(Note: this synopsis and listing contains spoilers).

While there are many minor characters on show in the feature film version of Rolf Boldrewood's sprawling nineteenth century novel (and even more in the mini-series version), there aren't that many major characters.

The story revolves around a likeable bushranging rogue, Captain Starlight (Sam Neill), a renegade English nobleman with a taste for winning races with his fast horse, gambling, good wine, women, bailing up stage coaches, duffing cattle and indulging in safe-blowing bank robberies ...

The cad - of some notable and distinguished parentage in the old country, as he reveals to pursuing head trap Sir Frederick Morringer (Robert Grubb) but not to the audience in his death scene - is loose in Australia towards the end of the 19th century.

Accompanied by Warrigal (Tom Lewis), his Aboriginal sidekick, and Ben Marston (Ed Devereaux), an English ex-convict, they are the most notorious and wanted gang on the continent.

Ben's sons, Dick (Steven Vidler) and Jim (Christopher Cummins), are persuaded to join the gang against their better judgement and embark on a series of hair-raising adventures, including a 1,000-mile drive of stolen cattle, armed robbery, wild romance, and a jailbreak using a hot air balloon. 

The conceited Dick forms a relationship with feisty Gracey (Liz Newman), Jim courts Jeannie (Susie Lindeman), Starlight is interested in spirited Aileen Marston (Jane Menelaus), while mum Mary Marston (Elaine Cusick) shows an Irish devotion to her brood (helped along by an Irish Catholic priest who reminds her of the decadence of the British Empire).

Finally, after Starlight wins the big horse race at Dusty Creek, and the gang uses an elephant to gain access to a bank safe, they decide to go straight. They plan to escape the traps by crossing over into Queensland and then heading to America to seek their fortune in the gold rush.

But Ben Marston refuses to leave his native turf, and Warrigal is also ambivalent about leaving his country, and there are hints that he might betray the gang.

It turns out escape isn't easy and Morringer is relentless in his pursuit. He can't forgive Starlight for betraying his class, and he sets a trap which sees his men kill Jim, while Morringer himself sabre-slashes Starlight's neck in a cavalry-style charge. 

Warrigal rushes up, begging Morringer to tell Starlight that he didn't sell the gang out, but Starlight is dead.

Dick is wounded, and is sent down to gaol for twelve years. He tells Gracey to forget him, to find a good man, marry, and settle down.

But when he's eventually released from gaol, Dick heads back to the old family hut, checking the graves of his fallen comrades and working to fix the hut's bark roof. That's when he notices his horse, and then Gracey on the verandah waiting for him. The final shot is of Gracey and Dick heroically framed against the bush sky …

The film presents in two parts on DVD, as it did in its original cinema release. 

The first part: the film begins with a train robbery, in which the suave Starlight clambers from horseback on to the train, befriends the passengers and then with Warrigal's assistance, robs them.

The story then establishes the gang and their romantic pairings before Starlight indulges in some large scale cattle duffing, before droving the herd to the Adelaide saleyards.

This sees Dick and Jim get entangled with a couple of 'old country' sisters on the look out for husbands, Kate (Deborah Coulls) and Jeannie (Susie Lindemann). But while Jim is interested in Jeannie, Dick tries to avoid the forward Kate - he has his heart set on feisty Gracey, who is closely guarded by her brother George (Andy Anderson).

After more crimes and brushes with the law and an escape from gaol by hot air balloon from Berrimah gaol, the badly wounded Starlight returns to the Marstons to recover,  and then indulge in a stage coach hold-up, before heading off for a stint at the gold diggings. 

The first part concludes with the wedding of Jim and Jeannie, and a hoe-down in a partially constructed church, followed by a violent confrontation between traps and bushrangers which sees Morringer declare a red letter day for the troopers and a shout of drinks for the house. In the last scene, Jeannie leaves a letter for sister Kate telling her that she and Jim are going away somewhere safe, but that she forgives her for her betrayal ...

The second part: After the intermission, the shorter second half of the film picks up the story twelve months later, with the gang in their remote Flinders ranges hideaway. There's a christening of Jeannie and Jim's baby, more courtship between Starlight and Aileen, and more talk of escaping to a safe place like America. Warrigal is tortured at the thought of leaving his country - he's an early proponent of Aboriginal land rights - and Morringer wheels in a Gatling gun to deal with the bushrangers (though it only gets used on painted targets). 

After a country dance and a display of pyrotechnics designed to distract the traps, the gang uses an elephant to tear down a wall and blow up the bank safe inside - it's of a kind well known to Starlight from his South American adventures. 

Starlight celebrates by winning Dusty Creek's Falkland Cup horse race, but his boldness is also his downfall, as his hanging around allows Morringer time to return from a wild goose chase the gang had sent him on. That's when there's a final confrontation between traps and bushrangers, as the two sides line up against each other on a sodden, sandy tidal plain… 

It was the common boast in publicity at the time and on the film's UK VHS slick that Robbery Under Arms was the most ambitious and expensive film ever made in Australia, with 148 actors, 2,000 extras, and 120 crew members combining to make a movie full of action, romance and adventure…

