A British production, part-manufacted in Australia
Production company: Ealing Films
Locations: Fort Denison (Pinchgut), a small island in Sydney Harbour, other Sydney locations, Sydney north shore, central city streets, MGM's British studio in Hertfordshire, England.
Filmed: November 1958. The last studio pick-up shots in the English studio were completed early February 1959.
Australian distributor: Warner Brothers
Australian release: 3rd March 1960, Embassy Theatre Sydney; after its Berlin Film Festival screening in 1959, it opened in London in August 1959.
Rating: NSC (DVD PG)
35mm black and white widescreen 1.66:1
Running time: 104 mins (Oxford)
DVD time: 1'39"43
Box office: mediocre - "attracted little local commercial interest" (Oxford).
The film was caught up in the collapse of the parent production company, Ealing Films - which ceased trading while plans for the film's release were being prepared - and with the company's financial difficulties limiting the amount spent on distribution matters. The film was handed to Warner Brothers for distribution in some key territories, and then it disappeared from sight.
Official UK entry, 1959 Berlin Film Festival (the Golden Bear was won by Chabrol's Les Cousins).
Under the header British Entry Nowhere, the Glasgow Herald of July 9th 1959 noted that the film was ingenuous, but that the audience "received it with good nature and accorded a friendly reception to its director, Harry Watt, who beamed back at them from behind his presentation bouquet of pink carnations, held like a truncheon".
The film has been released on DVD in the UK with - considering the age and neglect the film has experienced - a good 1.66:1 image, but the only extra is the theatrical trailer.
It nonetheless presents a series of excellent black and white images of Sydney in the late nineteen fifties with the harbour and foreshore front and centre, and the action is fun too.
The film also turns up occasionally on television, most recently on the Nine network's digital channel in Australia, but unfortunately this is as a 4:3 image. The DVD is the best way to access a film which will reward cultists interested in projects made in Australia.
The Siege of Pinchgut started out as a story written by indefatigable Australian film pioneer Lee 'Skippy' Robinson, together with English editor Inman Hunter, when they were working together in the federal government film unit in Sydney, the Film Division of the Department of the Interior, later to become the Commonwealth Film Unit.
Hunter claimed that he had the idea when he sailed into Sydney Harbour for the first time (after spending 13 years in the English industry as a sound technician and editor, editing The Overlanders), spotted Pinchgut island (Fort Denison) and thought it would make a good location for a film.
Robinson had been an anti-aircraft gunner on Pinchgut in the early days of the war, so the pair concocted a story about two German POWs who escape during the second world war. The Germans seize Fort Denison, and terrorise Sydney by threatening to blow up a munitions ship in the harbour.
Robinson and Hunter had tried to set up their own production in 1950, but then sold their work to Ealing.
Director Harry Watt then re-worked the material with novelist Jon Cleary, to emphasise the idea of a man fighting to prove his innocence, up against a corrupt and unsympathetic legal system.
British scriptwriter Alexander Baron was assigned by Ealing to work on the screenplay, but Watt preferred to work with Cleary. This disturbed Michael Balcon, who thought Cleary might help make the script "too Australian". Watt and Cleary changed the storyline to be about an escaped convict protesting a corrupt judicial system.
The head credits reflect the balance, with an original story credit to Hunter and Robinson, story adaptation by Watt, screenplay by Watt and Cleary, with "script contribution" by Alexander Baron.
Balcon needn't have worried about Australian-ness because the demand for a name by Ealing's new owner, Associated British Picture Corporation, saw Aldo Ray imported, along with other key cast, and Australians left to play supporting roles.
(Below: Jon Cleary in the 1950s)
Watt was forced by Ealing and the British unions to ensure a number of the key cast were imports (though it's hard to imagine him fighting for local actors), and he attempted to explain this as embracing the 'New Australian' elements that had turned up in Australia since the second world war.
The times had changed since Watt had turned up to make The Overlanders (1946) and Bitter Springs (1950), and this venture by Ealing and Watt aroused some antagonism, as noted by John Hetherington in The Age August 19th 1959, reacting to rumours that the film was likely to do well in London:
This is good, but it would be better if the film were the product of an Australian film industry, instead of, as it is, a British producer's work.
Although overseas producers can come here and make successful feature-length films, Australia seems no nearer to establishing its own film industry than it has ever been.
To maintain the film as a British production (and its tax status), Watt also imported many crew, and much of the equipment, though he also made use of the studio facilities acquired by Robinson and Rafferty through their company Southern International Productions.
Most notable was the DOP Gordon Dines, a founding shareholder in the BSC, who was also a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society. Dines had worked in the British industry since the late 1930s, coming to more widespread attention with lensing of the war movie The Cruel Sea in 1953, and he imbues the film with stylish black and white images.
3. Release and aftermath:
Ealing Studios at one time had thought of establishing a beachhead in Australia, and producing up to three feature films a year. The dream rapidly collapsed (Harry Watt's Eureka Stockade was a fatal blow) and during the 1950s the home base came under threat. With the era of comedies now past, Ealing turned to delivering films to MGM, including Peter Finch in The Shiralee, but working with an American studio is a sure way to bleed slowly to death.
Ealing found themselves in the hands of the Associated British Picture Corporation at Elstree, and as the relationship unravelled, so did Ealing, and the film. Associated British pulled the plug on the Ealing production program, and according to Jon Cleary the move hurt morale on the film, as well as affecting Watt's ability to focus on the production.
After the collapse of Ealing ruined whatever chance the film had at the box office, Harry Watt made one more film - a children's film for a Danish company - The Boy Who Loved Horses (1962) - and then retired from production, and it would take until 1966 for Michael Powell to revive a UK presence with They're A Weird Mob.
An attempt was made to revive the Ealing Studios brand in 2001, with limited success, the first film being yet another revival Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest with Dame Judi Dench, Rupert Everett and Colin Firth.
Watt would be pleased to know however that his film has found supporters, including Quentin Tarantino who:
... introduced and screened his own print in December last year at the QT Fest, a film festival he holds in Austin, Texas, every December. (2006, here)