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Hollywood imagines – Australians at war

Above: Real Australians in real slouch hats. Australian engineer reinforcements disembarking from Queen Elizabeth at Port Tewfik (now Suez port) on 24 November 1941, on the way to war in the Middle East, little realizing that a few weeks later war would break out much nearer home. Photo by John Murphy. Author’s collection.

Remember the controversy when Ben Affleck’s Argo was released in 2012 ? The film was about the 6 US embassy staff who hid out in Tehran during the Iranian hostage crisis. A throwaway line – “Brits turned them away, Kiwis turned them away, Canadians took them in” caused great offence in New Zealand and Britain for its inaccuracy. Of course, Hollywood has been doing history inaccurately for a very long time. And since when is entertainment meant to be historically accurate anyway? Here are three Hollywood efforts that reference Australians at war, with varying results.

The Man from Down Under, 1943

Screengrab of Charles Laughton as Jocko Wilson and Clyde Cook as his friend Ginger Gaffney. The film is held by TCM and is available on DVD. Author’s Collection

MGM’s comedy-drama The Man from Down Under was made in Hollywood in 1943, during World War II’s darkest days. A vehicle for British actors Charles Laughton and Binnie Barnes, supported by US actors Richard Carlson and Donna Reed, it was perhaps intended to help educate US viewers about Australia as a trusted new ally in the war against Japan. Otherwise, it’s hard to understand why it was made. The film was not very well received anywhere.

The plot tells the story of two French orphans brought back to Australia at the end of World War I by “Jocko” Wilson, a lovable, gambling, heavy drinking, rough-tough Aussie soldier. The children grow up in Australia, “Nipper” (Carlson) becoming a champion boxer while Mary (Reed) attends a finishing school as World War II looms. There are several threads to the plot, including Nipper and Mary discovering they are not biologically brother and sister as they thought, and, in the film’s denouement, Jocko leading the successful fight against some downed Japanese airmen, who briefly take over his north Queensland hotel. It was directed by Robert Z Leonard, the director of numerous successful films, including The Divorcee (1930) and The Great Ziegfeld (1936).

Australian reviewers were unusually forceful in their criticism of the film. We can assume this relates to how a nation at war liked to imagine its contemporary heroes. Laughton, in his mid forties and overweight, was already famous for character roles in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). He did not resemble the imagined Australian “everyman” of World War II recruiting posters, who was a bronzed young male, tall and vibrant. He may even have contributed to this impression himself, as he was quoted by Australian journalist Lon Jones saying “I am just a fat ugly pig in real life. I…have to depend solely on…dramatic ability to transition on the screen…” Still, Wallace Beery, who was originally considered for the role, was even older and of a similar, solid physical type.

Donna Reed as Mary and Charles Laughton as Jocko Wilson. Screenland Magazine, May 1943-October 1944, P64. Via Lantern Digital Media Project.

The Australian complaints published were generally focused on the film’s “inaccuracies,” which were apparently many, despite Lon Jones acting as the film’s advisor. The Sydney Morning Herald described the film as “a comedy of errors”. The Sydney Tribune described it as “absurd,” while the Daily Telegraph took great offence, describing it as “Hollywood tripe…Australians are not all rustics and mental deficients” (sic). The paper even reported the views of servicemen who had seen the film, under the heading “Illiterate film dialogue resented. But it was a review by the US Motion Picture Daily that most accurately summarized the film’s problems- “It is (the)…listless development of the story…which cause (the film) to bog down.” Not even Laughton seems to be able to inject either dramatic interest or enough humour into his character.

Servicemen complain. Daily Telegraph, 27 June 1944, P5, via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
The real Tim Tovell shows how he smuggled Henri, a real orphan, on board a troopship in 1919. Australian War Memorial Collection.

History records that an Australian serviceman really did bring a French orphan (just one, not two) back to Australia at the end of World War I. In late 1918, little Henri Hermene attached himself to Tim Tovell and his brother at the base of 4 squadron, Australian Flying Corps. They struck up a friendship and the Tovells decided to smuggle the little boy back home to Queensland, Australia. And they did, and adopted him, with some official assistance – in the shape of the Queensland Premier. He was smuggled first to England and then Australia, on troopships, some of the time in an oat bag, as the Hollywood film also shows. It is such a good story it really could make a great movie, despite Henri’s untimely death in 1928.

The Desert Rats, 1953

Australian actor Charles Tingwell had great memories of working on Robert Wise’s The Desert Rats for Twentieth Century Fox. Tingwell – still working to establish himself, was impressed by Wise’s eye for authenticity, professionalism and commitment to thorough rehearsal. And he liked the fact that rubbing shoulders with distinguished British actors (Richard Burton, James Mason and Robert Newton) were a few Australians other than himself; “Chips” Rafferty, and briefly – Michael Pate, Frank Baker and John O’Malley.

