Prolific Australian filmmaker, Charles Chauvel, shot one of his most acclaimed films in the Scenic Rim.
Sons of Matthew, which was inspired by the story of the O’Reilly family, was shot on the Lamington Plateau. It was a grueling shoot, plagued by heavy rain and near cyclonic conditions. The large cast and crew were flooded in and shooting ran overtime and over budget. It was something of a homecoming for Chauvel, who had grown up nearby in the tiny farming town of Harrisville.
His daughter Susanne Chauvel-Carlsson, and grandson Ric, remember a visionary Australian, Charles Chauvel.
Chauvel’s early years spent in the Scenic Rim
Susanne and Rich Chauvel-Carlsson
Against the odds Charles Chauvel made movies. Charles grew up on Summerlands, a dairy and grain farm in Harrisville, on the outskirts of Ipswich, and always had an interest in art. That interest, combined with his natural entrepreneurial streak, led to a bumpy but illustrious career in film.
“He was an amazing person,” says his only daughter Susanne. “Although a country boy, he was really a very complex character.”
A chance career
“He wanted to study art but got into filmmaking more or less by chance. He left Summerlands aged about 17 and went to Sydney to study under the Italian artist, Datillo Rubbo, but he got sidetracked when he met Snowy Baker, a very famous sportsman of the time. Snowy claimed to be the master of 29 sports, he was certainly very proficient at many of them. He was a dynamic personality.”
“Making Australian silent movies was his hobby… dad was totally captivated by this moviemaking and asked Snowy if he could have a job.
Snowy replied, ‘No, not unless you’re willing to look after the horses.’
Dad said, ‘Well I am a country boy and know all about horses’ and so he became their stablehand.
Later he was in charge of transportation and had a few ‘bit’ parts in Snowy’s movies.”
Passion for movie making
His passion for films grew from there. Finding funding for filmmaking in those days was extremely difficult. But in spite of this Chauvel consistently made films for his entire working life, even making a living out of film-making during The Great Depression and World War 2.
Charles chauvel during making of Sons of Matthew
Some of his filmmaking companies only lasted for one or two films, not uncommon in those days, and most of his profits from a film were ‘ploughed back’ into the next one. But the next filmmaking venture was never far away.
“He went to America in 1922 to study film craft,” says Susanne. “He came back to Australia and made his first two silent movies, Moth of Moonbi and Greenhide. Australia was churning out films at a rate of knots.”
However getting these films seen was another story. The majority of Australian cinemas were owned by a combine that was geared to showing only American films. So Charles and his wife Elsa travelled to country towns in their little jalopy, trying to persuade smaller cinemas to show their films.
Wife and actress
Elsa, a professional actress who had met Charles on the set of Greenhide, offered to ‘sweeten the deal’ by performing a small monologue prior to the film. They decided to try and have their silent films released in America and travelled abroad by ship, carrying their precious cans of film with them. But during their long voyage they learned that sound had arrived in American movies.
“They thought, ‘What a funny thing, it will just be a passing fad,’” says Susanne. But of course it wasn’t and subsequently Charles and Elsa were unable to sell their silent films.”
“Everyone was clamouring for films with sound,” says Susanne. “There were signs everywhere in America announcing that ‘Barrymore speaks!’. They took a few jobs in studios, they pooled their resources and learned what they could, and when they came back to Australia they made their first sound film in the Cinesound film studio in Sydney. I remember it as an Aladdin’s Cave, everything (all aspects of filmmaking) was done under the one roof.”
First sound film
That first sound film was called In the Wake of the Bounty and the exteriors were filmed at Pitcairn Island, which can only be accessed by sea. It was the first of many filmmaking adventures for Charles, Elsa and their loyal crew. They were looking for someone to play the role of the First Officer, Fletcher Christian, when the film’s assistant director showed Charles a photograph and newspaper story about a man who’d survived a yacht wreck. Charles said ‘See if you can find him’.
They did – his name was Errol Flynn.
“That was his beginning,” says Susanne. “Dad asked him, ‘Have you ever acted?’ He replied, ‘No, but I’ll try anything once.’”
Soon after, Charles made the film Heritage, in response to a government competition for the best Australian feature film. His historic drama retold the struggles of pioneering Australia and won him the government money.
Later came his epic, Forty Thousand Horsemen, and soon afterwards war was declared. Incredibly Charles continued making films, although it became harder to attract funding. He made wartime morale-boosting documentaries for the government Department of Information. After these he made The Rats of Tobruk, ‘a serious film for serious times’ and the only wholly Australian feature film made during the war.
Charles was struck by dengue fever while filming in Canungra and he was sent to Arthur Groom’s Binna Burra Mountain Lodge to recuperate. While there he was given a copy of Bernard O’Reilly’s book Green Mountains and quickly Charles became fascinated by the story of the O’Reilly family. He set about writing a script loosely based on the O’Reilly’s and the Stinson crash. Later the Stinson references were removed and the film became a story about five brothers – the Sons of Matthew.
Sons of Matthew
Some of the filming was to take place on the Lamington Plateau but when the 70-strong cast and crew arrived to Beaudesert it was raining heavily. They were confident it would soon stop, but it didn’t – they had struck Queensland’s wettest period in 40 years. The Nerang River rose and the filmmakers were stranded on Round Mountain, where they were staying at a former American Army Camp. Food was delivered to them by flying fox.
“It was the most arduous film,” says Susanne. “There were a lot of children in the film so they tried to get the children’s scenes done first so they could be sent back to Sydney. There is a flood in the film but they had to recreate those scenes after the rain had stopped because it was impossible to film properly in cyclonic conditions. His financial backers were nearly tearing their hair out, it was a very stressful situation. Norman Rydge, the head of Greater Union Theatres, decided to go up there and threatened to toss a coin to see if they would continue funding. Dad talked him out of it, saying it was far too important a venture to waste on the toss of a coin. The finished film was reasonably commercially successful and would have been even more so if it hadn’t gone over cost and over time.”
Charles made headlines again in 1955 when he filmed Jedda, the story of an Aboriginal girl adopted and raised by a white family on a Northern Territory cattle station. It was the first narrative feature film in colour to be made by an Australian company. Susanne says he always had a good rapport with the Aboriginal people and his decision to feature an Aboriginal actress in a film was very much ahead of his time.
“He was very brave, they were difficult things to do at that time,” she says. “Dad went to Sir Robert Menzies to ask for government sponsorship, but that didn’t go very well when Mr Menzies found out the film was going to star two Aboriginal people.
“Filmmaking went into a slump after Jedda, nobody wanted to back another Chauvel film. They thought his demands were too tough, they didn’t want to back anything so controversial or risky.”
However Chauvel was soon saved by the British Broadcasting Corporation. It had just screened a documentary series that had been filmed in the South African jungle. It had been very popular with the British viewing public and the BBC asked Chauvel and his wife to film a similar series in the Australian bush. It was a very personal 13-part travel series, showing everything from buffalo hunting, to opal digging and gold prospecting. It was well received in England. He was planning his next project when he died of a sudden heart attack in 1959, aged 62.
Chauvel’s love of film lives on through his grandson Ric, who has owned and operated Toowoomba’s Icon Cinema for about 8 years. The cinema has shown classic, arthouse and some popular films.
“It’s a bit of a quiet acknowledgement of my ancestors,” he says. “I never knew my grandfather but I did know my grandmother, and with my mother’s input I have always loved watching the films that are part of my heritage.”