The cinema, at the time considered a working class recreation, was growing more popular. Audiences were quick to show their support of new styles of filmmaking and, as critic Luke Buckmaster explains, equally quick to move on to the next thing.
Contemporary Australian films are rarely branded as works that tap into or react to the zeitgeist. Due to lengthy periods of time required to go through phrases such as script development, funding application, and production and post-production (each of which can take several years) ‘flavour of the month’ filmmaking that permeates Hollywood doesn’t generally work here. By the time local artists have responded to current trends, audiences have usually moved on.
A century ago that wasn’t the case. Cinema as an art form was cruder and technically much less sophisticated, and filmmakers were capable of catering to the vagaries of public taste. When that taste turned against them, production companies adjusted their strategies and altered their output with now unheard of responsiveness.
From 1914 to 1918, cinema in Australia experienced a tumultuous period. Industry reacted to fluctuating demand nimbly and learnt its first real lesson on the fickle nature of audience behaviour. Dramatic war pictures that drew spurious distinctions between fact and fiction went through boom and bust in only a couple of years. Audiences then turned to propaganda documentaries and began a long love affair with the medium's first international superstar.
From 1914 artists rushed to capture documentary and non-documentary visions of World War I from a local perspective, following a swathe of British films that arrived late in the year. Many proved enormously popular – though a despairing number of them (including the commercial smash-hits) are now considered lost works. During this period cinema gave birth to the ANZAC legend, its embryos in stories about effete Australian men battling villainous foreigners and returning home, injured but unbroken, to be rewarded with marriage.
One of the pedigree non-documentary titles of this period was director Alfred Rolfe’s The Hero of the Dardanelles (1915), the first Gallipoli feature and the first surviving film depiction of Australian WWI troops. It was a feature-length expansion of a short recruitment film called Will They Never Come? Both were made with the co-operation of the government and military, which was par for the course at the time.
The hero, a sportsman named Will (Guy Hastings), decides to literally put down his cricket bat and enlist for the war. He attends training and learns the ways of military life. Will eventually lands at Gallipoli (in a scene that was actually shot at Tamarama Bay near Bondi Beach) and wrestles a Turk to the death, drowning him in the water. Around one third of Dardenelles has survived, portions of it rediscovered around the turn of the century.
Advertised as an actual account of the landings, and widely perceived as such, the film was enormously successful and praised by audiences and critics alike for its creative merit and realism. It’s not so much a matter of audiences back then being easily tricked; looking at Dardanelles today, those blurry long shots of mayhem on the beach – made blurrier by billows of smoke wafting across the frame – still have a documentary-esque feel. Rolfe also used actual documentary footage in other points of the film, further muddying the line between truth and fiction.
But the most interesting scene of those that survived is probably a pre-battlefield moment when Will, in a bar drinking with friends, attaches a recruitment poster to the wall. Another punter rips it down and is promptly scolded by Will and booted out of the building; presumably he is a dissenter critical of the war.
A slew of other propaganda dramas followed including Rolfe's naval spectacle How We Beat Emden (1915), Monte Luke's critically maligned For Australia (1915), which featured a spy getting eaten by a crocodile, and John Gavin and C. Post Mason's The Martyrdom of Nurse Cavell (1916), about the execution of a real-life British nurse who helped Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium. The latter was so hastily made it was believed to have been literally written overnight.
These were less cynical times, but it is inaccurate to assume viewers uncritically swallowed anything these government-affiliated productions rammed down their throats. One reviewer scoffed that The Martyrdom of Nurse Cavell represented “the new method of teaching history as you may wish it taught.” This and other reviews began to focus on (or at least incorporate analysis of) themes rather than acting or visual effects, reflecting an increasing wariness.
Perhaps we can interpret the moment involving the dissenter in the bar in The Hero of the Dardanelles as a symbol of the public’s imminent fatigue of the war drama genre. This kind of film fell out of vogue quickly. After a spate of successes came a run of flops including a feature called If the Huns Came to Melbourne (1916), which was sensationally marketed but still fizzled at the box office.
The public were turning their attention to documentaries and comedies. Filmmakers and distributors revised their game plan and catered for both. In 1916, a commercial and critical success arrived in Australia Prepared, a government-commissioned feature with a focus on the war’s impact on local manufacturing.
Many other documentaries arrived over the next couple of years including Fighting in Flanders (1917), about troops preparing for an offensive against Germany near the Belgian city of Ypres, Home of the Blizzard (1916), which documents part of Sir Douglas Mawson’s trek to the South Pole, and Across the Trans-continental Railway: From Kalgoorlie to Port Augusta (1917), about construction of the trans-continental railway.
The war years also saw the emergence of a diminutive English comedian whose goofball antics took Australia and the rest of the world by storm. A 1914 short film called Making a Living marked the first film appearance of Charlie Chaplin, born Charles Spencer Chaplin. In the film, Chaplin plays a fancy dressed fast-talking swindler with a top hat and a monocle. He looks dastardly, a little like Professor Moriarty, with a manic, unsettling energy very different from the character that would become synonymous with his legacy.
America and the rest of the world would soon be introduced to Chaplin’s pitiable but loveable ‘The Tramp.’ Later that year The Tramp took a starring turn in Kid Auto Races at Venice, wearing a distinctive outfit comprised of bowler hat, signature cane, baggy pants and tight suit. It is an odd film to watch today. Chaplin regularly breaks the fourth wall, standing on the racetrack looking into the lens of the camera, only to be repeatedly pushed away by track staff.
Caught in the Rain, made in late 1914, was the first film Chaplin directed. It extended his range by introducing moments of pathos such as a scene in which The Tramp sits down on a park bench, fishes a flower out of his pocket and presents it to a lady next to him, who glances at it with disdain and throws it to the ground. It is also an early indication of Chaplin’s penchant for taking solitary images and investing in them the illusion of movement by filling the frame with action (including a staircase gag involving repeated falls).
The Australian public’s growing affection for Chaplin over locally made content was a harbinger of things to come, though the local industry has always been heavily influenced by overseas productions.
Contemporary audiences are often discussed in terms of fickle attitudes and “here today, gone tomorrow” attention spans. But during the war it took audiences little time – a couple of years at most – to indicate to the industry that their tastes had moved from one type of film to another. Consider that in the context of cinema's current infatuation with genres such as superhero movies, which have been thriving in multiplex cinemas for over two decades, and the contrast is stark.
The dramatic war picture was de rigueur for cinemagoers but not for long. Similarly, when the war ended the propaganda documentaries the government had tailored to the demands of the public were in their final stretch. The film widely regarded as the greatest silent feature Australia ever produced, Raymond Longford's 1919's The Sentimental Bloke, belonged to a new era and was just around the corner.
– Luke Buckmaster