|Directed by||Harry Watt|
|Music by||John Ireland|
|Budget||£40,000 or £80,000 or £130,000|
|Box office||£160,000 (Australia) |
1,143,888 admissions (France)
The Overlanders is a 1946 British film about drovers driving a large herd of cattle 1,600 miles overland from Wyndham, Western Australia through the Northern Territory outback of Australia to pastures north of Brisbane, Queensland during World War II.
The film was the first of several produced in Australia by Ealing Studios, and featured among the cast Chips Rafferty. It was an early example of the genre later dubbed the "meat pie western".
In 1942 the Japanese army is thrusting southwards and Australia fears invasion. Bill Parsons becomes concerned, and leaves his homestead in northern Australia along with his wife and two daughters, Mary and Helen. They join up with a cattle drive heading south led by Dan McAlpine. Others on the drive include the shonky Corky; British former sailor, Sinbad; Aboriginal stockmen, Nipper and Jackie.
The cattle drive is extremely difficult, encountering crocodiles, blazing heat and other dangers. Mary and Sinbad start a romance. Dan speaks out against Corky's plans to develop the Northern Territory.
The film came about because the Australian government was concerned that Australia's contribution to the war effort was not being sufficiently recognised. It contacted Britain's Ministry of Information, who in turn spoke with Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios, who was enthusiastic about the idea of making a film in Australia. He sent Harry Watt to Australia to find a subject. Watt travelled the country as an official war correspondent and guest of the Australian government. He spent eighteen months in Australia making the film.
Watt decided to exploit the Australian landscape by making a film set entirely outdoors. When visiting a government office in Canberra to advise on making documentaries, he heard about an incident in 1942 when 100,000 cattle were driven 2,000 miles in the Northern Territory to escape a feared Japanese invasion.
Watt was allowed to import only four technicians from Britain to assist – editor Inman Hunter, cinematographer Osmond Borradaile, production supervisor Jack Rixand camera operator Carl Kayser. The rest of the crew was drawn from Australia. The sound recording engineer was Beresford Charles Hallett
Watt spent 1944 travelling the route of the trek. Dora Birtles researched the subject in government files and archives. She later wrote a novelisation of the script, which was published.
There were nine lead roles and the casting process took two months.Watt ended up selecting four professional actors, an experienced amateur, and four newcomers to films. Chips Rafferty, whom Watt described as an "Australian Gary Cooper", was given his first lead role. Daphne Campbell was a nursing orderly who had grown up in the country but had never acted before. She was screen-tested after her picture was seen on the cover of a magazine, and selected over hundreds of applicants. Peter Pagan had worked in Sydney theatre and was serving in the army when selected by Watt.
Clyde Combo and Henry Murdoch were cast as the Aboriginal stockmen; they came from Palm Island because Harry Watt believed Northern Territory Aboriginal people did not speak English sufficiently well.New South Wales Aboriginal activist Bill Onus appeared in a minor role.
Chips Rafferty and John Nugent-Hayward were paid £25 a month for five months.
Five hundred cattle were purchased by Ealing for use in the film. They were marked with the "overland" brand and later sold off for profit.
Shooting began in April 1945 at Sydney's North Head quarantine station, which stood in for the meat export centre at Wyndham in Western Australia.The unit was then flown by the RAAF to Alice Springs where they were based in an army camp.
A second unit headed by John Heyer spent several weeks filming movement of cattle from the air.
Three months later, the unit moved to the Roper River camp on the Elsey Station for another month, where the river crossing sequence was shot. This station was famous from the book We of the Never Never . In mid-September the unit returned to Sydney after five months of shooting.
During the making of the film, Campbell met and married her future husband.
The Australian government later declared they spent £4,359 to assist in the production of the film.
Post production work was done in Britain. The film score was written by the English composer John Ireland. It was his only film score. An orchestral suite was extracted from the score by the conductor Sir Charles Mackerras after Ireland's death.
Harry Watt claimed the original ending was more cynical, finishing with the unscrupulous 'Corky' being the only one who got a good job out of the trek, and a fade out on a roar of sardonic laughter from the rest of the overlanders. However he says he was advised to put a more upbeat ending.
