Australian films of the 1970s – The Revival: Part 1 (1970-1974)

The Oz-Cine-Renaissance begins with plenty of sauce

The sixties had seen the near-death of the Australian film industry, but the 1970s saw Australian cinema, like a keen amateur boxer at Jimmy Sharman’s boxing tent, get its bruised and emaciated body off the mat and start punching its way back to health. However, the film industry didn’t do it alone. To continue the boxing metaphor, the sick little Aussie battler was helped up, given a good meal and a bit of coaching by a cashed-up bystander, in this case by the Australian government with its grants and support. With a little help to get started (see the section at the end for more on some causes of the revival), the Oz film industry saw a dramatic increase throughout the 1970s in first the quantity, and then the quality of films and some local films found success for the first time in 30 years. The graph below shows how 30 years of low production were reversed in the seventies and Australian film production increased from then on, reaching its peak in the second half of the 1980s, then continuing at a high level:

Oz-Halfdecs-3A

[Source: Ozflicks’ graph from the film-list at ‘Australasian feature films by release date’, Australasian Cinema website plus additions and subtractions from IMDb and other sources – see Ozflicks’ list]

The first successful Oz films of the early 1970s set out to shock and entertain on a fairly basic level, with comedy, outrageous behaviour, colourful language, nudity and sex in the forefront, and very little in the way of arthouse pretension. The mastermind behind the making of such ‘Oz-sexploitation’ films was Tim Burstall, who had been chastened by the reception of his attempt to make a serious drama film in 1969, and took advantage of the relaxation of Australia’s censorship guidelines and Australian’s appetite for films celebrating the 70s sexual revolution. Burstall made Stork (1971) the first Australian hit film of the 70s, and followed it with the even more successful Alvin Purple (1973) and a string of other hits. Like the British Carry-On films of the 60s and 70s, his films were fast-moving, light-hearted affairs with lots of action, comedy, pretty women, sex and flashes of nudity, and were extremely successful with the Australian public.

Burstall was joined in his saucy trail-blazing by Bruce Beresford, who went on to be a fine Hollywood director, but started in 1972 with his Barry McKenzie comedies about Australians being loud, rude and colourful in England, which began a trend of ‘Ocker’ comedies. Like Burstall’s films, his films were successful both in Australia and, oddly, in England and together these film-makers’ works provided the financial success the young emergent industry needed. Peter Weir was a slower-builder, making two disquieting little films in the early 70s before stunning the country with Picnic at Hanging Rock in 1975.

The re-emergent film industry provided opportunities for Australian actors to become film stars, first at home and in later decades overseas. Two of the most important to emerge in the early 70s were Jack Thompson, the most successful leading man of Australian cinema in the 70s, who first appeared in Wake in Fright and Petersen and whose career continued has continued to this day, and Jackie Weaver, who has had two separate careers, initially as a perky sex-symbol in the early 70s and more recently as a sought-after Hollywood matriarch since her appearance in Animal Kingdom in 2010. But many other new faces got a look-in in the early 70s, including these:

  • Bruce Spence had his main leading role in the ground-breaking Stork but continues to pop up in Mad Max films to this day;
  • Graeme Blundell had his most famous role as the reluctant girl-magnet Alvin Purple, but had many other roles throughout the 70s and 80s;
  • Judy Morris, Wendy Hughes, and Helen Morse all started out in the early 70s and became the leading Australian film actresses of the era;
  • David Gulpilil got his start as a teenager in Walkabout and went on to become our leading Aboriginal actor with nearly twenty film roles so far; and
  • Chris Haywood had the first of his many cheery abrasive roles in The Cars That Ate Paris.

The early 1970s saw the virtual disappearance of the foreign productions which had been so important in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, but the last major foreign films in 1971 turned out to be two of the finest films made in this country: Wake in Fright and Walkabout. These two films captured aspects of the outback with an outsider’s eye that has made both these films such classics.

Altogether 64 Australian feature films were released in the first five years of the 1970s (although 13 of these, including some quite significant films, were ‘short features’ running less than 60 minutes), more than in the previous three decades. This number would double in the late 70s and nearly double again in the late 80s, but it provided a firm artistic and financial foundation for even greater success after 1974. At the end of this article, there is a list of the most successful films at the Australian box office, plus an Appendix on some of the factors which assisted the Australian Film Revival of the 1970s.  (See also our complete list of 1970s films with links to further information about all the films).

But first, here’s a year-by-year guide to all the films in the early 70s (and I must again acknowledge my debt to the OzMovies website, which is a great source for information and amusing comment on older Australian films):

Australian Films 1970-74: A Chronological Guide to the Beginning of the Revival

In 1970, twelve Australian films were released in cinemas and another two completed and shown in film clubs. This was almost as many as had been made in the entire 60s, and an indication that things were hotting up on the production side, although distribution and box office were still obstacles to be surmounted later in the decade.

