The making of “Captain Thunderbolt”
Australia Makes Debut In T.V. Films
Australia will get television-“this year, next year, some time, never . . .” We know tenders for television equipment have been considered and we know Sydney’s first television station will be at Gore Hill, near St. Leonards – and that is all we do know.
Yet Australia, despite her lag compared with Britain and America, is making a good start in a connected field: films for television. Our first feature, “Captain Thunderbolt,” will soon be finished in Sydney. It is intended for the overseas markets.
This is the story of “Captain Thunderbolt.”
By Max Brown
[Photo of local extras in the cast courtesy of James Vickers. GS.]
IF “Captain Thunderbolt,” which presents a real Australian subject, is a success it will give a badly needed boost to Australia’s ailing film industry.
Success would pave the way for the production of at least four television films a year in Australia.
There is a David and Goliath flavour about the story of the making of “Captain Thunderbolt.” For this is a time when the experienced film studios of Britain, Europe and Australia are reeling from the competition of the monster companies of Hollywood, and those, same Hollywood companies are at a loss for means of dealing with the television threat.
Yet now a small Australian company, a newcomer to films is tackling the new field of pictures for television.
The company is Associated T.V. Pty Ltd., and the brain behind it is C. G. Scrimgeour, former Director of Commercial Broadcasting in New Zealand, mention of whose name still precipitates arguments in New Zealand homes, although “Uncle Scrim” himself has been living in Sydney since the war’s end.
He decided to make a television film on the N.S.W. bushranger Thunderbolt because the subject had a genuine historic interest and because he was handed a script well-suited to the requirements of the American market he had studied so closely in recent trips to the United States.
The film “Captain Thunderbolt” is intended for normal screening in theatres; but a “cut” version will go abroad for television.
I SPENT three weeks with the Captain Thunderbolt Production Unit in real Thunderbolt country 200 miles south of the Queensland border this month and have seen the unit at work in Sydney.
The shooting of “Captain Thunderbolt” – the film, not the man – had the quiet, cultured New England town of Armidale in a buzz for a fortnight.
A notice offering £500 reward for capture dead or alive of the outlaw was posted on a board outside the town’s erstwhile police station. Horsemen flourishing guns thundered up and down the dirt roads outside the town almost every day chasing mailcoaches and buckboards.
The Armidale Court House was turned inside out over one week-end for the trial of the outlaw for horse-stealing, and half the University College faculty, including the vice warden, Dr. James Belshaw, filed into the jury box in period dress.
Armidale folk, riding comfortably on the sheep’s back in shadow of the high stone factories of learning which dominate the town (Armidale is the only town in the State with more schools than hotels) were debating again whether the police shot Thunderbolt or his accomplice.
Several approached bearded, frock-coated members of the cast in pubs and in the street and told them that Thunderbolt, for all his law-breaking, was a saint compared with a lot of men in Sydney and Canberra nowadays.
[Photographs in the original newspaper article.]
RIGHT: Thunderbolt (Grant Taylor) and Joan Blake (Rosemary Miller), before Thunderbolt is sent to Cockatoo Island Prison.
BELOW: A British television newsreel, as it reaches the viewing screen.
NEW ENGLAND is impregnated with Thunderbolt lore. His saddle is in the Armidale Museum. The original entry of his death is in the Court Register.
Numerous landmarks, caves and lookouts over a wide area are associated with his exploits. For many years local residents and visitors believed he was alive and left letters addressed to him in a box on his grave at Uralla Cemetery. Many local people are descended from pioneers who were helped or hindered by the bushranger.
Almost everyone from Glen Innes in the north to Singleton in the south can tell you some myth that has grown up around the bushranger and most of them are agreed on one thing that Thunderbolt killed no one and was a good deal more particular in his methods than Schoolboys watch director Cecil Holmes setting-up a shot near the bowling green at Uralla. Holmes is talking to the actors on the waggon. On the right are cameraman Ross Wood and his assistant Ian Vibart. The waggon was loaned to the company by Mr. Tom Fletcher, owner of Kentucky Station, where Thunderbolt was shot by police in May 1870. many respectable citizens of his day and ours.
THE screenplay “Captain Thunderbolt” tells how Fred Ward (alias Thunderbolt) was sentenced to Cockatoo Island Prison for horse-theft, escaped by swimming Sydney Harbour, and carried out a series of robberies in New England before he finally disappeared during a gun battle with police at a dance in a woolshed.
