The popular black-and-white UK-Australian film The Shiralee, starring Peter Finch and directed by Leslie Norman, had its Australian premiere at Scone in New South Wales on 16 August 1957. The production commenced location filming in Coonabarabran, in western NSW, nearly a year earlier, on 18 August 1956.
We recently discovered and digitised a home movie showing behind-the-scenes footage of the film’s production. What is especially exciting about the 8mm footage is that it was filmed in colour, as you can see in the following excerpt:
In the clip above, we see images of western NSW in the 1950s flash by along with everyday street scenes of Bathurst, with its welcome sign encouraging people to visit the Mount Panorama race track. There are some wonderful images of cars from the era before the footage continues to Lithgow and Molong and we arrive on the set of The Shiralee near Coonabarabran.
We see cast and crew setting up equipment on a country road. Director Leslie Norman demonstrates to star Peter Finch how he wants him to carry child actor and co-star Dana Wilson (playing his daughter) on his shoulders for the next scene. They film the scene with the camera crew using a dolly to capture the action and Finch chats to the director between takes.
Norman's direction to Finch about carrying Wilson obviously paid off, as is evident from this short clip from the finished film:
The simple scene shows Finch as Jim Macauley carrying his daughter Buster (Dana Wilson) on his shoulders as they walk along a country road. Macauley is a rough itinerant worker, looking for employment, and he considers the daughter he hardly knows an unwanted responsibility and a burden (his 'shiralee'). Finch conveys this attitude perfectly with his gruff delivery and the offhand way he hoists her off his shoulders and deposits her on the ground, like a sack of potatoes.
Later in the colour home movie (excerpted above), we see the production filming in the town of Binnaway, which was renamed ‘Bungana’ for the movie.
It appears like a typical Australian country town of the 1950s, with shops including a general store, bakery and a pub. You can also spot advertisements for peanut butter and tea in the home movie. We see locals watching the production shooting scenes of Finch and Wilson in town.
The clip below from the finished film shows Finch and Wilson crossing the street from the general store and passing the pub:
The short clip above is only a brief moment from The Shiralee but is of interest because it matches the home movie footage (from approximately 1:12). It is fascinating to compare the silent 8mm colour footage of Finch and Wilson crossing the road, past members of the film crew and interested onlookers, with the final film, shot in crisp black-and-white and with few other people in sight. Finch is able to convey in a few brief snatches of dialogue that his character is softening towards Buster, viewing her as less of a burden, and that they are beginning to bond.
The home movie, which lasts about 15 minutes, was shot by an unknown photographer and is a travelogue following the journey of three men on a road trip heading west from Sydney.
The Shiralee was the fourth of 5 films produced by British Ealing Studios in Australia during the late 1940s and 1950s and was based on the novel by D'Arcy Niland.
After the location filming in Australia, the film's interior studio work was completed in London.
You can learn more about the film's production – and impressive cast – in this introduction by Mr Movies Bill Collins on Bill Collins' Golden Years of Hollywood (Foxtel, 2002):
Bill Collins mentions the 1987 TV mini-series of The Shiralee, starring Bryan Brown and Rebecca Smart. You can watch clips from that production on australianscreen.
One of the best-known Australian film stars at the time, Peter Finch’s career eventually saw him earn 5 British Academy (BAFTA) awards for best actor. He was also the first Australian to win an Academy Award for acting, and the first posthumous Best Actor Oscar winner, for Network (1976).
Finch later observed that of all the films he had starred in, The Shiralee was one of his most enjoyable experiences.
You can see images and posters from the film in the image gallery below: