Thursday, May 27, 2010

Belshaw's World - New England's rich film history

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 19 May 2010. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010

There was a stir in our household recently when eldest found the trailer for Tomorrow: When the War Began.

John Marsden has always been one of my daughters’ favourite writers. Youngest, an aspiring writer, even went to a writer's session at his farm near Melbourne.

Both girls especially like the Ellie/Tomorrow series, so there was considerable excitement when they found out that the first book in the series was to be filmed. Now the movie is scheduled for release on 2 September.

For those who don't know the story, it centres on a group of teenagers caught up in an invasion of Australia by an unspecified foreign power. The novels are told in first person by the main character, a teenaged girl named Ellie Linton, who is part of a small band of teenagers waging a guerrilla war on the enemy soldiers in their fictional hometown of Wirrawee.

As so often happens with things like this, I started doing some digging around, thinking that I might be able write a post on the film.

Somewhat to my surprise, I found that the film was shot in Maitland, Raymond Terrace and Dungog as well as the Blue Mountains, making it in my terms a New England film.

The question of what constitutes a New England film is slightly complicated.

In his chapter on film in High Lean Country, Neil Rattigan helpfully distinguishes between films made in New England using New England stories as compared to those that just happened to be shot here. Then there are films using New England stories that have been shot elsewhere.

From my perspective, a film is a New England film if it has some connection with New England. Beyond that point, it is a matter of classification.

Growing up, Captain Thunderbolt was the only New England film I knew. As late as the 1980s, I thought that there were only a small handful of New England films. It wasn’t until I started digging into our history that I realised just how many films there were.

The first New England film so far identified is the 1921 production, The Guyra Ghost Mystery, one of a number of films produced by writer and director John Cosgrove in the early 1920s.

The film centres on the apparent haunting of William Bowen's house in Guyra.

Over several weeks, windows were broken, rocks were tossed onto the roof and the Bowens were kept awake by banging on the walls. Apparently one of the Bowen children confessed to tossing some rocks on the roof to scare a younger sibling, but this didn't seem to account for the extent of the phenomenon, especially as these things kept happening even when the place was surrounded by policemen.

The Bowens themselves appear in the film and John Cosgrove stars as Sherlock Doyle, a psychic investigator modelled on a friend of Arthur Conan Doyle's.

I haven’t seen the film, but Neil Rattigan suggests that Cosgrove was somewhat tongue in cheek. Still, the story of the original events has certainly survived the years.

On 25 January this year, ninety years later, the Guyra Argus reported that the ghost was to be a chapter in a new book!

Between 1921’s The Guyra Ghost Mystery and 2010’s Tomorrow: When the War Began, I have so far traced some twenty films with New England connections. I have seen perhaps six of these.

In a lot of cases, and even with films that I have seen, I did not know of the New England link.

Many years ago I saw and enjoyed Ken Hall’s 1933 epic The Squatter’s Daughter without knowing that most of the exterior shots (but not the spectacular bush fire scene) were shot on Goonoo Goonoo Station near Tamworth.

In similar vein, I did not know that the successful 1977 release, The Picture Show Man, was not only based in part on a Tamworth story, but was also shot on the Liverpool Plains and the Clarence.

Does this lack of knowledge matter? I think that it does.

To my mind, it takes away some of the potential richness in New England life. I think that that’s a pity.

I am not saying that we should jamb New England films down peoples’ throats, simply that the information should be available for those who are interested.


James said...

there is a picture of the cast of Thunderbolt amongst my photos

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Jamie. Yes, I had seen the photo. I am trying to find out who all the people were.