Between Wars


Editor’s Note: This is a longer version of a specially written piece by film scholar, programmer, archivist and member of the CINEMA REBORN Organising Committee  QUENTIN TURNOUR. The shorter version will appear in the festival catalogue on sale during the festival for $10 or free to subscribers. It focusses on the work of the collaboration between director Michael Thornhill and writer Frank Moorhouse. A program of films which relates to their early work will be screened at CINEMA REBORN on Saturday 5 May at 2.30 pm. It is anticipated that Michael Thornhill and Frank Moorhouse will attend the screening and there will be a post-screening Q&A moderated by Mark Pierce

Really? Really. Late next year, December 2019 will mark the 50th anniversary of then Prime Minister John Gorton’s acceptance of the Australia Council’s recommendations for funding of the Australian film industry. It’s a clear indicator that the Australian cinema renaissance is well and truly film history. That its nationalist terms and conditionality is largely outmoded, its then bright young makers—for example, its under-honoured, but key creative producer/director/administrator force, Gil Brealey—are now increasingly leaving us, and that it is another country to anything but late middle-age Australian cinephiles. Time also for a rethink about its canon and canonicality.

For some of these reasons Cinema Reborn chooses in its first edition to present director Mike Thornhill and writer Frank Moorhouse’s Between Wars—one of the sorest cases for re-evaluation amongst the new wave films of the 1970s. We have a few ‘why sos’ for this programming as ‘argument programming’. Here are some:

1. Collaborative Auteurism: A weak creative dynamic in Australian cinema has been writer-director alliances. We’ve many auteur directors. There’s the odd auteur screenwriter, whose credit seems to partially define the work’s themes and dialogue. Yet the sort of Alexander Payne/Jim Taylor, Scorsese/Schrader, Powell/Pressburger, Bunuel/Carrière, Ozu/Noda co-auteurships, although not uncommon in major, ‘classical’ film industries, are uncommon here. Perhaps Cliff Green’s collaborations with producer Pat Lovell in the 1970s, David Williamson with Tim Burstall in the early ‘70s, then with Peter Weir in the early 1980s and Laura Jones’ work with Gillian Armstrong and Jane Campion. Then there is Baz Lurhmann and Craig Pearce or even the now largely forgotten role of actor/writer Frank Harvey in the later and best of Ken G Hall’s Cinesound films.

But these often feel (perhaps Lurhmann/Pearce aside) like temporary alliances at most. By contrast, the work of mostly prose essayist and fiction writer Frank Moorhouse and critic/director/producer Mike Thornhill intrigues because of how clearly strong-willed, separate voices seemed to find an eye-to-eye partnership over two cinema features, a telemovie and three shorts. All were adapted or evolved out of Moorhouse’s fiction. Even the original screenplay for Between Warshas part of its origin in minor characters and scenes from Moorhouse’s stories; whilst the inherent national, institutional and gender discourses of 1983’s The Disappearance of Azara Chamberlainwere close to Moorhouse’s heart, coming out a criminal trial and cause célèbreMoorhouse reported and published on a number of times.

Yet contrast this with the physical and pugnaciousness performances and camera movement in the extemporised party screens in The American Poet’s Visit. Or the freewheeling use of shot-duration and location in Between Wars, where historical milieu and moment are sometimes entirely evolved in camera movement, music and setting, with no or incidental, noises off dialogue. It is director’s filmmaking, not reverent adaptation. And yet still how much of Between Wars (and The Everlasting Secret Family) seems to be both cinematically true to things you find in Thornhill’s own character-busy and sociologically dense cinema (in projects undertaken apart from Moorhouse, for example The FJ Holden (1977)or his Commonwealth Film Unit short Cheryl and Kevin(1973)). Yet also true to what is signature for Moorhouse’s fiction—what Catharine Lumby has pinned down as his “…’discontinuous’ narrative style, (with) characters coming in and out of focus…”, or Alan Lawson has identified as Moorhouse’s “fascination with… social, linguistic, political and organisation structures (their) intriguing effect on codes of social practice” and his read of these codes as forms of “aesthetics and… rituals”.

