To celebrate our 75th birthday, we’re presenting exceptional works from Meanjin’s past that have defined and challenged Australian literary culture. Kangaroo was an American Ozploitation film that premiered in 1952.
The most striking thing about the film Kangaroo was the publicity. Before it was seen in this country New Yorkers had been urged along to the Roxy by advertisements that could have been announcing the arrival of the Ringling Brothers or Barnum and Bailey. ‘SEE WILD ABORIGINES OF AUSTRALIA DANCE BLOOD-CURDLING CORROBOREE. SEE ANIMALS EXTINCT EVERYWHERE ELSE FOR 60,000,000 YEARS. SEE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT.’ London publicity added: ‘SEE MAN BATTLE BEAST ACROSS WALL OF FIRE FOR LAST WELL OF WATER,’ and gave a special mention to our bull-ants. Australian officials in London gave the film a boost by denouncing it as bad for immigration. And heaven knows how many kangaroos were hopping around in the United States breathing out their lives in the cause of entertainment.
When Kangaroo finally arrived here and, in another publicity fillip, was given a Red Cross preview in five states, even those whose interest is normally confined to a visit to the cinema for Academy Award winners and Royal Command performance films must have gathered that something was afoot. Then the treasure was revealed. Fortunately, at the preview, an excellent Walt Disney short called Nature’s Half Acre was shown in support or many who had been enticed from more cultural halls by the splendor of the occasion might have gone home wondering if the displacement of film by television would be a calamity after all. For the simple truth—and a phrase like that can be used about a film like Kangaroo—is that the first colour feature film made in Australia is not even ‘good enough’. My love for film prevents me from touching intimately on the anatomy of this one. We know there were many revisions and deletions before the studio agreed to set its seal upon it. Who then was responsible for the windmill incident, which was not only improbable (all the station hands stand around while the two new chums risk their lives) but technically amateurish? Surely director Lewis Milestone would not have wanted it included. Some people have detected a moral retreat in his work (All Quiet on the Western Front and A Walk In The Sun to the cold-war threat of Halls Of Montezuma) but his skill as a director has shown no decline. Who is to blame for the scene where the aborigines, supposedly desperate with thirst but actually looking as if they had just stepped out of a 20th Century Fox dressing room, wait for permission from the station owner before drinking the bore water?
It is the story, however, which contributes the major farce. John Ford might have made a masterpiece of it. Milestone would have made a fist of it. Instead he got (in a screenplay adapted by Harry Kleiner from a story by Martin Berkeley about which I have been able to find out nothing) an episodic melodrama which deals in flabby values and petty predicaments. The effect is destructive. Looking at a Russell Drysdale and listening at the same time to a run of unconsecutive episodes from ‘The Lawsons’ could not be more so. The cast, not strong on paper, is powerless. I think it is fair to say that, except for the colour camera-work, Kangaroo is no better than the usual B grade Western that turns up regularly in support of main features at certain city cinemas. With the photography, it is no better than the average colour Western that turns up regularly as a main feature.
What did we expect? Well, those of us who were prepared for com at least expected it in the glossy export package. Some expected respect for their feelings. They see in the film, too negative to be insulting, a lack of respect. Harry Watt, they say, managed something of an epic with The Overlanders. Flaherty went to other countries, admired, observed and, with loving care, made great films. Carol Reed, a man with a less kindly view of humanity, went to Ceylon for The Outcast Of The Islands and made a careful detailed study of the people. Why did Milestone, a talented director, come so near to the physical heart of Australia and not capture so much as a beat? Was there no sympathy, only a determination to exploit the cinematic potentialities for box-office purposes? Was the film not even worth a presentable story?
This leads us to the lesson of Kangaroo. It emphasises the need for Australians to make their own films. It becomes harder to stand by with our immobilised film units while foreign studios misuse our resources. The position is quite ridiculous. Mexico has a film industry. Before the war Japan made nearly as many feature films as America, and in 1950, for example, was still able to make 172. India makes either more or as many feature films now as Hollywood. Yet in Melbourne in the last twelve months only three of the 250-odd new feature films shown were made in Australia (Kangaroo Kid, Wherever She Goes and Kangaroo) and not one of them was made by an Australian studio. Australians like films. In 1950, there were 163,000,000 payments of entertainment tax in this country. Over 129,000,000 (or about 80 per cent) were cinema payments. This is the only country in the world where such an established film-going habit co-exists with such negligible local production.
There is a more subtle lesson in Kangaroo. It shows that money is not everything. Certainly those who would like to see more Australian films would support the lifting of restrictions on raising local capital for new productions. Film workers like to eat. But also they like to make films. Perhaps what is required here is not so much a rejuvenated industry as a renaissance of spirit. We watched with amazement the revival in post-war Italy. It was not the result of financial investment. The industry, artistically dead as a doornail under Fascism, had plenty of money. What the new Italian film-makers did have was enthusiasm, courage and an appreciation of film. This is not meant as a criticism of Australians. Our documentaries have shown these qualities and, as an onlooker, I would hesitate to belittle the technical problems connected with the production of feature films in this country. We do, however, need our own films, and imports like Kangaroo are a reminder of just how badly.
Meanjin Volume 11 Issue 4 1952
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