John Sumner (Robert Bettles) is a young boy growing up in the rural town of Munaroo in New South Wales in 1917. He wears a leg brace, suffers from mild epilepsy, and is cosseted by an over-protective mother.

John takes the idea of the title - the balloon isn't a balloon until you let it go - and tries to make a break from his mother's domination. There are eccentric adults - a pompous policeman (John Ewart), an incompetent fire chief (Bruce Spence), and a rambunctious retired major (Ken Goodlet), and conflicts with his peers who think he's a cripple.

There's an extended slapstick sequence, Keystone Kops style, featuring a mock battle between the home defence corps of neighbouring towns, disrupted by the children with flour bombs and water hoses, and then John begins to make his own mischief.

The mischief culminates with John's plan to climb the tallest tree in the town to prove that he can act like a normal boy. This creates a great fuss and involves the town's fire brigade and the copper in an attempted rescue …

 

Production Details

Production company: Film Australia

Budget: $400,000 (Oxford), $350,000 (press reports), financed by Film Australia, the federal government's production agency. The film was reported as having a cash cost of $250,000, with some $100,000 by way of facilities and services, involving Film Australia staff and facilities.

Locations: Carcoar, a country town in NSW, near Bathurst.

Filmed: September-October 1975

Australian distributor: Twentieth-Century Fox

Australian release:  Cannes marketplace May 1976, Australian premiere 15th December 1976, Orange, NSW, then general release in cinemas 16th December, 1976  

Rating: G

35mm              colour                                                                                                       

Running time: 78 mins (Oxford)

VHS time: 1'17"06

DVD timing region 4: 1'14"36

(USA DVD timing according to vendor listings: 78 mins).

Box office: poor. The film only screened at matinees during the Christmas holidays on its release in 1976. It did however sell internationally, including a sale to the United States.

The Sun-Herald on 29th August 1978 wrote a story claiming that sales to the "giant American and German markets have already recouped its $350,000 production cost." The sale was for both a theatrical and television release, still an elusive goal for most films in the 1970s revival.

However in another report in the Sydney Morning Herald on 11th August 1976, the Australian Film Commission's director of marketing Alan Wardrope was quoted as saying the budget was just under $400,000, and that the sale of American distribution rights for a six-figure sum only went "a long way towards recouping the initial production cost of the film".

The film remains available in the United States on DVD, and was widely sold in that territory on VHS.

Opinion

Awards

1977 Australian Film Institute:

Nominated, Best Achievement in Costume Design (Ron Williams) (Judith Dorsman won for The Picture Show Man)

Nominated, Best Performance by a Supporting Actor sponsored by the Directors of the Dendy Cinema Group and Filmways Distributors (John Ewart) (Ewart won for The Picture Show Man)

Award of excellence, USA Hollywood Motion Picture Advisory Board

Silver Award Winner, USA Festival of the Americas.

Availability

Let the Balloon Go is available in region 1 on a bare bones, 4:3 image DVD, and also remains available on VHS in the second-hand market.

For region four viewers, it might be simpler to approach the National Film and Sound Archive, which now handles the sale of the Film Australia catalogue for the educational, institutional and home markets. Details here, as of June 2013.

The film is presented on a barebones disc. Image is open matte 4:3, but the colours are bright, surprising considering the film's age, and while there's some sparkle and dirt, the image is relatively free of film artefacts. There is some combing on view, worse on some players, but tolerable. The soundtrack hasn't survived as well, with the music inclined to sound a little thin and harsh.

With the folding of Film Australia into Screen Australia, and its back catalogue going to the NFSA, the film is now represented in the marketplace by the Australian Children's Television Foundation.

1. Source:

The film is based on a children's novel by Ivan Southall first published in 1968. The central character was inspired by Melissa, the youngest of Southall's three daughters and his fourth child, who was diagnosed with Downs Syndrome after her birth.

The challenges of raising Melissa found expression in his novel Finn's folly, as well as in Let the Balloon Go.