The first Australian film released in the decade was the small-budget The Set, the first Australian ‘sexploitation’ film, which looked at the sexual habits, gay and straight, of Sydney’s arty Eastern Suburbs’ ‘set’. Directed by American Frank Brittain (who had first come to Australia in 1967 to produce Journey Out of Darkness) and based on an unpublished novel by Australian Roger Ward, this film created a storm of media interest for its portrayal of nudity and homosexuality, but still did only moderately at the box office. It did, however, light the way for the more successful sexploitation films of Tim Burstall and others in the following years.

Shortly after came Squeeze a Flower, a more conventional comedy starring Walter Chiari (who had done so well in 1966 with They’re a Weird Mob). Made with a larger budget from Australian and US sources, and made by Marc Daniels, an American TV director, the film did badly. Two more US-financed films (completed in 1969 but not released until 1970) were the next to be released. They were the crime film Color Me Dead (1970) a joint US production made principally for US TV, and the bushranging story Adam’s Woman (1970). Neither did very well at the box office.

Throughout the year, a spate of low-budget Australian independent films were completed by aspiring amateurs in Melbourne and released for small runs or to University film clubs. These films were unsuccessful but showed the desire of Australians at the time to make local films. The following were made for peanuts and given a limited release:

  • Nothing Like Experience (Peter Carmody) which was an arthouse short-feature (less than 60 minutes) about a group of students which included Graeme Blundell in its cast;
  • Beyond Reason (Giorgio Mangiamele) which was a post-nuclear thriller in an arthouse style;
  • Jack and Jill: A Postscript (Phillip Adams, Brian Robinson) which was an arthouse romance between a bikie and a kindergarten teacher;
  • The Naked Bunyip (John B. Murray) which was a mockumentary about a door-to-door survey on sexual attitudes starring Graeme Blundell. This was the most successful of the low-budget films of the year.
  • Brake Fluid (Brian Davies) which was humorous short-feature of frustrated love, also starring Graeme Blundell as well as John Duigan who became a noted film director. The film won Sydney Film Festival Best Film 1970.
  • Dead Easy (Nigel Buesst) which was an arthouse short-feature about the search for a mass-murderer;
  • Harry Hooton (Arthur Cantrill) which was an experimental film about Australian poet, Harry Hooton.

Ned Kelly (1970)

The most ambitious film of the year was the British film Ned Kelly (1970) which starred Mick Jagger at the height of his Rolling Stones fame as the famous rebel bushranger, Ned Kelly. Filmed in historic Braidwood, NSW, rather than in Victoria where the real Kelly mainly roamed, by British director Tony Richardson, this production used mainly local actors, including Ken Shorter and Frank Thring. The film was the most successful film of the year, making about $800,000 in Australia, but received mixed views from critics, who didn’t much like Jagger’s wry performance.

Another minor US production, the children’s adventure film Strange Holiday (aka Boys of Lost Island) (1970) directed by American Mende Brown and filmed around Sydney . It made little at the box office, and quickly found a home on US and local television.

The last film of the year was the odd three-parter 3 To Go, which was a triology consisting of three separate stories about three young people and made by three different directors. This film was funded by the Commonwealth Film Unit, and is chiefly remembered for the story ‘Michael’ which marked the directorial debut of Peter Weir who would go on to be one of Australia’s best directors. ‘Michael’ received the rare Grand Prix at the 1970 Australian Film Institute (AFI) Awards. The three stories (and the other two are of interest for actress Judy Morris in ‘Judy’, and the naturalistic portrayal of an Australian Greek girl in ‘Soulla’) were meant to be shown together but were actually released separately as support films.

1971

1971 was a better year than 1970 and saw three significant films released: two fine foreign produced arthouse films, which tanked and effectively ended foreign production in Australia for many years, and one local ‘ocker’ blockbuster (the first Ockerbuster!).

Walkabout (1971)

Walkabout was a British production directed by British ex-cinematographer and auteur Nicolas Roeg, making only his second film as director. Walkabout starred British child star Jenny Aguter as well as Roeg’s young son John as two white children lost in the desert, helped to survive by a young Aboriginal man, played by newcomer David Gulpilil. This expressionist film captures the beauty of the desert like no film before it (and few since), as well as the inter-cultural misunderstanding between the two adolescents. The film was met with mixed reviews from the critics and incomprehension from the public in Australia and overseas, but has come to be seen as one of the landmarks of Australian cinema, being listed as the top Australian film in Halliwell’s Top 1000: The Ultimate Movie Countdown (2005) and included on numerous world best film lists.

