This post looks at the careers and films of Australian Directors who made their first impact in the 1970s: Peter Weir, Bruce Beresford, George Miller, Fred Schepisi, Phil Noyce, Gillian Armstrong, Tim Burstall, Ken Hannam, Henri Safran, Richard Franklin and Donald Crombie, and briefly mention the works of Philippe Mora, Esben Storm, John Power, Stephen Wallace, Michael Thornton and Bert Deling. We also look at The 1970s at the Australian Box Office and Ozflicks’ Favourite Australian Films of the 1970s.
The 1970s stand out as the most significant decade in Australian cinema, when our national cinema rose from the ashes to bloom again. The 70s became a benchmark and an inspiration for following generations of Australian film-makers. The 70s revival was due in large measure to a small number of directors who pioneered this rebirth, and the best of those directors have achieved international success rarely matched by later directors.
For over 25 years between World War Two and about 1970, Australian cinema had been moribund, with few successful films made in Australia, and the small film scene dominated by British and American producers and directors. While some of these foreign directors, such as the British and Canadian trio of Michael Powell, Nicholas Roeg and Ted Kotcheff, made great films on Australian themes in the late 60s and early 70s, the films lacked the Australian creative control and input necessary for a national cinema.
Beginning in the early 1970s, Australian cinema experienced a ‘New Wave’ (also known as the ‘Australian Film Revival’ or the ‘Australian Film Renaissance’) when a number of young Australian directors, aided by a new government policy of support, began to tell Australian stories again. These directors had spent the 1960s learning their craft in television or documentary-making in Australia or the UK, and were keen to make Australian features. Tim Burstall, Peter Weir and Bruce Beresford led the way, all making critically or commercially successful films by 1972. They were soon followed by many others, keen to tell a variety of Australian stories.
The first trend for new Australian films in the early-mid 70s was for popular ‘Ocker’ comedies (cheerfully vulgar, lowbrow films featuring broad Australian accents and peppered with Australian colloquialisms) and sex-romps as well as ‘Ozploitation’ genre films (low-budget films emphasising action, sex, violence and horror in an Australian setting). From the mid-70s, directors began to start making so-called ‘quality’ films – serious dramas, art films and period films – which began to gain serious international recognition. As a result, in the 1970s Australians started watching local films again at the cinema, something that had rarely happened since the 1940s.
Of the many new Oz directors who got their start in the 1970s, seven, in particular stand out. These directors made landmark films which revived Australian cinema. All of these directors won AFI awards for best director and many went on to successful careers in Hollywood in the 1980s and 1990s. The seven top Oz directors of the 1970s (& early 1980s) are:
Here are some details of the careers and achievements of the major directors who established themselves in the 1970s:
1. Peter Weir
Peter Weir was born in Sydney in 1944 and has made 16 films including 8 Australian films which were all made at the start of his career. Weir, after working in television and government documentaries in the 1960s, was one of the first film-makers of the 1970s to get feature films made. His films 3 to Go (1970) (for which Weir directed one of the three segments of a portmanteau film) and Homesdale (1971) won the first two AFI awards for best film. In 1975 Weir made Picnic At Hanging Rock, a film which has been much praised as signalling a new maturity in Australian cinema, and which was the first to gain serious international recognition. Following that, Weir made four more films in Australia before he left for Hollywood, never to make another Australian film. His penultimate Australian film, Gallipoli, was particularly successful in its portrayal of Australia’s ANZAC legend, and won Weir’s final AFI best picture and best director awards. He won two AFI Best Director awards, for Homesdale and Gallipoli, and was nominated three more times, for Picnic At Hanging Rock, The Last Wave and The Year of Living Dangerously. Three of his films won an AFI Best Film award (Three to Go: Michael, Homesdale and Gallipoli) and two more were nominated.
Weir has made eight overseas films, the most successful of which, Dead Poets’ Society and The Truman Show, both made over $200 million each. He has been nominated for Academy Award for Best Director four times (Witness, Dead Poets’ Society, The Truman Show and Master and Commander), and three of his films have been nominated for Best Film. He has won 2 BAFTAs for Best Director (The Truman Show and Master and Commander) and one for Best Film (Dead Poets’ Society). He has been nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Director four times.
