Monday, 18 June 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 80: Eureka Stockade (1949)

This historical Western finishes off the coverage of Ealing’s five Australian films in this blog and, as that genre description suggests, it has a lot in common with the films it was produced between, namely The Overlanders (1946) and Bitter Springs (1950). Like those productions, Eureka Stockade relies on the scale of Australia’s natural landscapes, filling the screen with impressive location shooting and framing people and events under huge skies that dominate two-thirds of the screen or more. The narrative here is about a fight for freedom, one the opening voiceover compares to other historical moments: ‘England had her Magna Carta, France her revolution, America her declaration of independence, and Australia, Eureka Stockade.’ Yet by trying to do justice to this moment in history, to explain the motivations of the main characters, and to justify the scope of the narrative, the film ultimately rushes over details and characters in the race for the finish line.

Despite that criticism, however, this remains an impressive and well-paced film, and one that tells a story likely unknown to most audiences. Peter Lalor (Chips Rafferty) is one of hundreds of immigrants who arrives at Ballaarat to mine for gold; once there, he meets Scotsman Tommy Kennedy (Gordon Jackson), Spaniard Rafaello Cardoni (Peter Illing) and German Frederick Vern (Sydney Loder), and the four ‘grave-diggers’ work together in the fields, hoping for a lucky strike. But this Australian gold rush has pulled workers away from the farms and other industries, and the government, hoping to force men back to work, introduces taxation and digging licences run by the honest and under-manned Commissioner Rede (Jack Lambert). As tensions between the pioneers and the newer immigrants increases, Peter finds himself the reluctant leader of a small band of rebels fighting for the right to vote, buy land and settle down: a fight that leads to a show down with government forces at a hastily built fort on Eureka Hill.

The film takes its time to draw the viewer into the story: what initially feels like a more light-hearted story about four disparate men digging for gold takes a dark turn when one of Tommy’s friends, Scobie (Al Thomas) is killed by a gang led by bar owner Bentley (Ron Whelan). Because Tommy’s character has been developed, when he shifts to demanding vengeance and helps stoke the flames of an attack on Bentley and his wife, his viewpoint is understandable (even as the film relies on Peter as the voice of reason to defuse and reject this move to violence). Vern and Raffaelo are more broadly caricatured (Rafaello also has a good line in anti-German dialogue), but still rounded individuals – when Vern runs away from command in the final battle, it feels apt, based on his actions and bluster to date. And, while the film is careful to position itself largely on Peter’s side, it also gives Rede actions and dialogue that doesn’t paint him as evil, but restricted to obeying (and occasionally challenging) orders. The film may be broadly on the side of the revolutionary diggers, but it isn’t a simple celebration of their views, and does give limited voice to the opposing side.

Yet despite solid storytelling throughout, the final ten minutes of the film are rushed and uncertain, cramming in too much historical detail in an attempt to show the impact of this one rebellion. Given the slow and steady build-up, the post-showdown is juggling too many balls: Tommy saves an injured Peter with the help of school teacher Alicia Dunne (Jane Barrett); they travel away from Ballaarat; the military restores order to the town; the government brings several captured rebels to trial; Peter recovers from his illness; the rebels are cleared; the government recognise the rebel’s demands; Peter and Alicia return to Ballaarat to buy land, and have a final meeting with Rede. That alone would be material for another film, and it reduces the final impact of this one.

As is no doubt clear, one of the film’s strengths lies in its use of location filming and landscapes: shots of the field where the gold miners dig give the film a strong sense of space, and the different fights between diggers and police/soldiers are well choreographed in such locations. Yet the film can also be visually and aurally inventive in other ways: Watt uses a lot of montages and close-ups in sequences that are effective in showing either how news spreads quickly across the miner’s camp, or the growing anger at new government policy; while several night time sequences (notably Scobie’s death and the burning of Bennett’s bar) rely as heavily on Mary Habberfield’s sound editing skills as they do the cinematography of George Heath.

In terms of its place within the larger Ealing back catalogue, Eureka Stockade has strong links to other studio films, not least the Australian projects developed by Harry Watt. Like The Overlanders and Bitter Springs (and, arguably, many of Ealing’s war films), the film is about a disparate group of nationalities and individuals coming together for a common cause; the films suggest that logical, commonsense decisions are often beyond the reach of official organisations; and they celebrate the history and landscape of their country, projecting elements of Australia as clearly as Balcon intended Ealing films to project Britain. (although, of course, in projecting Australia these films can also be read as projections of British views on Australia, a partially colonial view of this land)

[UPDATED April 2014: Eureka Stockade is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 7, from Network]

Next time, from Australian history to the British waterways in Painted Boats (1945)...

No comments:

Post a Comment