Production Details

Production company: S.A.F.C. Productions Ltd. in association with ITC Entertainment presents; all rights reserved by S.A.F.C. Productions Ltd.
Budget: $7.3 million - press reports at the time quoted informed sources saying that the prospectus had been over-subscribed by $150-$200,000. Producer Jock Blair later said that the final budget came within a thousand dollars or so of the prospectus figure.
Entrepreneur, corporate raider and businessman Robert Holmes à Court (wiki here) was rumoured to have put up almost half the budget, some $3 million, with the rest of the finance being raised by prospectus from smaller investors under the 10BA federal government tax scheme.
Locations: Wilpena/Wilpena Pound, Flinders Ranges, including the tourist attraction of Brachina Gorge in the Flinders Rangers National Park; the Dusty Creek township was built in the countryside outside the Adelaide Hills town of Hanhndorf. The closing shootout between gang and traps was filmed on the saltwater flats north west of Adelaide.
Interiors were filmed at the SAFC studio in Hendon, Adelaide.
Filmed: Shooting began at Wilpena Pound in the Flinders Ranges in late January 1984 - The Age dates the first day to 23rd January 1984. There were 4 weeks of filming in the Wilpena/Flinders ranges, and twenty weeks in all because of the demands of making a 6 hour mini-series and cutting a 2 hour 20 minute feature film from the material. There was, for the times, a large 70 person crew involved in the shoot at Wilpena.
Australian distributor: ITC Entertainment (Seven network for television mini-series version)
Theatrical release: the film opened in Melbourne at the Village East End on 28th March 1985; it opened in Sydney the same day at Village Cinema City. (The mini-series version aired on the Seven network on three consecutive nights in the 8.30 pm slot, from Monday 17th February, 1986 on).
Video release: CEL
Rating: PG
35mm  Eastmancolor Lenses and Panaflex camera Panavision ® 
Dolby stereo ™  in selected theatres
Running time: 141 mins (Murray's Australian Film); 143 mins (Cinema Papers' review)
Umbrella DVD time: The film presents in two parts on the DVD:
Part 1: 1'26"39
Part 2: 51'54"
Total: 2'24'33 (144'33")
Box office:
A comprehensive and resounding flop. After an expenditure of some $7.3 million on film and mini-series, the result for the domestic feature film release - according to the Film Victoria report on Australia box office - was a humble $226,648, equivalent to $539,422 in $A 2009.
Worse, the Seven network got the frights and didn't bother to expend much energy promoting the mini-series version, and it also did poorly on first broadcast.
The film didn't travel that well internationally either, despite the ITC connection. Some European countries showed interest - Germany was always a good market for Australian bush stories - but the feature film version never cracked the key US market theatrically. It was left to the mini-series version to do the standard tour of television markets.

Opinion

Awards

None known. The feature film version didn't score a mention in the 1985 AFI Awards, though it's not clear at this remove whether because it wasn't entered or AFI voters took a view in a year when Ray Lawrence's version of Peter Carey's Bliss dominated proceedings.

The AFI began making television awards in 1986, but  the mini-series version also didn't score a mention that year.

Availability

The film was released on DVD by Umbrella in a widescreen format suitable for the original Panavision shoot, though because the film was being simultaneously shot for 4:3 television broacast, DOP Ernest Clark's otherwise excellent cinematography tends to 4:3 safe framing

However the source material for the transfer was clearly a slightly worn release print, with cigarette burns at the reel changes and plenty of dirt, the odd scratch and even a splice on show.

Colours are reasonable, but the day for night filming now shows its age - but then it also showed its age when the film was first theatrically released. It might have been handy as a penny pinching/scheduling strategy but it puts the look of certain night scenes back in the 1950s.

For extras, there's a 48'05" 'making of' in 4:3 format, On Location with Robbery Under Arms. This was put together back in the day by producer/director Lou Sedivy, copyrighted to South Australian Telecasters Ltd in 1985.

It's a relentlessly superficial look at the filming of the show. There are interviews with Sam Neill and others in the cast, and the two directors, Don Crombie and Ken Hannam, but devotees of film-making will learn little about the craft or the specific challenges faced in the shooting of the film.

There are however plenty of shots of the cast and crew in action, which are used as chunks between edited footage of key scenes in the film, with an emphasis on material gathered in the Wilpena area.

The DVD also contains the original 2'59" theatrical trailer, in correct screen format.

Ozmovie cultists will also want to look at the mini-series version, also released by Umbrella, this time in a two disc set in 4:3 format. The two versions provide a classic case study in the difficulties of shooting a television show and extracting a feature film cut from the material.

The resulting feature is over-long, has a variable tone and performances, erratic story and continuity, and particularly in the first half, the music proceeds as if announcing a cue for commercials every so often.

If anyone's interested in the material and the approach, the mini-series version is more true to the spirit of the enterprise, which is solidly television, but those wanting an overview will settle for the feature film version, while sensing it's a long haul for what might have once passed as a kind of western romp, Raw Deal style. The film now reveals more about the 1980s than it does about Australia in the 1880s, and makes an interesting 'compare and contrast' with the 1957 British/Jack Lee version, starring Peter Finch.

For those who prefer a couple of clips to doing the whole 143 minutes, the ASO has two here.

1. Source:

(a) Source Material:

There's no need to spend too long on Rolf Boldrewood's source novel, published in 1882, and long reckoned an Australian classic, though the plotting and the morality has the aged whiskers of Victorian melodrama about it.

Boldrewood was, however, a one time a police magistrate, who had at least some passing awareness of real bushrangers, and he has a good short biography at the ADB here under his real name Thomas Alexander Browne. 

In the way typical for the times, the novel was first published as a weekly serial in the Sydney Mail, 1882-83. The ADB describes the novel this way:

Robbery Under Arms is deservedly an Australian classic since the story telling is superb, the simple, direct style holds a vivid use of the bush vernacular by Dick Marston as the narrator, and the characters are vital, especially old Ben Marston, 'iron-bark outside and in', and the Marston brothers, described by Henry Green as 'the first thoroughly Australian characters in fiction'. A romantic spirit is skilfully combined with realistic detail, with most of the incidents based on actual events, e.g. the cattle robbery follows the lifting of about a thousand head by Readford from Bowen Downs station in 1870. Terrible Hollow is drawn from a sunken valley reported in the Gwydir district, whilst Starlight is a composite figure created from several bushrangers and a gentlemanly horse-thief called Midnight. The story contains weaknesses and inconsistencies in Warrigal's speech and Rainbow's star, but the stock criticism of Dick's 'moralizings' is mistaken, since Dick regrets only his folly, not any wrongdoing. The defects are minor in what Dr Thomas Wood calls 'a classic, which for life and dash and zip and colour — all of a period — has no match in all Australian letters'.

One of the real characters used by Boldrewood as a source for his bushranger Captain Starlight was Henry "Harry" Readford (also Redford), a notorious cattle duffer who thieved some thousand head cattle, which he droved from Queensland to sale in Adelaide. (This is celebrated in the first half of the film).

Readford has a wiki here, and now there's even a website dedicated to the Harry Redford Cattle Drive.

Another alleged inspiration for the Starlight character was Australian bushranger Frank Pearson, whose wiki can be found here, but who possibly had less claim than Readford.