Thornhill and Moorhouse’s cinema is rare in bringing the separate cinema of a significant filmmaker and the body of literature of a writer together. Both hold their own as practitioners (perhaps Bunuel and Carrières’ partnership most comes to mind as a relevant model). Writer Moorhouse’s scripts seem free to whiteboard ideas about Australian social, political, culture, and gender relationships, current and historic from which the director Thornhill can work films up.

2.The Source Materials:An unexpected consequence of the current spate of VoD Streaming and TV mini-series remakes of milestone 1970s Australian theatrical cinema titles (the new Wake in Fright, Picnic at Hanging Rock and others) is that they are providing cause to reconsider the literary sources of the original film–so often are these remakes being differentiated in their marketing as fresh ‘re-imaginings’ (or whatever) of the original. Doing so somewhat disrupts the broad, received read of Australian cinema as dominated by writer-directors. Instead, we get reminded that the canonical titles of the 1969-79 Australian feature revival were often adapted genre or middle-brow fiction or biography. Indeed, a run through the scripting credits of the familiar, canonical, name-checkable titles from this period shows surprisingly few come through original, screenwriter’s scripts (John Dingwall’s script for Sunday Too Far Away, Bob Ellis et al’s work on Newsfront, Cliff Green’s scripts for producer Patricia Lovell, Everett de Roche’s horror films, David Williamson’s Petersen). Writer/director projects also prove unexpectedly inconsistent; familiar ‘auteur’ names like Peter Weir, Esben Storm, Tom Cowan, Bert Deling, Fred Schepisi and Michael Thornhill begin with one, occasionally two ‘auteur’ films, then go on to sustain their careers by working with others’ materials

Of these original scripts, most—all—are doing what the new Australian cinema got its reputation for: interrogating and subverting 20thcentury Australia national narrative tropes and mytho-poetic examinations of landscape, class, masculinity, suburbia, popular culture, car culture, etc. In that sense, Liz Jacka’s identification (in a March 1988 Filmnews review of the final, much maligned Thornhill/Moorhouse project, The Everlasting Secret Family) of what’s unique about Between Wars, as“…the first and still one of the very few to attempt something like an Australian ‘cinema of ideas’” needs to be said, but is just a bit unfair to its precursors and peers.

 The earlier, immediate post WW2 ‘new wave’ of Australian cinema (the significant local fiction features and docos made in the ten years after 1946’sThe Overlanders) is rich in neo- and social-realist expression and politics, whilst all of the key scripts of the 1970s Australia feature revival are all rich–if only in their sub-texts–in ideas about received and perceived nationalism. Indeed, there are some things that are very consistent between Between Wars and its 1970s peers. Sunday Too Far Away, Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Devil’s Playgroundand Newsfrontare just four 1970s canonical instances that quickly come to mind.  Between Warshas an ethnographic fascination with local codes of obscure, quasi-ritualistic class and professional tribalism, and of passive-aggressive masculinity.

 But I think Jacka gets right the largely unique nature of Between Wars as a fictional drama aboutAustralian intellectual culture. It’s drama of public ideas, “… in its treatment of such ‘avant-garde’ topics as psychoanalysis, female sexuality, rightwing politics and moral ambiguity and cowardice”. And it’s a sort of ‘social opera’ that explores how one of the core conflicts at the heart of 20thcentury Australian nationalism–between tribal collectivism and modernist individualism—was played out in the public discourses and political opinions of one of our elites, the medical profession.

 For a project this busy with ideas, its development and conceptualization were appropriate long, involved, and unusual. Although it now seems part of the paradigmatic ‘AFC Genre’ film, Between Wars was a project funded and released pre-Australian Film Commission, under its predecessor, the Australian Film Development Corporation (perhaps the only true ‘Art Movie’ the AFDC funded amongst its slate of comedies and horror films). It’s no surprise that its origins go back even to an iteration of Australian film funding models even before that; to the late 1960s, when producers Gil Brealey and Richard Mason were making sometimes controversial forays into the development of fiction feature film projects inside an artistically re-awakening but still fairly institutionalised Commonwealth Film Unit.

 Frank Moorhouse’s accounts of Between Wars’ development, one of which you can find in a specially written piece published in the CINEMA REBORN catalogue, and previously in the extensive production dossier published in April 1974’s Cinema Papers, originate the project’s first two drafts as a potential long-form script for the CFU, with perhaps with a TV docu-drama mini-series in mind. This is and well and truly pre-Thornhill’s direct involvement.This origin might give some simplistic explanation for the film’s eventual historical scope and ambition. However, Moorhouse is clear on how quickly new drafts evolved after the CFU pulled back and Thornhill become involved, as an independent producer/director looking for his calling-card first feature project.

