Thursday, 15 March 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 53: Bitter Springs (1950)

Like Harry Watt’s The Overlanders (1946) and Where No Vultures Fly (1951), with which it shares similar narrative and thematic DNA, this is a (sometimes uncomfortably colonial) look at the relationship between white and black, here in the context of Australian homesteaders who, in 1900, trek 600 miles to a parcel of land they’ve bought from the Australian government. Arriving after an arduous journey, they find native aborigines already inhabiting the area, setting the scene for a major conflict. Again mirroring Watt’s earlier work (there is a good chance he would also have made this film, given his love for Australia, but was considering leaving feature film making completely after the trouble he –and Ealing – had making Eureka Stockade in 1947-49) this is a strong example of a lesser-known Ealing genre – namely, the Western.

Michael Balcon had expressed an interest in Australian production, even before moving to Ealing, so it is perhaps not surprising the studio made five films in the country between 1946 and 1959 (starting with The Overlanders and ending with Ealing’s final film, The Siege of Pinchgut in 1959). Stephen Morgan’s fascinating look at those films (part of the co-edited collection Ealing Revisited, released later this year) reveals that Ralph Smart, who had worked closely with Watt on Ealing’s first two Australian ventures, took over this film but clashed with Ealing over the casting of Tommy Trinder (who was a big star in Australia, at least in part because of his earlier Ealing films) and the changes made to the script around the treatment of the aborigines.

The end result is a film that misfires in places, largely works on visual and generic levels, but (not least because the world has moved on at least a little in sixty years) feels dated in its treatment of aboriginal issues. However, the film isn’t as completely one-sided as more standard cowboys and Indians fare might be, and does at least gesture towards a more liberal perspective – albeit one that is biased towards civilising and changing native culture rather than understanding or embracing it.

Like the last couple of films in this mini-Tommy Trinder marathon, Trinder is part of an ensemble here rather than having the plot revolve around him and his traditional persona (as in, say, Sailors Three (1940) or Fiddlers Three (1944). This also means that, for the third film running (in the challenge) he fails to get the girl, letting a better man win. Here, Trinder is an unemployed minor magician and showman (we first see him wrapped in a sack and bound in chains as part of a risible escapology trick) who, along with friend Mac (the ubiquitous Gordon Jackson) and son Charlie (Nicky Yardley), sign up as drover’s hands with the King family. The family, led by Wally (Chips Rafferty), his mother Ma (Jean Blue), his son John (Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwall), and daughter Emma (Nonnie Piper), along with their aboriginal employee/farmhand Blackjack (Henry Murdoch), have purchased the land around Bitter Springs.

From here, the narrative is fairly predictable – they arrive in Bitter Springs, Wally angers the aborigines, the King family build a house, Mac and Emma fall in love, one of the aborigines is shot during a tense stand-off, Tommy and his son are taken hostage, the family retreat to their homestead for a final assault, and the cavalry ride in to save the day. Like most Ealing films, the fun is in the detail and the performances: Rafferty is convincing as the gruff abrasive leader, Jackson plays up Mac’s uncertainty and openness (Mac remains open to the native’s plight and rights until forced to choose a side), while Trinder strolls through each scene with his trademark cockiness and charm. Both female actors are solid, but the film doesn’t really give them a lot to do. While Ma largely cooks and cleans, Emma is presented as a tomboy, wears trousers and men’s clothes (unless seducing Mac, when she puts on a dress), helps herd sheep, uses a whip, and shoots her gun alongside the menfolk. Although Piper looks very modern in the role – particularly in her leather jacket – the film doesn’t develop this into a stronger role and is unsure how to deal with a strong female character who can work alongside men.

The film’s strengths play to the scale and scope of the Australian filming, with stunning location shooting and staging. The reason this works as a western is that sense of isolation and desolation, particularly in the montage of the family’s trek (the first third of the film), and then in the more lush forest and prairieland around Bitter Springs. The film also maintains a few thin links to its documentary heritage, with shots of kangaroos and the depiction of aboriginal customs, notably kangaroo hunting and a funeral (although this is all shot through a lens of Western curiosity).