He has made 8 Australian films: 3 to Go (1970), Homesdale (1971), The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), The Last Wave (1977), The Plumber (1979), Gallipoli (1981) and The Year of Living Dangerously (1982)
His foreign films are: Witness (1985), The Mosquito Coast (1986), Dead Poets Society (1989), Green Card (1990), Fearless (1993), The Truman Show (1998), Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) and The Way Back (2010).
Recommended Reading: Senses of Cinema’s Great Directors profile of Peter Weir
2. Bruce Beresford
Bruce Beresford was born in Sydney in 1940 and has made 32 films including 12 Australian films. Beresford was another pioneering director of the 1970s revival, making his first Australian feature in 1972, after producing short documentaries for British Film Institute Production Board from 1966 to 1970. He has shown an ability to work in a wide range of genres, having started out making the outrageous Barry McKenzie ‘ocker’ comedies, before moving to political satire with Don’s Party, period pieces with The Getting of Wisdom and Breaker Morant, and then to social issue films in the eighties with films about teenage surf culture, football and Aboriginal disadvantage in the 1980s. He has won two AFI Best Director awards (Don’s Party and Breaker Morant) and has been nominated four more times; one his films won an AFI Best Film award (Breaker Morant) and five more were nominated.
Beresford started making overseas movies in 1983 with the critically acclaimed Tender Mercies. Since then he has made 20 films overseas. His most successful films, Driving Miss Daisy and Double Jeopardy, both made over $100 million each. Unlike Peter Weir. Beresford returned to make two more films in Australia in the 1990s. He has received one Academy Award nomination for best director (for Tender Mercies).
His Australian films are: The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972), Barry McKenzie Holds His Own (1974), Side by Side (1975), Don’s Party (1976), The Getting of Wisdom (1978), Money Movers (1978), Breaker Morant (1980), The Club (1980), Puberty Blues (1981), The Fringe Dwellers (1986), Paradise Road (1997) and Sydney – A Story of a City (1999).
His foreign films are: Tender Mercies (1983), King David (1985), Crimes of the Heart (1986), Her Alibi (1989), Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Mister Johnson (1990) Black Robe (1991) Rich in Love (1993) A Good Man in Africa (1994) Silent Fall (1994) Last Dance (1996), Double Jeopardy (1999), Bride of the Wind (2001), Evelyn (2002), And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (2003), The Contract (2006), Mao’s Last Dancer (2009), Peace, Love & Misunderstanding (2011), Bonnie & Clyde (2013) and Mr. Church (2016)
3. George Miller
George Miller was born in Brisbane in 1945 and has made 10 films including 7 Australian films, as well as producing others. The son of Greek immigrants, Miller stood out from the other early directors, both because he chose to make action films and because he did not rely on government financing to get his films made. Miller was a doctor during the 70s and used his own savings, plus private investments raised by his producer-partner Byron Kennedy, to make his first film Mad Max. Miller has not made as great a variety of films as Weir and Beresford, but his films have been more successful financially, as he created first the Mad Max series of futuristic action films, and then the two successful series of children’s films Babe and Happy Feet. His most successful films, Happy Feet and Mad Max: Fury Road, both made over $300 million each.
He has won two AFI Best Director awards, for Mad Max 2 and Mad Max: Fury Road, and was nominated for one more, Mad Max. Mad Max: Fury Road also won the AFI Best Film award, and Mad Max was nominated for best film. Mad Max: Fury Road also received an Academy Award nomination for best film and one for best director. Miller also received an Academy Award for the best animated feature for Happy Feet.
His Australian films are: Mad Max (1979). Mad Max 2 (1981), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), 40,000 Years of Dreaming (1997), Babe: Pig in the City (1998), Happy Feet (2006), Happy Feet Two (2011), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).
His foreign films are: Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) (he directed one of the four parts of the film), The Witches of Eastwick (1987) Lorenzo’s Oil (1992)
Recommended Profiles: Senses of Cinema’s Great Directors profile of George Miller ; ‘Mad George’, Variety 2015
4. Fred Schepisi
Fred Schepisi was born in Melbourne in 1939 and has made 17 films including 4 Australian films. He began his career in advertising, directing commercials and documentaries in the 1950s and 1960s. His first feature, The Devil’s Playground beat Peter Weir’s highly respected Picnic At Hanging Rock for the AFI best picture and best director awards. Since then he has made successful films both overseas and in Australia where he returned to make films in 1988 and 2011. He is best known for the films Six Degrees of Separation, Roxanne, Plenty and Last Orders.