Other claimants include Francis Melville, charged as Thomas Smith aka Captain Melville, whom the ADB describes as creating "a legend of the cultured gentleman of good address and scholarship turned highwayman" (ADB here) and Andrew George Scott, if only for his bushranger name, as he was another high-spirited gentleman - rumoured to have served with Garibaldi in Italy in 1860 - who dubbed himself "Captain Moonlite" (ADB here).

(b) Earlier Adaptations:

The novel had a long pedigree in terms of film adaptations - its subject matter and style acted as a siren song to film producers. A couple of early efforts were amongst the earliest silent films made in Australia, and there have been at least four productions using the novel's title:

Robbery Under Arms (1907) - Sydney-based writer/director Charles MacMahon made a 5,000 feet/over an hour long feature, expensive for its time at £1,000. MacMahon filmed his silent epic in bush locations near Sydney and the western plains. Unlike some later efforts, it was a box office hit.

Robbery Under Arms (1907) - Melbourne rivals Messrs J and N. Tait joined forces with W. A. Gibson and Millard Johnson, and made another 5,000 feet film shot around Melbourne, which was screened at the Athenaeum.

Robbery Under Arms (1920) - written and directed by Kenneth Brampton, this 5,200 feet production was filmed around Braidwood and the Araluen valley near Canberra. Brampton managed to escape the wrath of the censors by taking a heavily moral approach. Pike and Cooper's Oxford Australian Film describes the box office as "fairly solid", but the film is now also celebrated for featuring young future Jedda director Charles Chauvel in an unidentified bit part.

Robbery Under Arms (1957) - director Jack Lee had the advantage of colour and sound, and Peter Finch as Captain Starlight, and like the SAFC production, Lee also shot in the Flinders ranges for two months, as well as near Bourke and at the Pagewood studios in Sydney. The film received mixed reviews, and only did average business, but by a stroke of irony Lee was chairman of the SAFC at the time it ventured into its 1985 version, though this was more a coincidence and Lee wasn't actively involved in the re-make. (Lee's version is listed at Ozmovies here - the novel's wiki provides more details on the silent productions here).

The story also inspired a few spin-offs with new titles but some of the same subject matter eg:

Captain Starlight, or Gentlemen of the Road (1911) - producer Spencer released the film at his own Lyceum Theatre in Sydney and it too had a profitable season. 

Bullseye (1986) - rarely seen when it was made, but subsequently released on DVD by Umbrella, this project originally started off based on Harry Redford, the outlaw who inspired part of the Starlight story by stealing some thousand head of cattle in Roma Queensland and drove them all the way to sale in Adelaide. Originally the project started in serious vein, but when director Carl Schultz came on board, he turned the story into a comedy adventure romp. 

It's possible that there would have been more Starlight films, but in 1912 the New South Wales government banned films about bushrangers for fear of exciting the population, and this hampered producers up to the 1940s - according to Pike and Cooper in their survey for Oxford of Australian films, the censorship stopped at least two more proposed adaptations in silent days.

Ken G. Hall had long yearned to make an adaptation of Boldrewood's novel, but first the censors and then the difficulties of financing after the second world war stopped him, one of the sadder moments in Hall's generally successful career.

(c) The SAFC adaptation:

(i) Background:

Producer Jock  Blair explained the thinking behind the SAFC adaptation in a feature about the film in Cinema Papers, May 1985:

"Boldrewood was a magistrate," explains Jock Blair, producer of the latest Robbery remake, "and he wrote it to try and persuade colonial youth not to be carried away by these bushranging figures. His Starlight was a composite of Ben Hall, a gentleman bushranger whose name I've forgotten, and a man called Harry Radford (sic), who actually did steal a mob of cattle and drive them all the way down to Adelaide. Boldrewood was apparently alarmed at the number of young colonial tearaways who were coming before his bench, so it's a rather sombre warning of what will happen."

Not too sombre, though: behind the doomy moralizing - "The morning sun comes shining through the bars; and ever since he was up I have been cursing the daylight, cursing myself, and them that brought me into the world", muses young Dick Marston from his death cell - there lay a rattling good yarn about robbery and romance, with a solid chunk of freshly-minted colonial identity thrown in.

"It has a number of very racist attitudes towards aboriginals," says Blair, "and it has a strong anti-Irish Catholic vein through it. But somehow the story has endured. Everyone you talk to has read the book, or thinks they're read it: everyone has been through it as a young kid and loved it. So, we sat back from the book and said, 'OK, why is it we all remember the story?' And what comes through is young men and strong women doing exciting things. Despite all the Victorianisms, that somehow captures the spirit of what Australia likes to think of itself."

The origins of the present remake go back to 1981. "It has been around for a long time as a good property," explains Blair, "and one of the attractive things about it is that it's out of copyright!" The original plan was to make a TV mini-series, produced by the South Australian Film Corporation, where Blair is head of drama. "But, when it was budgeted, it was found it was going to be too expensive: it was going to cost just over a million dollars an hour. And, with the current market, that would mean a loss for investors. So, to split the investors' risk, we decided to cut a feature out of it."

(ii) Scripting:

When the project was announced, Michael Jenkins (TV mini-series Blue Murder) was one of the lead writers, but in the end on the feature version, he was given a credit, along with co-writers Graeme Koetsveld and Tony Morphett as doing the "screen adaptation from the novel" while the screenplay itself was credited only to Koetsveld and Morphett, and after the production was finished, Jenkins' role was elided over, as in the May 1985 Cinema Papers' feature about the film:

From the very start, the mini-series - which will run to three two-hour parts, with 95 minutes of drama per episode - and the film (at 143 minutes) had separate scripts. The same key scenes obviously appear in both but the feature had separate linking scenes, to avoid those moments of muddle and inanity that generally come when a mini-series is cut down for theatrical release.

"Clearly," says Blair, "if you take a mini-series and put it through the moviola to get a feature of 100 minutes, you've got problems. What we did was do an adaptation, in the same way one does an adaptation from a novel - took it as a separate entity, and created new scenes when the television series simply couldn't cover a jump that we needed. In the end, we could have tossed away the television series and shot our feature film script, and nobody would have been any the wiser."

With two target audiences, the Robbery scripts also had two writers, Tony Morphett and Graeme Koetsveld - though they worked as a team - and it took two years to complete.

The notion of two separate scripts didn't in the end resolve some of the continuity problems, physical and dramatic, that can be seen in the finished feature film.

