Phillip Noyce

b. Phillip Roger Noyce

b. 29 April 1950, Griffith, New South Wales, Australia

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Of the so-called “Hollywood A-List” directors, Phillip Noyce is one of the least known by name. Unlike most of his colleagues, his works are never tagged “a Phillip Noyce film” but more humbly as “directed by”. He is one of the most accessible and forthright directors around, but somehow his body of work remains strangely elusive in terms of prevailing themes and aesthetics. Though some recurring traits can be detected, the films are rather diverse in topic and style – and also in quality. They range from what today would be called exemplary arthouse fare to standard Hollywood blockbusters. For the first 20 or so years of his career he was a recognised auteur, then he became an “Americateur”, (1) and in the new century seems to be again creating cinema with an auteurist eye. The director has stated “If anyone ever writes a summary of my work, I hope they call me a chameleon, because they’d find it totally impossible to categorise me, at least stylistically.” (2) If that was Noyce’s aim, he has surely achieved his goal. Add to this his enormous financial success: according to recent remarks by his agent, Noyce is at present one of the best-paid directors in Hollywood. Quite a way to come for a country boy…

Phillip Roger Noyce was born in 1950 in Griffith, rural NSW, in an Australia that had almost ceased to produce feature films due to foreign ownership of the whole supply chain. He laments, “I grew up almost never hearing an Australian voice on the cinema screen” (3) – familiar domestic sounds like the Kookaburra could instead be detected among the jungle noise in Tarzan movies. Initially, film was only a minor ingredient in the cocktail of popular culture he was attracted to, his tastes geared more towards comics and the circus.

Like millions of young people his age around the world, his personal epiphany occurred in 1968. While still in his last year at high school in Sydney, he encountered an Ubu Films (run by Aggie Read, Albie Thoms and David Perry) screening of “underground” movies, this term alone conjuring up all kinds of delights for an 18 year-old boy. Needless to say he was fascinated by this experience, which was to change his life forever. In line with Jerry Rubin’s contemporary adage “Do it!” Noyce immediately embarked on a string of films with enthusiasm and determination. These qualities were soon to become his trademark. These first films were all experimental in nature, shot on 16 mm and reasonably well-received. In fact, so much so that Albie Thoms, one of the pioneers of Australian experimental film, is convinced “Phil had a great career ahead of him as an experimental filmmaker.” (4)

Filmmaking in those “days of rage” (5) was not an isolated enterprise but an integral part of an all-encompassing “counter culture”. Noyce followed suit and became more and more politicised: he organised film screenings, sold film magazines, became manager of the newly founded Sydney Filmmakers Co-operative, wrote articles, ran several filmmakers cinemas, organised the first Australian Filmmakers’ Festival (in August 1971), performed in an agit-prop theatre troupe and shot newsreels. “Everything to do with Phillip was associated with film – the two things were completely inseparable,” remembers Jan Chapman, acclaimed producer and his first wife. (6)

In the wake of a newly developing Australian cultural nationalism, the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS) was established, with Noyce, Gillian Armstrong and Chris Noonan among its first intake of only 12 students. Though still rather unstructured in its curriculum, it provided contacts to the embryonic Australian film industry. This proved invaluable upon Noyce’s return to Australia in 1975 (after a prolonged cultural rites of passage tour around the world) when lecturers Tom Manefield and Richard Mason brought him into the ranks of the Film Australia production house. Both had been particularly impressed by his Castor and Pollux (1973), which won the Rouben Mamoulian Award at the 1974 Sydney Film Festival. This documentary contrasted the lives of a soft-spoken hippie and a rough bikie, eventually revealing the bikie as the more free-roaming spirit of the two.

At Film Australia, Noyce embarked on a series of shorter documentaries about young people, intended as discussion starters in high school. Some of them are still in use today, proving their relevance. In strictly cinematographic terms, however, God Knows Why But It Works (1975) is the most noteworthy. Using a mix of staged and documentary footage, the film presents the life and work of Dr Archie Kalokarinos, a radical champion of the use of vitamin C to treat health problems of aborigines in remote rural areas. At one point, Dr Kalokarinos (as played by actor Henry Szeps) confronts his real-life counterpart. This unusual film – which includes actors discussing their characters and a cameo by Noyce himself – bears witness to its director’s roots in contemporary theatre, which used similar techniques at the time.


Though Noyce would continue to make short films up until 1985 – documentaries for the likes of Qantas Airways and SBS Television and even some commercials and music videos – his focus shifted to features in 1977 when he took leave from Film Australia to embark on Backroads. Influenced by Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop (1971) and Wim Wenders’ Im Lauf der Zeit (Kings of the Road) (1976), Backroads is the story of a white drifter (Bill Hunter) and a young aborigine (Gary Foley) who steal a car in the outback and drive across the country, heading for the coast. The car becomes a tiny universe of its own, where the protagonists engage in discussions and interact with the people they pick up on the road. By the time they get to the coast, few are still with us, and the last one gets shot. Backroads‘ naturalism is striking, breaking the prevailing mould of a more theatrical style of acting; its performances are directed under the influence of techniques used by John Cassavetes, and the actors are allowed a great amount of leeway. Released just ten years after Australian aborigines had been granted the right to vote (and thus finally acknowledged as human beings), the film was an obvious political statement about their plight, and was clearly perceived as such. Much of its power can be attributed to the choice of aboriginal political activist Gary Foley for the lead and his strong influence during the production. But in hindsight Noyce’s concern about the plight of his native countrymen is obvious and a genuinely ongoing one as Rabbit-Proof Fence was to prove a quarter century later – among his Australian filmmaking peers he is the only one with such a clear track record in this regard.