At right Captain “Tammy” MacRoberts (Burton) and second from right Sgt Blue (Rafferty) on the Tobruk front line. Source: Danish film program in author’s collection

This 1953 war film is based on the defence of the port and township of Tobruk, in Libya in 1941. Between April and November allied soldiers, mostly from the Australian 9th Division and for much of the time under the command of Australian General Leslie Morshead, defended the position successfully against German and Italian forces. Filmed in California but with a careful eye to capture what Richard Keenan describes as “the authentic feel of wartime newsreels,” it is a fairly formulaic but entertaining war drama. Burton plays a tough young British officer, whose Australian soldiers come to respect him. The New York Times reviewer reported it was “a conventional reshuffling of reminiscent characters, incidents and… heroics,” and added that the play between Burton and Newton as his cowardly alcoholic former teacher, often killed the film’s pace.

The film’s plot also took some liberties with the truth; such as the unnamed Australian General’s accurate guess about where the German tank attack would occur, or in using the title “Desert Rats” (the real nickname for the British 7th Armoured Division) rather than the more accurate “Rats of Tobruk”, but there was enough that was authentic that complaints were muted. The Tobruk garrison’s aggressive patrolling, effective use of artillery and willingness to close for combat was generously acknowledged.

In Tobruk’s HQ. From left – extra, Richard Burton, extra, Robert Douglas as the Australian General, extra, extra, Torin Thatcher as Artillery Commander Barney White. Danish film program in author’s collection
James Mason as a very grumpy Rommel, frustrated by Tobruk’s stubborn Australian defenders. Danish film program in author’s collection

Needless to say, any half-good film of an Australian military victory is likely to gain approval with Australian audiences. The proof of this film’s popular acceptance is that The Desert Rats continues to be played on Australian TV, 70 years after it was made, particularly on days of military remembrance. The only major annoyance for this modern viewer is the endless inclusion of “Waltzing Matilda” on the musical soundtrack, which is as tired a cliche as the kookaburra laugh that appears in every single Hollywood jungle film.

The Rat Patrol, 1966-1968

United Artists TV produced The Rat Patrol in 1966-8. It really has nothing to do with any combat experiences by Australians, or anyone else for that matter, except that the leading character – US Army Sergeant Sam Troy (Christopher George) wears an iconic Australian Army slouch hat with the Australian Army’s rising sun badge – through all 58 x 30 minute episodes. It is never explained to the viewer why Troy wears it, or why only one of his four-man team wears a sensible US Army M1 steel helmet.

It was quite easy to think Sgt Sam Troy of the Rat Patrol was an Australian. He wore a slouch hat and dressed in an anonymous khaki uniform. From The Tribune (Seymour, Indiana) 11 Feb 1967, Via

If you haven’t seen any episodes, the plots usually involve the four Rats in jeeps mounted with heavy machine guns causing mayhem amongst lumbering German desert convoys.

While the series was popular in the US, it caused much consternation in Britain – the BBC pulled it after showing only a few episodes. British ex-service groups were incensed that while apparently based on the adventures of the British 8th Army and its Long Range Desert Group, it made scant reference to them and gave the impression the Desert war was largely a US affair (although one member of the Rat Patrol is English). In Australia, there was a similar reaction from the Returned Services League, but instead of pulling it, TV network ATV-O added an apologetic preamble every time the show screened. This reminded viewers the series was fictional, “although based on… the exploits of Australian and other Commonwealth units.” The slouch hat was, it explained, “a prized souvenir among the allied troops.” Yes, really.

George with guest star Claudine Longet. From The Age 20 July 1967, Via

Pressed to comment at the time, Christopher George claimed he wore a slouch hat because he was of Greek ancestry, and wanted to acknowledge Australians who had fought in Greece. Maybe. But he had previously complained no one recognized him on a visit to New York because he wasn’t wearing that “crazy ANZAC hat,” suggesting The Rat Patrol‘s array of non-regulation hats was actually a production decision.

In Australia the series was quickly relegated to the 5.30 or 6.00 pm weekday time-slot on TV, wedged after shows like I Love Lucy and My Three Sons, but before the Evening News; the time of evening when teenage boys needed something on the TV to keep them occupied. The series is still widely available on DVD and a few episodes are on social media.

If you are interested in other fleeting but humorous Hollywood representations of the Australian military from the mid 1960s, try McHale’s Navy (the 1964 movie). But the Royal Australian Navy’s fight scene in Donovan’s Reef (1963) is probably the most amusing, as well as being veteran actor Clyde Cook‘s final film.

Nick Murphy
July 2020


To Joe Jordan for the review copy of his revised edition (2020) of Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures. Chapter 17 covers The Desert Rats.

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