Avengers of the Reef

(Note: this listing contains spoilers).

The story concerns a scientist Bill Stewart (Dibs Mather) who heads to Fiji to investigate the Crown of Thorns turning up on the island reefs.

His son Tim (Simon Drake) discovers a plot by a multinational mining syndicate to destroy the reefs with the starfish, as a way of avoiding environmental objections to their mining the reefs.

Their leader Updike (producer Noel Ferrier) and his bumbling aide (Gary McDonald) hire a killer, Kemp (Tim Elliot) to kill Stewart, and thinking his dad is dead, Tim heads to the islands and seeks refuge with a Fijian boy, Sai (Biu Rarawa).

After shared adventures in the tropical jungle - there's fire-walking and witchcraft and picturesque locations -  Kemp is captured, and Tim is reunited with his father, who survived the assassination attempt …

(For a more detailed synopsis with many spoilers, see this site's 'about the movie' section).

Writers:
Exec producers:
DOPs:
Production Designers:
Art Directors:
Composers:
Editors:

Production Details

Production company: Timon Productions

Budget: originally $100,000, but with substantial overages because shortly before filming was completed in Fiji, a major cyclone hit the island of Taveuni causing a delay of several weeks and additional filming.

Locations: Fiji, mainly on the island of Taveuni.

Filmed: September 1972

Australian distributor: Roadshow, and self-distributed.

Theatrical release: the film was selected by the Australian Council for Children's Film and Television to screen during a festival of children's films that was part of the celebrations surrounding the opening of the Sydney Opera House. Avengers opened the season 21st October 1973.

Rating: G

35 mm    colour  

Running time: 84 mins (Oxford Australian Film)

VHS copy circulating amongst collectors: 1'08"23

Box office: low. The film did the matinee circuit to modest results and swiftly dropped from view.

The Film Victoria report on Australian box office says the film took $27,000 at the box office, equivalent to $210,060 in 2009, but the figures in this report should be treated as an approximation.

It did sell to the Seven network in Australia, and it did travel internationally, and eventually ended up on VHS in a couple of territories, but in the end it could be considered a comprehensive flop.

 

Opinion

Awards

Writer Anne Brookesbank won an Australian Writers' Guild award for her screenplay.

Availability

The film has  in the past been released in VHS in various territories, but such copies are extremely rare, and there are no known film copies circulating outside the archive. The archive contains preservation material for the film, details here.

A really battered and shortened copy derived from a tape source, with time code on it, does circulate amongst collectors, but the source material shows many film artefacts, and the image jumps around a lot, especially near the end. What looks like some excellent shots of Fiji are largely lost to view, and it's left to John Sangster's above average score to sell the exotic, sometimes eerie and sinister atmosphere.

Sadly, the film remains a classic example of how government-funded productions - in this case by the newly formed AFDC - made by one off production entities sometimes fall into a black hole in Australia, for whatever reasons - rights issues, lack of continuity in ownership, or loss of interest or the death of the original producer.

In the United States, a film like this would still be in circulation, as part of some library, even if only a B-grade video title.

1. Source:

Writer Anne Brooksbank (writer-director Bob "Unfinished Business", "Warm Nights" Ellis's partner) wrote the screenplay.

The film was co-financed by actor Noel Ferrier and the newly formed federal government production financing arm, the Australian Film Development Corporation. 

2. The production:

The low-budget exercise ran into difficulties and overages as a result of a cyclone affecting the location shoot on the Fijian island of Taveuni.

The film was an early outing for Gary 'Norman Gunston' McDonald, playing Ferrier's bumbling sidekick, and other familiar adult names included producer Ferrier, Tim Elliot and Judy Morris.

The film was directed by Chris McCullough, formerly with the Commonwealth Film Unit, and then seen as a rising young directorial talent. McCullough would later direct documentaries such as the wildlife series In the Wild with Harry Butler (the first series was for release on the ABC in 1976).

It was DOP Peter James' first feature. Amongst many other films, James would go on to do a number of films with director Bruce Beresford, including Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Mister Johnson (1990), Black Robe (1991), Rich in Love (1993), Silent Fall (1994), Last Dance (1996), Paradise Road (1997), Double Jeopardy (1999), Bride of the Wind (2001), And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (2002), and Mao's Last Dancer (2009)

The music was supplied by John Sangster, with a score described as sinisterly percussive. Sangster (1928-1995) was a jazz composer, arranger, drummer, cornettist and vibraphonist, who joined Tully at the time of the rock musical Hair, and who diversified into film and documentary music in the nineteen seventies.