Backroads was not a great commercial success. Not only did the stark pessimistic tone of the film and its rather un-Australian confrontational approach render it unattractive for the majority of cinema goers (and many critics) but on top of that the unusual length of just 60 minutes made it barely marketable. Still, a stylistic and formal mix reminiscent of the aesthetics of both Jean-Luc Godard and Glauber Rocha keeps Backroads iridescent. The film fared better on the foreign festival circuit, and it firmly established Noyce both at home and abroad as a promising talent.

Noyce redeemed this pledge barely one year later with Newsfront (1978), which was to become one of the seminal works of Australian cinema. Spanning the time between the end of World War Two and the advent of television in Australia in 1956, it covers the formative aspects of the country’s recent past. Chronicling the story of two brothers who work for competing newsreel companies – one Australian, one American-owned – the film charts the country’s gradual shift into an American cultural orbit. It is a nostalgic look back at an Australianness, at Australian values and ethics, that had long since disappeared by 1978 (or at least was on the way out) but was still held in cherished esteem by cinema audiences. In Sydney alone it ran for 42 weeks commercially, was nominated for the Australian Film Institute (AFI) Awards in 14 categories (winning seven of them) and is still a staple of Australian Cinema classes. Without a doubt audiences liked to indulge in the everyday adventures of a “little Aussie battler”.

In comparison to Noyce’s later films, Newsfront‘s plot is rhapsodic at best. No wonder, considering the many inputs into the script (different originating ideas and then different writers, all with different intentions of where the film was supposed to go) during the film’s long gestation period. But Noyce’s mastery in mixing authentic newsreel footage of historical events with acted-out social drama, and his seamless adding of colour stock to black and white footage makes this film exceptional. Stylistically, the infusion of both dramatic and documentary elements, as successfully tested in God Knows Why But It Works, makes this film unique in the Australian context. All this adds up to one of the masterstrokes of the 1970s Australian Film Revival which – even aside the very Australian content – made the film a major critical success abroad and eventually put the director on a path to Hollywood.


Heatwave (1981) captures a Sydney in the grip of inner-city gentrification and was the third and last of Noyce’s string of socially-committed, or what David Thompson labelled “worthy cause”(7), Australian feature films. The plot is rather dramatic and called for a high degree of action. But somehow the film never really delivers this. In parts it looks as though Noyce hadn’t yet fully mastered the challenge of bringing dramatic content to the screen. Possibly, there are too many sub-plots that do not cohere well enough with each other. Moreover the at-times unconventional mixture of narrative styles and moods, as Douglas McVay noted (8), and Fellini-inspired background dialogue on the soundtrack left people perplexed. Though they seemed far less dominant than in his earlier films, these “pretentious directional techniques” were still remarked on by Variety magazine. (9) By the same token, the influential Australian critic David Stratton acknowledged “the dialogue crackles, the performances are good” (10) and Neil Rattigan commented that Noyce managed to bring many “shifting shades of grey” (11) to a hotly discussed but nonetheless extremely complex political issue.

Noyce spent a good part of the 1980s with the Kennedy Miller studios set up by Byron Kennedy and George Miller with their sizeable earnings from Mad Max (1979). Reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola’s grand Zoetrope vision, a small but dedicated group of directors were kept on payroll and worked in a kind of open workshop model. After having disregarded many directorial and cinematographic conventions of filmmaking in his first features, Noyce now embarked on a welcome opportunity to develop his style in detail, all within the restraints of television production. He began by directing one of six episodes of The Dismissal (about the fall of the Whitlam government) in 1982, followed by five of the ten episodes of The Cowra Breakout (1984), which depicted the mass breakout of Japanese Prisoners of War during World War Two.

Noyce mostly kept a low profile during this decade. His forays into feature film were not particularly successful. He fell out with the producers of Attack Force Z in Taiwan literally three days before the start of shooting when he insisted on a more convincing actor for one of the main characters. (12) Shadows of the Peacock (1986) never made it to the big screen though it can still frequently be seen on television. The story of a disenchanted Australian housewife (Wendy Hughes) who falls in love with a member of Balinese royalty (John Lone) lost much of its strength once the production, for political reasons, had to be moved from Bali to Thailand, transforming the male character from one deeply rooted in ancient culture into an uprooted soul.

In contrast, the television series turned out to be street sweepers though one would be hard pressed to find distinctive traces of Noyce in them. His Dismissal episode is solid but rather dry. The Cowra Breakout, though still just standard television fare, looks decidedly more appealing. Perhaps the longer running time allowed him to develop his intentions and to look deeper into the motivations that drive a character.

