This is the story of a film seen through the eyes of a child. I was too young to remember the making, but I did go to the premiere. I also grew up on stories of the film. Like all child-hood memories, indeed all memories, the story is an imperfect one. Still, it might be of interest.
Armidale, June 1955. Crowds gather outside Armidale's Capitol Theatre for the world premiere of the first major film made in Armidale. It is very much a local affair, with locals gathering in an air of excitement to see themselves on film. We are upstairs; the darkness falls and the film rolls. There is Dad as foreman of the jury, wriggling his nose; next day, students post a star sign on his door. There is Aunt Kay being held up by Captain Thunderbolt.
The National Film and Sound Archives describes the plot in these terms:
Adventurer Fred Ward is sentenced to hard labour for horse theft, escapes, and becomes a bushranger under the name of Captain Thunderbolt. Stealing mainly from squatters, he quickly becomes notorious. Sergeant Mannix is assigned to capture him dead or alive, eventually trapping him. After a long gun-fight, Mannix finds he has killed Thunderbolt's friend Alan Blake, and that Thunderbolt has escaped. Mannix passes off Blake's body as Thunderbolt's but the legend persists that Thunderbolt still roams free.
Local historian Robin Walker rudely remarked that any connection between the film and history was purely accidental! Still, the excitement lingered for days.
Kentucky Creek, 25 May 1870. After a bushranging career that had taken him widely across Northern New South Wales, Frederick Ward (aka Captain Thunderbolt) is shot and killed by Constable Ward in Kentucky Creek near Uralla.
But was he shot or did he escape? The stories abound, gathering strength and confusion with the years.
Early 1951. Armidale. Cecil Holmes and his crew arrive in Armidale to shoot Captain Thunderbolt.
Born in New Zealand (and here) in 1921,Cecil Holmes was a trade unionist and communist with a strong sense of social justice who had made a name for himself in New Zealand as a documentary maker. In Australia, Holmes linked with fellow New Zealander Colin Scrimgeour, whose company Associated TV Pty Ltd was to act as the vehicle for Captain Thunderbolt. Holmes first feature film.
Interestingly since Australia did not yet have TV, the film was intended for international TV release, with a slightly longer cinema version. Heart throb Grant Taylor was to play Fred ward (Thunderbolt), Charles (Bud) Tingwell his friend Alan Blake, Rosemary Miller as Joan Blake,
The photo shows Ward and Blake poised for action. Unless I am very much mistaken, the shot is taken in the country across Rockvale Road from the Pine Forest. I cannot remember which, but one of them is riding my grandfather's horse!
The film crew's arrival caused great excitement. Locals lined up to take part as extras, the crew scrounged the countryside to find locations and for authentic kit to use, sand was laid in Armidale streets to disguise the tar.
An article by Max Brown in the Sunday Herald 8 April 1951 described the scene this way:
I SPENT three weeks with the Captain Thunderbolt Production Unit in real Thunderbolt country 200 miles south of the Queensland border this month and have seen the unit at work in Sydney.
The shooting of "Captain Thunderbolt"- the film, not the man- had the quiet, cultured New England town of Armidale in a buzz for a fortnight.
A notice offering £500 re- ward for capture dead or alive of the outlaw was posted on a board outside the town's erstwhile police station. Horsemen flourishing guns thundered up and down the dirt roads outside the town almost every day chasing mail coaches and buckboards.
The Armidale Court House was turned inside out over one week-end for the trial of the outlaw for horse-stealing, and half the University College faculty, including the vice warden, Dr. James Belshaw, filed into the jury box in period dress.
Armidale folk, riding comfortably on the sheep's back in shadow of the high stone factories of learning which dominate the town (Armidale is the only town in the State with more schools than hotels) were debating again whether the police shot Thunderbolt or his accomplice.
Several approached bearded, frock-coated members of the cast in pubs and in the street and told them that Thunderbolt, for all his law-breaking, was a saint compared with a lot of men in Sydney and Canberra nowadays.
The above photo from cousin Jaimie's collection shows some of the extras with Grant Taylor. In the middle is Kath Vickers (nee Drummond) standing beside Grant Taylor, Shirly Barratt (Paul Barratt's mum) front below Kay, Mr Craigie back right,, Frank Holloway (German lecturer) with the black glasses next to Kay, Mrs Blake (wife of the editor, Armidale Express) and Des Vyner with the gun.
The next photo is an actual still from the film, taken around the time of the extras' shot. It shows Mrs Blake and Aunt Kay being held up. You can see that the clothes are the same.
There was a long gap from filming in 1951 to limited cinema release. This reflects the distribution problems that have so often plagued the Australian film industry. The film did finally make a profit, but this took so long that Colin Scrimgeour's production company was forced to close.
The film was something of a Robin Hood affair. The National Film and Sound Archives describes it in this way:
The feature Captain Thunderbolt is made with an originality and intelligence that separates it from most Australian features made to that time. Having a strong political undertone, it takes a stand on such issues as championing the underdog, mocking the colonial aristocracy, satirising xenophobia and racism, and exposing the blinkered brutality of power.
I am not sure about that. I think that there is a tendency to read back into films views formed by later history. Perhaps more precisely, when I saw the film as a ten year old and then again a little later at school, it fitted pretty well into the Robin Hood/underdog frame that was already deeply entrenched in Australian thinking.
Certainly I didn't see it as an explicit political statement, nor (I think) did those locals who took part in its making or watched it. Certainly I have never heard comments along those lines. It was just a film, part of our history.
I would love to see it again.
I failed to mention in this post the search for the discovery of the original movie that in fact started this post. See Search for Captain Thunderbolt for the story.