He won two AFI Best Director awards, for The Devil’s Playground and Evil Angels, and was nominated twice more, for The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith and The Eye of the Storm. Two of his films won an AFI Best Film award, The Devil’s Playground and Evil Angels, and his other two, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith and The Eye of the Storm, were nominated. All four of his Australian films are in the Ozflicks top 100.
His Australian films are: The Devil’s Playground (1976), The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), Evil Angels (A Cry in the Dark) (1988) and The Eye of the Storm (2011).
His foreign films are: Barbarosa (1982), Iceman (1984), Plenty (1985), Roxanne (1987), The Russia House (1990), Mr. Baseball (1992), Six Degrees of Separation (1993), I.Q. (1994), Fierce Creatures (1997), Last Orders (2001), It Runs in the Family (2003), Words and Pictures (2013) and Andorra (2017)
5. Phillip Noyce
Phillip Noyce was born in Griffith, NSW in 1950 and has made 17 films including 6 Australian films. Starting later than Weir, Beresford and Burstall, he made one of the first 70s films with Aboriginal lead actors (Backroads), before making the film that established him as one of our best directors, the post-war period drama Newsfront. After Newsfront he made three more films and two significant TV mini-series in Australia, before moving to Hollywood to make many successful films. His most successful films, Clear and Present Danger and Salt, made over $200 million each while Patriot Games, The Saint and The Bone Collector all made over $100 million. In 2002 he returned to Australian to make another landmark film on the stolen Aboriginal children issue, Rabbit-Proof Fence. He has won one AFI Best Director award, for Newsfront, and was nominated twice more, for Rabbit-Proof Fence and Dead Calm. Two of his films won AFI Best Film awards, Newsfront and Rabbit-Proof Fence, and Dead Calm was also nominated.
His Australian films are: Backroads (1977), Newsfront (1978), Heatwave (1982,) Echoes of Paradise (1987), Dead Calm (1989) and Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002).
His foreign films are: Blind Fury (1989), Patriot Games (1992), Sliver (1993), Clear and Present Danger (1994), The Saint (1997), The Bone Collector (1999), The Quiet American (2002), Catch a Fire (2006), Salt (2010), Mary and Martha (2013) and The Giver (2014).
Recommended Reading: Senses of Cinema’s Great Directors profile of Phil Noyce
6. Gillian Armstrong
Gillian Armstrong was born in Melbourne in 1950 and has made 12 films including 6 Australian feature films and 2 Australian documentaries. She was the first Australian woman to make a feature film since Paulette McDonagh in 1933, and became an inspiration to many Australian women film-makers who followed in her wake in the following decades. She made a strong impression with her first full-length feature, My Brilliant Career, based a 1901 ‘feminist’ novel by Miles Franklin, in which actress Judy Davis played the heroine, a young woman torn between love and career. The success of the film established both Armstrong’s and Davis’ careers and both went on to make films in Hollywood in the following decades. Armstrong made four US films, though only Little Women was a great success, making $50 million at the box office. Armstrong has continued to make films in Australia, including one of Australia’s few musicals, Starstruck, and full-length documentaries about Australian fashion designers. She won one AFI Best Director award, for My Brilliant Career, and was nominated twice more, for High Tide and The Last Days of Chez Nous. My Brilliant Career also won an AFI Best Film award and High Tide and The Last Days of Chez Nous were both nominated for the award.
Her Australian films and documentaries are: The Singer and the Dancer (1977) (This was only 52 minutes long and only shown at film festivals and specialist theatres), My Brilliant Career (1979), Starstruck (1982), High Tide (1987), The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992), Oscar and Lucinda (1997), Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst (DOC) (2006) and Women He’s Undressed (DOC) (2015).
Her foreign films are: Mrs. Soffel (1984), Fires Within (1991), Little Women (1994) and Charlotte Gray (2001).