Wake in Fright (1971)

Wake in Fright, which was released shortly after Walkabout, offered an entirely different perspective on the Australian Outback. The film’s production was a mixed affair with American finance, a UK-based Canadian director (Ted Kotcheff), British and Australian actors and a story from Australian-based British author Kenneth Cook, though it is generally considered an American production. The film offered a darker view of the Australian bush and Australian mateship, presenting outback males as crude, drunken and violent. The film starred Brits Gary Bond and Donald Pleasance, as well as Australians Chips Rafferty (in his last film), Jack Thomson (in his debut), John Meillon and many others. Like  Walkabout, the film was negatively received by Australian critics and the public, but better liked in Europe, particularly France. The production company (NLT) which had also lost money on 1970’s Squeeze a Flower, folded after this film, and the negative of the film was lost for over 30 years. The film was rediscovered and restored and re-released in 2009 to critical acclaim. Like Walkabout, it is considered an Australian classic and is included on numerous world best film lists.

Stork (1971)

Stork (1971) was the first commercial success of the Australian cinema revival. Directed by Australian Tim Burstall, it was a marked contrast to Walkabout and Wake in Fright: it was made with money raised in Australia and without any foreign stars; it was an urban film which ignored the outback; it was a light-hearted, satirical comedy-romp with gratuitous nudity; it touched on contemporary issues and captured the modern urban vernacular; and it was a box office hit, making $463,000 (equivalent to nearly $5 million today) on a budget of  about A$60,000.  The film starred Bruce Spence as ‘a six-foot-seven deranged revolutionary’ named Stork who throws in his job and rages against the system while wreaking chaos on his friends’ lives. The movie also starred Jacki Weaver in the debut of her long career and Graeme Blundell who would star in other Burstall features. Based on the debut hit-play by David Williamson, Australia’s premier playwright of the 1970s, the film was a vindication of Burstall’s decision to avoid serious dramas (like his 1969 debut 2000 Weeks) in favour of sex-flavoured ‘Ocker’ comedies with plenty of local references, colourful language and naked flesh celebrating the sexual revolution of the 70s. The film set the tone for the first half of the 70s and helped establish a public view of Australian cinema as an object of interest, value and investment. The film was released at the end of 1971 and was not considered for that year’s AFI awards, but swept the awards in 1972 winning Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor (Spence) and Best Actress (Weaver).  Today the film is also notable for its abrasive sexism and racism, but the film’s satire of middle-class pretension still makes it interesting.

Throughout 1971, no fewer than nine small budget films (some partly funded by the Experimental Film and Television Fund) were completed by local directors and released to limited audiences. These were (in order of release):

  • Sympathy In Summer was an arthouse romance set in Melbourne, Sydney and country Victoria. This was Antony I. Ginnane’s only film as director, though he went on to a long career as a producer in Australia and the US.
  • Peter Weir’s first short feature Homesdale (50 min) was a black-and-white dystopian black comedy about a country guest-house where the guests are subjected to eccentric and sometimes deadly games.  Starring Geoff Malone, Grahame Bond and Kate Fitzpatrick, the film premiered at the Sydney Film Festival, and received positive reviews. It won the 1971 AFI Grand Prix for Best Film, Weir’s second win following his segment from 3 To Go the previous year, and Weir also won the inaugural AFI Best Direction Award for Homesdale.
  • Country Town was a TV-spin-off film from the popular ABC soap Bellbird (whose tagline was ‘It could be your home-town’). Made on a slightly bigger budget and directed by TV director Peter Maxwell, the film, a drama which dealt with small-town relationships during the breaking of a drought, did well in rural areas, but less well in the cities.
  • And the Word Was Made Flesh was a surreal, arthouse, sci-fi film by Czech-born Adelaide painter Dusan Marek. It was shown on the indie circuit and was Marek’s only film.
  • Bonjour Balwyn was the third of Nigel Buesst’s self-produced films, and was an arthouse comedy about Melbourne’s middle-class and bohemian communities and starred John Duigan, who later became a prominent director.
  • A film made on a slightly bigger, though still small, budget was the arthouse suspense film A City’s Child made by TV director/editor Brian Kavanagh. The film starred Monica Maughan as a middle-aged woman living in a dream world, and she won the first AFI Best Actress Award for her performance. Maughan went on to appear in over 60 TV series and films in her forty-year career.
  • Another film made on a slightly higher (though less than $100,000) budget was the unusual period-musical Stockade set in the Ballarat gold rush of the 1850s. Made by Hans Pomeranz and Ross McGregor, it received fair reviews but was unable to obtain general distribution, a situation which reignited a brief controversy about the closed distribution system for local films.
  • Lastly, Chris Lofven made the first of several low-budget features, a sci-fi flick Part One – 806 which was only seen at film clubs.

In 1971 there were a few local mid-budget productions (over $100,000) financed by various business concerns in different states. The first was Nickel Queen (1971) (John McCallum) funded a Perth consortium and directed by Australian actor/producer John McCallum. The film, an adventure-comedy set in a WA mining town, starred English actress Googie Withers and Australian media personality John Laws. It did very well in Perth but flopped in the other states and overseas. The second mid-budget local film was the Canberra-produced political action-drama, Demonstrator (1971), financed by local businessmen. Directed by Warwick Freeman who had limited TV experience and starring mainly Australian TV actors, the film was disliked by critics and ignored by audiences outside of Canberra. Lastly, a US-Australian joint production That Lady From Peking was completed in 1971, but it failed to find a distributor until 1975, at which time it failed altogether being revealed as a ‘so bad, it’s good’ turkey.