Arguably the single most significant moment of the decade occurred during work on the first episode of The Cowra Breakout when Noyce discovered both his interest in and his talent for creating suspense on the screen. In a jungle clearing, a Japanese and an Australian soldier are left behind after a battle. But neither can get away without being killed by the other. This stalemate in action called for extraordinary directorial and cinematographic prowess to keep audiences glued to their seats – and Noyce pulled it off. As Pam Corkery noted, “Suddenly the script (and the acting) picks up for one of the best pieces of war drama I’ve seen for ages when the two key characters fight it out in the New Guinea jungle.” (13)

Dead Calm

In 1989 Noyce re-emerged on the silver screen in masterly form with his first-ever genre piece. In this story, a couple (played by Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman) who have recently lost their child in a car accident take to the high seas in their yacht to recover emotionally and regain composure. But when they take on board a shipwrecked and delirious mariner (Billy Zane), the tranquillity turns into a psychotic frenzy and a deadly showdown. In essence, this is The Cowra Breakout Episode One revisited, only now it is called Dead Calm and the clearing in the jungle has turned into an endless ocean from which no salvation will emerge. In fact, the minimalist arrangement of elements available to Noyce contributes strongly to the film’s feeling of tension and despair. Despite its setting in the high seas and Noyce’s first-time use of CinemaScope to underpin the immense vastness, Dead Calm is effectively an intimate chamber play, animated by a strong undercurrent of disquiet. Although the shoot on location in the Whitsunday Islands particularly left the actors bruised emotionally and physically, it mastered all the natural obstacles that would sink the far bigger production of Waterworld (Kevin Costner, 1995). Notwithstanding the new ending that Warner Bros insisted on once they purchased the film, Noyce had assuredly proven that he now mastered the skills necessary for Hollywood.

Looking back from this point (1989), one can see that Noyce’s years of making films in Australia functioned as a kind of cinematic apprenticeship. Not one that he had to undergo, but one he undertook motivated by his curiousness, and because he sensed that it helped develop his skills one by one. By the same token his development followed what in Europe had been phrased “the long march through the institutions” for the rebellious generation of ’68 because it was such a widespread phenomenon – even among artists. What had started out as free-flowing experiments in film gradually became more politically- and socially-engaged inquiries, naturally transforming into documentaries. In the 1970s, the step from documentaries to television was a short and easy one. And once there, it was natural to progress to mini-series and television features. With Dead Calm, Noyce felt he had gone as far as he could in Australia. As the next decade was going to prove, he was ready to take on Hollywood.

And Noyce immediately grabbed the opportunity to play with the big boys’ toys which he – subconsciously – seemed to have longed for since his pre-teens when he initially developed a distinct taste for spying on people and was additionally fired by war tales of his father who had been a member of the Z Force, the Australian equivalent of the OSS which was the forerunner of the CIA. Patriot Games (1992), Clear and Present Danger (1994) and the unreleased television pilot The Repair Shop (1998) draw on the seemingly unlimited arsenal of surveillance and hi-level spying technology associated with the CIA and their murky colleagues the world over. Never content with what was available at the time, Noyce sometimes used his Hollywood films to predict technological advances that have since become real. For example, in Clear and Present Danger he depicted laser-guided bombs, interception of satellite phone calls and voice recognition – all to be utilised in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq some years later. His predictive images are frightening in their precision.

But not only do pampered government agencies have access to these hi-tech toys, so do freelancing contractual baddies like the titular hero (played by Val Kilmer) of The Saint (1999). Resembling a comic strip, the film represents in fact the zenith of Noyce’s display of gizmos. Some of them are so over the top that for long stretches the plot resembles more a fairy tale from hi-tech-land than an action thriller. For instance, a pocket-knife is used as decoder, lock picker, torch, compass, compartment for laser welder, camera and a remote to ignite petrol! A Swiss army knife sure pales in comparison.

In other films, Noyce’s presentation of technology is not so innovative. The story of Sliver (1993) revolves around surveillance in the form of addiction to voyeurism. But the nasty little secret cameras in each apartment merely come across as sheer nuisances. In fact, the set-up is comparatively old-fashioned: Zeke Hawkins’ (William Baldwin) secret monitor room appears spacious like a ballroom, and one of the many versions that ended up on the cutting room floor starts with an electrician discovering part of the wiring that leads up to Zeke’s floor (and immediately getting killed for this discovery). No blue-tooth wireless technology here.

The Bone Collector

The Bone Collector (1999) indicates a growing uneasiness with hi-tech towards the end of Noyce’s Hollywood decade. Technology still plays an important role, allowing the quadriplegic Rhyme (Denzel Washington) to be a highly useful member of the investigation team. But many of the devices assembled around his bed are merely and purely functional; they are not sophisticated weaponry, nor do they spy on people. Ultimately it is Rhyme’s brain together with good old-fashioned mechanics – the rule of the lever – that saves his life in the final attack of the killer. The Bone Collector brings his obsession with spying and hi-tech gizmos to an end: in the climactic conclusion of this cycle it’s mind over matter – or human agency over technology.

Except for their shared concerns with technology and spying, these Hollywood films are very different in almost every other aspect. Clear and Present Danger is the perfect Hollywood blockbuster: the plot and sub-plots never show holes and the film takes the audience on a breathless ride till the very end. Despite the opulent display of masses of technology, the film is fundamentally an examination of the use and abuse of executive power by the most powerful country in the world, and the ethical implications of this. Action and ethics are in fine balance. In order to achieve all this, three of Hollywood’s most highly-paid screenwriters (Donald Stewart, Steven Zaillian and John Milius) successfully curbed Tom Clancy’s right-wing prose and focussed on the character of Jack Ryan, who didn’t even appear before page 300 or so in the novel. As Ryan, Harrison Ford is at the peak of his career – youthful but mature, pensive but resolute, a family man but prepared to go it all alone.

