Fire Guardians: Firefighting through the ages

Fire Guardians: Firefighting through the ages
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This dramatised sequence depicts developments in firefighting techniques through the ages. It begins in Alexandria in 250 BC(Before Christ) with Ctesibus who invented the first practical pump. The following scenes depict such later firefighting innovations as the air vessel added to the pump by Hero in 230 BC; the use of bladders filled with water in 1 AD(Anno Domini); buckets in 1300 AD; and the piston engine in 1590 AD. Summary by Poppy de Souza.

It is a curious choice to illustrate developments in firefighting by dressing members of the NSW Fire Brigade in period costume (including pseudo-Egyptian attire) – but somehow unsurprising given that Hurley had such dramatic flair (see the yodelling hikers in clip one of Treasures of Katoomba, 1936). The whole sequence continues for another three minutes and depicts firefighters in the Great Fire of London, the use of manual fire pumps, the invention of flexible hose, steam fire engines and, finally, contemporary methods of firefighting. Later in the film, the members of the brigade (some still dressed in costume) strike up the band in an unexpected musical sequence!


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

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