Actor, filmmaker, propagandist, television star – this week’s home page celebrates the multifaceted career of Charles Chauvel. Fifty years after his death on 11 November 1959, features curator Paul Byrnes pays tribute to Chauvel with a detailed portrait of the man.
Chauvel began his career as an actor (see his Screenography). He initially worked for Australian sports-cum-film star Snowy Baker before filming small roles in several Hollywood silents (Chauvel and Baker appear on the left of the fencing picture, above).
Chauvel’s first films as director, producer and writer were a couple of Australian silents. Of his 1930s talkies, best remembered is In the Wake of the Bounty (1933), in which Chauvel cast Errol Flynn in his first significant role.
The Rats of Tobruk (1944) was one of two features Chauvel directed during the Second World War (following Forty Thousand Horsemen in 1940). While both offer heroic portrayals of Australian soldiers, Tobruk's sombre mood strongly captures the devastating impact of war.
In between his wartime features, Chauvel made four documentary shorts for the Department of Information. Soldiers Without Uniform, Power to Win and A Mountain Goes to Sea (all 1941-43) are accomplished propaganda pieces designed to boost the morale of home-front workers and families. The stirring While There is Still Time is also notable for featuring Peter Finch in an early role as a blinded soldier (see clip two).
Jedda (1955) was a film of firsts. Arguably the first Australian feature to star Indigenous actors in sympathetic and nuanced lead roles, it was also the first colour feature made by an Australian company and first Australian feature to compete at the Cannes film festival (alongside work by Carol Reed, Elia Kazan, Jules Dassin and Vittoria de Sica). You can read more about Jedda on the NFSA Collection Spotlights page.
Jedda was Chauvel’s last feature, but not his final work. With lifelong partner and collaborator, Elsa, he made a landmark 13-part TV series for the BBC in 1958, first screened here in 1959. Australian Walkabout follows the Chauvels’ cross-country journey from Sydney to Darwin (a map of their route appears on the Extras page, taken from the book they wrote about their adventures).
According to Paul Byrnes, Chauvel is the first Australian filmmaker who can justly lay claim to the title of 'auteur’. We are lucky that so much of his output survives as a testament to his achievements.