Southall is the only Australian children's writer to have won the Carnegie Medal for his book Josh. Let the Balloon Go was commended at the Children's Book of the Year Awards in 1969 and was a Library of Congress Book of the Year in 1968.

Southall (8 June 1921-15 November 2008) also wrote Fly West, a book of true stories based on his experiences flying in Short Sunderland flying boats during the Second World War. Given this background, it is unsurprising that his books tended to deal with personal and psychological challenges, and relied on dramatic events such as fire or flood - or pine tree-climbing - for climactic moments. Southall was one of the first Australian authors to write for the then burgeoning young adult market.

His 1966 book Ash Road won the Children's Book of the year Award, while Sly old wardrobe (1969) won the Children's Picture Book of the Year. There is a useful biographical note on Southall at the National Library's listing of his papers, here.

The adaptation was done by Southall, producer Richard Mason, and director Oliver Howes, with Cliff Green, of Picnic at Hanging Rock fame, called in to help provide additional dialogue.

(Below: the 1968 first edition of the book)

 

2. Production:

Film Australia was the production arm of the federal government, and it produced several children's feature films and a much larger number of children's television series before it was disbanded, and aspects of its work folded into Screen Australia and the NSFA.

The film was routinely reported as being the agency's first feature film, but in fact as the Commonwealth Film Unit, it had in 1971 made 3 To Go, a portmanteau feature with Oliver Howes directing one of the episodes.

The production settled on the small town of Carcoar, south-west of Bathurst in NSW, as its major location, as it was relatively easy to give it a 1917 period make-over. The production dumped some 800 tons of dirt over the asphalt in the main street, and the producer Richard Mason joked that each household was given a doormat.

The press reported the usual difficulties working with animals and children. The opening lines for a colour piece by Adrian Herbert for the Sydney Morning Herald on 2nd October 1975 ran:

"Dogs, horses, children and balloons," Oliver Howes muttered under his breath as he strode through the pine needles out of earshot of his film crew.

Canine actor Lonsdale, who had worked with James Mason in The Age of Consent, was unresponsive and apparently not interested in forming a screen relationship with child star Robert Bettles.

A draft horse named Cassius took off at a terrified gallop after its cab crashed on to its side. Driver Frank Lang, an extra who ran a stock and station agency in Carcoar, went to hospital to get nine stiches in a badly bashed hand.

The balloon, which was supposed to use the prevailing wind to whisk stunt man Grant Page past the camera - playing a fireman hauled into the air with a grappling hook in his coat collar - instead decided to head in the opposite direction towards some power lines.

Robert Bettles, who plays the handicapped boy hero, was at the time the go-to child actor, having performed in the tear-jerker The Fourth Wish for the SAFC, and Ride a Wild Pony for Disney.

The adult cast sampled favoured character and comedy actors to play add a lighter note to proceedings, notably Bruce "Stork" Spence as the town's fire chief, reliable John Ewart as the P.C. and Ken Goodlet as the Major.

3. Release:

The film was given its Australian premiere in Orange, near the town of Carcoar where it was filmed, on 15th December 1976 (it had screened in the Cannes marketplace earlier in the year).

It was reported by the Sydney Morning Herald on 16th December that townspeople lined the main street to watch a parade to mark the film's premiere. 

The film was disappointing in its Australian release, another victim of the difficulty of making money by doing a short release over the Christmas season targeted at children. Exhibitors were happy to run such shows in matinee slots but they were a drag on the night time slots, and so missed out on the best ticket-selling sessions.

The film's redemption came with sales to the United States and Germany, which bailed out the production, and stopped Film Australia having to answer politically difficult questions about the wisdom of it making feature films for children, when this might well be left to the private sector, part-funded by the AFC.

Producer Richard Mason went on to work with director John Duigan on a number of feature film projects, but before that was involved in Film Australia's notorious $350,000 attempt to make a feature film out of novelist David Ireland's The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (with Alan Seymour, author of The One Day of the Year returning from London to work on the script with Ken Cameron).

It became notorious when the federal government intervened in the project's development, and canned the production, for unspecified reasons, though believed largely to involve suspicions of a taint of "leftism" in relation to industrial relations.