Made two years earlier and also adapted from a Clancy work, Patriot Games is not quite as advanced in creating the slick Hollywood surface of balance between action and aesthetics. Already here Clancy’s material is somewhat tamed, and the culprits are no longer the IRA (as in Clancy’s book) but a radical breakaway faction. But more importantly, the film is ultimately less concerned with politics and more concerned with the story of an individual. Harrison Ford portrays Ryan as a reluctant hero who inadvertently has been drawn into the action and now has to fight to save his family. Here, Jack Ryan is younger and less advanced in his professional career which hasn’t taken him up yet to the heights of national importance as in Clear and Present Danger.

Sliver was to be a film about the power of obsession, fetishism and the lust of watching. Though these themes are acted out wonderfully at times, they are for the most part buried inside a murky script that seemingly fell apart during production (because of tensions between writer and producer), further aggravated by the fierce antics of A-list leads Sharon Stone and William Baldwin. The swapping of hero and villain after the first test screenings and the film’s heavy dose of Freudian symbols – for instance, the (ultimately abandoned) suicide dive into a volcano – only yielded an effect of confusion and alienation: was this a film about lust or about murder? The fact that Sliver is the only Noyce film never released on DVD speaks for itself.

The Saint

The Saint – loosely based on the Lesley Charteris character and depicting how Simon Templar became a saint after the fall of socialism in Russia – displays an at times uneasy relationship between box office plot and smaller-scale production that doesn’t deliver convincingly. It is never easy to adapt a comic strip for the silver screen, and possibly Noyce wasn’t on the same wavelength with the cinematographer as this is one of just two films where he had to work with a non-Australian one. But there are also reasons to believe that Noyce may have become carried away in his ambition to – and succeed in – dive deep into the heart of the New Russia. Still, the film is at its best in these Russian sequences, vindicating the quirkiness of the plot and the (rather sketchy) motivations of the Saint. Once again ruffled by late structural changes to the script (e.g. the moving of the death of Dr. Emma Russell from the second to the third act) and by a lack of funds to bring the film to a point on par with Noyce’s vision, it is nevertheless an intriguing illustration of a tumultuous moment in Russia’s political and social history. In fact, it may even be a document, according to Tatiana Petrenko, Noyce’s Russian advisor. (14) Still, Noyce’s exuberant enthusiasm in having the possibility of looking back on and reappraising one of his great childhood heroes is evident. It’s a situation of “boys playing with their favourite toys” – and making films as a continuation of childhood games.

The Bone Collector in contrast feels like a work of restrained maturity. On the surface it is a thriller but, as Noyce points out, it is fundamentally a love story; not one of youthful passion, but rather one of renunciation and delight in the possibilities provided by life. The emotional relationship between the quadriplegic Lincoln Rhyme and the almost innocent Amelia Donohue walks a very fine line and it is much to Noyce’s credit that it never turns ugly or simply tacky. The casting of Angelina Jolie as Donohue, the frail, insecure and delicate rookie – in total contrast to her more robust roles since then – again demonstrated Noyce’s mastery with actors. The director had already elicited exceptional performances out of the 19 year-old Nicole Kidman as a somewhat mature grieving mother and a zonked-out Billy Zane in Dead Calm. Or for that matter Harrison Ford and Michael Caine displaying their great skills in Clear and Present Danger and The Quiet American (2002) respectively. There are casting failures as well, most notably perhaps the untamed Val Kilmer who in The Saint does not seem to inhabit his character, or the dysfunctional combination of Baldwin and Stone in Sliver. But more often than not Noyce seems to posses a knack for extracting an as yet untapped potential within, or for detecting new talent as also Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) would illustrate. In most cases, Noyce’s characters are well-developed and multi-dimensional, even in those films that rely heavily on action.


The perception of Noyce and his American films in contrast is a sad chapter. To Australian cognoscenti, he was – and always will be – the wunderkind of Newsfront fame. Already his masterstroke Dead Calm had been widely dismissed because of its lack of social commitment. But the off-handed arrogance often displayed in dismissing Noyce’s Hollywood achievements is puzzling and begs for an explanation. “This is not the film that could be expected from Noyce” is one of the continuing laments. Tom O’Regan has commented that this line of opinion is more telling of a critic’s predisposition than of the actual film: “a direct outcome of ‘debunking’ as the dominant mode of film criticism practised by ‘critical intellectuals’ who see it as their business to hold films ‘socially accountable’.” (15) And more often than not a question seems to linger between the lines: when would Noyce finally make Newsfront II, emerging as a mole of auteur film in the Hollywood studio system?

When looking at the body of Australian articles published about Noyce in the 1990s one cannot avoid noticing the tall poppy syndrome at work. But some of the so-called critical approach may well be based on a particular tradition of the Australian psyche, seemingly prevalent since Burke & Wills, and coming to a head in the disaster of Gallipoli: “to fail gloriously against an insuperable opponent is the ultimate proof of heroism.” (16) In this respect, Noyce can’t be a hero as he is a winner. Hollywood entrusted him with huge budgets and he always delivered value for money. These films are in fact slick in appearance, skilfully crafted and assembled, and thrilling to watch.

American critics in contrast praised his Hollywood achievements –his flair for suspense and direction of actors, leading to high entertainment– whilst also pointing out the flaws – usually weaknesses in the script. The only justified reproach by anyone might be to blame Noyce for being too blue-eyed in the candy store – being overwhelmed by the possibilities and temptations of Tinsel Town, leading to lack of artistic self-reflection while trying to beat Hollywood at its own game.

