Sons of Matthew was unquestionably Charles Chauvel’s most polished and assured effort to that point, despite a notoriously arduous production period that saw cast and crew battling the same forces of nature that had plagued the pioneering O’Reilly family a century before (including Queensland’s wettest season in 80 years) (1). Production took 18 months to complete, at a mammoth cost of £120,000, and the film was a great success in Australia, though the British and American releases (shortened by Universal and retitled The Rugged O’Riordans) faired more modestly (2).
In Chauvel’s earlier Heritage(1935) – an ambitious, if somewhat dry, account of Australia’s origins – it often seemed as though the early settlers were working impossible land merely for the trouble of it all. In Sons of Matthew, the director’s first post-war picture, we see that there’s a sort of religious empowerment at play when the men bend the harsh Australian landscape to their will (3).
Chauvel first presents the “sons of Matthew” as virgins in what is essentially a Garden of Eden. The young men, naked and handsome, frolic playfully and childishly in the water (4). It is a pleasant moment, underscored by a cheery whistling soundtrack, and recalls a similar “swimming hole” scene in the director’s earlier Uncivilised (1936).
This lighthearted recreation is followed by a sequence that is astonishing in its contrast. A single axe chips away at the broad trunk of a forest tree, at first seemingly ineffectual, but persistent. Strong male bodies, naked from the waist up, resolutely swing their instruments of destruction. Today’s more environmentally aware audiences will cringe as the O’Riordans’ axes bring centuries-old cedars thundering to the ground, but Chauvel is nevertheless able to imbue this moment with a sort of religious mysticism, particularly through the score by Henry Krips, who utilises a male choir.
The tree-felling sequence in Sons of Matthew was conceived early in pre-production as a “magnificent spectacle”,one of the film’s centrepiece moments (5). No stunt doubles were used; instead, the cast members, in their spare time, were trained by professional axe-men (6).
Throughout the film, the O’Riordans must endure the ravages of the Australian continent; bushfires and cyclones are among the tribulations they must overcome before they can successfully “tame” the land. If Man was placed on this earth to dominate nature, then his pillage and clearing of the forest – using, I might add, little more sophisticated than hand tools and the sweat of one’s brow – is the definitive representation of this triumph over natural forces. With every blow of the axe, Man becomes closer to God.
Tom O’Regan argues that Chauvel had a Biblical allegory in mind when he created his characters, equating mother Jane (Thelma Scott) with the Virgin Mary, and father Matthew (John O’Malley) with the more innocuous Joseph (7). Given this auspicious pedigree, it seems only natural that the couple’s children should strive to become “closer to God”.
Cathy McAllister (Wendy Gibb), the daughter of a Scottish settler, does not feature in the tree-felling scene, but she is nevertheless crucial to its interpretation. Shane O’Riordan (Michael Pate) describes the seemingly untameable plateau as being “like a beautiful woman, lovely to look at but tough to handle.” This metaphor is reinforced in a subsequent scene that sees the virginal Cathy bathing, totally nude, in the river below a waterfall, basking serenely as though she were herself simply a part of nature.
Chauvel thus considers the men’s desire to settle virgin land as instinctual, something akin to a sexual urge. Indeed, Shane’s remark “there’s something good about cutting into a place where no man’s been before”, which he uses to describe 600 acres of untapped land, may just as easily refer to Cathy herself. At film’s end, the virgin girl ultimately submits to brother Shane, sensible and methodical, over the wilder, coarser Barney (Ken Wayne). This is nature bending to the will of modern civilisation, eschewing the wildlands of Uncivilised for the purity of a clean, fertile “promised land”, forged by the bare hands of its earliest settlers.
- Elsa Chauvel, My Life with Charles Chauvel,Shakespeare Head Press, Sydney, 1975, p. 102.
- Susanne Chauvel Carlsson, Charles and Elsa Chauvel Movie Pioneers, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1989, p. 136.
- Religion plays a major role in the film. Indeed, the film was named for a parable in the Gospel According to Matthew, and opens with a quote from Matthew 7:25: “And the rain descended, and the floods came; and the winds blew and beat upon that house, and it fell not, for it was founded upon a rock.”
- Chauvel’s fondness for screen nudity occasionally caused him trouble, most famously when Australian Customs tried to confiscate the unedited footage of nude women he had shot for In the Wake of the Bounty (1933).
- Chauvel, p. 99.
- Chauvel, p. 107.
- Tom O’Regan, Australian National Cinema, Routledge, London, 1996,p. 252.