The Queen In Australia (1954)
The first feature documentary made in colour in Australia, documenting the very first visit of a reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, in 1954.
The film was shot by a total of 16 cameramen, capturing her visits to each state capital and many regional areas over her two-month official visit. Major sequences include the arrival of the Royal Navy ship SS Gothic in Sydney Harbour, the Queen opening the 20th Australian Parliament in Canberra, attending a cricket Test in Adelaide, horse races at Royal Randwick and Flemington, tennis at Kooyong in Melbourne, and major exhibitions by schoolchildren in several cities.
The result is a remarkable and revealing insight into our nation in the 1950s.
The Queen in Australia was an important film in its time, and it remains an impressive and historic production. It was the first colour feature film made in Australia (predating Charles Chauvel’s fiction film Jedda, 1955, by just a few months), and a great deal of prestige rode on its success.
The Australian Government had promised Queen Elizabeth that an official film would be made available soon after her return, so that she could show a record of the visit to her young children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne. The Queen arrived in Australia on 3 February 1954, and the first release prints were expected by the beginning of April. This was a tall order, given that there was no laboratory for colour processing in Australia.
The footage had to be flown to Denham Laboratories in London, and the film was edited in the UK in three cutting rooms, with editors working simultaneously. Three Australian composers wrote music, which was recorded by the Sydney Symphony and sent to London for incorporation. The Australian actor Peter Finch, living in London, did a major share of the voice-over written by prominent Australian writers, TAG Hungerford and George Johnston, with help from the English novelist Laurie Lee.
The aim was to showcase Australia, as well as the royal visit. The idea, expressed by Kevin Murphy, director of the News and Information Bureau, Department of the Interior, was that it should ‘present Australia against a royal background, rather than royalty against an Australian background’. The film was made by the best documentary personnel available in Australia, many of them veterans of newsreel duties in the recent war, although none had real experience shooting colour.
The producer, effectively the director, was Stanley Hawes, an English documentary-maker who been running the newly formed Australian National Film Board since 1946. In many respects, this film was a crowning achievement of his long career in Australia. It was made not simply to impress Australians, and not simply Her Majesty the Queen, but the documentary community in England from which he had come. Hawes was a disciple of John Grierson, father of the modern documentary movement, who believed that documentaries could and should express a national and international purpose – something more than propaganda, in fact.
The film is clearly intended to demonstrate to the British that Australia will still be British, even with the influx of thousands of migrants from non-British sources. To those newly arrived in Australia, and those with traditional ties to Britain, it was both a reassurance and a tool of indoctrination. Migrants were expected to watch and learn, to assimilate, partly through the film’s demonstration of a splendid British heritage. There were, in short, a great many weighty expectations attached to this film project. More than 60 years later, it gives us a powerful window on a country that has changed a great deal, despite the assurances that we would stay the same.