3. Release:

According to Eric Reade, the film premiered in the Music room of the Sydney Opera House on the 21st October 1973, and was repeated on 28th October and 4th November as part of festivities associated with the opening of the Opera House and with the Sydney Waratah festival.

During the screening on the first night Queen Elizabeth II popped in for a surprise visit, the high point in the film's release. After that it quickly disappeared from view.

4. Detailed Synopsis:

Sydney international airport, and Updike's aide (Gary McDonald) paces up and down awaiting the arrival of the sardonic, villainous Updike (Noel Ferrier). 

If he doesn't come, the suavely spoken villain Updike tells his aide, then his fawning aide will have to go and do the killing, producing protestations from his aide that he's never killed anyone. 

"Then you'll have to learn," says the villainous Updike, "it's not hard", and when the aide says he hasn't got a plane ticket, the villain responds, "then we'll just have to buy you one, won't we?", ignoring a further excuse about the aide not having his passport: 

"He'd better come then, hadn't he?", says Updike, as he hits the electric window on his black Merc.

Luckily for the aide, a taxi turns up, carrying the sun-glasses wearing Kemp (Tim Elliot), the hit man hired for the job.

The trio of villains make their way into the international airport, and Updike's aide opens up a briefcase with a fake passport and photos of the target. "Put them away," hisses Updike urgently. The aide warns the hit man to be wary of the passport - the glue might still be wet. "It was done in a rush."

Customs intercepts hit man Kemp and run a scan over him, discovering he's got a dead starfish concealed on his body. It's a pet, the customs man guesses.

Kemp just makes it on to the plane to be greeted by a Qantas hostie (Judy Morris) and as the plane takes to the air, Kemp spots a small boy, Tim Stewart (Simon Drake) a few seats away.

As they drive away from the airport, Updike bickers with his aide about whether Kemp is up to the job of killer and impersonator of a scientist. The aide's positive - apparently he was an undertaker, doesn't mind bodies and enjoys the pay that comes with doing a hit.

On the plane, the hostie chats up scientist Bill Stewart (Dibs Maher), off to Fiji with son Tim to research the Crown of Thorns starfish plague on a Fijian reef, but when Tim goes to look around the plane, he comes up against the very fierce, glowering Kemp.

The Qantas plane lands in Fiji, and Bill and Tim catch a taxi, as does Kemp, producing an old routine with the driver about "follow that cab". But where do you want to go, asks the taxi driver. Nowhere, just follow that cab, says the surly Kemp. "Fast".

Along the way we see picturesque shots of sugar cane and beaches, until the cab arrives at a hotel. Satisfied he knows where they are, Kemp heads off to his own room, and checks the silenced pistol he had stashed in a hollowed-out book.

More shots of picturesque Fiji follow, as Bill and Tim head into the jungle and Kemp comes after them, driving like a crazy man, and forcing Bill and Tim's Landrover to swerve off the road.

Cut to Bill showing the institute 16mm footage of film of the Crown of Thorns starfish shot on the Great Barrier Reef, revealing the enormous damage the creature does.

Bill thinks it might be too late to save the reef, with teams of divers unable to hold the plague at bay, but here in Fiji, the plague is just starting, and if he can find out why, he might be able to help both Fiji and the Australian reef.

Soon enough Tim's taking care of the boat, while dad Bill is diving to check out the reef. A fight erupts underwater, and the villainous Kemp emerges from the water, explaining to the boy that he's on a contract, and that his father's still down below because Kemp's employers are not too keen on his father's line of research.

Kemp starts the boat racing across the water, then clambers over the boat to attack Tim, hurling him into the water. "Yes, should be safe there, me boy, safe … for good."

Dissolve from Tim alone in the water to Sai (Biu Rarawa) checking out the water line on the beach, and discovering a sodden, bedraggled Tim.  

Tim explains about his father and the villain Kemp, and then the pair are in a canoe, searching for Tim's father. They don't find him but Sai holds out hope he might be found on another island.

Sai takes Tim back to his village where drums are pounding and the tribe gathers to see the new arrival.

A few troublemakers get agitated and the Chieftain (Lesie) explains that there's an old story that whenever a chief is about to die, a messenger is found. Sometimes they say it is a white bird, a stork, found in the sea, now they say it's Tim.

The hapless child explains why he landed in the sea, but the chief says that how he got there is of no importance, he might still be the bringer of death to the chief.

Tim explains he has to get to Suva, and the chief tells the bringer of death to eat to keep up his strength. The chief's not worried by death, because grandson Sai's on hand to take over.

Sai takes Tim to his hut for a sleep, but Tim sneaks off to the beach. Sai tells him he's going the wrong way to get to Suva, and even if he gets to the end of the island, there's no way for him to get across. Tim keeps walking along the water line and while climbing a cliff up from the sea, challenges Sai to take him in his canoe, accusing the Fijian boy of being scared.

