The 1950s were not good years for feature filmmaking in Australia, still less so for Australians making films. There were two releases to exhibitors in 1950: Britsh company Ealing’s Bitter Springs (Ralph Smart) and the substantially American ersatz B-western, The Kangaroo Kid (Lesley Selander). In 1951, two very minor locals and Twentieth Century-Fox’s muddle in Technicolor, Kangaroo (Lewis Milestone). 1952’s offerings were to be the forgettable and since forgotten The Farrer Story (Arthur Greville Collins) and Night Club (A. R. Harwood) (1). In the not too distant future would be television. This is the context into which two émigré New Zealanders, Colin Scrimgeour and Cecil Holmes, undertook Captain Thunderbolt, a 1951 project on an Australian bushranging theme.
Holmes was a Palmerston North boy. “On one bleak night I biked across town and viewed the greatest double-bill of all time. Hitchcock’s The Thirty-nine Steps and Grierson’s [sic] Night Mail… I decided there and then that I must make films.” (2) With five years in the navy and five in New Zealand government documentary behind him, Holmes was embarking on the direction of his first full-length fictional drama – Captain Thunderbolt.
In a key location, the local bar, we see (and hear):
The entrance of a dubiously toffy-kitsch policeman in mufti (piano and singer soft). An extended left-to-right track along the country-town drinkers (barroom piano bouncy), steadying at the end on the singer beside the now loud piano. She smiles in invitation; beyond, a poster is slightly out of focus. “Then I saw the girl and, with her, the way it could be done.” At the top of her velvet dress sits an elaborate brooch. The piano thumps strongly.
We are drawn into the cautious complicity of a dirty deal:
“A nice tune!” Knowing stare: “It’s called ‘I’m Looking for an Angel’”. “An angel?” (in this barroom?) “Or a devil.” Saloon-girl facing copper very close, the pianist hard at work with his back to the camera. Voiceover: “The girl’s name was Belle; the men would tell her anything”. She slips to the bar with her own brand of enticement. The pianist, a stub of unlit cigar in craggy face (he knows this score). The two, the Wanted poster in silent witness – a toast: “To an angel”. “Or to a devil.” Fade to black.
At the 36-minute mark of surviving prints of Holmes’ film the arc of the story changes. An ineffective search for escapees is to become an informed pursuit of criminals. The film’s tone has darkened in the intense, claustrophobic effect of this key sequence.
Throughout the film Holmes delivers telling metaphor (the revolvers in the blanket), striking viewpoints (the lone warder stumbling far down in the vacated quarry), strong compositions (the fight seen in shadow in the woolshed), and vigorous movement (the pair of horses galloping full into a camera which is panning fast across while tracking back). Most of it is action in landscape. A shot is a shot. Foreground and background. No zooms, but alive with dolly and pan. The dialogue is simple and direct, and the voiceover frequent.
Here, this key sequence is indoors, with a close image and insistent sound. The talk is minimal, oblique, virtually double double entendre as to who is the angel and who the devil. The drama rises reflectively from the pugilist visage, the tough demeanour and the in-scene music of a character who does not speak: the observing pianist.
The sequence comprises eleven shots lasting for three-and-a-half minutes. It commences with two blunt exterior shots, and continues with a set of interiors:
- Close-up of text: “Five Hundred Pounds Reward”, panning down to “Dead or Alive”.
- Trooper Mannix reading the poster, in voiceover: “my own way… went visiting”.
- A hint of song moves us to a barroom with the bottoms of two beer mugs filling the screen; as they lower, a dark figure enters; the two drinkers turn away in symmetrical movement; the camera begins to travel as the policeman moves down the bar, coming to rest on two younger drinkers; they too turn away.
- A long minute of further travelling to fix at last on the critical character, the saloon singer; the camera follows to the side table.
- Smartly into reverse angle, Mannix now with Belle in a close two-shot for a heavily meaningful exchange; the free hands approach; in symmetry, a draining of glasses.
- Same angle forward; the working back of the pianist.
- Picking up from position 3, Belle now close with one youth.
- Closer from 6, the pianist looks around, aware.
- Closer from 7, the youth whispering to the girl.
- As 8, now a big close-up, held briefly, the pianist’s near manic grin.
- Again the reversed angle of 5, again in close two-shot: the inducement, the payment, the hint, the toast, the departures, into fade-out.
Tension is introduced in the third and fourth shots by the long 100 seconds of sideways travel taken by the camera. It is also heightened by the long forty seconds of the reverse angle fifth shot and resolved in another long forty seconds in the matching eleventh. Between those two takes, which contain minimal dialogue, the shots alternate sharply with no speech to be heard; nearing climax, at 10, the grin from the pianist is expressionist in an otherwise naturalistic treatment. In shot 11, the key word “farm” barely floats up. From the song first heard at the opening of the door, then the piano being faded up and down to match the plot developments, the barroom has been filled with soundtrack tension that matches the pointed insights of the prying camera.
Working with Holmes, a novice in drama, were the leading cinematographer Ross Wood, the accomplished recordist (and fellow New Zealander) Robert Allen, and the very experienced editor Margaret Cardin. The assistant director, Rodric Adamson, told me at the time that the film was an adventurous labour of love for the crew, that everyone was excited to be working on a film that was informed by cinematic art. To me, now, this agile and engaging set piece is evidence of those skills and justifies those sentiments. It is bravura that must have exhausted, yet thrilled, the cast and crew.
The strength of the film overall is marred for viewers by the mediocre quality of the 16mm prints (all that is currently known to exist) held by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. Miserably, from the 69 minutes of the Australian cinema release, they offer the 53 evidently used on British, and probably Australian, television. Everyone interested in the film should arrange to see the VHS tapes available under “access” from the Archive, but for reference purposes, not as a viewing of the proper film. Certainly, the construction of the barroom sequence can be studied in detail from the tape, and rewardingly so, along with much else that is inventive and striking.
In June 2010, at the Sydney Film Festival, the Archive announced the commencement of “Australia’s Lost Films – Search and Rescue”, known briefly as ALFSAR, centred on finding decent and/or full versions of Captain Thunderbolt. Much interesting material, background articles, freshly unearthed stills and the newly recognised trailer, went up on the Archive website at that time. The trailer, which is also on YouTube, does give a fair idea of the image quality of the original film, though its sloganeering was devised for its eventual minor release as a sort of B-western.
In itself, Captain Thunderbolt could and should have been a brave work of cinema art and a key moment in Australian cinema. As it turned out, the Australian film renaissance had to wait another 20 years. If ever the original material can be brought to the light of some projector, the merits and stature of the film, and of Cecil Holmes and colleagues, will again be properly evident in the key moment described above and throughout the much-to-be-desired full-length film.