… Tasmanian Gothic cinema… tends to be a response to its dark and wet landscapes, which register a paradoxical sense of beauty and menace. The dramatic inclines of Tasmania’s topography, its volatile climate, together with the wild and dense temperate forest, which covers a third of the state, form a forbidding mise-en-scene suggestive of a Gothic sublime… The island continues to be cast, derisively as well as romantically, as a strange outpost that harbours secrets. Tasmania is the end of the line. (1)

There is nothing new about the Tasmanian Gothic. In The Life and Adventure of Martin Chuzzlewit (1844) Charles Dickens has his hero, Augustus, fearfully write about his imminent voyage to Van Diemen’s Land and imminent death: “Ere this reaches you, the undersigned will be – if not a corpse – on the way to Van Diemen’s Land” (2). In 1874 Marcus Clarke’s seminal novel – His Natural Life – engagingly narrativised the nightmarish miasma that would inform all future texts exploring the theme of the Tasmanian Gothic and the subject of convictism. In his description of this frightful milieu, Clarke histrionically introduces Van Diemen’s Land in the following fashion:

the sea-line is marked with wrecks. The sunken rocks are dismally named after the vessels they have destroyed. The air is chill and moist, the soil prolific only in prickly undergrowth and noxious weeds, while foetid exhalations from swamp and fen cling close to the humid, spongy ground. All around breathes desolation; on the face of nature is stamped a perpetual frown… (3)

Clarke’s prose was so important to how Tasmania would be culturally codified that historians are still trying to dismiss his book as nothing short of hysterical fantasy. John Rickard, as one example of many, argues, “Port Arthur, however, was not the experience of most convicts; nor were conditions at the penal settlements as universally dreadful as Clarke depicted. How the convict fared in the colony depended on a range of factors” (4). Such comments merely echo the resistance towards Clarke’s prose that could not curb the wave of stage and screen adaptations that led to the mega 1927 film production that attempted to transform Tasmania into an international, “film friendly” production location. Produced by Australasian Films Ltd., directed by the American Norman Dawn, and featuring an international cast including starlet Eva Novak, the story of its production illustrates not just the difficulties in location shooting in Tasmania during this period but also the political and censorship obstacles that arise when adapting such a provocative and politically topical text – especially at a time when the Tasmanian Government was attempting to rebrand itself as a family tourist (“Come to Tasmania”) destination (5).

Marcus Clarke’s His Natural Life

Marcus (Andrew Hislop) Clarke was born on 24 April 1846 in Kensington, London. His mother died shortly after his birth. In 1863, soon after his father’s death, Marcus travelled to Australia to join his uncle, James Langton Clarke, a County Court Judge in Victoria. Spending his days travelling from colony to colony, he earned money by writing theatre pieces and reviews for newspapers (The Argus) and illustrated magazines (Australasian Sketcher). Wanting a public vehicle to express his opinions, and publish his creative writings, he bought and (unsuccessfully) managed a series of street journals – starting with the Australian Magazine in 1868, which he renamed the Colonial Monthly; in 1869 he bought the satirical Melbourne journal Humbug, which collapsed shortly thereafter. Also in 1869, he wedded the burlesque dancer and actress Marian Dunn. In 1870, Clarke was the editor of The Australian Journal when he began writing and publishing instalments – over an unconscionable two-and-a-half years – of his Van Diemen’s Land convict story, His Natural Life. In 1874 His Natural Life was abbreviated and published as a book. But only after Clarke’s death in 1881 (the result of erysipelas) was it retitled For the Term of His Natural Life – a title Clarke was said to have hated and aggressively opposed.

The novel draws heavily on the literary figures who shared a similar nightmarish Gothic vision of abandonment – Honoré de Balzac, Alexandre Dumas, Daniel Defoe, Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens. It draws many references to particular classics by these authors – Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo (1844), Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862), and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). Charles Reade’s play It’s Never Too Late to Mend (1856) was also a huge influence. For the Term of His Natural Life is a work of Gothic melodrama. In “Book One – The Sea, 1827”, Richard Devine is wrongly accused of murdering his estranged father, Lord Bellasis. To protect his mother’s reputation he changes his name to Rufus Dawes. Rufus is transported on the Malabar to Van Diemen’s Land “for the term of his natural life”. In “Book Two – Macquarie Harbour. 1833”, Rufus attempts suicide, but decides against this action after jumping into the ocean. Meanwhile during an attempt to transport the convicts to Port Arthur, one of their number, Rex, takes control of the ship and jettisons Lieutenant Frere, as well as the daughter (Sylvia) and wife (Julia) of the settlement’s Commanding Officer onto a nearby island. An escaped yet starving Rufus stumbles onto their camp and helps them build a coracle from goat hide. Promised a pardon by Frere if they do survive their voyage, they are shortly spotted by a cargo ship and rescued. Between this time and “Book Three – Port Arthur, 1838”, Julia has died and Sylvia, due to her young age, has forgotten Rufus’ involvement in her rescue. Rufus has not been granted the pardon that he was promised and is imprisoned at the Port Arthur settlement. Frere marries Sylvia. Rex is captured and put on trial. Rufus, summoned to depose evidence at the trial, catches a glimpse of Sylvia (who is not dead as he was told). Rex escapes and returns to England. Aware of his physical similarity to Rufus, Rex impersonates him and inherits the family fortune. By the time of “Book Four – Norfolk Island, 1846”, Rufus is at Norfolk Island under Frere’s command. Sylvia leaves Frere. Rex is revealed to be an impostor and is cast from the Devine mansion. Reverend North (who witnessed Lord Ballasis’ murder and therefore knows Richard is innocent) helps Rufus escape. Sylvia and Rufus both board the same ship travelling to Sydney Harbour. Sylvia remembers Rufus from her childhood. They embrace. A wild hurricane capsises the ship. The next morning the storm has passed. Rays of sun glint on the corpses of Sylvia and Rufus as they peacefully drift on a plank on the calm sea. The end.