Sai agrees and the boys head off into the ocean, with Sai catching a fish to help ward off hunger. As they sit on an island and Sai cooks the fish, Tim notices they're being followed by a canoe. Sai tells Tim it's a good fishing ground, and anyway, he'd happily kill Tim himself, if he thought it would stop the legend and stop Sai from prematurely being made chief.

Tim waves to a passing ship, but it continues on and the sun sets. That night firewalkers turn up on the beach, and Tim and Sai go to watch the ritual, feet making hissing sounds as the Fijians step on the hot rocks.

The boys are asleep when noises bring Sai awake. They have to get away, Sai tells Tim. He sends Tim to the boat, and goes to make sure no one is following. Tim spots a man at the canoe, trying to steal something.

They paddle back into the ocean, and this time they make it into an estuary. They head up river through the jungle, and arrive at a spot where Sai tells Tim it will be quicker if they head overland to Suva.

The two boys reach Suva, and go in search of the police station. Tim is told that his father is alive, but when he goes into the police station, he discovers it's the villainous Kemp masquerading as his father, using his fake passport. 

Kemp hustles Tim into a police Landrover, leaving Sai behind. Kemp takes Tim to a hotel room and threatens him, explaining he's actually a member of the secret service.

Just at that moment, the sardonic Updike calls Kemp, who tells him that a further financial arrangement will be needed if Kemp is to tidy up the loose ends.

But just at that moment Sai arrives, knocks Kemp away, and flees with Tim through the hotel.

Kemp creates havoc with the waiters in his pursuit. Meanwhile the two boys make it back into the town, racing through the street market, before hiding and eluding the villain.

Sai wants to know why Kemp wants to kill Kemp.

The determined villain races off to catch a taxi, so he can prowl the streets looking for the boys.

Tim explains Kemp has a passport that says he's Tim father. Now the Fijian police set off after Tim, and the boys seek refuge in a hi fi store, before racing out to catch a bus.

Kemp spots them, and tells a taxi driver "Quick, follow that bus," as Tim watches a fellow bus passenger, a snorting pink pig.

The boys tell the bus driver to stop and they dive off into the jungle. Kemp stops his taxi and peers into the dense foliage, looks at his watch, then heads back to the taxi.

The boys make their way through the jungle, as Kemp turns up in a Landrover at a village enquiring if anyone has seen two kids, a white and a Fijian.

As he drives up to a stream, Kemp - now carrying his pistol - spots a footprint, and crosses the stream. Meanwhile, the boys have arrived at a waterfall, and as Kemp approaches, they duck in behind the cascading water to hide.

Kemp struggles to follow them over the slippery rocks behind the waterfall, and before he can fire a shot, Sai hits him with a stone that sends him plummeting into the water.

As the sodden Kemp pulls himself from the water, the boys race off, and we cut to the Colonial War Memorial Hospital, where a British military officer, Superintendent Dennis Johns (Richard Lupino), sits down beside Bill Stewart, who is lying in a hospital bed a little the worse for wear.

Johns tries to explain to Bill why two small boys can't be found. "Well there are over three hundred islands in the group, Mr. Stewart, no one's easy to find", he says. "At least we know their pursuer must be having some trouble too."

Bill fears the worst, and Johns asks him what's motivating the killer, but Bill can't imagine. Johns says they've got boats and helicopters out looking for the boys, and we cut to the lads entering a village which Sai says isn't a good place - he's seen signs of ghosts.

Sai decides they can stay, but he's uneasy, and a sceptical Tim asks him about ghosts and superstitions such as Tim being the sign of death, especially now Sai knows the real reason Tim is on the run.

"Things can have many beginnings and many ends, you will learn that if you lived here," Sai explains, noting it's still four days to the full moon, and who knows if his grandfather will still be alive by the time he returns to his village.

That night the boys are again disturbed by mysterious noises, and strange sights.

Back in Suva, in the dawn light, at the police station Bill is listening to the sounds of the police search on the shortwave radio, and grimaces at the lack of results.

Sai wakes Tim and leads him away, back to a river, while the increasingly unkempt Kemp spots their fire in the village hut.

Kemp's after them in his Landrover, driving into the water, and stalling the vehicle, which erupts with steam.

The boys keep making their way through the jungle: "you could take all day to go a mile", says Tim in pre-metric language.

Eventually the lads reach cleared land, while back in Sydney, the gold-coated Updike listens to classical music, and takes a phone call from would-be killer Kemp, who tells him he's lost the boys. 