Ealing were so pleased with Rafferty's performance they signed him to a long-term contract even before the film had been released.
According to Leslie Norman, Harry Watt was not satisfied with the editing job done by Inman Hunter "so they asked me to take it over. I actually ripped it all apart and started over again. But I thought this could ruin Ted Hunter's career so I suggested they credit him as editor and I would take the title of supervising editor."
Neither Rafferty nor Campbell were able to make the film's Sydney premiere because Rafferty was making a film in the UK, and Campbell was looking after her one-week-old baby in Alice Springs. However local actor Ron Randell attended and was mobbed.
Reviews were extremely positive.
Years later Filmink magazine said "This is one of the best of the meat pie Westerns – it takes a very American concept, the cattle drive, and grounds it in the local culture. Sure, there's stampedes and romance, but no outlaws and shoot outs, and there's a feisty "squatter's daughter" character who is sensibly given a romance with Peter Pagan rather than Chips Rafferty."
The film was enormously successful at the box office in Australia and Britain; by February 1947 it was estimated 350,000 Australians had seen it, making it the most widely seen Australian film of all time.
According to trade papers, the film was a "notable box office attraction" at British cinemas in 1946.According to one report it was the 11th most popular film at the British box office in 1946 after The Wicked Lady , The Bells of St. Mary's , Piccadilly Incident , The Captive Heart , Road to Utopia , Caravan , Anchors Away , The Corn is Green , Gilda , and The House on 92nd Street'. According to Kinematograph Weekly the 'biggest winner' at the box office in 1946 Britain was The Wicked Lady, with "runners up" being The Bells of St Marys, Piccadilly Incident, The Road to Utopia, Tomorrow is Forever, Brief Encounter, Wonder Man, Anchors Away, Kitty, The Captive Heart, The Corn is Green, Spanish Main, Leave Her to Heaven, Gilda, Caravan, Mildred Pierce, Blue Dahlia, Years Between, O.S.S., Spellbound, Courage of Lassie, My Reputation, London Town, Caesar and Cleopatra, Meet the Navy, Men of Two Worlds, Theirs is the Glory, The Overlanders, and Bedelia.
It was also the first Ealing picture to be widely seen in Europe.
Some minor changes for censorship were made for the film's US release including the removal of the word "damn".The film was listed one of the 15 best films of the year by Bosley Crowther of the New York Times .
The movie was distributed in the US by a prestige department of Universal, a company created specifically to distribute British films from the Rank Organisation. The Overlanders was the second most popular of such movies, after Brief Encounter (1945).
This acclaim prompted Ealing (and its parent company, Rank, who distributed) to make a series of films in Australia out of Pagewood Film Studios.Among the first discussed projects was an adaptation of the James Aldridge novel, Signed with Their Honour .
By mid-1947 it appeared the company would make a co-production deal with Cinesound Productions but in August Sir Norman Rydge withdrew Cinesound. Ealing went ahead by themselves to make Eureka Stockade with Chips Rafferty.
Daphne Campbell received Hollywood enquiries and made a series of screen tests in Sydney but elected not to pursue a Hollywood career, staying with her husband and children in Alice Springs.Peter Pagan moved overseas and worked extensively in the US and London.
The Overlanders was released on DVD by Umbrella Entertainment in November 2012. The DVD is compatible with all region codes.
Frederick George Peter Ingle Finch was an English-Australian actor of theatre, film and radio.
Charles William Tingwell AM, known professionally as Bud Tingwell or Charles 'Bud' Tingwell, was an Australian film, television, theatre and radio actor. One of the veterans of Australian film, he acted in his first motion picture in 1946 and went on to appear in more than 100 films and numerous TV programs in both the United Kingdom and Australia.
John William Pilbean Goffage MBE, known professionally as Chips Rafferty, was an Australian actor. Called "the living symbol of the typical Australian", Rafferty's career stretched from the late 1930s until his death in 1971, and during this time he performed regularly in major Australian feature films as well as appearing in British and American productions, including The Overlanders and The Sundowners. He appeared in commercials in Britain during the late 1950s, encouraging British emigration to Australia.
Ronald Grant Taylor was an English-Australian actor best known as the abrasive General Henderson in the Gerry Anderson science fiction series UFO and for his lead role in Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940).