1972

The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972) and Barry McKenzie Holds His Own (1974)

1972 was quieter than 1971, but saw the hit debut feature of one of the major new Australian directors of the 1970s, Bruce Beresford, with his first feature The Adventures of Barry McKenzie. The story, written by Australian comedian Barry Humphreys (who also starred in the film as Barry’s aunt Edna Everage, a character which Humphreys developed over the decades to become Dame Edna the Housewife Superstar) and Bruce Beresford, involved the adventures of a young Australian, Barry McKenzie (played by Barry Crocker) visiting London for the first time. This was an alternative vision of the Ocker character envisioned by David Williamson and Tim Burstall in Stork, and this film was almost as successful as Stork. In this film, Beresford and Humphreys set out to shock audiences with Barry McKenzie’s colourful Aussie slang, his constant denigration of the English, his uncouth, uproarious Aussie drinking sessions and a series of jokes about regurgitation and urination. It wasn’t subtle but it was entertaining and popular in both Australia and, surprisingly, in the UK.  This was the first film funded entirely by the Australian Film Development Corporation, and the second Oz film (Stork was the first six months earlier) to do well at the box office and to make a substantial profit. Beresford went on to make more sophisticated films in both Australia and Hollywood, but this film helped further stimulate the revival of the film industry and was another indication that Australians were ready at last to go and see films about Australians. With this film, Beresford joined Burstall and Weir as the third of the top seven Australian directors of the 70s, and these three continued making more successful films throughout the 70s and beyond. (In 1974, Beresford made a sequel Barry McKenzie Holds His Own which was even more successful than the original film, making $1,407,000 (equivalent to $11 million in 2016 dollars). In the sequel, Bazza McKenzie trekked across Europe from Paris to Transylvania in a similar and perhaps even cruder version of the first film.) This trailer will give you an idea of both the films:

Aside from this film though, no other film made an impact in 1972, though seven others were made. The following films were all made on limited budgets (often including some government finance), but failed to secure sufficient distribution.

  • Jim Sharman (son of Jimmy Sharman of the boxing troupe mentioned earlier) made his first feature, the sci-fi satire Shirley Thompson versus the Aliens, about Shirley, a member of a widgie gang in the 50s, who discovers that the Duke of Edinburgh has been taken over by the aliens. The film did not receive wide distribution, though some critics liked it, and Sharman’s second film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, made in England with Susan Sarandon, was a worldwide hit.
  • NIDA graduate Keith Salvat made his one feature, the crime farce Private Collection starring Pamela Stephenson, before switching to indigenous film-making.
  • Cinematographer Tom Cowan made the first of seven feature films, the comedy satire The Office Picnic, starring Kate Fitzpatrick, John Wood and Max Cullen. Cowan’s most famous film was to be his feminist-lesbian-convict period piece Journey Among Women in 1977.
  • Two other low-budget government-financed features were only released on television: the mining drama Flashpoint, made by Brian Hannant who had directed one of the 3 To Go features; and the docu-drama about migrants Gentle Strangers made by Cecil Holmes who had made two overlooked features in the 1950s.

Two mid-budget part foreign-financed films were made in Australia in 1972. The first was the UK-US-Australian production Sunstruck made by British director, James Gilbert, which starred UK comedian Harry Seccombe as a Welsh immigrant in an outback town, where he meets Aussie characters led by John Meillon and Maggie Fitzgibbon. The film only did moderate business, failing to capitalise on Seccombe’s popularity at the time. The other film, made with some US money by veteran Australian director Eric Porter (whose previous film, A Son Is Born, was made 1946) was the animated feature Marco Polo Jnr. versus the Red Dragon. This ambitious and expensive film failed to get proper international distribution and lost money.

1973

Alvin Purple (1973) and  Alvin Rides Again (1974)

In 1973, Tim Burstall released his follow-up film to Stork, the first of his sex-romps, Alvin Purple. The film starred Graeme Blundell, a long-time collaborator with Burstall, as Alvin Purple a quiet young man who is sexually irresistible to women. During his sexual adventures, the ‘ reluctant super-stud’ was wooed by a variety of up-and-coming Australian actresses including Jacki Weaver, Penne Hackforth-Jones, Elli Maclure, Lynette Curran, Kris McQuade, Anne Scott-Pendlebury and Abigail, many of whom made their feature debuts in this film. The film mixed caper-comedy with nudity, sex, and chases and was an even bigger hit than Stork had been, making $4,720,000 (according to Screen Australia) which is equivalent to $42million today. This made it the most successful film of the 1970s, and the seventh most successful Australian film domestically ever. The success of the film further encouraged the Australian film revival in the 1970s. It also encouraged two sequels Alvin Rides Again (1974) and Melvin, Son Of Alvin (1984). Alvin Rides Again was produced by Tim Burstall and directed by David Bilcock and Robin Copping, and covered similar ground to the first movie, with the sexually irresistible broomstick, Alvin trying to get a job while sleeping with numerous women. The film was also successful, making $1,880,000 (or nearly $15 million today) and making it the 6th most successful film of the decade. The last film in the series Melvin, Son Of Alvin, however, was made by a different team and with a new actor, Gerry Sont, as Alvin’s irresistible son. It lost money and it was clear by then that the Alvin franchise’s time had ended.