Early Adaptations

By the 1880s, Clarke’s text was regularly adapted for the stage in Australia, New Zealand, England and the United Sates. In Australia, the most successful of these was Alfred Dampier and Thomas Somers’ seven week, 43 show performance over at Sydney’s Royal Standard Theatre, commencing on 5 June 1886 (6). The Sydney Morning Herald praised the lavish production: “the action of the serious part does not lag in the least, or fatigue…. The scenery is well painted, and the stage arrangements are attractive to the eye, and they met with many manifestations of approval.” (7) Also in Australia, Dan Barry, E. I. Cole, Edmund Duggan and George Leitch successfully, and separately, adapted Clarke’s work (8). Eventually, Dampier toured his production to Hobart’s Theatre Royal. A publicity poster, printed at The Mercury’s office in Hobart, and advertising Dampier’s forthcoming production on the first and second of January 1900, announced the presentation “For the first time here of the ORIGINAL authorised stage version… written especially by Alfred Dampier”.

Charles MacMahon directed the first moving picture adaptation of Clarke’s in 1908 – produced with Edward J. Carroll – for a then extravagant sum of £7000. Partly shot amongst the ruins of the Port Arthur convict settlement, this was an early example of Australian cinema where actual historical locations were used as a strategy to market a film as well as familiarise its national audience with its own monuments of history. Filmgoers would have certainly seen cinema gazettes featuring the Port Arthur ruins previously, but never had the site been an actual (visual) feature of fictional narrative drama. In Victoria, J. & N. Tait distributed the film to packed houses at the Athenaeum in Collins Street for a then record number of weeks. The film was later sold on to Claude Kingston, the young theatrical entrepreneur, for £100. Touring the film throughout the Melbourne suburbs and Victorian country districts, accompanying Lecturer M. J. Bloomfield was so adept at narrating the story that in “country towns he had people fainting in their seats” (9).

The next For the Term of His Natural Life adaptation – The Life of Rufus Dawes (1911) – was the final of three films that Alfred Rolfe directed for Dampier’s son-in-law Charles Cozens Spencer. Spencer had taken over Dampier’s disintegrating theatre company along with its troupes (including Raymond Longford and Alfred’s wife Lillian Dampier). The first two films produced from Dampier’s “back-catalogue” were Captain Midnight (1911) and an adaptation of Rolf Boldrewood’s Robbery Under Arms, retitled as Captain Starlight (1911). Longford, who Spencer did not initially like as a director, made his screen acting debut in Captain Midnight and played the cannibalistic Matt Gabbett in the 1911 adaptation of Clarke’s novel. Very little is known about The Life of Rufus Dawes – the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA, Canberra) holds no records that even register its existence. Ross Cooper, however, understands that Sydney was the shooting location for the entire film, with no footage shot at Port Arthur or in Tasmania. Possibly the best thing about this film – as with Spencer’s other Dampier works – was its photography by Tasmanian Ernest Higgins. Born in Hobart, Higgins became a bioscope operator in Hobart in 1903 and started shooting “exhibit scenes” after buying his first camera in 1904. In 1905, Spencer hired Higgins to tour many of the French and American films he’d purchased. From 1908 Ernest began shooting gazettes, then features until his brother, Arthur (considered one of the best cameraman of the era), replaced him as Spencer’s principal cinematographer, beginning with The Fatal Wedding (Raymond Longford) in 1911. Also in 1911, Rolfe left Spencer’s company for the Australian Photo-Play Co. to produce another (Sydney shot) Van Diemen’s Land film, The Lady Outlaw (aka The Tasmanian Lady). In the plot, Dorothy follows her convict husband to the penal settlement only to discover that he – the swine! – has escaped and subsequently married another woman. Joining a band of escaped convicts cum bushrangers she is eventually captured. The film is important as the only known bushranger film that prominently features a female protagonist. Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper are of the understanding that its most positive response occurred in Tasmania when it toured there in September 1911 (10).

Of the 50 Australian films released in 1911, at least eight were convict films with most set in Van Diemen’s Land (albeit most were shot in Sydney) and directed by John Gavin (11). John’s wife, Agnes, wrote most of his “convict” scenarios and as Cooper understands:

managed to give them a melodramatic impact with the twisting of her plots, and she like Longford was keen to make the most of the Anglo-Australian story bridge that transportation provided. This linking of England and Australia in the plots was good box-office, since interest in things English and the “home” land still ran high in Australia in 1911. (12)

Agnes’ general plot – borrowed from Clarke – has a relatively innocent man deported to Van Diemen’s Land who becomes enamoured with his overseer’s woman. Because of the bushranger film ban, which was enforced from 1911, a film that could be marketed as a convict story – rather than a bushranger one – seemed to have a better chance of avoiding any censorship, even if the film, paradoxically, included sequences of bushranging. The Assigned Servant (1911) is just one example (13). Ralph Frawley is transported to Van Diemen’s Land for rabbit poaching. After falling in love with his supervisor’s daughter, and being sent back to prison, he escapes to a life of bushranging including a “bail up” of a Royal Mail stagecoach and a beating of a police officer. Whereas the police a year earlier recommended banning the Ben Hall bushranger film The Squatter’s Daughter (Bert Bailey, 1910), The Assigned Servant avoided any ban whatsoever.

