This is an extended and amended version of an article that first appeared in Directory of World Cinema: Australia & New Zealand, edited by Ben Goldsmith and Geoff Lealand (Intellect: Bristol and Chicago, 2010): 25-26.
Although born in New Zealand, Cecil Holmes is nevertheless one of the most significant and ambitious filmmakers to work in Australia between the 1950s and the 1970s. A dedicated leftist, in fact a communist, his work consistently demonstrated a humanitarian commitment to the socially disenfranchised, ranging from the underlying capitalist conditions that force decent citizens into bushranging and stealing, to the social, political, cultural and economic conditions confronting Indigenous communities in contemporary Australia. After starting his career with New Zealand’s National Film Unit – where he made the Grierson-like short, The Coaster (1948), and Golden Bay (1949), amongst others – Holmes instigated the first public-service strike in his homeland, and not long after fled to Australia. His initial work in his new country was completed under John Heyer at the Shell Film Unit, hardly the most apt or nurturing environment for a filmmaker of Holmes’s overriding political, social and cultural allegiances. Moving out from under such corporate and governmental patronage was certainly the making of Holmes as a filmmaker, even if he then often struggled to get his subsequent films of the 1950s into the marketplace and onto screens.
In the 1950s, Holmes briefly moved from his background (and future) in documentary to feature-film production, but all of his work demonstrates a keen eye and ear for the actuality of the moment being captured. Although he is often regarded as a maverick director who struggled hard to make films – he did complete only two full-length features in a relatively long career – he nevertheless produced a substantial body of work for a variety of governmental, corporate and philanthropic organisations, as well as at the behest of such individuals as the successful Australian leftist author, Frank Hardy. Across this period and beyond, Holmes was also a significant contributor to publications such as Walkabout, The Bulletin, Overland and Meanjin, writing astute articles on a range of topics including the parlous state of Australian film production, the introduction of television and various aspects of Indigenous culture.
Holmes is most well-known to contemporary commentators on Australian cinema, if at all, for these highly idiosyncratic features, Captain Thunderbolt (1953) and Three in One (1956), two of only a very small number of truly local feature films made during the 1950s. Inspired by Frank Clune’s 1948 book about 19th-century bushrangers, Wild Colonial Boys, Captain Thunderbolt is an idiosyncratic, inventive, if at times predictable story of downtrodden individuals driven to lives of crime. Fred Ward (Grant Taylor) and Alan Blake (Charles “Bud” Tingwell) are sentenced to hard labour on Cockatoo Island after being found guilty of horse stealing by the repressive colonial authorities. While working on a chain-gang they break free and escape to the “mainland” and take up the life of bushranging (Ward quickly adopting the epithet of “Captain Thunderbolt”). Enjoying their cavalier lifestyle, they mostly steal from the decadent capitalist class and gain the sympathy of many in the community…
Captain Thunderbolt is one of the most bracing and visually adventurous of bushranger films, a truly home-grown genre stunted in its growth by the New South Wales government’s ban on the form from the early 1910s until the late 1940s. Not surprisingly for a film directed by the left-wing Holmes, it emphasises the social, political and cultural circumstances that lead Ward to a life of crime. It also draws upon Holmes’s experience in documentary – particularly visually – and his own tastes and background as a cinephile. For example, Holmes’s exaggerated portrayal of the capitalist squattocracy and the higher echelons of the legal system, and, at times, highly expressive and self-conscious visual style – most famously evidenced in the shot where the camera peers upwards through a glass table – is plainly indebted to his sympathetic knowledge of Soviet Montage and Eisenstein’s theories of character typology. The very real and deliberate limits of characterisation are also partly a result of this key, formative influence.
Like Holmes’s subsequent feature, Captain Thunderbolt met with little success or sympathetic distribution in Australia after it was completed. Financed and produced independently of the local distribution and exhibition system – which was largely controlled by US and British interests – it struggled for several years to gain a very limited Australian release. A relatively low-budget film costing £15,000, it was produced by a company attempting to break into and pre-empt the market for television drama (a medium that was not launched in Australia until late 1956). Ultimately, it gained a release in Europe and the US, approximately doubling its return on budget from these sales.1
Shot mostly on location in the rural region of New England in early 1951, Captain Thunderbolt is less impressive as a whole – there are numerous clumsily staged scenes and performances – than it is for individual moments and points of emphasis. For example, it contains a very sympathetic representation of a female Aboriginal character, an aspect that perhaps reveals and points towards Holmes’s more sustained interest in Indigenous issues in his documentaries of the 1960s and 1970s such as I, the Aboriginal (1961), Faces in the Sun (1965) and The Islanders (1968), often made in collaboration with his wife, anthropologist and activist Sandra Le Brun Holmes. But equally striking is the form of the film itself. Although some of the gaps of narrative and continuity can probably be accounted for by the shorter television version that now survives in the archives, the film’s mode of address and point-of-view are consistently innovative, if not always totally successful in their delivery. Therefore, although the most sympathetic, iconic and appropriately dashing character is obviously “Captain Thunderbolt”, the voiceover is actually given to the policemen – one of whom tells the story through a very self-conscious flashback. Although this could be explained away in terms of the film’s perspective being aligned with the forces of law, the odd, arch and often harsh tone of this voiceover routinely underplays such a possibility. Although the film’s largely positive view of bushranger life is hardly unique, it does reflect a key shift in the leftist understanding and use of folk culture in this period – the soundtrack features various folk ballads including “The Wild Colonial Boy” – and the kinds of stories it can tell us about the history of class inequity and social injustice. Captain Thunderbolt is both a curious anomaly in Holmes’s career – his only real attempt at genre filmmaking – and totally in keeping with his broader preoccupations, politics and values.
But, as suggested above, Captain Thunderbolt is also one of the key “lost” films of Australian cinema history, with only the shortened 16mm TV print seemingly surviving to the present day.2 Beautifully shot by Ross Wood – one of Australia’s greatest cinematographers who went on to lens numerous documentaries including Heyer’s epochal The Back of Beyond (1954) – a proper indication of its outstanding visual qualities is, at least for now, only able to be glimpsed in the surviving 35mm trailer. But even in this bowdlerised form, Captain Thunderbolt remains a vital entry in the pre-history of Australian cinema prior to the 1970s “revival”.
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Captain Thunderbolt (1953 Australia 69/53 mins)
Prod Co: Associated T.V. Prod: John Wiltshire Dir: Cecil Holmes Scr: Creswick Jenkinson Phot: Ross Wood Ed: Margaret Cardin Art Dir: Keith Christie Mus: Sydney John Kay
Cast: Grant Taylor, Charles “Bud” Tingwell, Rosemary Miller, Harp McGuire, John Fegan, Jean Blue