Libido (1973)

The other significant movie of 1973 was Libido, which was another of those portmanteau films that popped up in those days (like 3 To Go, (1970) and  Three in One (1957)). Libido consisted of four stories based on sexual themes (as sex seemed the most popular theme of the early 70s with Australian audiences). The film is notable for its collection of talent, including significant 70s directors Tim Burstall and Fred Schepisi (as well as John B. Murray and David Baker); significant 70s actors Jack Thompson, Max Gillies, Arthur Dignam, Judy Morris, Penne Hackforth-Jones and Robyn Nevin; and significant writers David Williamson, Thomas Keneally and Hal Porter contributing stories. Porter’s story ‘The Child’ from the film, directed by Tim Burstall and starring Judy Morris won the AFI Best Film Award (which it shared with 27A below) and Judy Morris won the Best Actress Award. The film did moderate business at a limited number of cinemas and was also shown in the UK and Europe.

Ebsen Storm made the low-budget drama 27A, about a man mistreated in prison under section 27A of the Queensland Mental Health Act in 1973. Though it was little seen that year, it shared the AFI Best Film Award with Libido (above), and received a mainstream release in 1974, though its subject matter did not attract much of an audience. Storm went on to direct and act in a number of quality films and TV series over the next 30 years.

Night of Fear (1973)

Another significant film from 1973 was Night of Fear, which was a sex-horror short-feature (54m) by director Terry Bourke, about a woman alone and terrorised in the bush. It was originally made for TV but was released in cinemas when the ABC rejected it. The film did fairly well at cinemas both in Australia and overseas, and established a strong Australian tradition of Oz-horror-thrillers, of which hundreds have been made over subsequent years. Bourke, who had previously made one film in Hong Kong and another in the USA, went on to make a variety of films in the 70s and 80s, the most notable of which was the classic 1975 Oz-horror film Inn of the Damned.

Another thriller of 1973 was The Sabbat of the Black Cat, based on an Edgar Allan Poe story, and made by first-time director Ralph Lawrence Marsden, but it did not fare as well as Night of Fear and was little seen.

Apart from these, in 1973 there was another crop of independent low-budget short features:

  • Lost in the Bush directed by Peter Dodds, and financed by the Audio-Visual Education Centre, Education Department of Victoria, told of the search for three lost children in 1864;
  • Come Out Fighting, about an Aboriginal boxer, was Nigel Buesst fourth short-feature;
  • Bert Deling made the first of several films, the arthouse drug-drama Dalmas;
  • British actor Christopher Cary made a pseudo-documentary sex film An Essay on Pornography, which predictably attracted some box office action;
  • experimental film-makers Arthur Cantrill & Corinne Cantrill made Skin of Your Eye, and
  • Albie Thoms made another of his experimental films Sunshine City, which contained various people’s impressions of Sydney.

Two other mid-budget films were made in 1973: a family adventure film set in Fiji Avengers of the Reef by Chris McCullough and Don Quixote, the film of the Australian Ballet’s production of the ballet with Rudolf Nureyev and Robert Helpmann. Both films attracted some interest but ultimately lost money.

1974

By the start of 1974, three of the four main genres that would make up the 70s phenomenon known as ‘Ozploitation’ had appeared found success: the ‘Ocker’ films (films celebrating colourful, crude and combative forms of uniquely Australian (and mainly male) language, humour and behaviour) had found success in Stork and The Adventures of Barry McKenzie; sexploitation films had found success in Alvin Purple and, to a lesser extent, Stork; and Ozhorror (an Australian variant, often made on a low-budget, of the horror genre, often located in our immense and mysterious bush) had arrived with the limited success of Night of Fear. All of these genres would have new films appear in 1974, but the fourth plank of Ozploitation would also make its appearance, when the first significant low-budget Oz-action films arrived with their trademark celebration of Australia’s love affair with hot cars and motorbikes. The two most significant cheapo-action films of 1974 were Stone and The Cars That Ate Paris.

