And The Winner Is… Newsfront (1978)

The Outland Institute’s Resident Echo & The Bunnymen Expert, David Ashton, is watching all the AFI Best Film winners – so you don’t have to.

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On January 7, 1978, Emilio Palma was born in Antarctica – the furthest south anyone had ever been born. It was also the year that Ted Bundy was arrested and the Garfield comic strip was first published. Coincidence? In Australia it was the year of the Hilton Hotel bombing and the year that Dick Smith towed a fake iceberg into Sydney Harbour. Probably a cry for help.

For two prominent film directors 1978 was year of unusual migrations: Roman Polanski skipped bail and fled the US after pleading guilty to sexual intercourse with a minor, while the remains of Charlie Chaplin were stolen from Cosier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland, only to re-appear 50 days later near Lake Geneva. Coincidence?

The Oscar for 1978 went to Michael Cimino’s grim Vietnam War film The Deer Hunter, beating Coming Home and Midnight Express. The BAFTA that year went to Annie Hall (which had won the Oscar the previous year). Meanwhile, audiences sang along to Grease and believed a man could fly in Superman: The Movie.

Australia was continuing to produce good films too. Fred Schepsi’s follow-up to The Devil’s Playground was the more visceral Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. The success of the previous year’s Storm Boy led to the making of Blue Fin – another Colin Thiele tale with the same young actor in the lead. The Getting of Wisdom and The Night, The Prowler were also released, but they were all soundly beaten at the AFIs by the winner of an unprecedented eight awards – including Best Film – Newsfront.

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Newsfront

Written and directed by Phillip Noyce, based on a script by David Elfick and Bob Ellis. Starring Bill Hunter, Wendy Hughes, Chris Haywood, Gerard Kennedy, Bryan Brown and Angela Punch (who would soon add McGregor to her name). Newsfront also features brief cameos from Mark Holden, Bruce Spence and The Guy Who Plays Alf from Home and Away.

What’s It About?

Beginning in the late 1940s Newsfront tells the story of the people who made cinema newsreels. Len Maguire (Bill Hunter) is a cameraman loyal to Cinetone News, although his brother Frank (Gerard Kennedy) defects to a rival newsreel company and later to the US, abandoning his girlfriend (and Len’s work colleague) Amy Mackenzie (Wendy Hughes). Len is a man of strong principals but his determination to do the right thing is challenged by the personal and social changes that happen around him.

Is it hauntingly beautiful?

This is a handsome-looking film and the cinematography is a considerable technical achievement (see below) but I don’t think “hauntingly beautiful” is the phrase for this one. “Classy” is the description that springs to mind.

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Is It Any Good?

While many Australian films of the late seventies are called “classic”, Newsfront is the one most often referred to as “possibly the best Australian film ever made” – and it’s not hard to see why.

On one level the film is a tribute to the newsreel cameramen of post-World War II Australia, however it also documents the political and social changes the whole country was going through at that time. This is illustrated explicitly through the news stories covered by the newsreels (particularly the change from the war-era Labor governments to the conservative Menzies rule, and Menzies subsequent attempt to ban the Communist Party) but also by the professional and personal lives of the characters in the film. The newsreels’ threat from the new medium of television, and the defection of Frank to the US film/television industry reflect the country’s cultural shifts.

The disintegration of Len’s marriage to his staunch Catholic wife and subsequent, more casual, relationship with Amy reflects the changing social mores of the time. Despite the characters being observers – rather than participants – of the big events, there’s a rare sense of scale and scope to Newsfront.

Newsfront is also highly ambitious technically and excels in every area. The film seamlessly blends real newsreel footage with shots staged for the movie. Particularly impressive is the re-creation of the Maitland floods. The film switches back and forward from black and white to colour throughout and at different times mimics the look of forties noir and fifties technicolour as well as documentary footage. Somehow this works – it doesn’t become jarring or gimmicky. The script, acting, photography, editing and production design are all top class. Special mention should also go to the score by William Motzing, which captures perfectly a 40s/50s movie vibe without coming across as pastiche.

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The film may not be to everyone’s taste – it doesn’t follow a conventional three-act narrative structure so it may seem rather meandering – and the ending seems very abrupt: Len Maguire does something noble, the music swells and suddenly the movie’s over. I guess if it had gone on any longer it would have become about the death of the newsreels and the rise of television, whereas the filmmakers clearly wanted to make a celebration of the newsreels.

Great Moments In Australian Film Marketing History

The tagline “When the news ran out…they made their own” is not only inaccurate, but goes against the whole spirit of the film. Possibly they were trying to evoke the famous “print the legend” quote from Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Where are they now?