Gavin’s next film was Assigned to His Wife – also completed in 1911 (14). After Captain Danvers discovers that his lover, Bess Wilmont, is married to Jack Throsbie, he frames him on a charge of treason and has him transported to the Port Arthur penal settlement. Bess follows Jack to Australia and Danvers (as luck would have it) is transferred to Van Diemen’s Land. In a bid to win her back, Danvers assigns Throsbie as Bess’ servant. In one highly charged scene, Throsbie bars Danvers from molesting Bess. Danvers removes Throsbie from Bess’ abode and imprisons him in an isolated hut. Throsbie’s faithful Aboriginal friend, Yacki-Yack, saves him by diving 250 feet over a cliff and into a river. Shortly thereafter, Throsbie is vindicated and along with Bess and Yacki-Yack he returns to England bidding good riddance to Van Diemen’s Land. A staple of the early Van Diemen’s Land film is how the environment is directly blamed for the dire situation for which the characters find themselves trapped. And even indigenous peoples, such as Yacki-Yack, ultimately choose foreign exotic locations over Van Diemen’s Land.

Despite some opportunistic pre-release marketing (where it was promoted as For the Term of His Natural Life), Gavin’s next film – His Convict Bride (1918) – wasn’t an adaptation of Clarke’s novel, nor was it even set in Van Diemen’s Land. Bess Shelgrove is (wrongly) accused of stealing money in her job as a bank clerk in England in 1813. Transported to Botany Bay, she escapes the penal settlement and meets bushman Jack Warren, to whom she marries and bears his child. Unable to escape her past, she is blackmailed and once again gaoled, only to be exonerated of her previous crime. Because Gavin’s other convict films were so closely linked with Clarke’s novel and its plot, as well as its Gothic themes, he probably felt that working under the banner of For the Term of His Natural Life was no big deal. Clarke’s daughter Marion, however, felt differently and threatened legal action if the film was released under its working title. Regardless of already publicising the film as such, and exhibiting a number of theatrical posters, “For the Term of His Natural Life” became His Convict Bride.

Theatrical poster of His Convict Bride before and after the title was altered.

Theatrical poster of His Convict Bride after the title was altered. Interestingly the poster lists the released title as The Convict’s Bride despite all reference sources listing it as “His Convict Bride”. Did the film play under two titles?

By the early 1920s, colonists and bush pioneers had become the popular characters of Australian film drama. This is evidenced by the bush melodramas On Our Selection (Raymond Longford, 1920), The Man From Snowy River (Beaumont Smith and John K. Wells, 1920), The Jackeroo of Coolabong (Wilfred Lucas, 1920), A Girl of the Bush (Franklyn Barrett, 1921) and Rudd’s New Selection (Raymond Longford, 1921), all of which did a booming trade for Australian exhibitors. Convict films were still made – for example, The Life Story of John Lee (Robert Scott, 1921) – but no longer was Van Diemen’s Land the popular stage to play out such horrific acts against humanity. From the late 1910s, the Tasmanian Government began to actively oppose films that represented the state as nothing more than a nightmarish penal settlement. Tasmania was desperate to move on from its convict past, and films dramatising such histories were accused of retarding this cause.

In March 1918 a censorship board – including three men and two women – was established in Tasmania with the power to exercise complete control over the films exhibited in the state. Notwithstanding the board being briefly suspended in 1919, it was reinstated in 1920 and was conducted on an annual basis until 1934 (15). When the announcement came in 1926 that Australasian Pictures Ltd. were adapting Clarke’s novel, to be directed by Raymond Longford, the Tasmanian government and censorship board, as expected, voiced great concern. What sort of film would be produced? How would Tasmania be represented? How would this representation be externally perceived?

Raymond Longford’s For the Term of His Natural Life

Longford penned the screenplay with his son Victor. Now in storage at the NFSA, much of the unproduced screenplay is devoted to characters surviving the horrors of Port Arthur. “What sort of spot is Port Arthur?”, Meekin queries after receiving word that he has been appointed the settlement’s chaplain. By making it a hermetic story about a specific penal settlement, broader condemnation of Tasmania is restricted. Gabbett’s cannibalism, for instance, is more of a cautionary tale rather than evidence of his savagery. In this version the requisite sequence ends with him and Vetch surrendering, with both having learnt a valuable lesson about humanity. Never again will they attempt to defy the law and escape. As a form of redemption, in the finale, Gabbett takes care of Frere (the narrative’s true evil character) by dragging him into the sea in order to assure Dawes’ successful escape from Port Arthur. Longford’s screenplay also gave the story a happy ending by having Sylvia and Dawes miraculously survive the cyclone that strikes them while aboard their getaway ship en route to Sydney.

Regardless of the screenplay pacifying the Tasmanian Government, it was not long before Longford was replaced on the project by American director and cameraman Norman Dawn. Notwithstanding Longford’s public outrage and condemnation of Dawn during his deposition to the Royal Commission (“Dawn is a cameraman not a producer”), he initially accepted the decision, with Australasian promising him more directing assignments – they fulfilled this promise with Hills of Hate (Longford, 1926), despite not renewing his contract thereafter. Australasian’s opinion was that an American director was more capable of producing a film of international “quality” that could penetrate global (and especially American) film markets. Longford took a similar view, having insisted on using Fox cameraman, Len Roos, as the principal cinematographer during his involvement with the production.

Roos had been in Australia from 1924 filming newsreels and travelogues, and during this time he had shot Longford’s previous Australasian film, Sunrise (Longford and F. Stuart-Whyte, 1926) (16). Regardless of Roos being an exceptionally competent cameraman, with Hollywood experience to boot, his real strength was being equipped with no fewer than five cameras for specialised cinematography, including two Debries and a “pancake” Akeley (17). Either Roos or Dawn brought a second Bell & Howell to Australia, the famous American camera that D. W. Griffith insisted cameraman Billy Bitzer use on his films including The Birth of a Nation (1915) and America (1924).

