Fire Guardians: A fire emergency

Fire Guardians: A fire emergency
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Members of the NSW Fire Brigade tackle a blaze at a paper mill until the fire is brought under control. The smoking wreckage and the building’s shell is all that remains. As orchestral music builds over the soundtrack, the firefighters pull out their hoses and head back to base in their engines after a long day’s work. Meanwhile, a firefighter’s family eagerly awaits his safe return home. Tomlinson (played by Inspector BL Barber) enters the house and sits down with his wife (Agnes Kent) and son (Jack Clark) and explains that it was a big job, but that everyone is all right. Summary by Poppy de Souza.

This clip shows a re-staging for camera of an actual fire which occurred at the Cumberland Paper Mills in 1928. This was not unusual for Hurley, who often re-created scenes after the event to convey the drama of real life. According to Hurley’s biographer, Alasdair McGregor, he re-burned the derelict building by lacing it with nitrate film (which is extremely flammable) and dousing it in petrol. Although filmed under fire brigade supervision, this sort of stunt would be unlikely to meet today’s strict safety regulations. For a similarly dangerous staged inferno (and another example of nitrate put to unconventional use), see The Squatters Daughter (1933), also filmed by the ever adventurous Hurley.


Fire Guardians synopsis

This is a dramatised documentary which highlights the history and heroics of firefighters and culminates in the 're-burning’ of the Cumberland Paper Mills which were destroyed by fire in 1928. It includes an opening sequence of fire and smoke to the music of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries; a dramatised sequence of firefighting through the ages, acted out by members of the NSW Fire Brigade; a brigade band sequence; firefighters performing callisthenics; and the final fire fight. The film is bookended with family scenes between firefighter Tomlinson (played by Inspector BL Barber) and his family (played by Agnes Kent and Jack Clark). Filmmaker Frank Hurley makes a cameo appearance as a radio announcer and narrates the film with Chief Officer Swift (played by 3rd Officer C Richardson).


Fire Guardians curator's notes

This is one of Hurley’s more eccentric films, alongside the musical travelogue Treasures of Katoomba (1936), made four years later. The attention-catching opening, with its billowing smoke and Wagnerian score, is just the first in a series of dramatically staged sequences which today appear more as curiosities than anything else. Hurley used members of the NSW Fire Brigade to act in the film and dressed them in costumes ranging from Egyptian-style headpieces to tight-fitting gym clothes, equipping them with brass musical instruments and various items of firefighting equipment.

The film premiered in Wagga Wagga to coincide with a fire brigade jamboree, so would have been met with an enthusiastic response. The final firefighting scene was a re-staging of an actual fire which took place four years earlier, gutting the Cumberland Paper Mills. To achieve authenticity, Hurley laced the dilapidated building with highly flammable nitrate film stock and doused it in petrol. Although under fire brigade supervision, the sequence was no doubt dangerous to film – the element of risk involved probably attracted the adventurous Hurley like a moth to a flame.

Notes by Poppy de Souza


Education notes

This black-and-white clip from 1932 shows a re-creation of the New South Wales Fire Brigade fighting a large fire and then returning home. The firefighters train their hoses high. They are filmed from different vantage points within the burning shell of the building. Music swells as the firemen, seemingly unaffected by the smoke, leave the fire site. The fire trucks drive through the streets to the sound of sirens. One fireman gets a hero’s welcome from his wife and son.

Educational value points

  • The equipment and methods of firefighting depicted in this clip would breach safety regulations today. They reveal the poor protection afforded to firefighters at the time. The firefighters’ woollen uniforms gave them some protection from heat and cinders but did not offer the thermal resistance of modern synthetic fabrics. They had no masks, gloves or breathing equipment, and their brass helmets were cumbersome, unlike today’s lightweight impact-resistant helmets.
  • Frank Hurley (1885–1962) uses re-creation and dramatic action to create a narrative. The fire scenes were staged in the ruins of a paper mill in Lane Cove, Sydney, that had burned down in 1928. Hurley sequences the shots to suggest a job well done and the subsequent tiredness of the firefighters when they return to base. Actors play the roles of a wife and son anxiously awaiting one firefighter’s return. The wife’s exclamation of relief at his return signals the danger of his job.
  • The clip demonstrates less concern for realism than for portraying Sydney firefighters as heroic figures. They are filmed standing in a row within a ruin pointing their hoses high above the fire for visual effect rather than to show how a fire is actually fought. They nonchalantly walk through the smoke and display no ill effects. The reunion of the fireman with his family is staged to achieve maximum melodramatic effect.
  • Frank Hurley was one of Australia’s greatest cinematographers, and this clip shows his exceptional skill. Various camera vantage points dramatically frame the firefighters among billowing smoke and flames. The close-up of the two men struggling to control the nozzle of the hose conveys the intensity of their concentration. Streaming light and the movement of the smoke create dramatic footage of the aftermath of the fire.
  • The clip, through the action, language and the demeanour of the characters, demonstrates attitudes to the roles of men and women that were common at the time. While the man is depicted as a hero undertaking difficult and dangerous work, the woman is depicted as a mother and wife waiting anxiously at home for the return of her husband, then smoothing the cushions behind his head. Commenting on the size of the fire he says: ‘Yes, my dear, it was a big job’.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia

Production company:
Cinesound Productions
Frank Hurley
Cinesound-Movietone Productions owns all copyright which may subsist in this footage

This clip starts approximately 30 minutes into the documentary.

Fire fighters tackle a blaze at a paper mill until the fire is brought under control. They pull out their hoses and head back to base in their engines.

A mother and son stand in the living room.
Son Mummy, they’re coming. 
Fire siren sounds. Wife and son look out the window.
Wife Look, there’s Daddy. There’s Daddy! He’s safe. 
Fire siren sounds. 
The firefighter enters the house and sits down with his wife and son.
Tomlinson Hi, laddy. 
Son Dad. 
Wife Was it a big fire? 
Tomlinson Yes, my dear, it was a big job. 
Wife Anyone hurt? 
Tomlinson Everybody alright now.