A Nation is Built: Sydney

A Nation is Built: Sydney
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A beautifully photographed montage of Sydney’s architecture, streets, people and modes of transport that is rapidly edited to orchestrated music. Summary by Poppy de Souza.

This clip shows the only extended sequence of the documentary that is without commentary, letting the images speak for themselves. The projection of a modern city in this sequence focuses on the buildings, the transportation, and the bustling crowds which all intersect with each other in a clash of chiaroscuro. These images of Sydney’s architecture, shot from various artistic angles and bathed in degrees of light and shade, also highlight Frank Hurley’s talent as a photographer. His discerning eye can be seen throughout this documentary which lends an authenticity and sense of monument to the film. Hurley was perhaps best known for his work as the official photographer for Douglas Mawson’s 1911 Australasian Antarctic Expedition (see Home of the Blizzard on this site). See also the documentary Frank Hurley: The Man Who Made History.

Note also in this clip that trams can be seen running up and down the streets. The last of Sydney’s trams ceased operation in 1961, and this clip is a valuable visual record of the cityscape before the tramlines were completely removed.


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 Sydney in 1938, using a montage of images to represent it as a bustling, vibrant city, including shots of the central business district with its mix of colonial and modern architecture, and art deco buildings such as the City Mutual Life Building. Included are glimpses of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Harbour, ferries, the rail network, streets busy with pedestrians, trams and cars, and a policeman directing traffic. The clip also shows shots of statues, including the Archibald Fountain in Hyde Park, as well as buildings under construction. The clip is accompanied by lively music.

Educational value points

  • The clip comes from A Nation is Built, a film sponsored by the New South Wales Government and made to celebrate Australia’s sesquicentenary (150 years of European settlement). The focus on new buildings, harbour traffic, established rail network, electric tramway and busy city centre was designed to showcase Sydney to a local and possibly international audience. The purpose of the film was to emphasise the positive aspects of the city so scenes of disrepair or depressed areas of the city are not included.
  • In the 1930s about 1 million people lived in Sydney, just under half of the population of NSW, and the city had become a centre of commerce and industry. Sydney ranked among the 15 largest cities in the world, and was second to London as the largest ‘white city’ in the British Empire, reflecting the largely Anglo-Celtic composition of the Australian population in this period. Indigenous Australians are not represented in this footage.
  • 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 clip emphasises both the modernity of the city and the grandeur of its past. Individual buildings are shot from below to make them appear imposing, while the montage of images, rapid edits and a triumphant orchestral score accentuate the impression of material progress.
  • Cinematographer Frank Hurley uses the camera in this clip to pan up and across building facades and this, combined with a contrasting use of shadow and light, serves to highlight the vertically oriented designs and geometric decorative elements such as chevrons and zigzags of the modern Art Deco architecture, and the imposing columns and turrets of Victorian buildings such as the General Post Office and the first Savings Bank.
  • The economic boom of the 1920s was matched by a construction boom in Sydney’s city precinct, however the Great Depression saw building activity almost cease. It was not until the late 1930s, when this clip was filmed, that the building industry began to recover, signalling a return to prosperity. The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 saw the diversion of resources to the war effort and a temporary stop to this building resurgence.
  • At the time the clip was filmed Sydney’s transport system included a rail, tram and ferry network which, together with the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, enabled the expansion of Sydney by providing a vital link between home and work for the increasing number of people living in the suburbs. Public transport was particularly important because car ownership, while rising, was not as widespread as it is today. By 1933 Sydney’s tram network was the largest in Australia, covering 290 km.
  • In the 1930s, as this clip shows, it was customary for both men and women to wear a hat in public, with women wearing white gloves and hats on formal or semi-formal occasions. People dressed up to go to work or visit the city, with men in single- or double-breasted suits with wide shoulders, and women wearing knee- or calf-length dresses, with padded shoulders or puffed sleeves, a semi-fitted, natural waist and a straight but slightly flared skirt. Women favoured shoes with a rounded toe and wide, thick heels.
  • In the 1930s, as this clip demonstrates, policemen still directed traffic at busy intersections, a job known as point duty. The introduction of traffic lights began in Sydney in this period in response to an increase in traffic, particularly in the central city area, with the first set of traffic lights installed at the intersection of Kent and Market streets in 1933. The uniform worn by police in this clip consists of a button-up wool tunic and trousers and white gloves. A white pith helmet was worn in summer in place of a peaked cap.
  • The clip shows a number of statues and monuments in Sydney’s parks, including the Archibald Fountain in Hyde Park. This depicts Apollo surrounded by other figures from Greek mythology including Diana, the goddess of purity, and Theseus slaying a minotaur. J F Archibald, founder of the Bulletin magazine and the Archibald Portrait Prize, bequeathed the fountain to the people of Sydney, to honour the strong ties between Australia and France during the First World War. It was was unveiled in 1932.

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 13 minutes into the documentary.

A train is crossing the Sydney Harbour Bridge. A ship sails underneath the bridge. Cars drive down the city streets. Sydneysiders walk the footpaths as trams whiz by. A policeman waves traffic through an intersection. We see views of some of Sydney’s architecture, public sculptures and fountains. A new building is under construction. Ships sail through Sydney Harbour.