Stone (1974)

Stone was the first big film of 1974, and came from first-time director Sandy Harbutt. It was an action film about an undercover cop who joined a bikie gang to solve a series of murders, and the film included numerous fights, massed bike rides, chases, accidents and stunts, plus lots of swearing and gratuitous sex and nudity, all with recognisable locations in and around Sydney. Mainly funded by the Australian Film Development Corporation (AFDC), the film was a big success (taking over $1.5 million at the box office) and the AFDC got its money back quickly. The film divided the critics, probably due to its ‘outlaw’ appeal, but quickly became a cult film. The film starred Ken Shorter (of the You Can’t See Round Corners TV series and film from the late 60s) and also included Helen Morse, Bill Hunter and Garry McDonald (aka Norman Gunston) amongst its large cast. Sadly, Harbutt was unable to get finance for another film, despite’s Stone’s success and probably due to the film’s controversial subject matter, and this was his only film.

The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)

In 1974 Peter Weir made his first full-length feature film The Cars That Ate Paris, after having won AFI awards for his two previous short-features. The film, about the population of a sinister country town that preyed on passing traffic by causing accidents and scavenging the wrecked cars, was in the unsettling, mysterious style that was becoming his trademark. The film featured a variety of weird and wonderful vehicles which obsessed rival locals as they held their threatening drag races down the main drag of the village. The obsession with exotic cars was later echoed in Dr. George Miller’s Mad Max series of films, though Miller added an apocalyptic element. The Cars That Ate Paris featured John Meillon, Bruce Spence, and Max Gillies and also marked the debut of the perennially-cockney stirrer Chris Haywood. The film was a costly failure at cinemas, but impressed the critics and became a cult favourite. Weir would have to wait until Picnic at Hanging Rock the following year to establish his reputation as Australia’s top director.

Another action flick that came out in 1974 was the film Stoner (aka The Shrine of Ultimate Bliss), a kung fu action film set in Hong Kong which is sometimes listed as Australian, perhaps due to the starring role of George ‘Australia’s James Bond’ Lazenby, but since the film was made and set in Hong Kong by a Hong Kong company with a Hong Kong director and the rest of the cast being Hong Kong, this is hardly an Australian film. Lazenby soon got his chance to play in a real Australian kung-fu film, The Man From Hong Kong, in 1975.

Petersen (1974)

Tim Burstall, the man of the era, released his third successful film Petersen in 1974. The film starred Jack Thompson as Petersen, an electrician who decided to go to University and extend himself. The film was not really the sex-romp that Alvin Purple had been, but rather a light-hearted drama with a dash of politics and a large serving of sex and nudity. The film also starred Jacki Weaver and Wendy Hughes, as Thompson’s wife and lover respectively, and established Jack Thompson as the principal male star and sex-symbol of the mid-70s. The film was again successful for Burstall making $1,363,000 at the local box office and getting a rare release in the USA and UK.

The Birth of the Oz-Sequel: Alvin Rides Again (1974) and Barry McKenzie Holds His Own (1974)

By 1974 the Australian film scene had grown sufficiently for sequels of two successful Ozploitation films to be made: Alvin Rides Again and Barry McKenzie Holds His Own. Alvin Rides Again was again produced by Tim Burstall but directed by David Bilcock and Robin Copping, and Bruce Beresford made his own Barry McKenzie sequel. Both sequels covered similar ground to the originals and they were the most successful films of 1974: Alvin Rides Again making $1.88 million and Barry McKenzie Holds His Own making $1.4 million.

The TV Spin-offs: Number 96 (1974) and The Box (1975)

A variant of the sexploitation flick was provided by two films in 1974-5. Number 96 and The Box were spin-offs of two popular Australian television exploitation-soap series. The TV series Number 96 was a popular adult soap-opera series broadcast on Channel 10 between 1972 and 1977. It was controversial and was the first Australian TV series to include nudity, explicit sex-scenes and the inclusion of a non-effeminate gay character.  The Box was a competing adult TV soap-opera launched in 1974, which included even more explicit sexual content and nudity. Both film versions were very successful at the box office: Number 96 made around $930,000 (according to a 1984 report quoted by Ozmovies) and The Box made $857,000.

Also in 1974, Michael Thornhill directed his first feature Between Wars, a mid-budget period drama by popular Australian novelist Frank Moorhouse, but it was a flop, appealing only to a small arthouse crowd. Thornhill would go on to direct a number of better and worse films in the next ten years.

A number of other low-budget features and short features were released in 1974:

  • Dave Jones made and starred in the comedy Yackety Yak (1974). The film only received a limited circulation at the time, but become something of a cult among film buffs for its intellectual humour;
  • Richard Mason made the low-budget short- feature Moving On (1974) for Film Australia, a drama about how tough farm life is. The film aimed to present a sympathetic view of farm-life to city audiences and was shown in public libraries and on TV.
  • John Papadopoulos made Matchless (1974), a short-feature drama about the down-and-out in Sydney. It was shown on the indie circuit and picked up by TV later.
  • Scott Hicks, who became famous in the 1990s with Shine, made his first film, the short-feature The Wanderer (1974) about a young man torn between university and a life of travel.
  • John Power made Billy and Percy (1974), a period drama for TV about Percy Dean, secretary to Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes. Though it was a TV movie, John Power won the Best Director Award at the AFI awards for 1974-5, and Martin Vaughan who shared the Best Actor award with Jack Thompson.
  • Donald Crombie made the short feature Who Killed Jenny Langby? (1974) for the South Australian government but it received a release at film festivals and on TV. It was the story of a working-class woman worn down by struggle, and Julie Dawson won the AFI Best Actress Award for her performance.