Dawn had worked for a significant time as a cameraman on Hollywood “B”-movies – Destiny (Rollin S. Sturgeon, 1919) and The Right To Happiness (Allen Holubar, 1919) – and then as a director on such films as After Marriage (1925) and Justice of the Far North (1925). In 1926, he was in Australia promoting Typhoon Love (1925), and shooting stock footage with Roos for his Australian-Hollywood feature (which he would later abandon). Roos had introduced Dawn to a number of industry players, including company director of Australasian, William Gibson. Dawn’s reputation was for being somewhat of a pioneer of special effects, having possibly been the first to use a “glass shot” device where objects were added to the shot by painting them onto a sheet of transparent glass that was positioned between the camera and the set. Dawn also had experience with matte shots and the use of miniatures (18). Such skills were “cash-in-the-bank” for studio executives who saved on production costs, allowing them to invest more heavily in acquiring marquee stars. Dawn had worked in Hollywood for almost two decades and was a proven talent for shooting quality productions (albeit mostly gazettes and travelogues) in foreign locations and under budget. His international connections and track record, of always finding distribution, made him too enticing a prospect for Gibson to ignore. After preliminary talks and Australasian agreeing to inflate the production budget to £50000 – when most Australian films cost around £2000 – Dawn signed on as director.

Norman Dawn’s For the Term of His Natural Life

Despite keeping some of Longford’s key alterations to Clarke’s novel (such as Sylvia and Dawes not dying), Dawn discarded Longford’s script, and instead opted to use his own copy of Clarke’s novel as a guide. In a letter attached to the novel, scribbled with his annotated notes and marks from the production, now in the collections at the NFSA, Dawn mentions how “I carried it around in my raincoat pocket – often went over it while I worked”. In his annotated copy many lines of plot exposition and sometimes of dialogue are underlined. In a column featuring an overblown headshot of Dawn (covering more space than the text), the trade journal, The Film Weekly, sent its “Good Cheer!” on the eve of the production’s shoot: “we wish the director and company the best of all wishes, good luck and in particular, good weather” (19). During the production’s shoot, The Film Weekly regularly reported on Tasmania’s enthusiasm for seeing Port Arthur used as a shooting location. In its regular column, “Tasmanian Topics”, an item entitled “Real Movie Actors!” reported on the “hundreds of curious and eager sightseers” who had become part of the shoot’s event (20). The Film Weekly trumpeted the industry’s sentiment (or perhaps hope) that the film’s success could/would launch Tasmania as a popular “film friendly” location for local and international productions.

Despite not all agreeing that the film was a blessing for Tasmania, those that vehemently objected seemed to be marking their own territory. As Michael Roe understands it, the shoot’s most vocal naysayers (besides Longford) were members of the Royal Society of Tasmania, led by the Director of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, C. E. Lord. Also a Rotarian and employee for the Hobart Development League, Lord’s interest was preservation, and certainly, he was always going to respond negatively to a motion picture exploiting Port Arthur for the sake of mere entertainment (21). A crisis meeting of the Royal Society of Tasmania on 23 July 1926 to discuss the forthcoming production (shooting was scheduled for early September) agreed: “It is considered that such a proposal would be very bad advertisement for Tasmania” (22). On 27 July the Hobart Mercury lent support by assaulting the film project in an emotively titled article, “Tasmania’s Reputation and England’s”:

In our opinion the filming of the story named would be, as the Hobart and Launceston members of the Royal Society, aver, one of the worst advertisements that Tasmania could possibly have. There are higher and more important considerations than those of business or financial solvency involved in keeping one’s “good name”. It is a matter of extreme regret that any paltering whatever should be countenanced where it is a question between money and morals, as touching the future reputation of Tasmania with the world. (23)

Such sentiments, though, were in the minority, with most applauding the prospect of a large-scale production – with Hollywood stars to boot – in Tasmania. As John Tulloch claims, Australasian continually promoted this production’s big budget as a strategy to distinguish it from the roughhouse, cheap Australian bushranger/convict movie (24). Furthermore, the budget was reported, in the press, as a great boon to the Tasmanian and Australian economy: “Australia collects £25000 in local trade for The Term – £90 in nails alone – carpenters who cleared £23 a week” (25). What the big budget could buy was a world-class production unlike any other Australian movie. To generate some buzz by exciting the “movie mad” public, Australasian orchestrated a number of highly publicised press events including the arrival of Eva Novak into Sydney Harbour. In the footage (held at the NFSA) that circulated in newsreels at the time, Novak is mobbed as her car struggles to move through the (predominately male) crowd outside the Union Steam Ship Company building.

Trumpeting the studio’s equipment as being “in advance” of Hollywood, Australasian also conducted press tours of the place where the interior scenes would be shot, the Union Master Studio No. 2 at Bondi (26). Another selling point was authenticity, with location footage to be shot at Port Arthur and its surrounding wetlands. In one newsreel clip (held at the NFSA), Gibson and Dawn leave by ship to inspect locations at Port Arthur and Macquarie Harbour. Throughout the shoot, The Film Weekly published stills and location photographs from the production. Postcards featuring the stills were also available by mail-order from Australasian’s office.

Production still showing the filming of a scene with characters standing on a makeshift porch. The rocky shoreline and sea are visible and the crew and cast are positioned in the foreground watching.

Actors and film crew (with a harmonium player and violinist) in the group watching passengers step aboard the trolley.