(d) An Australian Western?:

The issue of whether the film could be called an Ozwestern was tackled by the feature story in Cinema Papers, May 1985:

The 1957 version of Robbery Under Arms was conceived, shot and edited as an Australian western, right down to the classic face-out at the end. The ending of this version - a stunningly choreographed battle across a broad beach - is much less easy to classify. And both Blair and Crombie are wary of the 'western' tag.

"We thought a lot about filming the landscape," explains Crombie, "and hopefully it's Australian. It's interesting that you should comment on an American influence - John Ford and everything - because that's been said before, certainly when I did The Irishman. Obviously, Australia and America share certain characteristics in the landscape. The difference is in the way the violence is  treated: you don't get any gunplay in Australian films … well, not so much. And not sidearms. The difference is also, I think, that Australians try to avoid conflict, both as filmmakers and in real life."

"But," adds Blair, "having gone through the Robbery experience, you look at all westerns in a totally different way: at the riders, at what saddles they're using, at who's actually doing it. But I don't think we took a lead out of the American western: we took the lead out of all our group memories and the enjoyment that we've all had, as kids and adults, mucking about in the bush."

This after saying that one of the inspirations for the film was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Reviewers got the message, and many treated the result as an Ozwestern - The Canberra Times' reviewer even started off his review by mourning the death of the western, and then deciding that perhaps Robbery Under Arms wouldn't revive the genre downunder (see this site's 'opinion' section for the review).

2. Scope and financing:

(a) The decision to do simultaneously a feature film and 6 hour TV mini-series:

Executive producer John Morris explained the strategy behind the dual formats to Brian Courtis in The Age (9th June 1983):

The SAFC plans to present it in two versions: the first will be a 2¾ hour cinema feature and the second, released later, will be a six-hour television mini-series. There will be separate scripts and exclusive material in both versions.

"They will be different," Mr Morris said. "It is the first time this has been done here. We are creating two innovative films and not (as in the American drama series 'Shogun') cutting a film from a TV series."

"We are treating the original novel with the greatest possible respect," Mr Morris said. "We believe we will capture the spirit of the book. It will be as Rolf Boldrewood would like to have seen it written for the screen in the 1980s."

None of this came to pass, because the feature was cut from the TV series, and there's scant evidence in the novel that Boldrewood fancied hot-air balloons and elephants. Producer Jock Blair had no qualms:

With some understatement, Mr Blair said that the remake would be very different from the 1957 version. "This has nothing to do with the period dramas that might come to mind. There's a hot-air balloon prison escape and a bank robbery with a getaway elephant."

At a prawn and champagne Press launch yesterday, the film's producer, Jock Blair, admitted that the purists might shriek about the adaptations. How many elephants featured in early Australiana? "Herds of them," Mr Blair grinned. "I believe they have since died out."

Mr Blair said the film would be a period piece more by coincidence than intent. "We are making it in the style of 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid'. Reverence to Australia's historical past is turned over into a romp through history." (The Age, 10th January 1984). (Another favourite filmic comparison was 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' - The Age, 3rd April 1985).

Blair also criticised the 1957 version:

Mr. Blair defended the new version, which includes an escape scene using a hot-air balloon, against criticism that it was not true to the Boldrewood novel.

"It's a fairly natural reaction, especially from people who have never read the book, he said.

"Our adaptation is probably closer than any adaptation done before."

Many of the critics had compared the neew version unfavourably with the 1957 film which starred Peter Finch, but the current adaptation was in fact much closer to the book.

"They didn't get the ending right and they used only about a tenth of the story," he said.

"What Boldrewood did was capture the spirit of Australia in his story, and that is what people enjoy.

"The two young lads are the epitome of what became the Anzacs, and that is what is being brought to life." (The Canberra Times, 21st January 1984)

And so a couple of cattle-duffing, cop-killing bushrangers became the spirit of the Anzacs.

Blair justified the decision to do some eight and a half hours of film and TV at the same time this way:

"If we had tried to make this ambitious project purely as a feature film we couldn't have done it," Mr Blair said yesterday. "With the two projects we are splitting the risk of the investors against two major entities."

… "I think the cinema release should help the mini-series rate; look at the way the 'Star Wars' movie rated on television," Mr Blair said.

However the decision generated much controversy (as well as technical, scheduling and continuity problems and an unhappy time for the departments in charge of post-production). 

David Stratton, in his survey of the 10BA years, the 1990 The Avocado Plantation, was one of many who were askance:

… the decision of the SAFC to make a new version as both a television mini-series and a feature film set the seal on its failure. As most filmmakers know, cinema and television are very different, and though attempts have been made before to combine a film and a television series they have never really succeeded. At the time, producer Jock Blair explained that the idea for a mini-series came first, but it was felt to be too expensive. Separate scripts for the two formats were written, but, at 141 minutes, the feature film is ludicrously overlong …

Stratton brought star Sam Neill in to reinforce the points he was making:

Sam Neill, ideally cast as the charismatic Captain Starlight, recalls: 'Ken (Hannam) and Don (Crombie) are very different. Don's a great enthusiast, but I think Ken got a bit bored with it all about halfway through. I think Ken's a more natural director, though.' Neill also sees the attempt to combine cinema and television formats as a crucial problem with the film: 'You can't cut something both ways,' he says. 'You do one or the other. You shoot them differently. The film version of Robbery Under Arms goes on forever but doesn't make sense because there are whole areas of the story that just don't exist in the film. So it's all over the place.' Neill remembers the shoot with affection, however, especially the spectacular location (the Flinders Ranges), and the chance to work with Steven Vidler, excellent as Dick Marston, and Aboriginal actor Tommy Lewis, as Warrigal. 'And I'll do anything on horses,' he says.

Concluded Stratton:

Neill's comments are very accurate; in trying to have it both ways, Robbery Under Arms falls flat on its face...

(b) Financing and budget:

The film was financed under the federal government's tax break, but immediately attracted attention by having entrepreneur and corporate Raider Robert Holmes à Court drop an estimated $3 million into the production as his first foray into Australian films.

EP John Morris said that he had flown to Perth to meet Holmes à Court on 21st May 1983, and after talks into the night, shook hands on the deal (The Age, 9th June 1983).

"Hundreds of other smaller investors, who put in from $5,000 to $250,000, were quick to follow." (The Age, 10th January 1984).

