by Stephen Vagg

Before the Australian film industry revived in the 1970s, we mostly had to depend on Hollywood and Britain to tell Australian stories in cinemas. They didn’t do it that often – sometimes the results were excellent (The Sundowners (1960), The Overlanders (1946)), other times less memorable (Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1959)). Let’s take a look at some of the films that were nearly made by Hollywood about Australia.

Robbery Under Arms

Hal Roach, better known for his comedies, announced in 1938 he would make a film of Rolfe Boldrewood’s classic bushranging novel starring Brian Aherne. He was scared off by some legal sabre rattling from Australia’s Ken G Hall, whose company, Cinesound Productions, had the film rights. Instead Roach made his movie about a fictitious bushranger (who hardly does any bushranging), the entertaining Captain Fury (1939), with Aherne, Victor McLaglen and John Carradine. Hall never got to make Robbery Under Arms, which was unmemorably filmed by the Rank Organisation in 1957.

Captain Bligh in Australia

Director Frank Lloyd had such a hit with Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) starring Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh, that it’s not surprising that in 1940 he announced he would make a film about the other big dramatic event of Bligh’s life, The Rum Rebellion – when he was turfed from being Governor of New South Wales by a cabal of corrupt officers. He registered the titles “Captain Bligh”, “Captain Bligh in Australia” and “Captain Bligh Returns” and sought to use Laughton or Spencer Tracy in the lead. This would have made a fascinating film, if an inevitable distortion of history, but never happened, possibly because by that stage Lloyd was at Universal whereas the 1935 film had been made at MGM. (In 1945 MGM announced they would do an official sequel, about Fletcher Christian’s time on Pitcairn Island called Christian of the Bounty, but that was never made either.)

The Fortunes of Richard Mahony

Henry Richardson’s novel is one of those Australian classics that you feel guilty for not having read. MGM considered making a film out of it in 1946 as a vehicle for Greer Garson. Announcements were made but no film resulted. However, MGM did make a film of another Richardson novel, Maurice Guest: Rhapsody (1954) with Elizabeth Taylor.

Careful He Might Hear You

A film based on Sumner Locke Elliot’s classic novel was actually made in Australia in 1983 with Wendy Hughes and John Hargreaves. It came close to being made 20 years earlier by Hollywood, as director Josh Logan optioned it in 1963. It nearly happened in 1971 with Elizabeth Taylor, which would have been a terrific combination, but the Aussie movie that eventuated was pretty good too.

Call Me When the Cross Turns Over

A successful film had already been made of a D’arcy Niland novel, The Shiralee (1957), which presumably prompted interest in a film adaptation of his second book. In 1964, Australian Diane Cilento was set to co-star with her then-husband Sean Connery in a film for Fox, but Connery decided to make The Hill (1965) instead. The marriage ultimately ended, and the novel remains unfilmed.

Last Bus to Banjo Creek

Rod Taylor tried to make a number of films in Australia which didn’t come off – a biopic about Captain Cook for George Pal, an adaptation of Jon Cleary’s novel The Long Shadow – but the one that came closest, and the most promising sounding, was this romantic adventure about a mismatched couple who found love on the Birdsville Track, based on a script by Ted Willis originally written in the early 1960s. Rod tried to get the film financed from the mid ‘60s for over a decade, even writing his own version of the script, but was ultimately unsuccessful. It’s a shame because we’ve read the script and it would’ve made a good film, much better than most of the movies Rod appeared in during the 1970s.

The One Day of the Year

It’s bewildering why Alan Seymour’s excellent 1958 play, which could be filmed cheaply, offers marvelous parts and has name recognition, has yet to be given a theatrical film treatment in Australia (it’s been adapted for TV a few times). It came close to being made by an American company, Lou Edelman Productions, in 1970, but no movie resulted.

The Inheritors and Landtakers

When Lewis Milestone was in Australia doing pre-production on 20th Century Fox’s Kangaroo (1952), he came across two 1930s novels by Australian journalist Brian Penton, The Inheritors and Landtakers. Milestone was so taken with them that he asked Fox if he could make a movie out of them instead of the dull script for Kangaroo, but Fox refused. Some material from the novels did wind its way into the film, which was a deserved flop.

Come Away Pearler

Colin Simpson’s 1952 novel was optioned in 1954 by producer Joseph Kaufman who had just made Long John Silver (1954) in Australia and wanted to make a slate of projects at Pagewood Studios in Sydney. The cinematic potential was obvious – pearling looks great on screen – and he came close to doing it with actor John Payne, but Kaufman could never raise the funds and the film never resulted.

Mr Burke and Mr Wills

Burke and Wills were perhaps the most famous idiots in Australian history, and their legend has lingered on when other more sensible “explorers” are less remembered. Terence Rattigan wrote a script in the late 1960s that was almost filmed but ultimately did not proceed. Two versions of the story appeared in 1985 from Australia, Burke and Wills and Wills and Burke, indicating that maybe the story wasn’t that suited for cinema after all. And movies about incompetent explorers are not easy to finance – Joseph Losey tried for many years to shoot Patrick White’s novel Voss.


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