“It tastes like pork”

Despite Australasian’s massive financial gamble, the film was not sanitised for a pious family audience. Still today, the macabre Gothic sequence of cannibalism, featuring convict Gabbett and his band of runaways, is quite unsettling. In Clarke’s deliciously entitled chapter – “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” – his prose of animalistic cannibalism is narrated with graphic wit:

Two more days pass, and the three, eyeing each other suspiciously, resume their march. The third day – the sixteenth of their awful journey – such portions of the carcase as they have with them prove unfit to eat. They look into each other’s famine-sharpened faces, and wonder “who next?” (27)

Dawn’s film makes few amendments to Clarke’s novel: the sequence ends with Gabbett – the last of his gang – trying to convince a troop of sailors that he is the innocent victim of a shipwreck. Not to be fooled, the sailors bind Gabbett and escort him back to Hobart Town.

The cannibal sequence has often been accused of being exploitative, as it has no great purpose in relation to the central plot. Clarke excused the cannibalism as historical truth, citing in his Appendix the trial and execution report of actual escaped convict cum cannibal, Alexander Pearce. Pearce’s cannibalism, which had been “popularised” through magic lantern slides, dime novels and newspaper stories, did little to change Tasmania’s somewhat sordid reputation as a fruitless and demonic swampland of impoverishment. The “accuracy” of Clarke’s portrayal, however, can be called into question, particularly his misrepresentation of the varied climate between the East and West Coast of Tasmania. As Tasmanian historian James Boyce posits:

Pearce’s journey was through country even the local Aborigines generally avoided, and that today only experienced bushwalkers, their packs heavily laden with supplies, occasionally traverse. Pearce’s fictional substitute, Gabbett, escaped from Port Arthur in the south east of Tasmania and headed north up the east coast, journeying through one of the most hospitable and benign environments for human habitation anywhere in Australia. Clarke was a Melbourne journalist who only fleetingly visited Tasmania in 1870. (28)

Dawn made few amendments to Clarke’s cannibalism sequence. To his gang of convict desperados, a salivating Gabbett declares, “I’ve done the same before boys… ‘n’ it tastes like pork”. Regardless of the starvation amongst his gang, Gabbett is the only member ghoulish enough, and mad enough, to feed off his comrades’ human flesh. Too weak to run (far and fast) and too scared to fight, the escapees already seem dead; their ravaged and starved faces, and ragged and muddied prison clothes identify them more as the walking dead – ghouls – than men with any life in them. And where they find themselves is hell – servants to Gabbett’s demon. One by one they are selected and sacrificed for his next meal. London actor, Arthur McLaglen (cast as Gabbett), did everything possible to make himself look devilish, including sporting a mouthful of false fangs and wildly matted hair. “[H]is shoulders and legs were marked with red gashes and he looked the picture of misery”, writes Brien Rieusset (29). Mean, hard and monstrous, publicity stories about McLaglen’s menacing ox-like strength during the shoot included him lugging a small organ up a rocky cliff (30).

Australasian saw great potential in McLaglen, and was enthusiastic to work with him on other projects (which they did on Dawn’s follow-up project, The Adorable Outcast [1928]). In a publicity campaign during For the Term of His Natural Life’s shoot, The Film Weekly featured a headshot of “Gabbett” juxtaposed with a publicity headshot of a clean-cut and shaved McLaglen. The caption titled – “What Whiskers Can do to a Man” – read:

Look at this fierce creature on the left and try and reconcile it with the handsome and manly features of the gentleman on the right. And yet both are one and the same man – Arthur McLaglen well-known boxer, vaudeville artist and motion picture star who as Matt Gabbett has temporarily sacrificed his good looks for the sake of Art. Arthur is some 6ft 3in in height and possesses a remarkable personality. His present venture is by no means his first in motion pictures as he has previously appeared in several British productions. (31)

Such stories helped with the film’s advertising, yet nothing could stop the cannibal sequence from coming under the censor’s watchful eye. In the House of Assembly it was described not only as “revolting and gruesome” but also as “calculated to discredit not only Australia but Great Britain” (32). The Prime Minister, Stanley Bruce, received complaints, and, questions were raised in parliament. Sydney’s Good Film League also began a campaign to see it banned. The Treasurer investigated, but no action was taken against the film in the end. The original version of the film, when submitted for export, was rejected, but the version approved in New South Wales (with the cannibal scenes reduced) was granted international distribution – despite the censor voicing significant reservations (33).


From Van Diemen’s Land the only true escape is death as the two pubescent convict boys – Tommy and Billy – attest by conceding to a suicide pact after hearing about the fatal flogging by Gabbett of their friend Cranky Brown. (Of course a flogging by the monstrous Gabbett would end in death.) The requisite scene was filmed at Eaglehawk Neck near the Blowhole. Standing on the cliff’s edge, looking down towards the crashing sea, Billy (the younger and smaller of the two) quakes: “Tom, I’m afraid it – it will hurt”. Billy assures him that it won’t, and that their escape will take them to heaven. Billy takes off his kerchief and binds himself to Tom. In a goodbye gesture (to this world anyway) the boys peck each other on the lips. Tom sends a prayer to his friend: “Cranky Brown – tell God we’re coming” (34). Too afraid to watch, Tom shields his eyes with his hands. The shot (as rendered in the restored version) freezes.

In his description of Sylvia and Dawes’ death, at the novel’s conclusion, Clarke writes: “These two human beings felt that they had done with life. Together thus, alone in the very midst and presence of death, the distinctions of the world they were about to leave disappeared. Their vision grew clear.” Death remains the key theme of For the Term of His Natural Life despite Dawn choosing the happy ending of Dawes and Sylvia’s survival. Dawn certainly could have claimed that his ending was faithful to Clarke’s serialisationof the story in The Australian Journal, which has Dawes return to his mother with Sylvia. A similar ending is also chosen to conclude the dreary 1983 Channel 9 miniseries. In this adaptation, after withstanding the cyclone, the ship arrives safely in Sydney Harbour. Sylvia recognises Dawes but remains silent about his identity. Dawes departs and ends up working at the Ballarat Goldfields.