Where the film likely falls down for a modern audience, however, is the insistence that the white heroes are the source of the solution as well as the initial problems: Wally refuses to admit that the aborigines have any claims to the land (the fact they have ‘been scratching around here for a thousand years doesn’t mean they can keep it’), regularly exacerbates the situation, won’t listen to reason... yet ends up, due to government help in the form of trooper Ransom (Michael Pate), colonising the land and putting the aborigines (who now wear western clothes) to work as sheep-shearers. While this was likely preferable to Ealing than a Zulu-style slaughter of natives by the Kings or the cavalry, it does allow the film to end on a note of optimism that is largely absent in the rest of the film.

As for Trinder, unlike The Bells Go Down (1943) he does at least survive this film (he even rides in with the cavalry), but it would be his last Ealing film. The experiment of developing a star figure, and of wedding his particular comic persona into more dramatic work, was never effectively handled after the war, and Ealing’s preference for ensemble casts and subtler performative styles, meant there was little place for Trinder in the studio’s future.

Next time, we remain in Australia for another cattle drive, in The Overlanders (1946)...


  1. As you say, Ralph Smart worked alongside Watt in both 'Eureka Stockade' as a writer, and as associate producer in 'The Overlanders'. It's worth pointing out that Smart also had a major box office hit with 'Bush Christmas' in '47/'48 and had been in the movie scripting business with Michael Powell, back in Britain prior to WWII. It may be that he and Watt were more a pairing of equals than conventional history seems to record these days. It's good to see this film getting some proper recognition anyhow. I noticed it has a feature at the NFSA now too.

  2. If the ending of "Bitter Springs" falls down regarding the settlers "taking in" the Aborigines, one can't argue that this was historical fact. It is fair to say the happy ending is false and dishonest - it was not an ending Ralph Smart was happy with - but it is true that Aborigines were to be employed on cattle and sheep stations. Matters of underpayment and mistreatment were probably outside the scope of the film which concentrated on the clashes on the frontier during white settlement. Ralph Smart, An Aussie born and raised in England, deserves accolades for even introducing these themes into Australian cinema and acknowldging the injustices that occurred during settlement. Another point to make about your article Keith is that the hunting scenes were based on a real-life hunt Ralph and George Heath filmed the year before (1949) for their documentary "Primitive People: Australian Aborigines".

  3. Seldom were Aboriginal actors employed in Australian films until Harry Watt and Ralph Smart came to Australia in 1946. "The Overlanders", written by Watt in collaboration with Smart and Dora Birtles and co-produced by Smart, featured Clyde Combo and Henry Murdoch in significant roles. Combo went on to co-star in Ralph's non-Ealing film, "Bush Christmas", which introduced young Neza Saunders as one of the five lost children. The strength of this film is the treatment of the children as real characters. Murdoch has a small part in the not entirely historically accurate "Eureka Stockade" (which Ralph co-write and co-directed with Harry Watt). But Murdoch has a major role in "Bitter Springs" as the farm hand who returns to his people after a violent clash. Both Murdoch and Neza Saunders hailed from Woorabinda in Central Queensland. Neza went home after "Bush Christmas" and didn't make another film. Murdoch went home after a couple of episodes of Whiplash" in the late 1950s where they became friends and worked together as stockmen. It's a shame we didn't see more of these talented actors. In a way, they were movie pioneers.

  4. Thanks for both your comments / additions - I enjoyed watching the Ealing 'Australian' films and know they engage with unusual topics for Australian cinema in that time period - aspects both your comments add to. The forthcoming piece by Stephen Morgan in 'Ealing Revisited' (the collection I'm co-editing) covers some of this ground, hence I didn't want to steal his thunder! I'm moving on to Siege of Pinchgut and Eureka Stockade soon!