One of the reasons why Noyce initially left Australia was the scarcity of work opportunities: it had taken him 12 years to make just three feature films. In the US, he did six in ten years – a substantial effort even by Hollywood standards. There is no doubt that Noyce is a workaholic, as the two-year uninterrupted production run from the outset of Patriot Games via Sliver to the release of Clear and Present Danger demonstrates. This is something that he would eventually repeat with the back-to-back production of Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American from July 2000 to July 2002. But in a wider sense, Noyce simply loves new challenges – they are his way of evolving – and tackles them head-on. These films were offered to him and he did them, simply because he could. After the dismal Australian budgets, he now revelled in juggling monster ones. He simply loved to work in the studio system and to use its possibilities to full tilt.

But by the end of the 1990s, he was rapidly losing his appetite for big budget blockbusters and was longing for other styles of storytelling: “Blowing up people and spying on people: that’s all they want me to do – but I’m a bit tired of that… You don’t want to be captive to that world and its values.” (17) So when the first opportunity presented itself – the machinations of stars and studios during pre-production of The Sum Of All Fears on which he had been working, again with Harrison Ford in the lead – he returned to Australia to start work on Rabbit-Proof Fence. Leaving popcorn entertainment behind, he both regained artistic freedom and prolonged his franchise as a filmmaker by embarking on committed films for a more mature audience.

Rabbit Proof Fence

Rabbit-Proof Fence is based on a true story from the 1930s, at the height of the Australian government’s (and the church’s) removing of young aborigines from their families and placing them in white homes. Molly (Everlyn Sampi), a 14 year-old mixed-race aboriginal girl, and her younger sister and cousin are taken away from their mothers to be trained as domestic workers for integration into white society. They flee a mission in Western Australia and try to find their way home on foot by following the rabbit-proof fence, chased by the government across 2000 kilometres of mostly barren land.

Drawing on his American experiences, Noyce was able to raise the production money without much involvement of the funding bureaucrats, and could plan in professional style. For instance, for the main roles, 2,000 children were interviewed, of which Noyce saw 800 personally by touring the outback settlements in a four-wheel drive truck and light plane. For the film’s release, he travelled tirelessly all over the country, conducting countless Q & As after the screenings. Another widely used Hollywood technique was information saturation. This was particularly appropriate once Australian neo-cons embarked on a fierce campaign firstly against the film and later even against director and scriptwriter. Noyce and his team partly fuelled the controversy to make up for lack of advertising dollars: whenever one of the attacks appeared, they would demand equal space to rebut it. So by the time the film was released, most Australians would have heard about it.

Despite its conscious depiction of the Australian landscape as harsh and unforgiving – in contrast to the prevailing artistic convention – it immediately became a success at the box office – the first time ever (with the possible exception of Charles Chauvel’s Jedda [1955]) an Aboriginal topic was commercially successful in Australia (in a year, by the way, that also recorded great audience interest in other aborigine-themed films like Ivan Sen’s Beneath Clouds, Paul Goldman’s Australian Rules and Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker). For Noyce, who believes Rabbit-Proof Fence to be both his best film and the one closest to his heart, this is because it portrays Aborigines in a positive way not seen before in Australia. The film overturned the conventions by celebrating aboriginal family history as an important component of mainstream Australian history.

In 1978, Noyce started his directorial career with Backroads, a road movie about a couple of black (and a white) drifters on a car trip from the outback to the Eastern seaboard where all traces of aboriginal culture have long since vanished. On their way, they receive help from some fellow aborigines. But no particular destination exists, and one by one the protagonists perish. It is a deeply pessimistic film. Twenty-three years later much appears to have changed: the three girls head inland from the West coast to where there is still aboriginal identity to be found – in the deserts of Western Australia. They have a clear destination – Jigalong camp – and they undertake the journey in the traditional black man’s way: by walking. Despite all obstacles of climate, topography, flora and fauna, in a sense they move along on their home turf. They are helped along and betrayed by both Aborigines and Caucasians, and they finally make it home. It is a truly inspiring, moving and optimistic film.

These two films clearly act as bookends around Noyce’s work, and they are both Australian in several aspects, not just the subject matter. In fact, the underdog, the little Aussie battler, is a genuinely embraced icon. He may eventually lose – but the triumph lies in trying, or the lasting, at least for the moment being. Australian history is littered with examples – from the Eureka Stockade to Gallipoli and from Burke & Wills to Ned Kelly. In Rabbit-Proof Fence, only two of the girls make it back to Jigalong, and even they will be taken away again soon and Molly won’t see her mother for another 21 years. Still, the 2,000 km trek along the fence is a feat of epic proportions, no matter the eventual outcome. This being on the road, being on the move – without necessarily arriving anywhere in the end – is likewise deeply enshrined in the Australian psyche. It has been cultivated throughout Australian history, from ballads such as the nation’s unofficial anthem, “Waltzing Matilda”, to the popularity of the Mad Max films.

