Jamie (Christopher Pate) is a young man growing up in the 'deep north' of Australia, the sugarcane fields of Queensland, during the first world war.

His grandmother (Geraldine Fitzgerald) is a town matriarch, doing his best to guide him through his early years, and the range of eccentric characters he meets, including the Professor (Robert Helpmann), a drunk who offers friendship and wisdom, a sadistic schoolteacher (Ben Gabriel), a French teacher who gives him his first sexual experience (Diane Craig), aviator hero Captain Hinkler (Tony Bonner) who takes him for a joy ride in his Tiger Moth, and "the Preacher" (Gerard Kennedy), who shifts from bible bashing into madness and murder.

Jamie is torn between his desire to stay in the town, or to fight in the war, or to follow his dreams and become a writer, and when his grandmother dies, he decides to set off to the city, and build his own future ...

 

Writers:
Exec producers:
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Art Directors:
Composers:
Editors:

Production Details

Production company: Pisces Productions Pty. Limited

Budget: A$650,000, including finance from the federal government investment body the Australian Film Commission, G.U.O. Film Distributors, and the Bundaberg Sugar Company. The Australian Women's Weekly on 26th October 1977 proposed that the AFC, GUO and Bundaberg Sugar had each put up about $200,000.

Some sources relying on David Stratton suggest that the budget rose to $800,000, including the film's wiki here, but this is unlikely, though producer Michael Pate did raise some additional money for further post-production/editing work. Christopher Pate in his DVD interview puts the budget at $600,000, and notes that they didn't have enough money for the anamorphic shoot or the script, with cuts to match budget required.

Locations: northern Queensland, including the small town of Gayndah; and at Mount Perry, Cordalba, Gin Gin, and the rum/sugar town of Bundaberg; and near Bundaberg the homestead of the 8000 hectare Braham cattle stud property Walla. Bundaberg Sugar Co. provided a mill a set piece show down involving "the Preacher".

Filmed: shooting from late April 1977 for seven weeks. (Christopher Pate in his DVD interview puts it at 7-8 weeks).

Australian distributor: Greater Union Organisation Film Distributors

Australian release:  world premiere Bundaberg, 13th December, 1977, then Sydney and Melbourne 16th December 1977 

Rating: NRC

35mm   Panavision     Eastmancolor  

Running time: 104 mins (Oxford)

DVD time: 1'29"33 for both Magna Pacific and Umbrella versions - the Magna Pacific slick falsely suggests a run time of 104 mins (note: the head titles in the Magna Pacific version refer to it being a TV cut, and it is likely that this is the short version prepared for TV screening by producer Pate).

Box office: The Film Victoria report on Australian box office lists a box office of A$1,028,000, equivalent to $4,728,800 in 2009 A$.

It should be noted that the Cinema Papers report on the all-time top twenty-two Australian films, in its July1984 edition, using Variety data on gross film rentals, adjusted for inflation by the CPI, didn't list the film, though the entry point for film 22 on the list was Gillian Armstrong's 1982 feature Starstruck, with $581,010.

Relative to budget, The Mango Tree was not a strong performer, but it did enough to enable producer Michael Pate to move on to another feature, Tim, starring Mel Gibson.

In a May/June 1979 interview in Cinema Papers, producer Michael Pate said:

As of May last year - having opened in December 1977, it had grossed $555,730.

That didn't count any of the country areas it had been to progressively through the year. Although there is now great reluctance to show box-office grosses on returns, I would estimate that The Mango Tree has done well over $900,000 as far as I can calculate.

We have paid off our expenses, overages and various other costs, and are now returning money to our investors.

We have always felt that it had legs. You know, people can get drenched by the publicity for an Australian film. They read a few crits and often get put off. Then when it comes around a second time they see it. They may do so because it is an Australian film, or they want to see Geraldine Fitzgerald or Robert Helpmann in it, or because my name is associated with it. 

In one suburban cinema in Melbourne, The Mango Tree was doubled with Raw Deal, and did fantastic business. I think it was because two Australian films were on, both of them reasonable to look at, and with recognizable people in them, including Gerard Kennedy, Gus Mercurio and Christopher (Pate). People were probably saying, "Gee, I didn't see either of those; I'll go along and see them". For the price of $3.50, they saw two features. I think we should think of re-issuing a lot of our Australian films.