 It is therefore a mistake to think that what is so narratively distinct about Between Wars —its radical ellipses and silences, leaps and bounds in character development, its sweeping pans and dollies through whole key moments of Australian social, political and domestic history—is a manic attempt to ram scripting over-abundance into a theatrical 100 minutes. It shouldn’t be construed for what it is: a conscious, intelligent cinematic aesthetic interlocking of style and content. Not the least because, despite using different editors on each of their projects, there is a similar mise-en-scène look and cutting feel shared by all Thornhill/Moorhouse projects—one distinct from Thornhill’s typically less chronologically and ensemble-complex work away from Moorhouse, such as in The FJ Holden, or The Journalist(1979).

 Still, it is true that in Between Wars, Moorhouse was trying to pack-in a lot. That’s all the more reason why Thornhill’s stylistic decisions in covering, blocking out and cutting the historical episodes are so complimentary to Moorhouse’s signature ‘discontinuous’ (screen)writing style. In its big, broad outline of how a whole professional practice, ethical set, and culture radically evolved and delineated itself over two decades, Moorhouse has admitted that in writing early drafts he luxuriated in a comparatively generous, three-month research budget; burrowing deep into the University of Sydney medical library files to trace the publication and professional histories of a number of then forgotten, but clearly ground-breaking and unconventional figures in the development of Australian psychiatry.

At least three probably inform the final character of Trenbow and perhaps some of his colleagues. It just depends on which period in the character’s inter-war professional and domestic life we are visiting—and allowing for Moorhouse’s love of populating his writing with barely fictional historical cameos (for another example in Between Wars, Trenbow’s brief, but historically impossible encounter with American novelist William Faulkner).

Although in real life both were a generation older than Trenbow, John Springthorpe’s (1855-1933) and Eric Sinclair’s (1860-1925) work with returned Australian army PTSD sufferers in UK and Australian Repatriation Hospitals likely inform the film’s first chapter. You can now read Springthrope’s wartime treatment diaries on the State Archive of NSW website. Trenbow’s late 1930s political disenchantment and his attraction to the Australia First movement derive from Moorhouse’s determination to make the character a consistent contrarian, but perhaps also owes something to the late 1930s nationalist (and quasi-eugenicist) politics of Brisbane psychiatrist John Bostock (1892-1987). Arthur Dignam’s role as Trenbow’s colleague Peter Avante seems in some places and times to be a relaxed version of John Kellerman Adey (1887-1959), a key figure in reforming mental asylum care in Victoria in the 1920s, as well as WW1 PTSD victims. In others, it seems modelled on another Melburnian, Paul Dane (1881-1950); perhaps the major proponent of Freudian psycho-analysis in Australian psychiatry.

There’s also a little of Adey and Dane in Corin Redgrave’s Trenbow—but a lot, clearly, of Australian psychiatry’s leading, mid-20thcentury public intellectual, another Melburnian, Reg Ellery (1897-1955). Trenbow’s private and public career seem to have been drawn so deeply from Ellery’s that the real-life psychiatrist’s biographer, Robert M Kaplan, suggests that Ellery’s widow threatened to sue Thornhill. None-the-less, Ellery must have been an irresistibly inspiring, noisy and contradictory public figure for Moorhouse, and comparisons are unavoidable.

Like Trenbow, Ellery was a medical student who only engaged in psychiatry because he was indifferent to every other form of medical practice. Like Trenbow, Ellery first obtained local notoriety for writing ‘lewd’ articles in the university medical student journal (although Ellery’s sins were more for telling undergrad doctor’s jokes, than writing transgressive reforming statements). Like Trenbow, Ellery acquired prominence by being dragged into a Victorian Royal Commission in late 1924 which centered around his mildly reforming conduct as Junior Medical Officer at the Kew Idiot Asylum. Read the Melbourne Argus’s account of Ellery’s testimonyand the Royal Commission’s findingsand you’ll clearly find much of the source material for Royal Commission Moorhouse fictionalises in Between Wars, all the way down to Trenbow’s troubles with the mass extraction of patient’s septic teeth (Moorhouse must have found it hard to resist finding a cameo in the film for Ellery’s real life legal counsel, Robert Menzies).

