A Nation is Built: Reaping the harvests of history

A Nation is Built: Reaping the harvests of history
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Scenes of wheat harvesting are accompanied by commentary full of metaphors of nation-building based on ‘harvesting the benefits of a great past’. As the commentary builds to a patriotic climax, the music from Pomp and Circumstance is reprised and the wheat fields dissolve into images of young adults walking in concert under the camera’s gaze. A final title card declares ‘thus, a nation is built’. Summary by Poppy de Souza.

This clip cleverly uses image, montage, music and commentary to build a sense of patriotism in the viewer and deliver a persuasive argument about the kernel of Australia’s history and national pride. The commentator says that Australians could not be ‘harvesting the benefits of a great past were it not for the fact that our nation builders were imbued with a sublime patriotism’. This patriotism is firmly cemented in the view that Australia is a proud legacy of the British Empire whose founding fathers planted the seeds of primary industry upon which the nation has been built.

Indigenous history and multicultural influence on national identity are two concepts that were a long way from the national psyche at the time this film was made.


A Nation is Built synopsis

This sprawling and patriotic documentary uses actuality footage, historical re-enactments, fictionalised scenes and propaganda to chronicle Australia’s development and progress as a nation. It was sponsored by the Government of New South Wales and made by Cinesound Productions to celebrate Australia’s sesquicentenary – marking the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first fleet of European settlers.


A Nation is Built curator's notes

A Nation is Built begins with an extended prologue which, through explanatory title cards, contextualises white settlement history from the moment Captain Arthur Phillip landed at Port Jackson. This is done with the patriotic British 'Pomp and Circumstance’ playing in the background which creates the mood of the film (it is also reprised for the closing sequence). The film then moves into a short series of historical re-enactments which serve to provide the colonial context in pictures before detailing a ‘panorama of nationhood’ which focuses on the developments across primary industry in New South Wales, showcasing wool, mining, timber, dairy and wheat as well as the state’s natural resources, landscape and fauna.

This film conveys a patriotic view of Australia’s history by conflating the ideas of nation, land and people. One of the original daybills advertising the film declared it ‘Australia’s own romantic story of a century and a half of national progress and achievement’. This romanticism is helped by the cinematography of Frank Hurley. Hurley was the chief cameraman for Cinesound Productions and by the time this film was made had been working for them for six years. By this time, he had virtual creative rein over Cinesound’s newly created industrial division and his creative mark on this film is pronounced – he shot, scripted, directed and produced it. Hurley spent over six months in production and travelled over 19,000 kilometres throughout New South Wales and shot approximately 20,000 feet of film.

A Nation is Built had its theatrical release in February 1938 at the Prince Edward Theatre in Sydney and was a ‘big hit with local audiences’. To a contemporary viewer, the ideas of nationhood portrayed in this film have been altered by recognition of Indigenous communities, subsequent waves of immigration, increased engagement with the Asia-Pacific, and changes in the geopolitical landscape. It is very much a film of its time.

Notes by Poppy de Souza


Education notes

This black-and-white clip shows wheat being harvested by tractor-drawn machines, while the narrator says that Australians are now ‘reaping the harvests’ of the hard work and foresight of the nation’s pioneers. Images of the wheat harvest are superimposed over footage of William Farrer, played by an actor, talking about Australia’s potential to be a leading wheat-growing nation. In the final sequence music from Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance accompanies footage of gently swaying wheat fields that dissolves into images of children marching. It concludes with an intertitle that reads ‘THUS A NATION IS BUILT’.