The Quiet American

Adapted from the Graham Greene novel, The Quiet American – Noyce’s latest release at time of writing – again proves his artistic maturity and has translated into both critical acclaim and box office success, notwithstanding its comparatively limited release. Kenneth Turan in The Los Angeles Times noted it was “Elegantly written and very much in the Greene spirit” (18) – faithfulness to the Graham Greene novel was the last thing the 1958 Joseph L. Mankiewicz version could claim. The film centres on seasoned English expatriate correspondent Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine) and his beautiful Vietnamese mistress Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), whose lives begin to unravel when their paths cross with newly-arrived American Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser). It is “a very complicated, personal triangle where all the people were metaphors without being metaphors”, as producer Sydney Pollack claims. (19)

The film without recrimination elucidates the last days of French colonial rule in Vietnam and the dawn of American intervention. Stephen Holden of the New York Times believed it “doesn’t convey much strong political passion” (20) and Todd McCarthy in Variety claimed it is instead “rife with irony and moral conundrums on all sides”. (21) Even Pyle is not portrayed as evil incarnate. Rather, what makes his character so chilling is the bright-eyed idealism that leads him to blow up innocent people in a massacre on rue Catinat in order to save the country – a line of thinking not at all unheard of post September 2001 but prescient here on the part of Noyce.

Predictably, portraying – even fictitious – Americans as terrorists landed Noyce in choppy waters in the States. There are strong indications that distributor Miramax intended to shelve the film, either for political or economical reasons. But after a successful screening at the Toronto International Film Festival (with standing ovations) and a clever publicity campaign, Miramax eventually had to accede to a limited release once American liberals rallied behind the cause for all the right reasons. A “soul-baring performance” (22) by Michael Caine – arguably his finest ever – won him a short-listing as Best Actor for the Oscars. And cinematographer Christopher Doyle is at his best, seemingly at ease to bring both bustling Saigon street life and the beauty and myth of the countryside onto film. In short: The Quiet American is a perfectly balanced combination of a story-driven political thriller and character-driven love triangle. The film, according to the director, “a great murder mystery, a love story and a political thriller, all rolled into one”, (23) is a towering achievement and Noyce at his very best. The awards for Best Director of the Year from both the US National Board of Review and the London Film Critics Circle attest to this.

It may be worth noting that Noyce’s two latest – artistically particularly convincing – films were both based on novels. So are some of the projects which eventually didn’t materialise (e.g. Philip Roth’s American Pastorale) or which are still slated for production (e.g. Tim Winton’s Dirt Music). This seems to prove that Noyce likes literature – not a mean feat. But it is also a result of his conviction that you can achieve better results when working on someone else’s script because as a writer/director he tends “to accept the screenplay as a given, set in stone simply because I had a hand in writing it. ” (24)

In the end, after all is said about Phillip Noyce and all the pros and cons are weighed, he makes his mark as a great filmmaker. He has an outstanding track record in both experimental films and documentaries. In his feature filmmaking, Noyce is as skilled and as successful in bringing Hollywood blockbuster popcorn movies onto the screen as he is in delivering committed personal artistic films. Despite his big successes in the Hollywood studio system he never lost his cultural roots in his home country. The one film he still wants to make is about Bennelong, an aborigine who became a celebrity of sorts at the English court – a story of the extreme culture clash at the heart of the Australian experience. All this truly makes him stand out among his peers.


  1. “Americateurs” are explained as “experts in the American film idiom who see America with the clarity of a foreigner’s eye”. Chip Rolley, “Outdreaming America”, Weekend Australian, 4 December 1994.
  2. Michael Singer, A Cut Above: 50 Film Directors Talk About Their Craft, Lone Eagle, Los Angeles, 1998, p. 204.
  3. Cited in Ingo Petzke, Backroads to Hollywood – Phillip Noyce, Pan Macmillan, Sydney, 2004, p. 8.
  4. Petzke, p. 15.
  5. Todd Gitlin, The Sixties – Years of Hope, Days of Rage, Bantam Books, Toronto & New York, 1987.
  6. Petzke, p. 20.
  7. David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Little, Brown, London, 2002, p. 923.
  8. Douglas McVay, “Heatwave”, Films and Filming, September 1982, p. 35.
  9. Variety, 6 January 1982, p. 16.
  10. David Stratton, The Avocado Plantation: Boom and Bust in the Australian Film Industry, Pan Macmillan, Sydney, 1990, p. 215.
  11. Neil Rattigan, Images of Australia – 100 Films of the New Australian Cinema, Southern Methodist University Press, Dallas, 1991, p. 151.
  12. The film was continued by Tim Burstall.
  13. Pam Corkery, “Banzai! For The Cowra Breakout”, Sunday Telegraph, 3 March 1985, p. 53
  14. Petzke, p. 280 – 285
  15. Tom O’Reagan, Australian National Cinema, Routledge, London & New York, 1996, p. 343, cited in Felicity Collins, The Films of Gillian Armstrong, ATOM, Melbourne, 1999, p. 13.
  16. Meaghan Morris, “Fate and the Family Sedan”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 19, March–April 2002.
  17. Petzke, p. xxvi.
  18. Kenneth Turan “An elegant story of corruptibility”, Los Angeles Times, 22 Nov 2002.
  19. Petzke, p. 358.
  20. Stephen Holden, “A jaded affair in a Vietnam already at war”, New York Times, 22 November 2002, p. 14
  21. Todd McCarthy, “The Quiet American”, Variety, 16 September 2002, pp. 28, 38.
  22. Peter Travers, “The Quiet American”, Rolling Stone, 20 November 2002.
  23. Petzke, p. 374.
  24. Petzke, p. 114.

