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): 26-27.
Cecil Holmes’s Three in One (1956) represents one of the highpoints of postwar Australian cinema, reframing the common or characteristic theme of “mateship” within more explicitly leftist contexts. But what is most remarkable about the film – which is admittedly uneven in quality, possibly inevitably so considering its tripartite form – is its visual style, both reaffirming and transforming the common preoccupations commonly found in Australian landscape cinema. Also significant are the international models of filmmaking aesthetics that it openly draws upon, ranging from Soviet Montage to Italian neorealism. These plainly visible influences also betray Holmes’s cinephilia; he was a key figure in the New Zealand film society movement of the 1940s, and ran a company, New Dawn Films, that distributed European cinema later in the 1950s.
It is nevertheless the middle section of Three in One, based Frank Hardy’s short story “The Load of Wood”, that remains a classic Australian expression of colloquial understatement, providing a minimally worded, visually high contrast and largely location-shot paean to worker unity during the bleak days of the 1930s Depression. Such a bold emphasis was not surprising as both Captain Thunderbolt (1953), the director’s previous feature, and Three in One were funded independently by companies or figures sympathetic to Holmes’s leftist views.
Three in One, self-evidently, contains three separate stories surveying the distinctively Australian theme of “mateship”, introduced by the somewhat plumy tones of significant “local” star John McCallum who is “captured” relaxing between performances of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea in his Theatre Royal (Sydney) dressing room. This trilogy of ostensibly stand-alone short films moves in time from the 1890s through the early Great Depression to the hustle-and-bustle of modern mid-1950s Sydney. Though thematically related, each of the three stories takes a different tone and approach, ranging from the initial, often comic, sun-scorched adaptation of Henry Lawson’s profoundly laconic “The Union Buries its Dead”, titled “Joe Wilson’s Mates”, through the atmospheric, isolated, low-key night-time rural setting of “The Load of Wood”, to the more anonymous – though distinctly Sydney-set – treatment of Ralph Peterson’s original story and script, “The City”. The first two stories of Three in One, in particular, highlight the relation of figures to iconic and distinctive Australian landscapes, though each is equally preoccupied with what might constitute community in each of these isolated environments and situations. The closer the film gets to the present day the more it moves away from such conceptions of community, the final part focusing predominantly on the more conventional cinematic and narratological framework of the romantic couple. But even in this final section – which presents an uncommonly gritty view of Australian life – the couple are characteristically assisted by their workmates and the communal possibilities of modern life are subtly indicated.
Although rarely screened, Three in One is one of the most singular, significant and impressive features made in Australian between World War II and the film revival of the 1970s. The only truly local feature film released in 1957, it is a profoundly independent work that robustly demonstrates Holmes’s idiosyncratic and visionary filmmaking capabilities. A significant aesthetic advance on the more piecemeal triumphs of Captain Thunderbolt, Three in One nevertheless failed to attain a proper Australian commercial release on its completion, individual episodes ultimately being screened as supporting shorts by a local exhibitor.1 This sits in contrast to the film’s international distribution which, although hardly lucrative, saw it being released in numerous European countries and New Zealand, and garnering awards and strong critical notices at the Edinburgh and Karlovy Vary film festivals in 1956.2
The strongest section of Three in One is definitely its middle one. Initially designed as a short film in its own right, and financed by the European earnings of Hardy’s celebrated novel Power Without Glory, “The Load of Wood” is a brilliantly shot – by the great Ross Wood – and acted two-hander that evocatively summons up a palpably chilly atmosphere and tension. In many respects, the opening story is the weakest, and is certainly the most leisurely and digressive entry in the trilogy. It does feature some striking exterior shots with low-angle framing, creating vistas that are reminiscent of late 1920s Soviet cinema, a key point of reference for both Holmes’s visual style and his politics. But despite its pro-union stance, and display of game leftist sympathies in the context of the Cold War and a broader environment of anti-communism, this initial section is more concerned with creating a jovial atmosphere around the two songs contributed by a folk group (The Bushwacker’s Band, a group entirely distinct from the later and more famous, The Bushwackers) than any truly potent political or social message – though the use of such revived “folk” materials and sensibilities was also integral to leftist culture and social justice in this period. 3
The final section, “The City”, is both more conventional and somewhat bleaker than the two that precede it. It is also the section that moves farthest away from the broader concept of “mateship”. This “short” is less remarkable for the somewhat mundane domestic drama that unfolds – involving a young couple despairing about the cost of housing and stalling their marriage as a result – than its portrait of night-time Sydney (complete with a stark Sydney Harbour Bridge) as a hive of activity and forbidding shadows. Although far from film noir in its broader sensibility, the visual stamp of this imposing style certainly makes its mark. But Holmes’s model is equally that of neorealism, a key stylistic, thematic and, most importantly, ethical benchmark throughout his fiction and documentary work. In this regard, it is telling that the film’s poster promotes it, if somewhat hyperbolically, as “AUSTRALIA’S FIRST REALIST FILM”. Three in One stands, for all its inconsistencies, as Holmes’s greatest, and most dynamic and iconic contribution to Australian cinema.
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Three in One (1956 Australia 89 mins)
Prod Co: Australian Tradition Films Prod, Dir: Cecil Holmes Phot: Ross Wood Ed: A. William Copland Mus: Raymond Hanson Voiceover: John McCallum
“Joe Wilson’s Mates”
Scr: Rex Rienits, from the short story “The Union Buries its Dead” by Henry Lawson Cast: Edmund Allison, Reg Lye, Alexander Archdale, Charles Tasman, Don McNiven, Jerold Wells, The Bushwacker’s Band
“The Load of Wood”
Scr: Rex Rienits, from the story by Frank Hardy Cast: Jock Levy, Leonard Thiele, Ossie Wenban, John Armstrong
Scr: Ralph Peterson Cast: Joan Landor, Brian Vicary, Betty Lucas, Gordon Glenwright, Ken Wayne, Stewart Ginn
- “The Load of Wood” also screened as a stand-alone short at the 1957 Melbourne Film Festival, including as part of a package shown on opening night. ↩
- See Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper, Australian Film: 1900-1977 (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1998): 223; John Maddison, “Festival Reports: Edinburgh”, Sight and Sound 26.2 (Autumn 1956): 82-83. ↩
- See Deane Williams, Australian Post-War Documentary: An Arc of Mirrors (Bristol: Intellect, 2008), pp. 51-82. ↩