The financing led to the usual claims of the film being the most expensive ever made in Australia, along with an impressive array of statistics, which varied according to the day and the journalist - in The Age, it was 148 speaking parts, hundreds of extras and 1200 stampeding cattle. (The cattle don't stampede in the feature film).

In another more detailed listing, in The Age, 3rd April,1985, it was 148 actors, 120 crew members, 2000 extras, 200 locations, 1200 cattle one pedigree bull, 56 horses, 12 wranglers, two elephants and a hot air balloon.

3. Cast:

In the contemporary 1985 'making of' on the Umbrella DVD release of the film, director Ken Hannam explained the thinking behind the decision to cast the main roles young:

It was essential to cast very young people because, as Boldrewood tells the story, you forgive somebody at nineteen or twenty or twenty one, for the impetuous sort of things these boys do, because it's part of their evolution and particularly in this period, but if the same part is being played and you're asking a man of thirty to do the same thing, then he's a thug. It's … what he's doing is unforgivable, and there's no excuse for it, and so therefore we wanted to take it back and see it through the Marstons' eyes and we felt the whole thing was that the group of girls and boys had to be very, very young, and therefore we had to take a gamble and I'm very glad we did, we certainly … haven't been proved wrong on any count…

Dick Marston is a boy that when you first meet him, you don't like him especially. He's very arrogant, very cocky ...     

Producer Jock Blair echoed this line precisely in Cinema Papers, May 1985:

"We were in absolute agreement that we could not get 25-year-olds for the Marston boys," says Blair. "I think that was one of the real problems with the 1957 version: Ronald Lewis played Dick. Now, Ronald Lewis would have been a man in his early thirties, if not his mid-thirties. Commit a crime in your mid-thirties and you're a criminal. Commit it when you're nineteen and you're a tearaway."

The one major name in the film came to be Sam Neill, who was always the first choice. Neill at the time was a hot property, having gone from his 1979 My Brilliant Career days to the lead role in the British 13 part series Reilly - Ace of Spies, and been voted in 1984 by TV Times magazine's four million readers as Britain's most popular actor:

The problem was that, initially, he was not available. "So, another great bloke wasn't available: so what?" asks Blair, who can afford to be philosophical about it since, after a long search for an alternative Starlight, Neill suddenly became available again. "We sent him the scripts, express. He read them immediately and, 24 hours later, we had him booked: it was the fastest negotiation and lock-up I've ever had."

There can be little doubt that Neill's presence in the film brings that charismatic quality to Starlight which is as much a part of the character as it is a requirement for the film. But Blair goes to some length to stress the star's commitment to the film. "Sam is a very generous actor, especially to the young ones. But, one day, when we were up in the Flinders, he came up to me and said 'It's going to be a disaster!' My face fell and, eventually, I said, 'Why?' 'Because I can't ride the horse,' he said. So I went out to talk to the horseman, Gerald Egan" - the one who rode the pony over the edge in The Man from Snowy River - "and told him what Sam had said. "Oh, Sam can ride the horse OK,' he said. 'He just can't ride it like I can!'" (Cinema Papers, May 1985)

Apart from three other experienced and well-known actors - Ed Devereaux and Robert Grubb and Tommy Lewis - the production filled minor roles from local South Australian talent (Patrick Frost, Don Barker, John Dick etc) and went in search of new faces for the young romantic leads:

"We were stuck in a dubious little hotel in Sydney," remembers Crombie, "with all our gear set up. And in walked Steven Vidler - just swaggered in, stuck his thumbs in his belt and said, 'G'day!' And there was Dick: he literally didn't have to do anything else." Vidler was fresh out of NIDA. And the rest of the young cast - Chris Cummins as Jim Marston, Liz Newman as Gracey, Susie Lineman as Jeannie, Jane Menelaus as Aileen were likewise new to lead roles in features and most of them not more than a year out of acting school...

(Liz Newman was 23 at the time of filming - she came from Perth to audition for NIDA in 1979, was accepted and moved to Sydney, while Jane Menelaus was an Australian actor who had trained in England and would next go on to play Mrs Charles Kingsford Smith in the mini-series A Thousand Skies).

"With young leads like that," admits Blair, "you never go to bed easy. It's much easier to cast people who've got a solid track record. But the script demands kids who are the same age as the characters, and who can capture the youthful exuberance that is absolutely vital." (Cinema Papers, May 1985)

4. Production:

(a) The Shoot:

The film spent some four weeks filming around Wilpena in the Flinders Ranges, including the popular tourist attraction Brachina Gorge in the national park (according to the 'making of', Wilpena's an Aboriginal word meaning 'land of bent fingers').

The Dusty Creek township was built outside the German-heritage Adelaide hills town of Hanhdorf, while interiors were filmed at the SAFC studio in Hendon, a converted warehouse.

According to the 'making of, there were 65 sets designed and built for the production, and co-director Don Crombie spends some time grumbling in the 'making of' about the way Handorf's climate seemed set for non-stop rain, but the production managed to stay on budget:

Shooting in the Flinders Ranges was … remarkably trouble-free, though occasionally a touch expensive. "We worked out the cost on an hourly basis as $400, explains Crombie. "So, if you had to wait for a cloud, you'd say to the cameraman, 'How long is it?' And he'd say, 'Oh, I think it's about $100!' Everybody was very cost-conscious. But it was fun to make - a thoroughly enjoyable film to work on. That's not just totting it up: it's a genuine thing. Of course there were moments of standing around in the freezing rain at two in the morning, but that's just filmmaking: nobody enjoys that. No, there was a feeling of, This is going to be good, or it's going to be fun, anyway … it's going to be entertaining.

