Darwin time capsule

Darwin time capsule

Darwin time capsule
 Adam Blackshaw

Please note: This blog may contain the names, images and voices of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Darwin, The Friendly City, 1963. NFSA title 307411 (screenshot)

Darwin is the most northerly of Australia’s capital cities. With its tropical climate, it is prone to cyclone activity during the wet season and home to some of Australia’s more dangerous wildlife. The city has also played an important role in Australia’s aviation and military history.

There are many film and sound titles relating to the city of Darwin in the NFSA collection. This sample of items, dating from the 1920s to 2000s, highlights the people of Darwin and some of the major events in the history of the city.

If you have any information about the people or places in these films, we would love to read your comments.





Darwin has a rich aviation history and the establishment of the airline Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Ltd, which was to become Qantas Australia, is closely tied to the region. This footage features Qantas pilot RB Tapp on a stopover in Darwin and the Darwin Cenotaph, erected outside Government House to commemorate those who had served in the First World War.



Darwin in the mid-1920s showing the laid-back lifestyle often associated with living in the tropics.




This 1930 silent film features legendary aviator, Charles Kingsford Smith (1897-1935), arriving at the Darwin Aerodrome in his British-made Avro Avian biplane, the Southern Cross Junior. Kingsford Smith succeeded in breaking the record for a solo flight from England to Darwin in October that year. He accomplished this within ten days, beating four competitors who had left England ahead of him.

Additional footage shows aerial views of Darwin and includes buffalo hunting and bush scenes, followed by shots of the city’s streets, pedestrians, pubs, shops and homes.



This footage is from a collection of home movies made by colourful Englishman, Cecil Freer. Station owner, horse breeder, cattle raiser and buffalo hunter; Freer filmed the lifestyle in the Top End. This clips opens with the arrival of a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines fixed-wing plane at Darwin Aerodrome. We then see dramatic scenes of Indigenous Australians spearfishing for crocodiles, women playing netball and the submarine, HMAS Otway, entering Darwin Harbour.



When this was filmed, Darwin’s population had grown to almost 3,000 people. This included a significant Chinese community who originally arrived as indentured labourers in the 1870s. Some of this footage seems to have been sourced from earlier moving image and has had intertitles added, possibly to promote Darwin as a lifestyle or holiday destination.




Victor Tarhanoff’s 16mm amateur footage is the earliest surviving colour images of Darwin. His beautiful films offer a unique insight into Darwin life before and after the Second World War. Music and sound effects have been added from the NFSA collection.



While the Second World War had commenced in late 1939, in 1940 Darwin was yet to feel the full implications. This excerpt from Through the Centre is part of a larger documentary sponsored by the Shell Company about an expedition sent to map a tourist route from Perth through northern Western Australia via Broome and the Kimberleys to Darwin and then south through Central Australia to Adelaide.



By the 1940s Darwin was still a small town but its location was important militarily. On 19 February 1942, 242 Japanese aircraft attacked Darwin’s airfields and harbour in an attempt to prevent the Allies from using them as bases to repel the invasion of Timor and Java. The air raids were the first and largest of over 60 attacks on Darwin during 1942–43.



This footage presents Darwin in 1949, still recovering from Japanese attack during the Second World War, but showing signs of building activity. The film highlights the general life of the town and also explains plans to make Darwin a model city.


Exterior of the Star Theatre, Darwin (1955)

On 3 January 1955 the Star Picture Theatre became part of Australian film history when it screened the world premiere of Jedda. Directed by Charles Chauvel (1897-1959), Jedda was filmed on location in the Northern Territory and starred Ngarla (Rosie) Kunoth, a Central Australian Indigenous woman, as Jedda, and Robert Tudawali, a Tiwi man from Melville Island, as Marbuck.

Jedda was a film of remarkable firsts: the first locally-produced Australian feature film shot in colour and the first to star Indigenous Australians. It was arguably Chauvel’s best film, but also his last.