Educational value points

  • The scenes included in this clip from A Nation is Built present an overwhelmingly confident commentary, perhaps reflecting that the film was sponsored by the New South Wales Government.and was made to commemorate Australia’s sesquicentenary (150 years of European settlement).Its stridently nationalistic tone was primarily aimed at a domestic audience. The clip uses an idyllic pastoral but industrious scene to characterise Australia as a hardworking nation, whose people toil together to build the future.
  • The clip shows the work of cinematographer and photographer Frank Hurley (1885–1962), who throughout his career documented social and industrial changes occurring in Australia. Hurley was the official photographer on a number of Antarctic expeditions in the early 1900s, as well as during both World Wars. His documentaries about the Antarctic expeditions and two feature films were well received. In the 1930s Hurley was employed by Cinesound to make documentaries for government and private sponsors.
  • The imagery and rhetoric in the clip, which is usually associated with heroic realist art of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes, was intended to unite the audience in a shared national identity and vision. It plays on nationalist sentiments by evoking a mythical past (‘the traditions that made this nation mighty’), but also looks forward, urging viewers to ‘build towards our nation’s mightiness of the morrow’, and concludes with footage of children, who represent the future, marching and walking toward the camera as if to a glorious future.
  • The clip promotes a narrow concept of national identity that, because it is firmly based on a British colonial heritage, deliberately excludes any reference to the Indigenous Australians. The inclusion of the anthemic Pomp and Circumstance, written by English composer Edward Elgar, reinforces this link to Britain, while the marching children, who are of European ancestry, represent a future envisaged as white.
  • In this clip, the characterisation of Australia as bountiful, which is emphasised by images of vast wheat fields, is indicative of attitudes towards the land in Australia in the 1930s. While the country had experienced several droughts since colonisation, many Australians still viewed the land as a limitless resource. However, a budding conservation movement that had its roots in bushwalking clubs had begun to make links between frequent dust storms and land over-use.
  • Although the narrator lauds 'our pioneers’ for planting 'the seeds of industry most suited to our soil and clime’, British farming methods have proved largely unsuited to the Australian environment. Over half the continent is arid or semi-arid and the expansion of farming into the margins of these areas means that when crops fail or vegetation dies during drought, fragile topsoil blows away, eventually causing erosion. This is compounded by over-cropping and over-grazing.
  • Agriculturist William Farrer (1845-1906), who is portrayed in this clip, developed new varieties of wheat that suited harsh Australian conditions, had high yields and were resistant to rust fungus and other diseases. His 'Federation’ wheat, named in 1901, was the most widely grown in Australia from 1910 to 1925. New varieties improved yields and quality in established wheat-growing districts, saw the expansion of wheat into drier or rust-prone areas and led to Australia becoming a world leader in wheat exports.
  • Australian exports of wheat began in 1845 and contributed to the country’s economic growth. Today Australia is ranked among the world’s five major wheat exporters, with $3.4 billion in 2003-04 making wheat one of Australia’s most valuable exports. Wheat is Australia’s largest crop, grown by about 30,000 farmers. This strong export record was helped by the permanent introduction of price-fixing arrangements after the Second World War, as well as the establishment in the late 1930s of the Australian Wheat Board.
  • The narrator’s use of biblical phrases and repeated references to the benevolence of God in providing a bountiful land reveals that in the 1930s Christianity was considered part of national identity. In the 1933 census 86 per cent of Australians identified as Christian. However, by the 2001 census this figure had dropped to 68 per cent, while 4.8 per cent belonged to other religions and 27.2 per cent either stated they had no religion or did not adequately answer the question.

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 45 minutes into the documentary.

The clip opens with a pan across cherry trees and is illustrated by scenes of a tractor and farmers harvesting wheat.
Narrator It is fitting that this panorama of nation building should attain its climax amid the festive scenes of harvesting, for as a man soweth, so shall he reap. So is it with nations. Our pioneers, in their foresight, planted seeds of industries most suited to our soil and clime. Those who came after laboured zealously to propagate and glorify their work. Today we are reaping the harvest of this wisdom and carrying on the traditions that have made the nation mighty. The amazing transformation of a country of wild bushland into a highly productive developed Commonwealth in the brief span of 150 years has no parallel in history, nor could we today be harvesting the benefit for the great past were it not for the fact that our nation-builders were imbued with sublime patriotism so splendidly expressed in the words of Farrer.

The scene changes to William Farrer addressing a young man.
William Farrer It is my objective that Australia will not only take her place among the wheat-growing nations but will lead the world in standards of quality.

Scene changes back to the scenes of the harvest being reaped.
Narrator Nor are our peoples unmindful of the beneficence that has been showered down upon our land by the creator of all things. This lovely scene inspires us with something more than mere admiration. The bounty of the earth impels us to look up to the goodwill that is in the heavens and to say, 'We thank thee.’ Just as those of the past had visions of the greatness of the future, so we, the builders of today, must build towards our nation’s mightiness of the morrow. In harmony and concord, our voices are raised – 'God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.’

Visions of children are overlayed over images of wheat fields. A nation is built.