The cattle drive was filmed in Wilpena Pound, but because of issues with brucellosis, only 650 head could be rounded up because they all had to come from the one station:

"The drive," explains Crombie, "was done in one day! We set out at dawn and drove them about twelve miles up into the ranges, had lunch, shot all the dialogue scenes that we had to do, then turned round and drove them home. And, as you can see in the film, they arrived home after dark. We did find a couple of stray calves the next day that had dropped out en route and were standing around looking a bit miserable. But there was not one death on that entire drive, which says something about the quality of the wranglers who were working with us." (Cinema Papers, May 1985)

(b) Co-director Don Crombie on the shoot:

As well as two writers, to cope with the bulkiness of the shoot, there were two directors, which the May 1985 Cinema Papers' article notes might have been expected to cause problems:

Not so, if one is to believe Hannam … and Crombie. Certainly, there are no discernible differences of style within the film, though each director apparently had his favourite scenes. "There were certainly scenes I was very pleased to get," says Crombie. "For example, I did the scene where Warrigal and Starlight talk about going to America, and Warrigal stands and shouts at the hills. I love that scene and, when I read the script, I wanted to do it. And I always wanted to do the Starlight-Aileen love business. I'm sort of a romantic sentimentalist: those sort of scenes I really enjoy. But I wouldn't have minded doing other scenes that Ken ultimately did. Anyway, I've stopped thinking now, Oh, I did that bit and Ken did that."

For Crombie, Robbery was something of a departure. "I hadn't done action adventure: I'd done fairly serious films, set in the past and sometimes the present." Initially, he was wary about the film. "I must admit that, when Jock first phoned me and said, Robbery Under Arms!, I thought, Oh-oh, another period show … you know, coaches, horses, frocks … But, as soon as I read the script and realised it was being done with some humour, I thought, that's it!' 

(c) Co-director Ken Hannam on the shoot:

Ken Hannam had a bitter falling out with the SAFC over the editing of Sunday Too Far Away, but returned, with new management in place, to direct Robbery - though again he left the project to be edited by others, leaving extensive notes behind (a standard television procedure, but not so common for feature films).

Hannam, in an interview in Cinema Papers, May 1985 talked about co-directing and shooting for two formats:

"It's not the first time I've worked as a co-director in television, but it's very rare to do a feature film in this way. We were both selected independently, although of course I've known Don for many years. I can imagine some people it wouldn't be very pleasant to work with, but in this case there was never any rivalry or jealousy. Anyway, as a six-hour mini-series, it was obviously very, very heavy and I don't think one director would, or could have done it."

They didn't parcel out the chores on the basis of location or type of scene, with one director handling the action sequences and the other the 'intimate' bits. "We just took it in turns to direct hour and hour about," says Hannam. "Don has a strong background in documentaries and feature films, but I don't think he had ever done a television series before. Whereas I'd made a lot, and in my mind I was going back to do a mini-series from which a feature could be extracted.

"One thing we often did was to film certain establishing shots - which would be far too wide for the small screen - in two takes using different lenses. You have to cover yourself as much as possible, even if for me the series was what I was really working on and the feature was a by-product. It's a very intimate story, although it takes place in wide open spaces. That's its importance and that was what we concentrated on." (See this site's photo gallery for the full interview).

(d) Post-production:

Nobody in Australia had at the time tackled the problems of shooting two different formats simultaneously, and it was the post-production path that suffered the most angst.

The feature on the film in the May 1985 Cinema Papers covered the process, but not the grumbling that emanated from the editing rooms and editor Andrew Prowse:

Post-production was dominated by the dual-purpose nature of the project. "We cut the TV series first," explains Crombie, "starting from Day One of the shoot. The moment we had a fine cut of the TV series, we then went in and cut the feature. Interestingly enough, we started out putting in the least amount of the story - I think our first cut came to 110 minutes - then we edged material back in until we were absolutely sure that was the best we could come up with in the shortest time. Normally, you go the other way. And, when you do that, you can bet your life that, two years later, you'll look at the same film and say, "Ten minutes can come out'. I'll be interested to see whether that will happen with Robbery."

At the time of the film's domestic release, many reviewers sounded as if they thought forty minutes could have come out.

5. Release:

At last a movie as big as the legend, as big as the land itself, boasted the film's trailer, but the film was a major failure, both in feature film form and as a TV mini-series. After an expenditure of some $7.3 million on film and series, the result, according to the Film Victoria report on Australia box office, was a humble $226,648, equivalent to $539,422 in $A 2009.

Worse, the Seven network got the frights and didn't bother to promote the mini-series version, and it also did poorly on first broadcast.

Thanks to the ITC connection, the product did sell into the UK and into Europe, with countries like Germany maintaining their interest in the Australian outback, but even then results were disappointing and the feature film didn't crack the US market.

Producer Jock Blair must have finally realised the conflicts between promoting two formats to the public (and buyers), because when he did the domestic rounds promoting the feature film release, he was aware that canny punters might decide to sit back and wait to see the show on free to air television rather than stump up at the theatre, and so he dissembled:

… he (Blair) talked less enthusiastically about the attractions of the TV production. Would there not be a temptation for some of the audience to wait for the six-hour series of 'Robbery Under Arms', made by the SAFC simultaneously?

"It has not even been finished," Mr Blair says. "I would say it will be three, maybe four years, before it will be released.

"But if people do make that decision, they're going to miss out on something. Although the two offer similar stories, they will have a quite different effect on those who see them. There is the soundtrack in the cinema, and that version has a rollicking, never-ending sort of momentum; the television series obviously cannot maintain that pace, and was never intended to." (The Age, 1st April 1985)

The film was released in March 1985; the mini-series was screened by the Seven network less than a year later on three consecutive nights in the 8.30 pm slot, February 17th-19th 1986.

The canny punters were right, but following the feature film's failure, Seven lacked faith in the mini-series and failed to promote it with any vigour, with the result that the TV outing was also a disappointment.

Some even blamed the feature film version for alterations to the federal government's film industry tax break for private investors.

Richard Glover, then covering television for the Sydney Morning Herald (later an ABC drive-time radio host) saw the show as a prime example of all that was wrong with the federal government's 10BA tax break.

On 7th May 1986, he went at the show hammer and tongs under the header More trash to fuel Our Political Masters' engines:

Back in September Paul Keating reduced the tax concessions available to film investors. He spoke with length and wind about the reasons - the growing deficit, the foreign account problems, the general tightening of loopholes.

I am now in a position to reveal that these were mere excuses. The real reasons lay in a special screening of the motion picture Robbery Under Arms at Canberra's Boulevard Blue cinema.

All Federal Parliamentarians were invited. Many senior Hawke Ministers attended. Many senior Hawke Ministers left at half-time.

The exercise was a fatal miscalculation on the part of the Australian film industry. Large tax concessions for Australian movies effectively ended not in Parliament House on the morning of September 19, but some weeks earlier as Captain Starlight rode the plains to the astonishment of the massed Labor Caucus.