Phillip Noyce


Feature films

Backroads (1977) also co-writer, producer
Newsfront (1978) also co-writer
Heatwave (1981) also co-writer
Shadows of the Peacock (1986) also known as Echoes of Paradise
Dead Calm (1989)
Blind Fury (1989)
Patriot Games (1992)
Sliver (1993) also cameo
Clear and Present Danger (1994)
The Saint (1997)
The Bone Collector (1999) also cameo
Rabbit-Proof Fence (2001) also producer
The Quiet American (2002)
Catch a Fire (2006)
Salt (2010)
The Giver (2014)
The Devil’s Brigade (2017) pre-production
Killer 10 (2017) pre-production
Above Suspicion (2018) completed

Non-feature films

Better to Reign in Hell (1969) also writer, producer
Megan (1969) also writer, producer, camera
Intersection (1970) also writer, producer, camera
Memories (1971) also writer, producer, camera
Home (1971) also writer, producer, camera
Sun (1971) also: writer, producer, camera
Good Afternoon (1971) also producer
Camera Class (1971)
Caravan Park (1973) also producer
Castor and Pollux (1973) also co-camera, co-editor
That’s Showbiz (1973) also writer, actor
Springboks Protest (1973) also camera
various newsreels (1973) also camera
Renegades (1974) also producer, camera, editor, actor
Finks Make Movies (1975) also producer, camera, editor
God Knows Why But It Works (1975) also writer, cameo, dubbing editor
Let the Balloon Go – Support Program (1976)
Amy (1976) also writer
Mick (1976) also writer
Greg (1976) also co-researcher
Brad (1977)
Disco (1977)
Tapak Dewata – Path of the Gods (1979)
Sue and Mario – The Australian Italians (1979)
Vietnamese Stories (1980)
Superstition – Fact and Fiction (1980)
Radio Station 25M commercial (1980)
Crown Corning Ware commercial (1980)
Country Special Beer commercial (1981)
Findus Frozen Food commercial (1981)
“The Dismissal” (episode 2) (1983) also co-writer; television series
Survival (1982)
Angels “Underground” music video (1984)
Angels “Look the Other Way” music video (1984)
Diet Coke commercial (1985)
“The Cowra Breakout” (five episodes) (1985) also co-writer; television series
“The Hitchhiker” (four episodes) (1985) television series
“The Hitchhiker” (one episode) (1989) television series
“Nightmare Café” (pilot) (1991) television series
“The Repair Shop” (pilot) (1998) also cameo; television series
“Tru Calling” (pilot) (2003) television series
“Brotherhood” (pilot) (2004) television series

Other credits

Just a Little Not (Jan Chapman, 1970) camera, editor
Style of Champions: The Australian Crawl (Cecil Holmes, 1970) production assistant
… or Forever Hold Your Peace (collective, 1970) camera, cameo
Homesdale (Peter Weir, 1971) actor
St. Vincent’s Revue Film (George Miller, 1971) co-camera
Cinemusic (David Ahearn, 1973) editor, first assistant director
One Hundred a Day (Gillian Armstrong, 1973) production assistant
Labor Party election commercials (1974) editor
I Happen to be a Girl (Jan Chapman, 1974) camera, editor
Matchless (John Papadopoulos, 1974) production assistant
Levis – Our History is in the Making (David Elfick, 1975) actor
A Calendar of Dreamings: Aboriginal Artists of Central Australia (Geoff Bardon, 1975) editor
The Golden Cage (Ayten Kuyululu, 1975) first assistant director
Let the Balloon Go (Oliver Howes, 1976) second assistant director
Zizzem Zam (Ron Owen, 1976) production assistant

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Select Bibliography *

Books and book chapters

Brian Adams & Graham Shirley, Australian Cinema – The First Eighty Years, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1983.

Michaela Boland & Michael Bodey, Aussiewood – Australia’s Leading Actors and Directors Tell How They Conquered Hollywood, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2004.

Barbara Boyd, Newsfront Study Guide (no date, no place of publication).

Raffaelle Caputo & Geoff Burton, Third Take – Australian Filmmakers Talk, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2002.

Robert J. Emery, The Directors: Take Four, Allworth Press, New York, 2003.

Peter Malone, Myth & Meaning: Australian Film Directors in Their Own Words, Currency Press, Sydney, 2001.

Brian McFarlane, Australian Cinema 1970 – 1985, Secker & Warburg, London, 1987.

Peter Mudie, Ubu Films – Sydney Underground Movies 1965 – 1970, UNSW Press, Sydney, 1997.

John Kenneth Muir, Terror Television 1970 – 1999, McFarland, Jefferson, NC, 2001.

Scott Murray, Back of Beyond: Discovering Australian Film and Television, Australian Film Commission, Sydney, 1988.

Scott Murray, Australian Film 1978 – 1992: A Survey of Theatrical Features, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1993.

Scott Murray, Australian Cinema, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1994.

Ingo Petzke, Backroads to Hollywood – Phillip Noyce, Pan Macmillan, Sydney, 2004.

Ingo Petzke, “Rabbit-Proof Fence” in Geoff Mayer & Keith Beattie (eds), 24 Frames: Australia and New Zealand, Wallflower Press, London, forthcoming 2006.

Neil Rattigan, Images of Australia – 100 Films of the New Australian Cinema, Southern Methodist University Press, Dallas, 1991.

Jonathan Rayner, Contemporary Australian Cinema – An Introduction, Manchester University Press, Manchester & New York, 2000.