Recommended Reading: Senses of Cinema’s Great Directors profile of Gillian Armstrong
7. Tim Burstall
Tim Burstall was born in England in 1927, came to Australia (Melbourne) in 1937 and died in 2004. He made 12 Australian films, and no films overseas. Burstall is chiefly known for being the earliest pioneer of the Australian New Wave. He began making shorts and documentaries throughout the 1960s, before making the first locally-produced feature film since Jedda (1955) in 1969 with 2000 Weeks. The critical and commercial failure of 2000 Weeks led Burstall to reject serious films and make a series of popular and successful Ocker comedies and sex-comedies in the early to mid 1970s, including Stork, Alvin Purple, Petersen and Eliza Fraser. Alvin Purple took $4.7 million at the box office, which is equivalent to $42 million in 2015 dollars. This made it the most successful of the 70s films* and the 7th most successful Oz film of all time. These films showed that Australian films could succeed at the box-office, and paved the way for other 70s directors to make Australian films for general release. He won the AFI Best Director award for Stork and was nominated for End Play. Two of his films won the AFI Best Film award, Stork and Libido: The Child, and Petersen was also nominated.
His Australian films are: 2000 Weeks (1969), Stork (1971), Libido – The Child (1973) Alvin Purple (1973), Petersen (1974), End Play (1975), Eliza Fraser (1976), The Last of the Knucklemen (1979), Attack Force Z (1982), Duet for Four (1982), The Naked Country (1985) and Kangaroo (1987)
* Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975) actually took $5.1 million two years later, but adjusted for the high inflation at the time this was less than Alvin Purple’s figure in real terms. 15% annual inflation in 1974-5 made Alvin’s $4.7 million the equivalent of $6.2 million in 1975.
Other Significant Directors of the 1970s
Apart from the seven above, a number of other directors contributed significant films in the 1970s and early 80s. Here are the best of the rest:
Ken Hannam was born in Melbourne in 1929 and made five Australian films. He worked in radio and television in Australia and England in the 1960s, before returning to Australia to make his debut feature, Sunday Too Far Away, in 1975. Sunday Too Far Away was a drama about the life of shearers which bridged the divide between ‘ocker’ and ‘quality’ films, and it won the AFI Best Film award in 1974-5. His next film, Break of Day, was also nominated for Best Film award but his final two features were less successful, and Hannam returned to making television shows in Australia and England. He also co-directed the two part mini-series Robbery Under Arms (1985).
His Australian films were: Sunday Too Far Away (1975), Break of Day (1976), Summerfield (1977). Dawn! (1979) and The Mismatch (1979) (TV movie), Robbery Under Arms (1985) (TV mini-series).
For more, see ‘Ken Hannam’, The Guardian 2004.
Henri Safran was born in 1932 in Paris, France and came to Australia in 1960 after working in television in France and Britain. He made a number of TV movies with the ABC , then went to Britain to make more TV in 1966. He returned to Australia in the mid-70s and directed Storm Boy, which was the most successful film of 1976 and won the 1977 AFI Best Film award. Although Safran was unable to repeat this success, he made another five films in Australia and a number of TV mini-series before finishing his career with a number of successful French and US television series.
He has made six Australian feature films: Storm Boy (1976), Listen to the Lion (1977), Norman Loves Rose (1982), Bush Christmas (1983), The Wild Duck (1984) and The Edge of Power (1987).
He has also made many Australian TV films and mini-series including: Golden Soak (1979) (mini-series), A Fortunate Life (1985) (mini-series), Flair (1990) (mini-series), The Rogue Stallion (1990) (TV movie) and The Lancaster Miller Affair (1990) (mini-Series).
Richard Franklin was born in Melbourne in 1948 and died in 2007. Franklin left Australia after finishing school in the 1960s to study film in California. While there he became a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock who became a big source of inspiration in his films. He then returned to Australia to direct TV cop shows before he was 21. Franklin contributed to the ‘ozploitation’ side of the 70s New Wave, starting with two sex-comedies, Eskimo Nell and Fantasm, followed by two suspense/horror films, Patrick and Roadgames, which were probably his most successful Australian films. He went on to make a series of suspense/sci-fi films overseas, then returned to Australia in the mid-90s to make a variety of drama and suspense films here.
His Australian films are: The True Story of Eskimo Nell (1975), Fantasm (1976), Patrick (1978), Roadgames (1981), Hotel Sorrento (1995), Brilliant Lies (1996), One Way Ticket (1997) and Visitors (2003).