Dawes enjoys his freedom until blackmailed by none other than his nemesis, Frere, who has tracked him to the goldfields. Frere hires the services of a reluctant local lawyer, Willis, to organise a private meeting at an outback barn. Dawes arrives at the barn and is greeted by Frere and Willis. Willis double-crosses Frere and shoots him dead. As Willis explains, he (known then as the 11-year-old Blinker) and Dawes had travelled as convicts aboard a prison ship to Van Diemen’s Land. Dawes, vindicated of his crime, accepts an invitation to join Sylvia for dinner at her father’s mansion in Sydney. In the garden, Sylvia greets him amongst her blooming roses. They gaze deeply into one another’s eyes. Although Sylvia holds a red rose in her hand, Dawes does not take its possession, but places his hand over hers. The camera moves into the rose and freezes. The credits roll. Van Diemen’s Land is now a distant memory – a nightmare not to be spoken of again.

In the 1927 film, when Sylvia discovers Dawes on board the Lady Franklin during the cyclone, their gaze into one another’s eyes mirrors the blubbery gaze that concludes this miniseries. For a long moment their eyes remain transfixed, with both looking as if they will collapse into a sobbing mess. Sylvia runs into Dawes’ arms, begging him: “Save me, life is doubly sweet – now”. The film cuts to the couple floating on a section of the destroyed ship. The sun is rising and the sea is calm. Van Diemen’s Land is now out of sight and a new land is on the horizon. They are free from their nightmare and ready for a new land. They embrace. The End.

The Release

After completing the shooting of all the location footage at Port Arthur, and the surrounding areas in Tasmania, the cast and crew were shipped back to Sydney to complete the studio interiors at the Bondi studios. Many of the original fittings and furniture were brought from Port Arthur to Sydney, also. However, before leaving, Dawn and Novak, along with other cast members, did a round of personal appearances to thank Tasmania for its support. The Film Weekly reported that an appearance at Hobart’s His Majesty’s Theatre was greeted by “a large attendance and most hearty reception”. The Governor, Sir James O’Grady, welcomed the cast onto the stage and Dawn spoke enthusiastically about Tasmania and the Australian film industry more generally. Arthur Tauchert, still enjoying his celebrity from Longford’s The Sentimental Bloke (1919), concluded the evening with a stirring rendition of C. J. Dennis’ “A Spring Song” (35). Further endorsement for the Australian film industry was contained in the announcement of Fred Phillips’ – of Phillips Film Productions – signing of Eva Novak at a weekly salary of £160 to star in six Australian features films.

For the Term of His Natural Life had its Tasmanian premiere on 29 October 1927 as a special 10:30am matinee at His Majesty’s Theatre in Liverpool Street, Hobart. The film was also shown at the City Hall. Governor O’Grady attended what Brian Rieusset heralded as a “very enthusiastic reception” at the nighttime screening on 29 October (36). Peculiarly, however, despite the hugely inflated budget and visible marketing campaign, Australasian did not take such indulgences when it came to hard copy print advertisements. Despite all of the attention given by The Film Weekly, the only official print advertisement to appear in the journal, in any form, was a stingy black-and-white text advertisement with no illustration. Rather than bring attention to the onscreen drama, the promotion concentrated on its massive box office bonanza.

In the weeks to follow, Australasian would update their previous advertisements with proof of why every exhibitor must include the film on their programme. One advertisement appearing on 7 July 1927 simply gloated: “The Sign that has never been taken down! House Full! Try Again Next Season!” The Royal Commission on the Moving Pictures in Australia, which ran from June 1927 until February 1928, (paradoxically) benchmarked For the Term of His Natural Life (before any distribution deals had been finalised) as the model that all Australian productions must follow: including American directors and actors was the key to enabling “the possibility of the film securing a release in the country from which the artists came” (37).

Reviews from the time were mixed but mostly positive, with Tasmania often heralded as a wonderfully scenic backdrop. A review in The Film Weekly, for instance, stated, “The photography is above praise. The magnificent scenery of Tasmania especially the coast line from Port Macquarie to Port Arthur, iron-bound and pierced with singular caverns, is in itself an entertainment de luxe while those scenes shot on the Hawkesbury are ravishingly beautiful”. This same review echoed a repeated sentiment: For the Term of His Natural Life would draw great international attention to Tasmania. To conclude: “Australasian Films Ltd. look like putting Australia on the map as a motion picture producing country” (38). Days earlier, Kenneth Wilkinson made similar comments in The Sydney Morning Herald:

it may be said with confidence that For the Term of His Natural Life is a distinct advance on any film yet produced in Australia, with the exception, perhaps, of The Sentimental Bloke… the inspiring natural scenery to be found in it, and the truly skilful way in which the director (Mr Norman Dawn) has dealt with the figures in some of his sets. (39)

Criticism of the film, however, was directed against Dawn for shying away from the novel’s melodramatic pathos: “a crudely written scenario and a multitude of weak captions”, Wilkinson went on to lament in his review. Internationally, American reviewers found the film to be missing the qualities of their superior productions. The Variety review for instance declared it

a jumbled story along Dumas’ Monte Christo [sic] lines, and directional laxity in keeping the threads of the yarn and characters apart, unfortunately cause an otherwise excellent production to fall short of the classification which it would most certainly have rated as the film epic on old penal life (40).

