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Overlanders, The (1946)

Courtesy of Canal+ Image UK ltd

Main image of Overlanders, The (1946)
35mm, 91 mins, black and white
DirectorHarry Watt
Production CompanyEaling Studios
ProducerMichael Balcon
WriterHarry Watt
CinematographyOsmond Borradaile
EditorE.M. Inman Hunter
MusicJohn Ireland

Cast: Chips Rafferty (Dan McAlpine); John Nugent Hayward (Bill Parsons); Daphne Campbell (Mary Parsons); John Fernside (J. Claverhouse 'Corky' Corkinda); Jean Blue (Mrs Parsons); Peter Pagan (Hunter (aka 'Sailor'/'Sinbad'))

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1942: as Australia's Northern Territories face the threat of Japanese invasion, one bold farmer proposes an epic migration, leading thousands of head of cattle across mountains, rivers and arid scrub to reach the safety of Queensland.

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Ealing's second of two feature releases in 1946 is somewhat neglected today, but deserves reappraisal. It is, in effect, an epic cattle-drive Western relocated to the Australian outback and predating by some two years Howard Hawks' rather more celebrated Red River (US, 1948). But while it more than delivers on spectacle, The Overlanders is defined by a poignant understatement characteristic of Ealing's wartime films and informed by director Harry Watt's documentary past.

It was a 1944 conversation between Ealing chief Michael Balcon and Jack Beddington, then head of film at the Ministry of Information, that led to the studio's first Australian venture, part of an effort to head off growing frustration in the former British colony that its role in the war effort was undervalued. Weighing opportunity alongside responsibility, Balcon assigned Watt to hunt for suitable stories and locations. With the Australian film industry in a moribund state, former GPO Film Unit member Watt initially found himself much in demand for advice and training, but eventually stumbled on the true story of an intrepid cattle herder who, in the face of a threatened Japanese invasion, defied the instruction to evacuate and burn his kill his livestock and instead, with the help of a small band of helpers, embarked on a heroic 1,600-mile 'overland' trek with 100,000 head of cattle across the parched outback to Queensland.

Watt faced his own challenges, scavenging equipment and coping with a shortage of trained technicians and actors: just six of the 35-strong cast and crew had ever worked on a film before, while actress Daphne Campbell eloped in the final stages of shooting. On the up side, Chips Rafferty, a former rancher graduating from supporting roles to his first lead, proved a screen natural, and his Dan McAlpine is now considered the archetype for a new kind of relaxed, assured and very Australian screen hero.

Behind the camera was Osmond Borrodaile, something of a specialist in 'exotic' location photography, having worked on all of Alexander Korda's major 'Empire films' from Sanders of the River (d. Zoltan Korda, 1935) to The Four Feathers (d. Zoltan Korda, 1938). Borrodaile's reward for his striking work on The Overlanders was the director of photography role on Ealing's ambitious Technicolor project Scott of the Antarctic (d. Charles Frend, 1948).

Ealing subsequently set up an Australian base in Sydney, and three further Australian films followed, though none matched The Overlanders' success.

Mark Duguid

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Bullocks before bullets (2:58)
2. Getting going (2:17)
3. Trouble on the pass (4:41)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
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