You are here:

Australia's Film Heritage

The UNESCO Memory of the World Australian Register inscribes both a feature film and a newsreel collection. While these genres are well represented in other Memory of the World registers around the world, there is something very special about the Australian inscriptions.

The feature film – a narrative drama or comedy lasting more than an hour – has long been the basic creative format of the commercial film industry. Today, a ticket to the cinema entitles you to one feature film – plus a gratuitous serving of advertisements and trailers for coming attractions! But it was not always so.

When motion pictures were young, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, film dramas were short. They typically ran to no more than about fifteen minutes, the screen time of a standard ‘reel’ of 1000 feet [304.80 metres] of film. At the end, there would be a pause while the projectionist changed reels and loaded up a new subject. Acting, editing and storylines were geared to the single reel format. The idea that audiences would respond to a drama stretching over multiple reels required a conceptual and creative leap.

That leap did not originate in the film industry capitals of Europe and North America. It happened, of all places, in Australia. Show business entrepreneurs John and Nevin Tait were joined by two chemists, Millard Johnson and William Gibson, who had become interested in film exhibition. They applied their knowledge of chemistry to the technical aspects of photography and processing. The collaboration resulted in The Story of the Kelly Gang, which opened at the Athenaeum Hall, Melbourne, on Boxing Day 1906. The six-reel drama, shot at Heidelberg on the outskirts of Melbourne, ran for about one hour and twenty minutes. It was the world’s first feature film.

The partners had chosen their subject shrewdly. The Kelly legend was fast becoming established in stage plays and, to the ire of the police and censorship authorities, the film inspired a still continuing sub-genre of bushranging movies. Yet the partners were unaware of the historical importance of their achievement; it became clear only in retrospect.

Like 95 percent of Australian films made during the silent years, before 1930, The Story of the Kelly Gang is mostly lost. Only fragments totalling about fifteen minutes are known to exist today. Their survival story – here a section found on a rubbish dump, there another under the floorboards of a demolished house, and so on – has itself become a classic anecdote.

Most of Australia’s silent-era newsreels are lost, too, but from 1930 onwards the picture is much brighter. The Cinesound Movietone Collection contains surviving newsreels up to the end of production in 1975, including approximately 2000 weekly issues each of Cinesound Review and Australian Movietone News.

You have to be above a certain age to recall newsreels as an integral part of a cinema program. They typically opened the show, and their proud trademarks were known to all Australians: the laughing Movietone kookaburras and the leaping Cinesound kangaroo, accompanied by their signature fanfares, got any night at the pictures off to a good start. Packing the week’s news into an entertaining ten minutes was no mean feat, and Australian newsreels had a unique style. They were narrated not by the stern ‘voice of God’ commentators of other countries, but by star comedians – Jack Davey for Movietone, Charles Lawrence for Cinesound. Did this say something about the Australian character and our laconic sense of humour?

Feature film production is again common in Australia, but in the lean post-war years imported films dominated our cinema diet. When the newsreel was the only Australian film on the program, the kangaroo and the kookaburras stood as defiant gestures, anticipating a day when Australian film makers would reclaim their own screens.

The newsreels’ finest hour arrived during World War II, when they became powerful and inspirational mini-masterpieces of editing and scripting. One of them, Cinesound Review No 568: Kokoda Front Line won an Academy Award – Australia’s first ‘Oscar’ – for best documentary in 1942. Throughout the Academy’s history, no other newsreel from any country ever achieved that distinction.

The passing parade of Australia’s life and times are captured in the collection, which includes Captain de Groot’s dramatic ‘opening’ of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932, footage of the last living Tasmanian tiger in a Hobart Zoo, disastrous floods and bushfires, the Royal Visit of 1954, and the great sporting figures of seven decades.

The arrival of television in 1956 presaged the end of the newsreel, although the final curtain did not come down until 1975. Australia was one of the last countries to cease production. During the 1990s, the sponsored Operation Newsreel project ensured that the surviving library of negatives and prints was acquired by the National Film and Sound Archive, was catalogued for public access, and received essential preservation attention.

While not a newsreel in the classic format, the film record of the Inauguration of the Commonwealth on 1 January 1901 is included in a definitive group of Australian Landmark Constitutional Documents inscribed on the Australian and Asia Pacific Memory of the World Registers. It captures, among the ceremonial, the actual moment of Australia’s creation as a nation. It became the first country to be born in front of a movie camera. That was remarkable enough, but perhaps even more remarkable is that fact that the film was made at all.

At the time, moving pictures were regarded merely as a passing novelty, and certainly not as the stuff of historical record. Yet the New South Wales Government had the foresight to capture the occasion so that future generations could relive it. And to do this, they turned to the Limelight Department of the Salvation Army, the only professional body in the country capable of discharging such a complex assignment.

Here, then, is a foretaste of the riches of Australia’s film heritage. There is more, much more, to come.

a photograph of the National Film and Sound Archive building in the ACT

National Film and Sound Archive building, Acton, ACT. Photo: Roslyn Russell

In this section