Michael Singer, A Cut Above: 50 Film Directors Talk About Their Craft, Lone Eagle, Los Angeles, 1998.

Judy Stone, Eye on the World: Conversations with International Filmmakers, Silman-James Press, Los Angeles, 1997.

David Stratton, The Last New Wave, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1980.

David Stratton, The Avocado Plantation: Boom and Bust in the Australian Film Industry, Pan Macmillan, Sydney, 1990.

Andrew L. Urban, Edge of the Known World: The Australian Film TV & Radio School: Impressions of the First 25 Years, AFTRS, Sydney, 1998.


Martha Ansara, “Backroads”, Filmnews, September 1978, p. 15.

José Arroyo, “The Saint”, Sight & Sound, vol. 7 no. 5, May 1997, pp. 52–53.

Ken Cameron, “Newsfront: An Interview with Phil Noyce”, Filmnews, August 1978, pp. 10–12.

Keith Connolly, “Newsfront”, Cinema Papers, no. 17, August–September 1978, pp. 57–58.

Chris Darke, “Sliver”, Sight & Sound, vol. 3 no. 9, September 1993, pp. 53–54.

Jim Emerson, “Noyce’s on (Patriot Games)”, Film Comment, vol. 28 no. 4, July–August 1992, pp. 72–76.

Peter Galvin, “Phillip Noyce – A Life in the Movie Circus”, Inside Film Magazine, no. 69, September 2004, pp. 22–28.

Geoff Gardner, “Heatwave”, Cinema Papers, no. 37, April 1982, pp. 163–164.

John Gillett, “Newsfront”, Monthly Film Bulletin, vol. 45 no. 539, December 1978, p. 244.

Verina Glaessner, “Dead Calm”, Monthly Film Bulletin, vol. 56 no. 670, November 1989, pp. 332–333.

Tim Hunter, “The ex-pat guide to Hollywood”, Cinema Papers, no. 116, May 1997, pp. 34–36, 59.

Harlan Jacobson, “The Quiet American”, Film Comment, vol. 39 no. 1, January–February 2003, pp. 74, 76.

Phillip Kemp, “Rabbit-Proof Fence”, Sight & Sound, vol. 12 no. 11, November 2002, pp. 54–55.

Edward Lawrenson, “The Quiet American”, Sight & Sound, vol. 12 no. 12, December 2002, 56, 58.

Rose Lucas, “Deadly ambivalence, or the family romance in Dead Calm”, Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 21 no. 2, April 1993, pp. 121–129.

Geoffrey Macnab, “Patriot Games”, Sight & Sound, vol. 2 no. 5, May 1992, p. 56.

Adrian Martin, “Blind Fury”, Cinema Papers, no. 76, November 1989, pp. 63–64.

Adrian Martin, “Bouquet of barbed wire”, Sight & Sound, vol. 12 no. 11 November 2002, pp. 24–26.

Brian McFarlane, “Phil Noyce: Dead Calm”, Cinema Papers, no. 73, May 1989, pp. 6–11, 61–62.

Emma Miall, “Phil Noyce on Rabbit-Proof Fence”, Inside Film Magazine, no. 38, October 2001, pp. 20, 22.

Mary Moody, “Phil Noyce”, Cinema Papers, no. 14, October 1977, pp. 111–13, 191.

Ingo Petzke, “Creating films: a journey of continuous discovery”, Metro, no. 129–130, 2001, pp. 232–237.

Tim Pulleine, “Heatwave”, Monthly Film Bulletin, vol. 49 no. 584, September 1982, p. 200.

John Pym, “Backroads”, Monthly Film Bulletin, vol. 45 no. 536, September 1978, p. 171.

Karl Quinn, “Patriot Games”, Cinema Papers, no. 90, October 1992, pp. 53–55.

Jan Sharp “Backroads”, Filmnews, vol. 7 no. 5, June 1977, pp. 8, 12.

Bec Smith, “The long way home”, Inside Film Magazine, no. 41, February 2002, pp. 34–41.

Ian Stocks, “Newsfront”, Cinema Papers, no. 115, April 1997, pp. 20–23, 25, 46–47.

Tom Tunney, “Clear and Present Danger”, Sight & Sound, vol. 4 no. 10, October 1994, pp. 36-37.

Arnold Zable, “Heatwave: director Phil Noyce talks to Arnold Zable”, Cinema Papers, no. 38, June 1982, pp. 221–224.

* 1300+ references can be found in Petzke (2004)

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Articles in Senses of Cinema

Backroads: From Identity to Interval by Stephen Muecke

Long Road Home: Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence by Fiona A. Villella

The Quiet American by Rose Capp

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Web Resources

Phillip Noyce on Rabbit-Proof Fence
Interview with Brian Pendreigh for Inside Out Film site.

Noyce’s ‘American’ Finally Realised
By Paul Fischer for Femail website.

An Incredible Journey
Interview with S.F. Said for Telegraph.

Noyce Guys Finish First
Interview with Walter Chew for Film Freak Central.

Gary Foley’s Koori History Website
The Koori History Website’s special feature on the film Backroads.

Click here to buy Phillip Noyce DVDs and videos at Facets

Click here to search for Phillip Noyce DVDs, videos and books at Amazon.com

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About The Author

Ingo Petzke is Associate Professor of Screen-Based Media at Bond University, Australia. He is the author of Backroads To Hollywood: Phillip Noyce, published by Pan Macmillan in 2004.

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