King of the Coral Sea (1954)
Ted King (Chips Rafferty), a pearler on Thursday Island in the Torres Strait, finds a body floating in the water. Ted and his offsider, Jack Janiero (Rod Taylor), discover that head diver Yusep (Lloyd Berrell) and town drunk Grundy (Reg Lye) are involved in a people smuggling operation. Peter Merriman (Charles Tingwell), a big city playboy and owner of Ted’s company, arrives on the island. When Ted’s daughter Rusty (Ilma Adey) is kidnapped by the smugglers, Ted and Merriman join forces to rescue her.
A respectable action-adventure, King of the Coral Sea was one of only two narrative features made in Australia in 1954, and the second collaboration of producer-director Lee Robinson and actor-producer Chips Rafferty. A documentary maker with the film division of the Department of the Interior, Robinson won praise for Namatjira the Painter (1947) – a study of Indigenous Australian artist Albert Namatjira – and The Pearlers (1949), a look at the pearling industry which surely had some influence on the plot and setting of King of the Coral Sea. Rafferty was Australia’s leading outdoors actor, with roles in The Overlanders (1946) and Bitter Springs (1950).
Robinson and Rafferty joined forces after both were refused permission to raise money for large-scale projects. At the time filmmaking was considered a non-essential industry and investments (which effectively meant film budgets) of over £10,000 were prohibited. Forming a private company (Platypus Productions, which evolved into Southern International), the team first made The Phantom Stockman (1953), a highly successful outback western released in the US as Return of the Plainsman.
Staying under the £10,000 limit, Robinson and Rafferty looked to Thursday Island as a location for their next production. Located in the Torres Strait between Australia and Papua New Guinea and bordering the Coral Sea, Thursday Island (traditional name: Waibene) had only featured in one previous Australian film, Ken G Hall’s Lovers and Luggers in 1937. Seen in small roles and featured in a terrific dance sequence (see clip two) are the Kaurareg tribe of Thursday Island (an Indigenous people distinctly separate from mainland Aboriginal people).
With excellent photography by legendary commercials and feature cameraman Ross Wood, King of the Coral Sea is perhaps best remembered today as the debut of Rod Taylor. Rugged and handsome as Ted’s offsider, Jack Janiero, Taylor was quickly spotted by Hollywood where he landed a support role in Giant (1956) and the lead in sci-fi favourite The Time Machine (1960). Interesting to note is that Taylor speaks with a mild American accent and is referred to by Ted at one point as ‘the Yank.’
Although it’s a little hard to accept Chips Rafferty playing the father of fetching tomboy Rusty (Ilma Adey in her only feature role), he’s always great to watch. With his beanpole frame, easy-going manner and laconic sense of humour (see clip one), Rafferty’s screen persona is very much the forerunner of the knockabout Aussie males played most famously by Jack Thompson in the ‘70s and Paul Hogan in the ‘80s.
Also of note is Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell (credited here as Charles Tingwell) as company boss Merriman, whose experience as a navy frogman in the Second World War plays a vital role in the rescue of Rusty. One of the most loved actors in Australian cinema history, Tingwell also enjoyed a successful international career, playing Chief Inspector Craddock to Margaret Rutherford’s immortal Miss Marple in four Agatha Christie movies in the ‘60s.
Despite a mixed response from critics King of the Coral Sea proved popular with local and international audiences. It recouped its budget in overseas sales alone and was released in the US in June 1956. Robinson and Rafferty collaborated on one further feature, Walk Into Paradise (1958), with Robinson going on to his greatest success as co-creator of TV series Skippy (1966–69).
King of the Coral Sea was released in Australian cinemas on 12 August 1954.
Secondary curator’s notesby Liz McNiven
This adventure crime film set on Thursday Island in the Torres Strait describes a time when divers, including many Torres Strait Islanders, wore heavy helmets and corselets to reach the pearl shells at ever greater ocean depths. King of the Coral Sea portrays the perils and camaraderie involved in pearl diving, as depicted in a scene where the lead character’s underwater air hose becomes caught on coral and temporarily cuts off his air supply. The crew band together and rescue the trapped diver, bringing him safely back on board the lugger.
The film uses the majestic beauty of the Torres Strait Islands and its surrounding seascape to great advantage, showcasing landmark sites on and adjacent to Thursday Island. Torres Strait Islander men still perform the mask dance seen in this film. Imagery of the dancers depicted would be of great significance to their descendants, as is the case with many old films with Indigenous content. These films often contain rare images of Indigenous people’s ancestors, their traditional homelands, and aspects of their cultural heritage.
King of the Coral Sea represents the Torres Strait Island men in a dignified if slightly lazy manner and, in reflecting the attitude of the day, as subordinate to the white boss. The cultural diversity represented within the cast reflects the historic, culturally diverse population of Thursday Island during the peak of the pearling industry. Traditionally owned and occupied by Aboriginal peoples, during the pearling boom men travelled from across the globe to work on the luggers based at Thursday Island. Positioned on the edge of civilisation, the film represents Thursday Island as a place of exotic people and wild adventures.
The film stars Chips Rafferty, Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell, Rod Taylor and Ilma Adey and features performances by Frances Chin Soon, Salapata Sagigi, Jack Assam and Charlie Juda. The acknowledgement of non-white actors playing minor roles in the film’s credits marks the beginning of a more inclusive industry.
King of the Coral Sea is a must see for anyone interested in Australian cinema in the 1950s, the pearling industry in the Torres Strait, the early career of Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell, Chips Rafferty or films made in Queensland. Regardless of the reason for watching King of the Coral Sea, I am sure many viewers will be pleasantly surprised.