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The Great Ealing Film Challenge 54: The Overlanders (1946)

Unlike' Cowboys and Indians narrative, this tells of a massive cattle drive across wartime Australia.

The first of Ealing's Australian adventures, this shares similarities with the later Tommy Trinder-starring Bitter Springs in its use of wilderness and landscape, and the joy with which Harry Watt embraces the visual iconography of the Western (or particular aspects of it at least). Unlike Bitter Springs' Cowboys and Indians narrative, this tells of a massive cattle drive across wartime Australia.

Even though it was released post-war, this is another Ealing film infused with propaganda intentions (Harry Watt was sent to Australia to enhance Australian propaganda, largely in documentary projects, but also keeping an eye out for stories Ealing would invest in): the coming together of a disparate group to take a massive herd of cattle "over land" rather than kill them in the Northern territories (which in 1942 feared an imminent Japanese invasion), and the trials they face. Early on, the emphasis is on this propaganda mission - the repetition that 'bullocks are more important than bullets' - but that shifts to the characters as they head further and further into the wilderness, although propaganda naturally returns in the film's closing minutes (as we see more images of Australia pulling together to accomplish the mass migration of cattle).

The group is led by Dan McAlpine (Chips Rafferty), who enlists Scottish sailor 'Sinbad' (Peter Pagan), comic relief Corky (John Fernside), and the Parsons family: father Bill (John Nugent Hayward), his mother Mrs P (Jean Blue), and his daughters Mary (Daphne Campbell), and Helen (Helen Grieve). There are also two aborigine helpers, Jackie (Clyde Combo) and Nipper (Henry Murdoch), but they are rarely developed, simply background characters. In one sense, this isn't a world away from Bitter Springs - Rafferty plays the solid working class Dan much as he did Wally King in Bitter Springs, barking orders and punching his way through the wilderness; there's the romantic Scotsman who makes a pass at the headstrong and tomboy-ish Mary (who proves tougher than most of the men); and comic relief in the form of Corky - the sequence where he manipulates the group into heading for Anthony's Lagoon is solid and enjoyable writing, well matched by Fernside's performance.

Visually and aurally, this never feels like Watt's first rodeo - while his first film Nine Men (1943) also featured similar Western traits (the isolated building, a small bunch of men repelling a larger force of 'others', saved by a cavalry of sorts), here he jumps straight into the wide open landscapes, hard-worn men on horseback, dust-wreathed prairies, and herd of cattle as though born to it. The film lives and dies by its location shooting and situations - the epic landscapes which dwarf the figures within it, the small dramas of crossing a crocodile-infested river, catching wild horses or night time stampedes - and the reality of this work remains impressive sixty-five years later, when thundering cattle would be CGI-d in, not rounded up and made to crash through rivers until they got the perfect shot.

Of course, there is an imperial / colonial taste about it, but to a lesser extent than Bitter Springs. The white man remains in control - Rafferty has an omnipresent voiceover throughout, adding to a series of documentary-style montages and explanatory sequences (how to catch wild horses, how to force cattle over a rocky path, building out from Watt's earlier drama-documentary experience in the GPO unit) - and the aboriginal cast are largely set dressing, but the focus on the group dynamic does reduce some of the more overt colonial implications (despite this being a British film about Australian interests and ideas, which is imperialist in its own unique way). Australians, and Australian interests, remain at the heart of this: Dan dismisses Corky's scheme to exploit the Northern Territories for minerals, saying the land should be left 'to ordinary Australians.' However, those are settlers like Bill, not the aborigines, and this is 'a national job' (which assumes a large friendly government to implement it), not something to be left to shyster businessmen like Corky (or, arguably, the other foreigner, Sinbad, who is invalided out of the narrative after being trampled in a stampede).

At the end of the film, having survived multiple stampedes, hardships, crocodile attacks and injury, Dan and his team bring their cattle home. And, like all great westerns, our heroes (bar the recovered Sinbad) aren't city people, and return to the wilderness. There is no great reward, no fame, not even romance (Sinbad and Mary are parted): simply a return to the wilderness to continue the work.

Next time, from the Australian outback to the capital's docks in Pool of London (1951)...