Glover always liked to joke, but there were serious consequences arising from the failure of the film, at least for the South Australian Film Corporation.

Robbery Under Arms' failure generated a fair degree of political heat in South Australia, compounded by the disappointing performance of its next feature film Playing Beattie Bow. Thereafter Jock Blair and the Corporation retreated to high end television, including the 1990 telemovie Shadows of the Heart, and mini-series such as The Shiralee, Grim Pickings, and the 1991 Golden Fiddles, and after that Blair left the Corporation for private production. 

6. Producer Jock Blair:

Don Groves provided a tidy summary of Blair's career for if magazine on the occasion of Blair's retirement - the full story is here: 

...A year after leaving school against his parents' wishes Blair began his career at 17 as Graham Kennedy’s assistant on In Melbourne Tonight and stayed for five years. Kennedy encouraged him to write gags, working with head writer Mike McColl-Jones. “I got £5 if a gag got a laugh and nothing if it didn’t,” he recalls.

He sold his first three scripts for cop show Homicide, written on spec, to Crawford Productions, the start of a long career with Hector Crawford’s famous company.

After penning scene breakdowns for the TV station satire The Box he was summoned to Crawford’s office where he was told, "Congratulations, you are now the producer of The Box.”

A stunned Blair confessed, “I knew nothing about producing. I had to run around asking people what a producer did.” He co-created The Sullivans (which the Seven network turned down, to its eventual regret, and a year later was picked up by Nine), Bluey and Skyways.

In the early 1980s he joined the John Morris-led SAFC as head of production and remained there for 11 years, overseeing projects including Sara Dane, The Shiralee, Playing Beatie Bow and Robbery Under Arms.

After the SAFC decided to cease in-house production he moved to Queensland to produce the series Paradise Beach for former Crawford’s colleagues Michael Lake and Nick McMahon at Village Roadshow Pictures, followed by Snowy River: The McGregor Saga for Becker Entertainment.

The tale of three teenagers who leave the drabness of the suburbs in search of sun, surf and fun, Paradise Beach ranks among his career highs and lows. “The cast were not great actors but they tried very hard and the crew were very inexperienced,” he says. “The publicity was so bad but everyone who worked on the show adored and gave their hearts to it.”

And the low? “Having to walk into a studio and tell the cast and crew the network had decided not to renew a show.” That happened on The Box and Paradise Beach.

Blair counts himself lucky to have had such a long and varied career, observing, “I have had one of the greatest rides that anyone could hope for.” 

There is another summary of Blair's career here which provides some additional and alternative details, along with some errors of fact and style: 

(Blair's) …life wasn’t always easy. He convinced his parents at the tender age of 16 to leave school and start working as a sort of personal assistant to Graham Kennedy at GTV9 in Melbourne. Graham Kennedy and Bert Newton were sidekicks and there was always a variety of comedy, which Jock would write the opening gags for and be paid depending if the audience laughed. This is where he made the realisation that television writers can make a living in the new age television world and was determined to make this dream come true.
 In Jock’s early twenties he had saved up to travel the world for three years and came back more determined to be a writer even though he had very little experience and little confidence but a fascination with Police shows. At the time Jock was still in his early 20s working at a PR firm, where luckily a client of the firm offered Jock a job managing a stage show, Oh Calcutta in South Australia.

While working in Adelaide he would write Homicide scripts in his spare time and sent the best one to Crawfords Productions, which they liked and asked him to write another and another and eventually Jock earned a weekly wage as a staff writer. A Real Writer! He received advice from more senior staff along the way and it was not long until Jock was writing for soaps, The Box and Homicide which was the first episodes to be shot in colour.
 After some time Hector Crawford the Founder and CEO of Crawfords Productions requested a meeting, a rare thing. The meeting turned out to be life changing where he went from a t-shirt and Jeans kind of guy to a man in a suit as the new producer of Homicide. The popular television series that ran half hour episodes five nights a week. Eventually that took its toll and Jock decided to invite writers to assist in plotting each story for $400 per half hour episode. If there are any budding writers reading this the figure per half hour episode now is upwards of $5000 and $34000 if you’re lucky enough to score an episode of Underbelly.

After producing Homicide for several seasons Jock worked closely with Hector pitching a variety of shows such as The Bluestone Boys a comedy set in a prison that was like a Hogan’s Heroes up dated.  It was pretty terrible and Jock got the opportunity to budget it and produce it. Followed by writing The Sullivan’s a series about a family and their friends looking to survive under the umbrella of world war II. Unfortunately the 7 network hated the script, so Jock and his team at Crawford’s created Bluey a show about a cop and his life fighting crime which lasted several seasons. Jock then spent time in LA developing Skyways and worked with Larry Marks a US writer who had won a number of Emmys. That was a lot fun spending six weeks in LA getting the first script written and plotting out the first series. Which unfortunately didn’t make it on to Australian screens but Jock quickly improvised and did his best pitch ever, resulting in a sale and a pick-up for 13 episodes. One of the best moments of his life, because The Sullivans went on to become a huge hit in Australia and the UK winning a few Logie Awards.

Jock was interested in the mini-series market but Hector wasn’t as keen, so following a call from the CEO of the South Australian Film Corporation (SAFC) who had enjoyed great success with feature film Jock did he wanted to move into television and get Jock on board to mini-series Sara Dane. His initial two year contract with the SAFC eventually stretched out to 10 successful years. During the decade Jock produced two feature films, three telemovies and about ten mini-series. Among them were Robbery Under Arms, The Shiralee, Golden Fiddles and popular kids movie Playing Beatie Bow which won most exciting film at the Moscow film festival. After a decade the SAFC wanted a change of direction and decided to stop producing in-house. So at this point in time Jock is out of work with a mortgage and two children in private school and no real plan for the future…

By some twist of fate Warner Roadshow studios sold Paradise Beach to the Nine Network and his friend Bevan Lee asked Jock to produce. Producing Paradise Beach was the most fun Jock had ever had producing a show and writing some episodes, working for 18-20 hours each day and loving every minute of it, shooting out of a broadcast van with sound booms, working out of an empty studio on a low budget the show received low ratings but it was so much fun! After Paradise Beach, he got another offer out of the blue to produce a feature film which fell through a month later. This was a hard time for Jock and his family managing the incoming and outgoing money but eventually stirred up the motivation inside Jock to begin writing a novel he titled Butterfly Blue.