The Wrap-up

The early 70s saw the growth in the number of locally-produced films, and more importantly produced several local hit films in the Ocker and sex-romp genres from Tim Burstall (Stork, Alvin Purple, and Petersen) and Bruce Beresford (The Adventures of Barry McKenzie). These financial successes were enough to encourage many more film-makers in the later 70s who were willing to attempt more diverse and challenging genres. The increase in the number of films produced meant that the Australian Film Institute (AFI) was now able to present meaningful annual awards for best film, director, actor and actress as there were a number of films each year to choose from, and these awards further increased the profile of local films. Peter Weir had made two short but impressive features which both won the AFI’s top award, and Burstall was rewarded for his pioneering work with Best Film and Best Director awards.

The early seventies were important because they showed that local directors and producers could make successful films again, as they had in the 1930s and 1940s. The assistance provided by government finance allowed writers, directors, and producers to get their ideas made into films and tested in the marketplace, where many failed but an important few succeeded handsomely and ensured that the experiment continued. In the following years, production would more than double and many other important directors would get their chance.

As for the actual films of the early 1970s, many have not stood the test of time very well, and work better as time capsules nowadays than as dramatic entertainments, but this can be said of many post-war films of other countries as well. The best Australian films of the early 70s were the foreign productions Walkabout and Wake in Fright which were intellectually and artistically interesting but which failed to capture the zeitgeist of early 70s Australia and only gained wider respect in retrospect. In the second half of the 1970s, Australian directors would produce many more artistically and intellectually stimulating films as the Aussie film revival flourished.

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 40 Oz 1970s 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):

  1. Alvin Purple (Burstall) (1973) $4,720,000 ($42,904,800) [7]
  2. Picnic at Hanging Rock (Weir) (1975) $5,120,000 ($35,020,800) [12]
  3. Mad Max (Miller) (1979) $5,355,490 ($24,421,034) [21]
  4. Caddie (Crombie) (1976) $2,847,000 ($17,167,410) [31]
  5. Storm Boy (Safran) (1976) $2,645,000 ($15,949,350) [36]
  6. Alvin Rides Again (Bilock/Copping/Burstall) (1974) $1,880,000 ($14,795,600) [40]
  7. My Brilliant Career (Armstrong) (1979) $3,052,000 ($13,917,120) [41]
  8. Stone (Harbutt) (1974) $1,572,000 ($12,371,640) [45]
  9. Barry Mckenzie Holds His Own (Beresford) (1974) $1,407,000 ($11,073,090) [53]
  10. Petersen (Burstall) (1974) $1,363,000 ($10,726,810) [55]
  11. Eliza Fraser (Burstall) (1976) $1,672,000 ($10,082,160) [58]
  12. The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (Beresford) (1972) $1,000,000 ($9,910,000) [59]
  13. Sunday Too Far Away (Hannam) (1975) $1,356,000 ($9,275,040) [63]
  14. Ned Kelly (Richardson) (1970) $808,000 ($9,009,200) [65]
  15. Newsfront (Noyce) (1978) $1,576,000 ($7,832,720) [74]
  16. The Man From Hong Kong (1975) (Trenchard-Smith) $1,066,000 ($7,291,440) [83]
  17. The Last Wave (1977) (Weir) $1,258,000 ($6,755,460) [86]
  18. Ride A Wild Pony (1975) (Chaffey) $949,000 ($6,491,160) [92]
  19. The Box (1975) (Eddey) $857,000 ($5,861,8800 [95]
  20. The Mango Tree (1977) (Dobson) $1,028,000 ($5,520,360) [102]
  21. The Getting Of Wisdom (1977) (Beresford) $982,000 ($5,273,340) [105]
  22. Don’s Party (1976) (Beresford) $871,000 ($5,252,130) [106]
  23. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith  (1978) (Schepisi) $1,021,000 ($5,074,370) [108]
  24. Stork (1971) (Burstall) $463,000 ($4,866,130) [114]
  25. High Rolling  (1977) (Auzins) $841,000 ($4,516,170) [121]
  26. The Odd Angry Shot (1979) (Jeffrey) $866,000 ($3,948,960) [140]
  27. The F.J. Holden (1977) (Thornhill) $710,000 ($3,812,700) [142]
  28. Tim (1979) (Pate) $809,000 ($3,689,040 ) [146]
  29. Blue Fin (1978) (Schultz) $703,000 ($3,493,910) [153]
  30. The Irishman (1978) (Crombie) $622,000 ($3,091,340) [166]
  31. The Picture Show Man (1977) (Power) $566,014 ($3,039,495) [169]
  32. The Love Epidemic (1975) (Trenchard-Smith) $367,000 ($2,510,280) [189]
  33. Felicity (1979) (Lamond) $532,000 ($2,425,920) [195]
  34. The Little Convict (1979) (Gross) $495,000 ($2,257,200) [199]
  35. ABC of Love and Sex Australia Style (1978) (Lamond) $447,000 ($2,221,590) [201]
  36. The Devil’s Playground (1976) (Schepisi) $334,000 ($2,014,020) [214)
  37. The Money Movers (1979) (Beresford) $330,000 ($1,504,800) [246]
  38. Inn Of The Damned (1975) (Bourke) $178,000 ($1,217,520) [278]
  39. The Last Of The Knucklemen (1979) (Burstall) $180,000 ($820,800) [317]
  40. Cathy’s child  (1979) (Crombie) $135,000 ($615,600) [349]