 

Opinion

Awards

The film received a long list of nominations at the 1978 Australian Film Institute Awards, but came away empty-handed:

Nominated, Best Screenplay Adapted from other material sponsored by the New South Wales Film Corporation (Michael Pate) (winner, Eleanor Witcombe, The Getting of Wisdom)

Nominated, Best Achievement in Cinematography sponsored by Kodak (Australasia) (Brian Probyn) (winner, Russell Boyd, The Last Wave)

Nominated, Best Original Music Score sponsored by the New South Wales Film Corporation (Marc Wilkinson) (winner, Bruce Smeaton, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith)

Nominated, Best Achievement in Art Direction (Leslie Binns) (winner, Lissa Coote, Newsfront)

Nominated, Best Achievement in Costume Design (Patricia Forster) (winner, Norma Moriceau, Newsfront)

Nominated, Best Actor in a Leading Role sponsored by the New South Wales Film Corporation (Robert Helpmann) (winner, Bill Hunter, Newsfront)

Nominated, Best Actress in a Leading Role sponsored by Hoyts Theatre (Geraldine Fitzgerald) (winner, Angela Punch for The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith)

Nominated, Best Actress in a Supporting Role  sponsored by the Australian Film Commission (two nominees - Carol Burns and Diane Craig) (winner, Angela Punch, Newsfront)

Screened, 24th Asian Film Festival, held in Sydney October 1978

Availability

The film has been released in region four by Magna Pacific in an unfortunate 4:3 barebones version. Image quality is relatively poor, with sparkle, scratching, dirt and other film artefacts, but the main issue is the regrettable mis-framing in relation to a Panavision picture designed to capture a north Queensland sugarcane landscape. If you see this version in an op shop, walk on by.

The film was subsequently re-released by Umbrella in region four. Unfortunately it is also in 4:3, though image quality is better. Credits are letterboxed, and there are film and tape artefacts but these settle down. Colour is richer than in the Magna Pacific DVD, and the lack of a reference to a TV edit suggests a different source to the Magna Pacific was used - but what a pity Brian Probyn's widescreen images are turned into what looks like an open matte TV frame.

There is also one extra, a 16'20" minute interview with lead actor Christopher Pate, produced by Umbrella in 2009. Pate provides an amiable insight into the making of the film - including his hammering at the hands of some critics - and it's a tidy extra apart from the mis-spelling of Bundaberg in one of the titles.

1. Source:

The film is based on Ronald McKie's 1974 Miles Franklin award winning novel. McKie was born in 1909 in Toowoomba, and after taking a degree at the University of Queensland, later worked internationally as a journalist. During the second world war he briefly served in the AIF before becoming a war correspondent. After the war he wrote a number of books about the war, as well as several books on the Asian region. In 1988 his autobiography We Have No Dreaming was published. He died in 1991. 

McKie has a short wiki here.

AustLit has details of McKie's works and awards and a short biography here.

Actor and producer Michael Pate was a good friend and neighbour of McKie, and according to his son Christopher, had worked for many years and done many drafts of McKie's book Heroes in an attempt to get it up as a film, but without success.

So it was natural that when The Mango Tree was published and then won the 1974 Miles Franklin for its fictionalised account of McKie's boyhood in the north Queensland town of Bundaberg, Pate would option the novel.

Pate later claimed that he couldn't find a suitable writer to do the screenplay adaptation, but given his track record with Heroes, it's reasonable to suspect he always had the desire to do the job himself, as he fancied himself as a writer - Christopher Pate says in his DVD interview that the book reminded his father of his uncles and aunts in Drummoyne, and he thought it was a sprawling, sentimental story, entertaining enough to make a feature film.

Michael Pate told the Adelaide Advertiser on 18th February 1978 that he'd started out as a writer, winning certificates in the Sunday papers, moving on to short stories and writing his first novel when he was 21, and elsewhere he claimed when he first started at the ABC at age 18, his job involved writing.