Following this Jock produced The Man from Snowy River television series, Stingers and a few raunchy episodes for Pacific Drive, mini-series The Violent Earth mostly shot in beautiful Port Douglas. The CEO of Crawford’s at that time was David Rouse became good friends with Jock.  On a trip up to Sydney with Bevan Lee, who was the guy previously at Nine who liked my mini-series gave him the opportunity to write the script and produce his own mini-series called Tribe about a bunch of people on a cruise who get attacked by pirates who sink their ship. The survivors make it to an island that has been booby trapped by the Japanese during World War II. Goodbye mortgage and school fees!

After the show Jock returned home to Paradise Waters working a bit script editing and doing script assessments for the PFTC, which later became Screen Queensland.  I also did some work for the now defunct QPIX and was about to start my second novel when I got a call from the Head of Production at the PFTC to asks if I could sit in for six months to assist with Development.  

Mr Blair is now the longest serving person at Screen Queensland and the Director of Development with a budget slightly short of a million dollars to spend on local writers and producers.  Some of the projects we have invested in recently are The Railway Man, Secrets and Lies, Strange Calls, Predestination and The Spierig Brothers...

7. Executive producer John Morris:

The South Australian Film Corporation, a state government owned body, had set up its own production company to make use of the 10BA breaks, but under its CEO John Morris, its choice of feature film projects had become increasingly eccentric (including the sex comedy Pacific Banana and genre productions such as as The Survivor). The failure of Robbery Under Arms and the disappointing performance of Playing Beattie Bow marked the end of in-house feature film production at the SAFC.

Morris left the SAFC in 1989 to head up the New South Wales Film and Television Office, but then quickly shifted over to the federal investment body (which had replaced 10BA), the Film Finance Corporation.

Variety had a short obituary of him at the time of his death:

John Morris, one of the pioneers of the modern-day Australian film industry as both a filmmaker and an administrator, died of cancer April 19 in Sydney. He was 69.

Sydney native cut his teeth at Film Australia, the government’s film production unit, where he directed and produced more than 50 docus.

In the early 1970s, he joined the South Australian Film Corp. Under his watch, the SAFC produced or co-produced many acclaimed films which boosted the careers and reps of directors such as Bruce Beresford (“Breaker Morant,” “The Club”), Peter Weir (“Picnic at Hanging Rock,” “The Last Wave”) and Henri Safran (“Storm Boy”).

From Adelaide, where SAFC is HQ’d, he moved back to Sydney in 1989 to take the helm of the New South Wales Film & Television Office, and the following year was head-hunted to be CEO of the Australian Film Finance Corp.

In his seven years at the FFC, the agency helped to bankroll film and TV productions and docus with aggregate budgets of about $600 million. Among the FFC’s successes in that era were “Muriel’s Wedding,” “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and “Shine.”

Although never one to suffer fools and blessed with a sharp wit, he nonetheless made many friends and few enemies in posts that often involve industry infighting and jealousies.

After he retired in 1997, he spent some time in his beloved France, honing his language skills. When he returned to Oz he was occasionally sent scripts and asked for his ideas on projects by filmmaker friends.

He is survived by Ray Paterson, his partner of 37 years.

Available online at time of writing here:

Writer, director and reviewer Bob Ellis also provided a short tribute at Fairfax, emotional and also error prone:

John Morris was a force, unseen but felt, behind much that was good in the Australian film industry.

Born in Kings Cross, he found early pleasure, and much enduring fantasy life, in city cinemas. Graduating too young from Sydney Grammar, he spent his repeat year, after joining it at 14, its youngest member ever, helping out at the Sydney Film Society. He dropped out of medicine in his fourth year at Sydney University to devote himself to film and the society.

He uncovered bits of the classic silent The Kidstakes, then used as fillers in newsreel theatres, and put it back together, reclaiming an Australian comic masterpiece from oblivion.

He joined the Commonwealth Film Unit (CFU) as a writer and producer and in 1956 directed Road to the Clouds, a spectacular documentary shot in Cinemascope in the New Guinea highlands. Later, as producer, he made several films in Asia.

Matt Carroll, Phil Noyce, Peter Weir, Dean Semler and Don McAlpine served their apprenticeships at the CFU under his sometimes turbulent care. 

He took leave of absence from the CFU and in 1973 helped found the South Australian Film Corporation, which, with Gil Brealey at the helm, kickstarted the new Australian cinema with Sunday Too Far Away, The Cars That Ate Paris (sic) and Storm Boy. He specialised in educational films but produced Who Killed Jenny Langley? (sic) and the AFI Award-winning The Fourth Wish as well. He succeeded Brealey in 1976 and saw onto the big screen The Last Wave, Blue Fin, Breaker Morant and The Club, along with the television mini-series Robbery Under Arms and The Shiralee.

He was deputy chairman of the Australian Film and Television Board for six years, a board member of the AFI for two years, and helped set up the National Film and Sound Archive and The Children's Television Foundation, of which he became vice-president. He was made an officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1983.

Nearly blind for 10 years, he was retrieved from oblivion by laser surgery in its earliest phase. In those years, too, his other great fear, of career persecution for his homosexuality, receded as many industry members "came out". His partner, Ray Paterson, was with him from 1966 until the day he died.

In 1989 he founded the New South Wales Film and Television Office and in 1990 succeeded Kim Williams at the Australian Film Finance Corporation. Strictly Ballroom, Priscilla, Muriel's Wedding and the Oscar-winning Shine followed, and many children's television programs that were admired worldwide.

An unsuspected kidney cancer took hold in early 2002 and, his spirit and charm unbroken, he died on April 18. He will be missed, and long regarded.

The tribute was available online here at time of writing.

This is a generous tribute - Morris at one time told this writer that Ellis would never direct another feature film via the FFC as a result of the fuss surrounding the semi-autobiographical, overlong feature written and directed by Ellis, The Nostradamus Kid, and Ellis would surely have known about the blackballing.

On a lighter note, Morris devised a ploy which he used throughout his career at government agencies, of telling the makers of films funded by the bodies, that their new work was "their best film - or best work - yet", thereby avoiding saying what he really thought of the show.