And The Winner Is… The Devil’s Playground (1976)

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?

devilsThe Devil’s Playground

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 asAustralia’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.

23 Responses to And The Winner Is… The Devil’s Playground (1976)

  1. Paul Martin says:

    I don’t see myself going out of my way to see the film, but this makes a good read nonethelesss.

  2. outlandinstitute says:

    Yes, I was planning to Watch Along With David and somehow I can’t bring myself to spend two hours with a film about boys in a Catholic seminary. Even if it does have Nick Tate in it. Does that make me a bad man?

  3. Anne-Marie says:

    A bad, bad man. Just cos there’s no aliens doesn’t mean they are bad films. (OK – i didn’t mean that.)

    I watched Devils Playground when I was at high school – cos I thought Simon Burke was a spunk – cos he was appearing in a SA State Theatre Co production of Romeo and Juliet. Never bothered with a re-watch. But Tom Keneally (“There is no unconsciousness in hell)! I wondered if he knew he had the same name as the bloke who wrote. I am going to try and find Storm Boy this week though – cos I really did love it.

    PS – ABBA semi nude wrapped in alfoil – WHY? They certainly don’t look happy about it.

  4. outlandinstitute says:

    “Now bake your ABBA for 20 minutes per 500 grams”.

    I think it really does sum up 1976, though, in visual form.

  5. Dave AA says:

    I like how on that poster Simon Burke seems to literally have major Australian film awards coming out of his arse!

  6. Anne-Marie says:

    I am feeling the urge to watch Space 1999 again though. I know I’ll be disappointed – but it was my 2nd fav program as a young person. (Blakes 7 was my favourite – Narelle knows that she must never say bad things about Avon again.)

  7. Janet says:

    I’m looking forward to next week. The pelican they used in ‘Storm Boy’ lived at the aquarium in West Beach, Adelaide and I took number one son to see him when we were visiting Adelaide. I think he was called Mr Percy (or something like that). So, yes, I’ve seen Mr Percy!

  8. Janet says:

    . . . And by the way, it’s Arthur Dignam, not John. Isn’t he currently appearing in Women of Troy??

  9. Narrelle says:

    Anne-Marie, I would never say bad things about Avon. He would hunt me down and shoot me. I mean, look what he did to his best friend over a wee misunderstanding. Space 1999 I never really got the hang of, except I loved to laugh at Barbara Bach’s inability to turn and her two acting faces. (Surprised and concerned. Although even those looked remarkably similar). Oh, and Nick Tate, who everyone, regardless of gender, acknowledges was the resident hottie.

    As for The Devil’s Playground – it sounds like it suffers a little from Worthiness Syndrome. Spare me from films and plays that are Worthy, as opposed to actually Engaging. And frankly I find the promo poster just a little bit creepy. Maybe it would be less creepy if the boy didn’t have a starburst over his arse. It looks like a pop art fart.

  10. outlandinstitute says:

    It is indeed Arthur, not John – thank you, Janet, it has now been corrected. No-one will ever know…. Is he in Women Of Troy? The first four shows were cancelled, so who would know? I believe the first performance will be tonight, Tuesday…

    That “its got awards coming out of its arse!” poster is very weird – I found it on the site, so either they think English buyers will only buy it for the perve factor, or they’re taking the piss. It’s surprisingly hard to find images for The Devil’s Playground – one of the things this project has already shown is how little interest we have in our screen-culture and history – some of the films coming up aren’t available on DVD, and those you can get are often presented in cropped ratios or really bad telecines. And these are the films we thought were the best of their year (allegedly).

    Oh, Barbara Bain, you make me laugh.

  11. Narrelle says:

    Oh that’s right. Bain. Not Bach. Though Bach is equally dodgy I guess.

  12. Tim says:

    It’s interesting that the same neglect also applies to winners of the Miles Franklin literary award. My local Angus & Robertson bookshop has one of those new-fangled machines that can publish out-of-print books on demand; and the example they have in the window is a past Miles Franklin winner that isn’t available any other way.

  13. Dave AA says:

    Sorry, that was my mistake with Mr Dignam. I was being so careful to get his surname right…

  14. Janet – Mr Percival, I think, was the pelican’s name, though in real life it may well have been Mr Percy (is it just me or does Mr Percy sound a bit rude?).

    As for ‘The Devil’s Playground’, it’s certainly been the subject of some scrutiny over the years; in fact it’s even the subject of a book by Christos Tsiolkas, which is reviewed here:

  15. Anne-Marie says:

    It was indeed Mr Percival – and he was on display at Marineland (I’m now having childhood flashbacks) – which isn’t there anymore. I also think there were many Mr Percivals. Sorry to ruin the fantasy…

  16. Dave AA says:

    Richard, thanks for that link. It looks like I was right about others getting more out of this film than me: ‘Christos Tsiolkas… after his first teenage viewing of The Devil’s Playground … “rushed to the cinema toilet, banged the bolt and came spraying come across the floor and door”’

  17. outlandinstitute says:

    Although to be fair, that’s how Christos reacted to “You’ve Got Mail” as well.

    Also “March Of The Penguins” and “Cube”.

  18. Dave AA says:

    There are three pelican ‘characters’ in Storm Boy, played by three different pelicans. Stay tuned: next week I’ll reveal all their names!

  19. Dan Cardone says:

    How did we end up from discussing a very nice film about sexual repression to talking about Christos Tsiolkas masturbating? You people are sick…

    On another note, I was lucky enough to feed Mr Percival a whole fish when I was 11, on a visit to Marineland. Of course, who can be sure it was the real Mr Percival. Just like there was never just one Milo and Otis. But if it was a pelican playing Mr Percival, isn’t that just as real as say, both Daniel Craig and Sean Connery playing James Bond – they’re both still James Bond.

  20. Anne-Marie says:

    After watchings of Storm Boy we can talk about how the SA govt is going to let the Coorong die cos bloody Adelaide wants bloody water.

  21. Dave AA says:

    Selfish Adelaidians… :-D

  22. Janet says:

    Re the lack of DVD’s – Fred Schepsi said that either madman or umbrella (sorry mushy brain at present) would be releasing ‘The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith’ and ‘The Devil’s Playground’, but didn’t say when. That was after the screening of Jimmy Blacksmith at the festival – oh, so long ago . . .

    Richard: Thank you for correcting me on the pelican’s name. I think I was just having a seventies moment, or channelling Bazza McKenzie, who can tell?

  23. outlandinstitute says:

    The Devil’s Playground will be screening at the Rooftop Cinema in Melbourne on December 10th, details here:

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