Thereafter, Pate maintained an interest in the art, though he didn't find writing easy. He took some 12 drafts to satisfy himself that the adaptation was working.

Originally Pate had wanted to direct as well as write and produce, but the bureaucrats at the Australian Film Commission insisted he couldn't wear all three hats. It's a pity that they didn't also tell him to do another considered draft before rushing into production.

Pate offered the film to a number of directors, including Geraldine Fitzgerald's son, director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who wasn't available, and Bruce Beresford, then working under contract for the SAFC.

Under pressure to make his winter shoot schedule, and only a couple of months out from his start date, Pate hired a young 24 year old director with extensive Crawfords' cop show television directing experience, Kevin Dobson, whom he had worked with on Matlock Police.

In Cinema Papers February 1982 edition, Dobson noted that the flaws in the script and the rush to production created difficulties:

As with everything, it started with the script. I also don't know that I had the confidence at that stage to handle something that big. One or two performances were a little shonky as well ...

... I don't think it's just scripts. The producers have a lot of problems as well. They get a property and have to get it out. Often, enough time isn't spent with the script. Writers and directors would like to spend more time, but they get caught in the situation of having to go into production.

When I took on The Mango Tree, we had six weeks to get it all together and start filming - then, 47 days to complete it. So, the script got away from all of us. It became a huge document, about three feet high and 4000 pages, with 96 million rewrites, and nightly notes under motel doors.

Then, you bring in the actors, who inevitably want to put their force in it. The film eventually takes on its own personality and, once that happens, it can easily get away from you.

Christopher Pate in his DVD interview explains that the wide anamorphic look was expensive and difficult, and as a result, Michael Pate, Kevin Dobson and Michael Lake, the associate producer, had to trim the script to try to make it do-able for the budget. (Christopher Pate suggests that it might have been better to have made a two part mini-series as a way of doing more justice to the novel).

In the usual way of things, a film-tie in was published by Fontana to coincide with the film's release:

2. Production:

New York actress Geraldine Fitzgerald was imported to play the role of the matriarch Grandma Carr, leaving a play in the United States to take the part, after Katharine Hepburn fell ill and was unable to do the show.

According to producer Pate in an interview with the Adelaide Advertiser, 18th February 1977, he very much drove the casting, with his wife Felippa Pate acting as casting director:

"All I had to do was think of the best player for a part and they all happened to be people I know," he said.

He first met Geraldine Fitzgerald in the middle '50s in Hollywood, he's known Robert Helpmann for more years than he cares to name, and he recalls Gerard Kennedy as a "behind-the-theatrical-wings" baby. 

Christopher Tate in his DVD interview confirms this, and notes that his familiarity with family friends Fitzgerald, Helpmann and Kennedy made it a lot easier for him in playing his own role.

But Tate's casting of his son in the leading role was a move which proved contentious with the critics, mainly because of Pate's age - he was 24 at the time - which required him to shave two or three times a day to avoid any hint of five o'clock shadow in his close-ups.

The budget for the film was reasonably generous for a period film of the time, but director Kevin Dobson thought it inadequate to the task at hand:

Property development in inner Sydney, young boys growing up in Queensland. It is stupid making two films like The Irishman and The Mango Tree. If all the energy and money had gone into making one of them - either of them, it doesn't matter to me which one - we might have had one good film instead of two mediocre ones. (Cinema Papers, February 1982)

No sets  were used in the location shoot. Instead Bundaberg residents made available their homes, heirlooms and belongings as part of the period setting, thereby helping contain the costs of filming on location in what was then a region remote removed from facilities, equipment and laboratories.

It was so remote that on one occasion that, according to Christopher Pate, actor Tony Barry drove the rushes to Sydney because a strike had cut off other ways to deliver them.

For trivia buffs, the production company was called Pisces because Michael Pate was born on 26th February.

3. Release:

Michael Pate was inclined to the middle-brow, and he set aimed at a 'tradition of quality' middle-brown audience:

... he ... sees it as a film with wide appeal. He thinks the Bundaberg countryside is among the best.

