Perth, WA: National Library of Australia. 18 October 1929. p. 10 Edition: HOME FINAL EDITION. Retrieved 4 August 2012.
  18. Shirley and Adams, p. 93
  19. "AUSTRALIAN PICTURES". The Brisbane Courier . National Library of Australia. 21 June 1932. p. 5. Retrieved 4 August 2012.
  20. 1 2 Graham Shirley, 'Restoring 'For the Term of His Natural Life' ', National Film and Sound Archive,; accessed 4 August 2012.