The Star Picture Theatre seated around 860 patrons and was central to Darwin’s social life. The theatre was divided into three sections with different pricing levels: the upstairs balcony was mostly reserved for whites – public servants and local business figures. Beneath the balcony, working-class white people and Indigenous Australians who could afford the more expensive tickets sat on canvas-backed chairs. Most Indigenous Australians sat on the cement floor near the front of the screen, with no roof cover.


A snapshot from 1963 of all that Darwin has to offer including pubs, schools, sport, churches and wildlife. The emphasis is on a relaxed, tropical lifestyle at the Top End.


In the early hours of 25 December 1974, Darwin was virtually destroyed by Cyclone Tracy. The city became the site of possibly the greatest natural disaster in Australia’s history, causing the death’s of 71 people, destroying more than 70 per cent of Darwin’s buildings, including 80 per cent of houses. Three-quarters of the city’s 43,000-strong population were evacuated. This footage is of genuine human drama in the face of great adversity.




In 1988 Australia celebrated 200 years since the arrival of the First Fleet of British convict ships at Sydney in 1788. The Australian Bicentennial Authority was created to plan, fund and coordinate projects that emphasised the nation’s cultural heritage. Darwin High School received funding to research the history of Channel Island in Darwin Harbour.



This SAS 7 news item from 1989 devotes almost four minutes to the danger of Chironex fleckeri, commonly known as the box jellyfish or stinger. It starts sensationally by contrasting inviting images of the beach and swimmers with a voice-over that warns of the world’s ‘most venomous marine animal’ that can ‘kill humans within minutes’. The use of haunting music and referring to the jellyfish as living in a ‘mysterious world’ implies the animal almost has supernatural powers. Fortunately this news item also proves to be highly informative about the risks surrounding the box jellyfish and the steps the Northern Territory Health Department are taking to raise public awareness. On another level, this item is a tribute to Australian’s continuing fascination, and almost cultural pride, in hosting some of the world’s most deadly fauna.




Australians for a Free East Timor (AFFET) was established in Darwin in late November 1991. This raw footage, taken by Andrew McNaughtan (1954-2003), shows demonstrators outside the Indonesian Consulate in Darwin calling for independence for East Timor.



Saltwater crocodiles, or ‘salties’, are the largest and most aggressive of all crocodile species. Fully grown they can live for up to 70 years, average four to five metres in length and weigh up to 500 kilograms. As with the box jellyfish, crocodiles are a dangerous reality in the Darwin region, particularly if they take up residence in popular swimming spots, as this ATV 10 news item explains.

Paul Hogan in Crocodile Dundee, 1986. NFSA title 482165

In 1977 Rod Ansell (1954–1999) found himself stranded in remote country west of Darwin. The story of his survival for 56 days with limited supplies became news headlines around the world. In 1979, filmmaker Richard Oxenburgh asked Ansell to relive his adventures in the documentary To Fight the Wild, which the following year was published as a book. In 1981, Ansell was invited to Sydney where he was interviewed by English journalist Michael Parkinson for his television program, Parkinson. Inspired by Ansell’s story, Australian comedian and actor Paul Hogan co-wrote and starred as Mick Dundee in the feature film, Crocodile Dundee (Peter Faiman, 1986), Australia’s most successful feature film.

Rod Ansell’s life, however, ended in tragic circumstances. A series of criminal convictions, failed business ventures and drug abuse led to a deadly confrontation with police on 3 August 1999, less than 60 kilometres south of Darwin on the Stuart Highway. Ansell ambushed Sergeant Glen Anthony Huitson and his partner, Constable James O’Brien. Ansell shot and killed Huitson and was himself killed by O’Brien.




The feature film Australia (2008), directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman, is an epic historical romantic drama set between 1939 and 1942 against a dramatised backdrop of events across northern Australia. The bombing of Darwin by the Japanese on 19 February 1942 is one of the climactic moments of the film. Australia was filmed in a number of locations including Darwin and the Queensland town of Bowen, which was made to look like Darwin.