The Outland institute’s “Best News Theme” correspondent David Ashton is watching all the Australian Film Institute’s “Best Film” winners from 1976 onwards. Last week he set the scene, now the journey begins…
1976, what a big year that was! Well, it was a leap year so it was a bit bigger than usual. Harold Wilson resigned as the UK’s PM, Patty Hearst was found guilty of the armed robbery of a San Francisco bank, while here in Melbourne $1.4 million in bookmakers’ settlements was stolen in The Great Bookie Robbery. Queen Elizabeth II sent the first royal e-mail in this year, presumably to Steve Jobs who was forming Apple at the time. The Viking 2 spacecraft landed on Mars, and according to Wikipedia, “The UK and Iceland end the Cod War” (no, I don’t know what that was either, but I suspect that Goodies episode had a whole level of meaning that I totally missed).
Meanwhile the US film industry was being transformed by a bunch of film-school upstarts with a bold, gritty approach to movies. In 1976 Martin Scorsese won both the Palm D’Or at Cannes for Taxi Driver and also the Best Film BAFTA for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (which also later spawned a spin-off TV series). Meanwhile the Oscars were dominated by Rocky (dir: John G Alvidson) and Network (dir: Sydney Lumet).
In Australia the “film renaissance” (use of this phrase is mandatory) was in full swing. Caddie (dir: Donald Crombie) was a big hit with critics and audiences alike, Don’s Party (dir: Bruce Beresford) dished up Australian politics to a country still reeling from the dismissal of Gough Whitlam, and Richard Franklin brought some much-needed tits and bums to Australian Culture with Fantasm (aka World of Sexual Fantasy).
Speaking of Australian culture, this was the year the Australian Film Institute decided that it was worth having a category for best feature film. Previously the award had been for ‘Best Film’ with the award often going to a documentary or short film. So who was the winner of the first Best Feature Film award?
Written and directed by Fred Schepisi. Starring Simon Burke, Arthur Dignam, Nick Tate and Thomas Keneally as Father Marshall.
What’s It About?
It’s 1953 and our hero Tom Allan (Simon Burke) is boarding at a catholic seminary (that’s a sort of school for boys who want to be priests). Like most young teenage boys he enjoys swimming, wrestling with other boys and masturbating. Unfortunately the school takes a very dim view of masturbation, sex and pretty much anything to do with bodies – the boys aren’t even allowed to shower naked in case the sight of their own nakedness corrupts their minds. The boys cope with this repression of their natural impulses in various ways – some form their own little Hellfire Club (with homo-erotic whipping) while Tom mainly wets his bed and looks confused.
Meanwhile the teacher/priests are having a rough time of it too. Brother Victor (Nick Tate) questions the school’s attitude to bodily things and is an alcoholic. The puritanical Brother Francine (Arthur Dignam) is wracked with guilt as he perves on the scantily-clad ladies at the public swimming pool.
If this was Hollywood, Robin Williams would appear and inspire everyone to stand on the furniture or something. Instead we have Thomas Keneally as an avuncular monk who likes to scare the boys witless with tales of Hellfire and Damnation.
(Aside: Maybe it just me but I always assume anyone with a beard like that must be a nudist.)
Is it hauntingly beautiful?
Yes. With its period setting, meticulous cinematography and plotless musings on religious themes, The Devil’s Playground certainly ticks all the right boxes for Artsploitation.
Is it any good?
Fred Schepisi’s The Devil’s Playground is a beautifully made semi-autobiographical account of life in a 1950’s catholic seminary. The crisp cinematography still looks good today (unlike the dated look of Picnic at Hanging Rock, for example). The acting is superb from the lead actors, as well as the supporting cast. And Schepisi shows great restraint in avoiding sensationalising the film’s subject matter.
If anything it’s this restraint which prevents the film from having more impact than it does. Although the film is clearly critical of the sexual repression of the schoolboys by the Catholic institution, it avoids portraying any characters as villains – the brothers are victims of repression as much as the students. The students seem to actually be enjoying their schooldays for much of the time, even if they spend a lot of time feeling guilty. Even when one of the students meets a tragic end the impact feels muted.
Having seen Lindsay Anderson’s If… a few weeks earlier it was hard not to compare the two. If… is an angry film in which the boarding school is a microcosm of everything wrong with contemporary Britain. By contrast, The Devil’s Playground feels rather passionless and has no real relevance outside of its 1950s Catholic world.
All that notwithstanding, the film is nice to look at, and certainly works well at evoking a mood and a place. It’s not a must-see, but not a must-avoid either. Also, if the whole “catholic guilt” thing seems more relevant to your life you may get more out of it than I did.
Vincent Canby of The New York Times was not so kind:
There’s nothing terribly wrong with the film except that it is relentlessly right-thinking and too prettily photographed. It doesn’t surprise the mind or ever engage it. Instead, it slowly anesthetizes it, which is the way of many movies that are not stupid but which aren’t good enough for their subject.
Ouch. Mr. Canby also mentions;
According to the program notes, ”The Devil’s Playground”… is the winner of ”six Australian Film Awards.” These are described as being ”similar to Hollywood’s Oscars”.
So there you go.
Great Moments In Australian Film Marketing History
As well as “Australia’s most honoured film!”, The Devil’s Playground was lumbered with the tagline “Growing up hurts. If you’re 13, you know what we mean. If you’re older, come and be reminded.” Slightly better was “Young men torn between physical desire and religious discipline.”
Where are they now?
Fred Schepisi went on to make The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith in 1978 and since then a mixed bag of Hollywood fare including Roxanne (1987), The Russia House (1990), Six Degrees of Separation (1993) and Last Orders (2001). He was to win the Best Picture AFI again – spoiler! – for Evil Angels (1988, aka A Cry In The Dark).
Simon Burke has appeared in many Australian TV series as is currently the Federal President of Actors Equity Australia (2005 – present)
Arthur Dignam’s career has included roles in The New Avengers (1976), The Duelists (1977), The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), We of the Never Never (1982) Bodyline (1984), Minder (1993), Beneath Clouds (2002) and Baz Lurhman’s forthcoming Australia.
Nick Tate is probably best remembered as Alan Carter in Space 1999 (1975-1978) but he’s appeared in countless Australian, British and US TV series as well as the odd movie. Recently he appeared in an episode of Lost (2004), and is also one of the top trailer voice-over men in Hollywood.
Thomas Keneally’s acting career never really took off, although Fred Schepisi cast him again in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978). He is of course best known as an author whose books include Schindler’s Ark (filmed by Spielberg in 1993 as Schindler’s List).
Next Time: One Boy and His Pelican: A Thrilling Saga Of Courage And Loyalty.