Unfortunately the requirements of British censorship do not permit the inclusion of the true and highly romantic story of the association between Thunderbolt and the half-caste girl, Mary Ann Bugg.
According to a history of Thunderbolt by the editor of “The Manilla Express,” Mr. A. R. Macleod, Mary Ann Bugg had been educated at a girls’ school in Sydney, but found herself unwanted by both blacks and whites and fell desperately in love with Thunderbolt.
When the outlaw was imprisoned at Cockatoo Island she swam between the north shore and the island on four occasions until she eventually contacted Thunderbolt secretly.
Several nights later Thunderbolt swam to the north shore and freedom, some say with leg irons.
Macleod says the bushranger began his northern exploits in 1864 by holding up the Northern Mail in quick succession at Bendemeer, Muswellbrook and Singleton. He recounts the famous story of how the outlaw bailed-up a German band and had it play for him. He ends his account by telling how Thunderbolt stuck up an inn at Kentucky on May 25, 1870, was shot by police in the ensuing chase, and buried in Uralla Cemetery.
WHATEVER people may say of Thunderbolt now, one thing is certain-he lived in violent times.
A glance through the Armidale Court Death Register of the time shows the following causes of death, typical of the times:
Visitation of God. Suffocation, occasioned by falling out of bed onto his face in a state of helpless intoxication. Spearwound in left side and skull fractured. Found drowned in well. Died whilst thigh was being amputated. Accidentally shot by constable in discharge of duty. Softening of brain. Injury from stone thrown by husband. Head cut off by someone unknown.
Each bald statement covers a story that would make headlines in any newspaper to-day. Other causes in the book are too terrible to print.
“Captain Thunderbolt” has some well-known screen and radio actors in its cast.
Grant Taylor made a name for himself as an actor of virile roles in “Forty Thousand Horsemen” before the war. Petite Rosemary Miller, who recently played the lead in “Dark of the Moon” in Sydney, is his boyhood sweetheart.
Rosemary is pretty in real life, but rushes show her beautiful on the screen.
Loretta Boutmy, former blues singer with Les Welch’s band in Sydney, has her first screen part as the half-caste girl.
Charles Tingwell came straight from the “Kangaroo” unit in South Australia to play the part of Blake, Thunderbolt’s lieutenant. Sydney stage and radio actor John Unicomb, American actor Harp McGuire, and John Fegan, play the police troopers who run the bushrangers to earth.
Jean Blue of “The Overlanders” and “Bitter Springs” is the outlaw’s mother.
THE location team for “Captain Thunderbolt” worked enthusiastically and with the minimum of fuss.
The hub of the activity in Armidale was the Imperial Hotel where the unit lived. A typical shooting day began with a call at 7 a.m., and there was the brief scurrying around corridors in dressing gowns, uniforms, bush dress or bustles before bacon and eggs at 7.30.
By the time the more usual run of hotel guests had come down for breakfast, trucks with gear and cars with technicians and cast were on their way to one or other location beyond the town for the day’s work.
Most days, of course, were of the usual sort experienced in film-making exacting, patient work with many rehearsals and the camera crew trying to outwit the clouds.
Two days had special interest including one in which Thunderbolt held up a coach and robbed Miss Kathleen Drummond, daughter of the Federal member for New England. Mr. Drummond, M.P., had loaned Grant Taylor his own horse for the hold-up.
The coach, a four-in-hand drag owned by Mr. Geoff Forster of Abbington property, was built in London in 1870 and actually served on the New England coach-routes soon after Thunderbolt had been loose. Mr. Forster, dressed as Thunderbolt, drove it in the “Back to Armidale” celebrations four years ago.
“CAPTAIN THUNDERBOLT” is now about half-way through filming. Many shots have to be made yet in and around Sydney. The woolshed dance will take place in a Pyrmont woolstore, a pub scene will be shot in The Hero of Waterloo at Millers Point, Grant Taylor will break stones in a quarry near Oxford Falls and hide from police in a cave in National Park.
When the film is finally finished shooting about one month from now it will then pass into the hands of the cutter and editor.
The amazing thing is that the film will cost £15,000 – about one sixtieth of the amount the “Kangaroo” unit from Hollywood is spending on a film of a somewhat greater length.
There are incalculable factors in any artistic production; and the attitude of members of the Thunderbolt Production Unit is that, if Australia can turn out a Bradman or a Bromwich, there’s no reason why it can’t make good films.
[Photo of local extras in the cast courtesy of Jim V.]