Also like Trenbow, Ellery found real life professional success, alongside John Adey, in conducting local clinical trials in the then experimental, risky, but genuinely effective malaria treatment for neuro-syphilis; although this work was undertaken in the mid-1925s and after Ellery’s Royal Commission experiences, rather than being embroiled into it. Appropriately, Ellery even himself became a filmmaker in the late 1920s, making a short and fortunately extant clinical research film, Incidents in the Treatment Of Neurosyphilis by Induced Malaria at Mont Park(c.1925) about his neuro-syphilitic treatment work.

And much of the final Trenbow—the wealth, jaded private practice and public celebrity psychiatrist of the early 1940s—is also the Ellery in the late 1930s and ‘40s. True, the real life Ellery never exiled himself into country GP practice after his initial successes. And his politics were the inverse of Trenbow’s; vehemently leftist enough, despite the wealth of his practice and a socialite rather than socialist lifestyle, for Ellery to acquire notoriety as an occasional traveler to Soviet Union in the 1930s and a supporter of Stalin’s psychiatric system (Ellery’s ASIO file is now accessible in the National Archives).

Yet Ellery’s socialism seems to have been driven by the same deep conviction that drives Trenbow to take his intractable, contrarian stand at the end of Between Wars; the primary professional and moral conviction that all wars, even ‘good’ ones, must be opposed as a psyche insult on the human mind. Ellery published frequently for this position during WW2, in part through his connections with the Angry Penguins circle of poets and painters and his long-standing friendship with their patrons, John and Sunday Reed. Robert M Kaplan suggests that even treated a number of that circle, possibly including painters Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker (Nolan’s 1943 painting, Head of a Solder, appeared on the cover of Ellery’s 1945 book Psychiatric Aspects of Modern Warfare); and it’s possible that Ellery’s opinions informed some of that group’s (in retrospect) surprising moral ambivalence toan ‘anti-fascist’ war you’d assume was consistent with their politics.

Moorhouse and Thornhill chooses to express this same idea–Between Wars’ brilliantly positioned, isolated single moment of profound, ethical conviction amongst its widescreen of Australian cynicism and amorality–by driving its psychiatrist protagonist to an opposite, even apostate political conclusion. Embodying individual courage in a gesture so certain to be badly judged by history, in the setting of a 1970s Australian historical drama, is just one of many risks that Moorhouse and Thornhill were taking with ‘AFC Genre’ conventions, even before those conventions were fully in place.

3.It’s the body of work needing restoration:No matter how much I might argue that the Moorhouse/Thornhill collaboration is a subject for further research, further research is currently not possible. Moorhouse’s part–his extensive correspondence research and scripts for each project–can be examined in his open papers at the University of Queensland. But the end result cannot.  There have been of course multiple theatrical trailers, ebay resales of cropped, standard definition VHS and DVD releases, or stray copies uploaded to Daily Motion. Their (pre-Evil Angels, by five years) TV movie, The Disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain(1983) is preserved and can be watched at the National Film and Sound Archive. But the NFSA holds only preservation material—nothing accessible–for the released The Everlasting Secret Family. Between Wars’ can be seen at the NFSA on one of the cropped and now dye-faded 16mm prints that were a consequence of Between Wars’ patchy release life through the AFI’s non-theatrical Vincent Library. But there is no complete 35mm local release print, and the only complete 35mm—a French subtitled version, made for Australian Film Commission European office use in the 1990s–has now been withdrawn. The print you will see here is the UK release, and comes from the British Film Institute.

Of the Thornhill/Moorhouse shorts, The American Poet’s Visitis only available through copies off a 1 inch SD video master (the manner in which you will see it here, not inconsistent with a film with a $900 budget), The Girl from the Family of Manonly survives as A and B rolls and The Machine Gunappears to have disappeared altogether, probably discarded in a film lab close-down. This is one of many dropouts in the accessible record of Australian cinema; where the work is preserved, but hard to see as it was originally intended. But the near complete ruin of such an intrinsically important body of Australian cinema work, a little less than 50 years old—whilst having ironies consistent with Frank Moorhouse’s world view—stands out as needing remediation.