"I'm not interested in an interior, sleazy, psychotic, violent, urky kind of film. I see them and appreciate the people who make them, but my kind of picture is about people with a lot of heart, with a lot of emotion, real feelings, laughter and tears." (Adelaide Advertiser 18th Feb 1982)

According to his son Christopher, the film played for 18 weeks in Greater Union theatres and had good capital city runs, but Michael Pate couldn't sell the film into the key United States market.

As a result, the film went extensive re-editing after its initial theatrical release, as director Kevin Dobson explained in a February 1982 Cinema Papers interview:

When John Scott (editor) and I were working on the film, we arrived at our cut. That was then changed a great deal, but John and I were able to change it back to some of its initial shape. The film was released like that.

Then, once I had finished with the film, I believe Michael Pate was able to get hold of more money and re-cut it again. I thnk he took out another five minutes, which was probably a good thing. But I wasn't involved, nor was John Scott. I spoke to Geraldine Fitzgerald in the U.S., however, and she said that she had given suggestions to Michael. Whether he was acting on them, I don't know.

Producer Michael Pate, in an interview for Cinema Papers, in May/June 1979 told his side of the story in relation to international sales:

To date, overseas sales have been miniscule. We have made a deal with Cinevog in Belgium and been offered a deal for South Africa, which we are investigating. We have also been offered a deal for France and French Canada.

Initially, we had an enormous response from a number of people, including Avco-Embassy and Warner Cable in the USA, but nothing came of it.

I felt that although The Mango Tree had considerable merit, our primary consideration had been to make a film for the Australian market. I signed a contract which said I would give it to an Australian distributor at 105 minutes. They are looking for that length of program, that I can't sell a film for television in the USA that goes over 96 minutes.

I decided we needed to re-cut The Mango Tree for the USA, because there were certain failings in the film from my point of view, as a producer and as a writer, and probably from Kevin Dobson's point of view as director. We didn't get the ultimate out of the film at the time we were cutting it together. It was flawed. It didn't have the momentum or the delineation it should have had.

In the USA, I showed it to Geraldine Fitzgerald and others, and asked them to note which part of the film they thought wouldn't hold the attention of American audiences. Based on their comments, a videotape of the film was then edited by the best New York tape editor.

Back in Australia my dubbing editor, Bob Cogger, Christopher (Pate) and I started a re-cut of the film. The new version will be around 95 minutes, and is a 100 per cent improvement on the original. We have already set the dates for the re-mix, and I should have a print ready for Cannes this year.

… It's a much closer, tighter, and a more intimate story about the grandmother and the boy.

We had a problem with that story to start with. It's episodic and I found that at the end our tempo was getting slightly staccato. So we put back a number of tiny little things that give warmth to the scenes.

Eventually the film sold into the USA, picking up a short theatrical run in a few specialist houses on the US east and west coasts, with the main aim to help it play on television, which it did.

Jeanine Sewell handled sales in the rest of the world - Christopher Pate claims a lack of support or understanding from the AFC, and he says Sewell managed to sell it to many territories. 

4. Kevin Dobson:

Director Kevin Dobson was only in his mid-twenties when he made this film, which was his first feature. He had worked extensively in television, including a number of years at Crawfords, where he first worked as an gofer, then as an editor on shows such as Division Four.

He then moved on to editing the police series Matlock Police (which had featured Michael Pate in a leading role), Ryan and Homicide, before shifting over to the script editing department on Matlock Police.

That led to directing gigs on Matlock Police, and to other Crawfords shows, including an unfortunate outing directing the first episode of Bluey, a show begun in haste because of Crawfords dire predicament with the networks at the time.

Dobson went freelance, and directed the telemovie Gone to Ground (1977) for producer Robert Bruning, and then The Mango Tree came along.

After it, he made several more telemovies for Bruning, now working for the Grundy Organisation, such as Demolition and Image of Death, and also ventured into television commercials.

Dobson made the feature film Squizzy Taylor for Simpson Le Mesurier, but it wasn't successful and he shifted to television miniseries, including The Last Outlaw and for the ABC I Can Jump Puddles. Thereafter Dobson mostly stayed within television.