"Then why aren't you out looking for them?," asks Updike, and Kemp tells him it's because he knows where they're going. They're off to the Fijian kid's island and they've got to come down past him to get there …

That's when Updike tells Kemp that Bill Stewart's alive - they picked him up in a work boat - and they're looking for him, and unless Kemp finishes the job neatly, "...well, there are bigger interests at stake."

The unkempt Kemp takes a big swig from a bottle of whiskey, and sighs, before picking up his suitcases and walking away from the phone booth.

The two boys are now making their way through tall grass, and they emerge to look at an expansive, jungle-free island vista.

Kemp's now in a bright yellow Landrover in hot pursuit, as the boys walk past a village and along a dirt road. Kemp roars up behind them, but they've hidden themselves beside the road, and race across the field to escape. Kemp sets off after them, but the boys hide in a ramshackle tin shed.

Kemp cautiously approaches the galvanised shed, but the boys burst out, knock him over and race through tall sugar cane to escape. Kemp chases after them, but gets lost in the cane.

Sai tells Tim if they don't move Kemp won't be able to find them, and sure enough Kemp returns to his yellow Landrover. Kemp stands by the vehicle and lights a cigarette, and then his lighter gives him an idea, and soon enough the sugar cane has turned into a blazing inferno, and the boys have to flee for their lives though the fire.

As Kemp stalks the boys with his pistol, they start up a gigantic sugar cane train engine. Kemp thinks he has them, gets back into his yellow Landrover, and sets off after the train. 

But as he catches up with the train, it's now got endless carriages of sugar cane behind it. Kemp realises the kids aren't on it, and we cut back to the police station, where Bill is agitated, pacing around saying there must be more they can do, and Johns points out it's a great pity his boy doesn't trust the police.

The boys meanwhile have got into a canoe, and rowed back to the island.

Sai discovers that someone has stolen the carving from the front of his canoe. That means someone wants him to die, and if the spell-casting magician has something of metal, of wood and of cloth that belongs to him, the evil one can cast a spell that kills him.

Tim is sceptical, pointing out they've only got one thing of Sai's so far, but he's mistaken and we cut to a Fijian performing a black magic ritual, using all three of Sai's possessions to cast his spell.

Tim tells Sai he's got to fight it, and Sai says he will, if he can just get back to his island, because his grandfather has powers too.

Kemp's now in a small boat heading across the ocean, and again eerie sounds haunt the sleep of the two boys as they lie in the sand.

Tim wakes to see Kemp approaching the beach. He wakes Sai, and they retreat into the jungle. Kemp follows, crawling amongst gigantic tree roots, while back at police HQ, news of a sighting of the boys in a canoe is brought to Bill by Johns.

The boys flee through the jungle, the armed Kemp following them through the swamp. He fires shots, drawing attention to himself, and as the boys huddle beneath tree roots, and the muddy Kemp approaches them in triumph, ready to kill them, Kemp just has time to tell Tim his father is alive, when a Fijian grabs him from behind and wrestles with him.

It's the chief, and it's a life and death struggle in the muddy swamp. The chief tells the boys to go, but Tim watches in fascination as Kemp falls into the grip of a kind of underwater quicksand and begins to sink beneath the surface of the water. 

The chief tells him not to struggle, he'll only sink deeper.

His villagers will rescue him, but then the chief notices that his grandson Sai has fallen into a kind of trance, a victim of witchcraft. "I have to find the source of it, or he'll never wake up," he tells Tim. "He'll dry up like a cut stem and die."

Back in his hut in the village, the chief tends Sai as he lies on the floor beneath a blanket, flowers on his chest.

The chief casts a spell, and drinks the enchanted water, and then he hears an eerie noise, and announces "the thing" is up in the mountains. The chief and Tim clamber through the jungle in search of the caster of evil spells and the chief destroys the man's arrangement of wood, metal and cloth, making the caster of spells vanish.

It was Sai's cousin, says the chief, a bad man who wanted to be the chief instead of Sai, but he believes when witchcraft is discovered, it turns against his maker, and so he won't be back.

Sai wakes in his bed and raises himself off the floor, and the villagers celebrate, as Tim, his dad and Sai watch the cleansing water ceremony.

Kemp turns up being carried in a wooden cage, and Tim's dad explains that Updike was acting for very big mineral interests interested in getting mining rights under the Great Barrier Reef - rights they couldn't get if the reef stayed alive. The villains had been seeding the reef with starfish, and there's still much to be done, so he tells Tim he's afraid they'd better go.

As the drums pound, the pair say farewell to the villagers. 

The villagers wave goodbye as Tim and his dad take to the water in canoes, and a traditional Fijian song sounds over the end credits …