Appendix: Some factors that helped the Australian film revival in the early 1970s

Where did the 1970s film revival come from, after years of declining investment in film and loss of talent and potential overseas?

There are many causes, a few of which we’ll list here:

1. Government financial support

The principal reason often given for the revival is the increase in government support from the late 1960s. Whereas the Australian federal and state governments had been unsupportive and indeed put a limit on the amount of capital Australian films could raise locally in the 1950s, governments starting with Prime Minister John Gorton in 1968 began to support an independent Australian film industry and increased government funding for the arts. The government set up and funded the following bodies which played a vital role in reviving the Australian film industry:

  • Australian Council for the Arts (ACA) was established by Prime Minister Gorton in 1968 to foster and promote the arts in Australia. In 1969, the ACA made three recommendations to the Gorton government: The formation of a film and television school; a film development corporation; and an experimental film fund. The government accepted each recommendation, and established the following three bodies:
  • The Australian Film Development Corporation (AFDC) was established in 1970 and began to fund or part-fund films which were thought to have the potential to be popular. The AFDC was the main contributor to the $250,000 budget for The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972) and the success of that film ensured that further films would be funded throughout the 1970s;
  • The Experimental Film Fund (EFF) also funded a different set of films, mainly smaller, but they were the main financier of Stork, which was the first Australian hit of the 1970s;
  • The Australian Film Television and Radio School was established in 1973 and began training directors and other film professionals. Among the first directors to graduate in the 1970s were Gillian Armstrong, Phillip Noyce, and Chris Noonan.
  • The South Australian Film Corporation (SAFC) was set up in 1972 by the South Australian government of Don Dunstan to encourage film-making in South Australia. The SAFC funded Sunday Too Far Away (1975) which was a commercial and critical success, and ensured the SAFC would continue to fund films (including the successful Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Storm Boy (1976), Blue Fin (1978) and Breaker Morant (1980)).  The success of the SAFC encouraged other states, particularly NSW and Victoria, to set up similar bodies to direct films in their states.

2. Non-government factors

Many non-government institutions, established in the 50s and 60s, played their part in encouraging and enabling the 70s revival:

The Australian Film Institute (AFI) was founded in 1958 as a non-profit organisation devoted to developing an active film culture in Australia and fostering engagement between the general public and the Australian film industry. It helped in several ways: by lobbying the government to set up funding and training bodies (above) and by the establishment of an annual awards system for the best film, director, actor etc. which raised the profile of the industry in the public mind.

Film festivals were established in Melbourne, in 1952, and in Sydney in 1953, with Adelaide following suit in 1959, and Brisbane in 1966. During the 1960s, the appeal, reputation, and influence of these festivals grew among Australian filmgoers, and the festivals provided an important showcase for new Australian films.

The National Film Theatre of Australia was a volunteer organisation formed in 1967, which screened a wide-ranging and well-curated program of films all around the country for a number of years. In 1979 it merged with the AFI.

The Sydney Film Co-op was a group of small-scale film-makers who started to produce small films in the 1960s. It grew out of Albie Thoms’ mid-60s Ubu underground production company. Both Bruce Beresford and Phillip Noyce started out with this group before they made successful films in the 1970s.

Melbourne University Film Society or the ‘Carlton School’ encouraged young Mexican Melbourne film-makers to complete a number of films from the mid-60s to the mid-70s,

The National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA ) was established in 1958 to give formal training to actors and other theatre professionals. By 1970 it had produced the following acting graduates who would play an important role in the Australian film revival: Jeanie Drynan, Helen Morse, Sandy Gore, Judy Morris, Kate Fitzpatrick, Harold Hopkins, Garry McDonald, Penelope Hackforth-Jones, John Hargreaves and Wendy Hughes. They would be joined during the 1970s by John Jarratt, Angela Punch McGregor, Tom Burlinson, Colin Friels, Steve Bisley, Judy Davis and Mel Gibson who would all star in Australian films. (Later NIDA graduates included Hugo Weaving  1981, Miranda Otto 1990 and Cate Blanchett  1992)

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. John Charet says:

    Great post 🙂 I am so glad you included Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout. That is a classic. Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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