Friday, August 13, 2010

New England Story - the making of Captain Thunderbolt

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.

Frederick_Wordsworth_Ward 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 versioCaptain Thunderbolt Fred Ward Alan Blaken. 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.

Captain Thunderbolt 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 Captain Thunderbolt, Mrs Blake, Aunt Kay 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.


Greg said...

Great post Jim!

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Greg. I tried to write so as to interest!

Anonymous said...

This was interesting. I believe I have read recently that the Sound & Film Archive are searching the world for a print of the film. They fear it has been lost forever. There may have been one somewhere in the USA. See this link -

Jim Belshaw said...

You and correct, anon. I should have mentioned that. I will amend the post to include the search as a foornote.

John Caling said...

Jim, I agree with Greg - a great post that brought back memories as most of the Belshaw writings on Armidale and district do. Thunderbolt's legend lives on with the recent publication of a "book" by a Uralla resident who claims to be related and who also supports the theory that Fred Ward escaped and moved to Canada. While the author claims to have proof he offers no concrete evidence in his publication.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, John. Much appreciated. I do like the never ending extensions of the Thunderbolt story!

Keglimp said...

uncle scrim was my great grand dad. i am trying to learn more about him. information about him is limited and or suppressed to the extent the lengths gone to forget him are comparable to the lengths the world went to just to cover up the existence of nikola tesla. my name is Cale Scrimgeour of Perth Western Australia. i say a big fuck you to the entire world and it's works to enslave the human race. society as a whole is ignorant and oblivious. i want to pick up where my great grandfather left off.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Keglimp. Can you give me more information? I am not sure how all this fits in. You obviously feel very strongly, but I can't be in any way helpful without knowing more.

Gillian said...

Jim I can understand what my nephew is saying in that there is a political background to my grandfather, Colin, whereby he was crucified by members of the Labour party both here in Australia and New Zealand. If you google Uncle Scrim or Colin scrimgeour an array of interesting facts come up. My parents protected myself and my siblings from the political animosity that went on, such as spying, opening mail etc. This and geography meant that we missed out on getting to know more about our grandfather and as such our children have missed out getting family history. As I said if you read my grandfather's biography and other blogs on the internet he has become a forgooten man in the early development of TV in Australia and China, radio, friendship with the great aviator Sir Charles Kingsford Smith and so on. He was a great man who did a lot for mankind but the Labour party made sure he became a beaten man.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you for amplifying, Gillian. I now understand. I feel a bit dumb, actually. Obviously I did look up Colin Scrimgeour when I was writing the story.

I was interested in the name at the time because there is a scrimgeour family connection (not with Colin) somewhere on my mother's side, while grandfather Belshaw was a methodist home missionary in NZ at the same time as your grandfather. They must have known each other. There are some other overlaps as well.

At some point I will write a post on my personal blog just to tease the story out a little for my own satisfaction.

Jim Belshaw said...

Just a quick follow up comment. I don't know whether you have seen it, but the New Zealand Dictionary of Biography has a long entry on him -

Gillian said...

Thank you Jim. I think I may have seen this site in my many googles but by visiting the site and listening to the conversation my grandfather had about the attempt to have him sent to the war despite being found medically unfit bought tears to my eyes especially when he recalls the phone call from a colonel who said he was not prepared to be part of murder. I always thought my mother over exaggerated on the political nasties but the more and I read and hear I am slowly realising she didn't.
I found it interesting that you also had a Methodist missionary as a grandfather. From what I understand my mother's father was also a Methodist minister.
Thank you for your interest in my family story and I have enjoyed this site and your New England story.

Jim Belshaw said...

It's a pleasure, Gillian, and thanks. I get a lot of pleasure from the feedback I get on this site.

Anonymous said...

wow gillian i'm not sure if i know you.... you're obviously a relative of mine!! i know NOTHING of the family! perhaps you would like to email me sometime.
cheers heaps jim!!! this blog of yours is great!!!!

Anonymous said...

oops! sorry for the multiple posts! there was an error with the "publish your comment" button. it said it wouldnt work so i clicked it several times.. but anyway! GILLIAN! i think i remember YOU! i remember Kirby came over to my dad's place in Ballajura in Perth Western Australia!

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Cale (have I got the first name right?) and thanks. I have cleaned up the multiple comments.

When you are searching try Google NZ because this better picks up NZ specific pages - Colin Scrimgeour is certainlt not forgotten in NZ!

David Donaldson said...

In the original post, Jim said "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."

Having observed some Cold War applications in Sydney in that time, I can say that some of us certainly did read in those themes then. I think that Holmes was trying to make relevance and interest. He saw the world in those political terms, so that was the way he thought in the film. It was not explicitly intended as a political statement, as the NFSA note perhaps suggests.
It may be that Holmes' vigilators would have seen it that way, though!

David Donaldson said...

A mention of Captain Thunderbolt has been posted in the Comments on the Film Threat website. The list there does already contain the Peter Finch lost film Red Sky at Morning.
So far as I know, the NFSA has to date (April 2011) done nothing to advance the Search which was purportedly launched at Sydney Film Festival. It is up to the non-professionals to work outside NFSA to find the film, as well as to press the NFSA cushion.

Jim Belshaw said...

David, very interesting comments.
I will do a post on this blog and also a mirror post on my personal blog to see if I can generate interest. I will also see if I can do a guest post on Archives Outside.

It occurs to me that I actually saw the film twice. The first at the premiere, the second later at school. Now I don't know whether at this distance the second was the short or long version,but Jim Graham must have got the film from somewhere.

More later.