Despite the Royal Commission’s bullish optimism, For the Term of His Natural Life remained shelved in the US until 1929. This was because of the American block booking system meaning that – when eventually released – it had to compete with the new craze of the talkies (41). The film barely made a dent in the US box office. The film also failed to secure a market in Britain. Australia was the only country where it really boomed. And nor did Tasmania become a popular shooting location. A film that many hoped would relaunch the Australian (and Tasmanian) film industry became nothing more than a one-off local hit. After fulfilling their contract with Dawn, to produce The Adorable Outcast, Australasian stopped feature film production altogether. Dawn went back to Hollywood. As for Eva Novak’s contract with Phillips Film Productions, only one – The Romance of Runnibede (1928) – of the six productions that were slated were completed. Shortly after the film’s release, Novak’s backlog in salary had blown-out to £4240 and with Phillips declared bankrupt she joined Dawn back in America (42).


The film did enjoy a “mini renaissance” in 1981 when a newly restored version screened as the opening film at the Sydney Film Festival (directed at the time by David Stratton). When discussing the “restored” film, it needs to be recognised that the now available and circulating version (the one discussed in this article) is considerably different from that which toured Australian cinemas in 1927. Ray Edmondson invited film historian, Graham Shirley, to restore the decayed and fragmented film. The choice of Shirley seemed appropriate, for he had been pen-pals with Dawn since 1970, where amongst other artefacts – such as Dawn’s Australian chapbook – he had became custodian of Dawn’s annotated copy of Clarke’s novel, which Marion Marcus Clarke, daughter of Marcus, was said to have given him. (Marion was cast as Richard’s mother in the 1927 film.)

Shirley found the annotated copy to be invaluable when piecing together the missing sections of the film, and making sense of the original narrative that Australian audiences enthusiastically queued up to see. Unavailable to him was the synopsis and censorship records of the film (that would have included a detailed treatment). The film’s restoration was rather complex for its piecemeal narrative is a montage of many varied sources. A problematic conceit of Shirley and Edmondson was not to replicate the original, but create an “entirely new film” that could be enjoyed by contemporary audiences. As Edmondson explains:

But we were deliberately not purist about it because we knew we had to make allowances for the expectations of modern audiences if they were to really enjoy it. What was acceptable to a 1920s audience would not necessarily work for a 1980s audience; hence decisions like slowing down the story sequence to a realistic pace. We also had to accept that when the film [the restoration] went on theatrical release it would be shown in wide screen ration (1 to 1.85) instead of 1 to 1.33 because cinemas no longer had lenses for standard ratio… (43)

The Australian Film Commission (AFC) invested $68,030 in what they considered to be a “new film”; and as Shirley recollects, “from here the project grew in the public imagination as something worthy of the scale of the original production” (44). This funding enabled the restoration to replicate silent era colour tinting and toning, as well as a musical recording of scores from the period – arranged by the Palm Court Orchestra – to play as the soundtrack. According to a report in Cinema Papers, the extravagance of this restoration was the buzz of the 1981 Conference of the International Federation of Film Archives in Rapallo, Italy (45). Much of the problem that Shirley faced, however, was filling in the gaps of fragmented and missing footage. Some of this was done by “stretch-printing” (slowing down and repeating a selection of shots), including a number of publicity stills taken during the filming, and locating “lost footage” in the American print, intertitles and outtakes. Shirley wrote a number of new intertitles to explain missing footage and on-screen exposition. Shirley also included a number of freeze-frames to conclude a number of the sequences.

As it turned out, the most surprising place where footage was recovered was not in other prints, or other versions of the feature, but in Ken G. Hall’s Tasmanian travelogue, Ghosts of Port Arthur (1932), which had used clips from the feature including a Port Arthur penitentiary glass-shot and images of the shackled convicts ploughing a boggy field.

Production still of a scene from Dawn’s 1927 film that Ken G. Hall also used in his 1932 documentary Ghosts of Port Arthur.

In this 9-minute Cinesound travelogue, Hall visits scenic tourist destinations including the Derwent River, New Norfolk, Hobart and the Hobart Zoo, in addition to Port Arthur. Bert Bailey operates as the tour-guide, narrating the footage and leading a group through many of the sequences. Being granted permission to use footage from Dawn’s feature would probably not have been difficult considering that Hall in the early 1930s established Cinesound Productions with Stuart Doyle as part of Union Theatres-Australasian Films.

The use of Dawn’s footage in Ghosts of Port Arthur was intended to make an appropriate distinction between the old, “bad” Van Diemen’s Land and new, “good” tourist-friendly Tasmania. Bailey’s narration hysterically claims how any imprisonment on the island was entirely man (or animal) made. “[W]hat’s to stop him using the sea you might say? Well they thought of that too and daily fed the sharks which infested the bay.” The old and new – as Bailey’s narration overstates – share no kinship:

Port Arthur is a convict settlement that forms a page of our history that is just a memory with which contemporary Australia holds no association. The dark clouds that surrounded the settlement have been swept aside by the pioneering spirit of men and women settlers who laid the foundation of our nation.

By the early 1930s, the Tasmanian Government had revamped and restored Port Arthur as a scenic destination that housed hotels, restaurants and camping grounds for travellers. And in more recent times, the restored film has allowed the film to remain a popular educational text when discussing the cultural representation of convictism and Van Diemen’s Land. The film now enjoys special screenings at Port Arthur. This tourist-friendly penal settlement also displays one of Dawn’s famous glass-slides, together with theatre posters from the 1927 release.

