Most discussion of the career of Cecil Holmes focuses, understandably, on the 30-year body of work he completed after migrating to Australia from New Zealand in 1949. Those who comment on Holmes’ much shorter stint in the New Zealand film industry are generally preoccupied with his infamous sacking from the National Film Unit (NFU) only three weeks after Weekly Review no. 374: The Coaster (1948) was released.1 Holmes became both persona non grata and a martyr to the leftist or socialist cause for his role in leading the first public service strike in New Zealand. Controversy over these events and the actions taken by the Labour Government of the time centred on the manner in which knowledge and evidence of Holmes’ involvement was attained and circulated. A satchel he’d left in one of the NFU’s cars contained both a letter of instruction to the leader of the union and Holmes’ Communist Party membership card. This was purloined by individuals close to the government and leaked to the press. Although Holmes was subsequently reinstated and back paid after a period of twelve months out of work, he quickly left his birth country for Australia, never to return again.2

It is easy to assume that Holmes would have remained in New Zealand if he hadn’t been sacked from the NFU, but opportunities for a filmmaker were even scarcer there than in Australia. Holmes joined the NFU in 1945 and moved quickly from his role as a writer and editor to director, completing his first assignment in November of the same year. It is hard to fully assess Holmes’ contributions at the NFU, as many of the weekly newsreels it produced were compilations of items filed by various filmmakers and subsequently released without credits. Every four or five weeks this format was given over to a single ten-minute film.3 These documentaries would explore a particular subject in more detail and provide some limited opportunities for personal, even poetic modes of expression as well as grant onscreen credits. The NFU itself was formed in the early 1940s after the highly influential visit of noted documentarian and theorist John Grierson. Grierson’s influence on the documentary work of government-guided and financed film units throughout much of the Commonwealth – but particularly in New Zealand, Australia and Canada – can’t be underestimated. But Grierson was concerned with both the social purpose of documentary and its capacity for poetry and individual expression. In particular, he argued, in his famous dictum, that documentary was “the creative treatment of actuality”. During the 1940s, the NFU was preoccupied with the relentless production of the Weekly Review, a newsreel compilation that provided few opportunities for creativity or political or social comment. This newsreel was also consumed with a vision of New Zealand that emphasised social cohesion, the important relation between the country and the rest of the world, and the nation’s attractiveness to potential visitors and migrants. This was filmmaking as a public service produced by “an information arm of the government attached to the Prime Minister’s Department… [whose] role was ‘keeping people informed on national affairs’”.4

Holmes was relatively dismissive of the opportunities working at the unit allowed him. He did see it as an important training ground in terms of developing his technique and how to make do with limited resources. This can be glimpsed in various moments within The Coaster. As the ship (the M. V. Breeze) leaves Wellington we see a shot of the shoreline produced in the studio that simulates a vision of the departing city by capturing a still image of a dark coastline with holes pricked into it through which sparkling light is shone. Similarly, in the section of the film that documents the roughest passage of the boat’s voyage from Wellington to Lyttleton to Whanganui, Holmes combines material obviously caught in the moment with closer shots – featuring carefully splashed water – restaged to heighten the experience. Even in this early film, made very much within the conventions of 1940s documentary, we see Holmes’ characteristic movement between documentary and fiction, reportage and poetry, mainstream modes of practice and audio-visual experimentation.

A couple of the films Holmes completed at the NFU did allow some opportunities for personal, social and political commentary, ideas that were generally smuggled into more generic documentary subjects. For example, 1947’s Weekly Review no. 310: Mail Run provides an opportunity for observations – framed as diary entries by the film’s cameraman – on the economic and social hardships of Indigenous peoples in the places visited during a weekly mail run from Auckland to Japan. This film also shows Holmes’ first onscreen encounters with First Nations people in Australia, a subject and connection that would define his work in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Coaster is less concerned with such commentary and instead provides a poetic and matter-of-fact account of the solidarity of sailors on their regular journey between New Zealand’s North and South Islands. Holmes often spoke of the formative screening he ventured to one night in Palmerston North, sometime in the second half of the 1930s: a program including both Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935) and Harry Watt and Basil Wright’s Night Mail (1936). It is easy to see the direct influence of the latter film on The Coaster, leading the often self-deprecating Holmes to later claim it was “a bit derivative”.5 Williams, “All That is Left: The Early Life and Works of Cecil Holmes”, Metro, no. 100, (1994): 37.] This is clearly obvious in the film’s most alliterative and least successful passage, as a wide selection of “rhyming” goods are offloaded in Lyttleton. One of the most distinctive and derivative aspects of The Coaster is its voiceover narration. Written by celebrated poet Denis Glover and delivered by Selwyn Toogood it actually has a greater range than W. H. Auden’s celebrated commentary for Night Mail, moving freely between blank verse, rhyming couplets and alliteration. It does highlight the “nation building” impetus behind this mode of documentary production, but is more successful in those moments that respond to a proletarian, everyday reality: “And more than the ravenous sea/There’s meaning in a cup of tea.” This emphasis on the hard work and daily labour of keeping these services running – this is certainly not a portrait of the class system aboard ship stratified in British films like In Which We Serve (Noel Coward and David Lean, 1942) and The Cruel Sea (Charles Frend, 1953) – is the true subject of The Coaster. The combinations of image and sound also insist upon the quotidian poetry of such activities and how they should be captured. This is highlighted at the very end of the film where the movement outwards to a mention of the importance of New Zealand to the rest of the world seems out of place: “feeding the ships that feed the distant world”.

But I don’t want to over-emphasise the distinctive qualities of The Coaster. It is also known as Weekly Review no. 374, its number highlighting the overriding utilitarian nature of this documentary series and even Holmes’ contributions. The seeds of Holmes’ more distinctive filmmaking in Australia can be glimpsed in The Coaster. But his work for the NFU also ushers in the filmmaker’s long association with what we might call institutional filmmaking, documentaries made by government departments, progressive religious organisations and NGOs that would define and shape much of his career. Its attention to the daily actions and gestures of the crew, with a burgeoning care for performance (here relying upon very limited materials), speaks to the overriding humanism that characterises Holmes’ cinema.

Weekly Review no. 374: The Coaster (1948, New Zealand, 11 mins)

Prod Co: National Film Unit Prod: Stanhope Andrews [Cyril Morton and Geoffrey Scott] Dir: Cecil Holmes Scr: Denis Glover Phot: Ivo Tisch Narr: Selwyn Toogood


  1. A notable exception is Russell Campbell’s typically astute and attentive chronological account of many of the films credited to Holmes, “Plain Hard Hazardous Work: Cecil Holmes at the NFU”, Illusions: A New Zealand Magazine of Film, Television and Theatre Criticism, no. 7 (March 1988): 9-13. Holmes also made two documentaries for the Transport Department in 1947.
  2. For a full account of the circumstances surrounding the “satchel affair”, see Dean Parker, “Scoundrel Times at the Film Unit”, Illusions: A New Zealand Magazine of Film, Television and Theatre Criticism, no. 7 (March 1988): 4-8.
  3. This was occasionally extended, as in Holmes’ Power from the River (1947), a fascinating stand-alone documentary made for the NFU about the management of scarce electricity supplies and the need for the national development of further hydroelectricity projects.
  4. Campbell, 9.
  5. Dean[e

About The Author

Adrian Danks is Associate Professor of Cinema Studies and Media in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. He is also co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and was an editor of Senses of Cinema from 2000 to 2014. He has published hundreds of articles on various aspects of cinema and is the editor of A Companion to Robert Altman (Wiley-Blackwell) and American-Australian Cinema: Transnational Connections (Palgrave).

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