The Overlanders – 1946 | 91 mins | Adventure | B&W
The year 1946 saw the fruition of a project begun in the later stages of the war. Jack Beddington, an advertising man under whose control the filmmaking side of the Ministry of Information had flourished, had asked Balcon to have a look at the Australian war effort, which had been insufficiently depicted in film. With the thought of something like Nine Men in mind, its director Harry Watt was sent there with a roving brief to find and film a good war story. It turned out to be a difficult task. The Australians were making Rats of Tobruk, a documentary-style reconstruction of the siege of the Libyan port. Watt did not want to go for a similar war subject, and at first found that he was being called upon by Australian government departments to advise them on how to make documentaries. On one such visit to the Australian Ministry of Food, he heard a reference to a great cattle drive in 1942, when 100,000 head were driven halfway across the island continent in order to remove them from the reach of Japanese aerial attack.
Watt wanted to make something outdoors, Australian studio facilities were poor and the idea intrigued him. He flew off immediately to the Northern Territory to reconnoitre the route and find locations, and on his return started hammering out a script in between searching for basic equipment. Even cameras were difficult to obtain, and one of the two Mitchells used had been retrieved from a businessman’s safe where it had been held in lieu of an unredeemed debt. Ralph Smart was seconded from the Royal Australian Air Force to act as associate producer and proved to be a great asset as he had considerable experience in British films since his entry as an assistant editor at Elstree in 1927. Osmond Borradaile was sent from England to photograph the film, but Watt recalls that of the thirty-five people in the unit and the cast, only six had ever worked on a feature-film before. Making the film, like the story it told, was an exercise in pragmatism. Dollies, reflectors, mike booms had to be improvised. An abandoned army camp at Alice Springs became home for the first three months of the four-and-a-half month schedule, and after that the unit moved into tents in the outback. Watt had to buy 1,500 head of cattle to make the film, but at the end of shooting was able to sell them at a profit.
The leading role of the drover was given to Chips Rafferty, a tall, cadaverous actor with a lean, leathery face who had previously led an industrious outdoor life. He had already had a leading part in Rats of Tobruk, was remarkably at ease in front of the cameras, and was soon established as the best-known Australian screen personality of the day. Another piece of casting caused Watt some problems, when a blonde nursing orderly in a military hospital called Daphne Campbell, chosen to play an energetic young female member of the group who finds time to fall in love with a British sailor, played by Peter Pagan, eloped during the final stages of shooting. The story of the film, The Overlanders, was simple, the core of it being the hazardous journey across the vast interior of Australia, hundreds of miles from civilised comforts. There are plenty of mandatory thrills – the cattle swimming across a crocodile-infested river, a full-blown stampede, various accidents. But the most impressive aspect of the film is neither the dialogue, which is basic to the point of banality, nor the incident, which is predictable, but the brilliantly photographed, breathtaking Australian scenery, never shown on a cinema screen before, and a revelation to audiences.
Extract© George Perry: Forever Ealing.
Harry Watt: Director
Ralph Smart: Associate Producer
Osmond Borradaile: Cinematography
EM Inman Hunter: Editing
John Ireland: Music
Michael Balcon: Producer
Harry Watt: Script
Leslie Norman: Supervising Editor
Chips Rafferty: Dan McAlpine
John Nugent Hayward: Bill Parsons
Daphne Cambell: Mary Parsons
Jean Blue: Mrs Parsons
Helen Grieve: Helen Parsons