For a film that the Tasmanian Historical Society once protested against, For the Term of His Natural Life, paradoxically, has become central to Port Arthur’s commodification and the broader mythology of the “Tasmanian Gothic”. An important film in the history of Australian cinema – “one of the most significant”, Ben Goldsmith claims (46) – its true significance in the late 1920s was in attempting to transform Tasmania into a “film-friendly” shooting location that could be used for international and local productions. Today the film remains seminal to any scholarly or creative attention given to the Tasmanian Gothic or the broader cultural subject of Van Diemen’s Land. As Emily Bullock writes:

Dawn’s film acts as an enduring source of knowledge about the convict era, its incorrigible subjects and brutal regimes, and exists as an indelible if melodramatic imprint of Tasmania’s troubled past. Both the text and the films were to convey the harsh, desolate loneliness of convictism in Van Diemen’s Land, establishing its reputation as a hellish natural prison at the “end of the world”. (47)

This article has been peer reviewed


  1. Emily Bullock, “Rumblings from Australia’s Deep South: Tasmanian Gothic On-screen”, Studies in Australasian Cinema vol. 5, no. 1, 2011, p. 73.
  2. Charles Dickens, The Life and Adventure of Martin Chuzzlewit, Chapman and Hall, London, 1844, p. 622.
  3. Marcus Clarke, For the Term of His Natural Life, Penguin Books, Melbourne, 2009, p. 96.
  4. John Rickard, Australia: A Cultural History, Longman, London, 1988, p. 73.
  5. “Tasmania Invites You To Share Her Charms!”, The Mercury 9 September 1926, p. 14: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article29458084.
  6. Viola Tait in her autobiography incorrectly cites this production as happening in 1888. See Tait, A Family of Brothers, Heinemann, Melbourne, 1971, p. 52.
  7. The Sydney Morning Herald 7 June 1886, p. 8.
  8. Philip Parsons, Concise Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, Sydney, 1997, p. 105.
  9. Ross Cooper, And the Villain Still Pursued Her: Origins of Film in Australia, unpublished PhD dissertation, Australian National University, Canberra, 1971, p. 210.
  10. Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper, Australian Film 1900-1977: A Guide to Feature Film Production, rev. ed., Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1998, p. 24.
  11. Convict films not set in Van Diemen’s Land were generally set at Botany Bay. The Romantic Story of Margaret Cathpole (Raymond Longford, 1911) offers one example.
  12. Cooper, p. 330.
  13. Before this film, Gavin directed The Mark of the Lash (1911), his only film for the Australian Photo-Play Company. However, with no public screenings traced and no reviews or production notes in existence, it is impossible to know whether this film was set in Van Diemen’s Land.
  14. In the only error I can find in Ina Bertrand’s definitive book, Film Censorship in Australia, she claims that The Assigned Servant and Assigned to His Wife are different titles of the same film. See Bertrand, Film Censorship in Australia, Queensland University Press, St. Lucia, 1978.
  15. Bertrand, p. 59.
  16. Longford had himself replaced F. Stuart-Whythe – midway through the shoot and for reasons unknown – on his previous film. See Pike and Cooper, p. 134.
  17. Martha Ansara, The Shadowcatchers: History of Cinematography in Australia, Australian Cinematographers Society, North Sydney, 2012, p. 24.
  18. Graham Shirley and Brian Adams, Australian Cinema: The First Eighty Years, Currency Press, Sydney, 1989, p. 90.
  19. “Director Dawn”, The Film Weekly 2 September 1926, p. 6.
  20. “Director Dawn”, p. 6.
  21. This article was republished verbatim in the 2001 monograph on the film. See Brien Rieusset and Michael Roe, For the Term of His Natural Life, Port Arthur Historical Site Management Authority, Port Arthur, 2001.
  22. Michael Roe, “The Filming of His Natural Life”, Journal of Australian Studies vol. 13, no. 24, 1989, p. 39.
  23. “Tasmania’s Reputation – and England’s”, The Mercury 27 July 1926, p. 6.
  24. John Tulloch, Legends on the Screen: The Australian Narrative Cinema, 1919-1929, Currency Press, Sydney, 1981, p. 312.
  25. Tulloch, p. 314.
  26. Tulloch, p. 313.
  27. Clarke, p. 341.
  28. James Boyce, Van Diemen’s Land, Black Inc, Melbourne, 2008, p. 2.
  29. Rieusset in Rieusset and Roe, p. 44.
  30. Rieusset in Rieusset and Roe, p. 44.
  31. The Film Weekly 25 November 1926, p. 12.
  32. Bertrand, p. 121.
  33. Bertrand, p. 149.
  34. Clarke, p. 440.
  35. The Film Weekly 25 November 1926, p. 16
  36. Rieusset in Rieusset and Roe, p. 54.
  37. Australian Government, The Royal Commission on the Moving Picture Industry in Australia 1926-1928, Government of Commonwealth of Australia: Report of Recommendations, 1928, p. 12.
  38. The Film Weekly 30 June 1927, p. 6.
  39. Kenneth Wilkinson, Sydney Morning Herald 27 June 1927, p. 10.
  40. Variety 12 June 1929.
  41. Pike and Cooper.
  42. Tulloch, p. 339
  43. Graham Shirley, “Restoring ‘For the Term of His Natural Life’”, National Film and Sound Archive: http://www.nfsa.gov.au/collection/film/restoring-term-his-natural-life/
  44. “Overseas Interest in Restoration of Australian Films”, Cinema Papers no. 33, July-August 1981, p. 221.
  45. “Overseas Interest in Restoration of Australian Films”, p. 221.
  46. Ben Goldsmith, “For the Term of His Natural Life”, Directory of World Cinema: Australia and New Zealand, ed. Ben Goldsmith and Geoff Lealand, Intellect, Bristol, 2010, p. 134.
  47. Bullock, p. 74.