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.
Smiley is a 1957 CinemaScope produced comedy film. It tells the story of a young Australian boy who is determined to buy a bicycle for four pounds. Along the way he gets into many misadventures. It was based on the 1945 novel of the same name by Moore Raymond who also co-wrote the film with Anthony Kimmins. Their screenplay received a Best British Screenplay nomination at the BAFTA awards.
Eureka Stockade is a 1949 British film of the story surrounding Irish-Australian rebel and politician Peter Lalor and the gold miners' rebellion of 1854 at the Eureka Stockade in Ballarat, Victoria, in the Australian Western genre.
Harry Watt was a Scottish documentary and feature film director, who began his career working for John Grierson and Robert Flaherty.
The Rats of Tobruk is a 1944 Australian film directed by Charles Chauvel. An abridged version was released in the United States in 1951 as The Fighting Rats of Tobruk. The film follows three drover friends who enlist in the Australian Army together during World War II. Their story is based on the siege of the Libyan city of Tobruk in North Africa by Rommel's Afrika Korps. The largely Australian defenders held the city for 250 days before being relieved by British forces.
The Loves of Joanna Godden is a 1947 British historical drama film directed by Charles Frend and produced by Michael Balcon. The screenplay was written by H. E. Bates and Angus MacPhail from the novel Joanna Godden (1921) by Sheila Kaye-Smith.
Bitter Springs is a 1950 Australian–British film directed by Ralph Smart. An Australian pioneer family leases a piece of land from the government in the Australian outback in 1900 and hires two inexperienced British men as drovers. Problems with local Aboriginal people arise over the possession of a waterhole. Much of the film was shot on location in the Flinders Ranges in South Australia
The Phantom Stockman is a 1953 Australian western film written and directed by Lee Robinson and starring Chips Rafferty, Victoria Shaw, Max Osbiston and Guy Doleman.
Forty Thousand Horsemen is a 1940 Australian war film directed by Charles Chauvel. The film tells the story of the Australian Light Horse which operated in the desert at the Sinai and Palestine campaign during World War I. It follows the adventures of three rowdy heroes in fighting and romance. The film culminates at the Battle of Beersheba which is reputedly "the last successful cavalry charge in history". The film was clearly a propaganda weapon, to aid in recruitment and lift the pride of Australians at home during World War II. It was one of the most successful Australian movies of its day. It was later remade in 1987 as The Lighthorsemen.
Come Up Smiling is a 1939 Australian comedy film starring popular American stage comedian Will Mahoney and his wife Evie Hayes. It was the only feature from Cinesound Productions not directed by Ken G. Hall.
Bush Christmas is a 1947 Australian–British comedy film directed by Ralph Smart and starring Chips Rafferty. It was one of the first films from Children's Entertainment Films, later the Children's Film Foundation.
Dust in the Sun is a 1958 Australian mystery film adapted from the 1955 novel Justin Bayard by Jon Cleary and produced by the team of Lee Robinson and Chips Rafferty. The film stars British actress Jill Adams and an indigenous-Australian actor Robert Tudawali as Emu Foot.
Pagewood Studios was a film studio in Sydney, Australia, that was used to make Australian, British and Hollywood films for twenty years.
Henry Murdoch, born as George Henry Murdock, was an Australian aboriginal actor and stockman who appeared in Australian films of the 1940s and 1950s. He was working as stockman in Rockhampton when discovered by Ralph Smart, who was helping make The Overlanders (1946). The film's director, Harry Watt, later claimed Murdoch and fellow aboriginal actor Clyde Combo "proved to be first-class actors and were exceedingly quick witted and intelligent. They certainly disproved the conventional idea that the Australian aboriginal is an animalistic caveman." Filmink said "It was Henry Murdoch who personified a specific type of role in the 1940s and 1950s, the aboriginal stockman who was a sidekick/tracker to the white hero."
John Fernside was an Australian actor who worked extensively on stage and screen from the 1910s through to 1950s. He co-starred with Chips Rafferty in two Australian films of the 1940s; The Overlanders (1946) and Bush Christmas (1947).
Daphne Campbell was an Australian actress and controversial entrant in the 1947 Miss Australia charity quest.
This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000