His foreign films are: Psycho II (1983), Cloak & Dagger (1984), Link (1986), F/X2 (1991) and Running Delilah (1992).
Recommended Reading: Senses of Cinema’s Great Directors profile of Richard Franklin
Donald Crombie was born in Brisbane in 1942 and made documentaries in the 1960s before making several interesting films in the 1970s and 1980s. Caddie, the story of a working class woman during the Great Depression, was his most successful film making $2.8 million at the box office in 1976 (equivalent to $17 million in 2015 dollars). Caddie and Cathy’s Child were both nominated for AFI Best Film awards, and Crombie was nominated for Best Director for Cathy’s Child.
He made 8 Australian films: Caddie (1976), The Irishman (1978), Cathy’s Child (1979), The Killing of Angel Street (1981), Kitty and the Bagman (1983), Robbery Under Arms (1985), Playing Beatie Bow (1986), Rough Diamonds (1994) and Selkie (2000)
Other directors produced interesting Oz films in the 1970s, and the following in particular should be mentioned for making fine movies:
Philippe Mora for Mad Dog Morgan,
Esben Storm for In Search of Anna and 27A,
John Power for The Picture Show Man,
Stephen Wallace for Stir and Love Letters From Teralba Road,
Michael Thornton for Between Wars and The FJ Holden,
Bert Deling for Pure Shit.
The 1970s at the Australian Box Office
The Australian box office figures for the 1970s show the importance of the Ocker/Ozploitation movement, and particularly Tim Burstall, in the rebirth of Australian cinema at the box office. Burstall’s sex-romps (Alvin Purple, Alvin Rides Again, Petersen and Eliza Fraser) were extremely successful, as were Bruce Beresford’s Barry McKenzie Ocker comedies in 1972 and 1974. After the success of these entertaining films, Australians started watching more serious dramas such as Picnic at Hanging Rock, Caddie, Storm Boy, My Brilliant Career, Sunday Too Far Away and Newsfront in the second half of the 70s.
Here are the top 15 Oz 70s films at the Australian box office (the figure in round brackets is the equivalent in 2016 dollars; the figure in square brackets is the all-time ranking):
- Alvin Purple (Burstall) (1973) $4,720,000 ($42,291,200) 
- Picnic at Hanging Rock (Weir) (1975) $5,120,000 ($34,611,200) 
- Mad Max (Miller) (1979) $5,355,490 ($24,099,705) 
- Caddie (Crombie) (1976) $2,847,000 ($16,968,120) 
- Storm Boy (Safran) (1976) $2,645,000 ($15,764,200) 
- Alvin Rides Again (Bilock/Copping/Burstall) (1974) $1,880,000 ($14,645,200) 
- My Brilliant Career (Armstrong) (1979) $3,052,000 ($13,734,000) 
- Stone (Harbutt) (1974) $1,572,000 ($12,245,880) 
- Barry Mckenzie Holds His Own (Beresford) (1974) $1,407,000 ($10,960,530) 
- Petersen (Burstall) (1974) $1,363,000 ($10,617,770) 
- Eliza Fraser (Burstall) (1976) $1,672,000 ($9,965,120) 
- The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (Beresford) (1972) $1,000,000 ($9,790,000) 
- Sunday Too Far Away (Hannam) (1975) $1,356,000 ($9,166,560) 
- Ned Kelly (Richardson) (1970) $808,000 ($8,904,160) 
- Newsfront (Noyce) (1978) $1,576,000 ($7,738,160) 
Ozflicks’ Favourite Australian Films of the 1970s
1. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) (Peter Weir)
2. My Brilliant Career (1979) (Gillian Armstrong)
3. Wake in Fright (1971) (Ted Kotcheff)
4. Newsfront (1978) (Phillip Noyce)
5. Walkabout (1971) (Nicolas Roeg)
6. Don’s Party (1976) (Bruce Beresford)
7. Storm Boy (1976) (Henri Safran)
8. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) (Fred Schepisi)
9. The Removalists (1975) (Tom Jeffrey)
10. The Devil’s Playground (1976) (Fred Schepisi)
11. Sunday Too Far Away (1975) (Ken Hannam)
12. The Getting of Wisdom (1978) (Bruce Beresford)
13. Dimboola (1979) (John Duigan)
14. Mad Max (1979) (Dr. George Miller)