Bill Hunter, Bryan Brown and Bruce Spence are all in Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming Australia.

Ironically – given Newsfront’s disapproval of Frank Maguire’s career path – director Phillip Noyce ended up in the US making mediocre thrillers like Clear and Present Danger (1994), The Saint (1997) and The Bone Collector (1999). He returned to Australia to make Rabbit Proof Fence in 2002. He’s currently working on a film adaptation of Tim Winton’s novel Dirt Music.

Writer Bob Ellisdisowned Newsfront after his script was re-written by Noyce, although he later regretted this decision. His other writing credits include Paul Cox’s Man of Flowers (1983) and two films he also directed: Warm Nights on a Slow Moving Train (1988) and The Nostradamus Kid (1993)

Next Time: The film that launched the brilliant careers of Gillian Armstrong, Judy Davis and Sam NeillBMX Bandits. No, not really.

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Do you think Newsfront is “possibly the best Australian film ever made”? Well what do you think then? How about that Bill Hunter? What’s that all about? Leave your comments below!

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31 Responses to And The Winner Is… Newsfront (1978)

  1. Dave AA says:

    I notice the five films which Australia Post commemorates as “Favourite Australian Films” are Gallipoli, Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, Muriel’s Wedding, The Castle and Lantana.

    http://www.stamps.com.au/shop/stamps/favourite-australian-film

    Incidently, only three of these are Best Film AFI winners.

  2. Tim says:

    Good choices, though I wonder how they arrived at them. Took a poll around the Aust Post offices?

  3. Sam says:

    Perhaps it was the ubiquitous Bill Hunter factor, has he been in all those films? It feels like he should have been… though perhaps their list would have been too long in that case (and included Newsfront)?

  4. Dave AA says:

    I would guess they did a quick poll of the thirty-somethings working in the office. But I think any list that only included five films is bound to look a bit like “five films that first popped into my head when someone said ‘Australian films'”

    My list would be;
    – Broken Highway
    – Under the Lighthouse Dancing
    – Reckless Kelly
    – The Extra
    – Almost an Angel

  5. outlandinstitute says:

    What a great list, David!

    According to the Australia Post website, the stamps were voted on through the AFI site – so the fact that none of us has ever heard of it is beside the point. I don’t think the stamp selection is too bad – they’re all Aussie films I liked. But perhaps not the “best” ever. But what is?

    Umbrella Entertainment recently had a giveaway where you had to name your top 5 Aussie films – I put Newsfront, Muriel’s, Mad Max, Noise and Dead End Drive-In. Where’s my Dead End Drive-In stamp, Australia Post?

  6. Anne-Marie says:

    Hmmm – Australian films that I remembered and liked enough to buy.

    OK – this involves a trip into the living room to look at my DVD section

    According to my film collection my t op 5 are
    Picnic at Hanging Rock (very true. and I too have picniced there)
    Starstruck (I was reliving my youth when I bought it and I think it stands up!)
    Priscilla
    High Tide (I think I found it in a clearance bin. It’s OK – but not really top 5 material)

    and the only other Aus stuff is TV (Frontline, The Games and everything by Chris Lilley)

    I’m adding My Brilliant Career to the list and I still think Gallipoli is pretty cool (what did happen to that blond guy who was meant to become as famous as Mel Gibson?)

    I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t even recognise most of your list Dave – but I shall head to the Aussie section at my DVD store and check them out

  7. Dan Cardone says:

    i think the point of Dave’s list is NOT under any circumstances, to check those films out. They’re all shockingly bad, as I recall…

    however, meanwhile I watching Undead on SBS – which i think at least is meant to be terrible.

  8. outlandinstitute says:

    I’ve walked out of at least two of David’s list – I think with David if I remember correctly. (Did you have to remind me Broken Highway existed?)

    The DVD test is interesting, Anne-Marie, but does tend to skew towards the Bargain Bin for me – off-hand my collection includes Priscilla, The Hard Word, The Bank, Strictly Ballroom, Spotswood, Breaker Morant and a number of Ozploitation titles…

  9. Anne-Marie says:

    I did wonder about the inclusion or Reckless Kelly…

  10. Dave AA says:

    Yeah, to be honest Reckless Kelly is the only one on that list that I actually watched all the way to the end. And I would vote it The Shittiest Australian Film Ever. I got sick of quite liking all the films I’m reviewing so I thought I’d indulge in a bit of bilious sarcasm.

    To my shame I must admit that I’ve never seen Priscilla, but the other Australia Post films are all films I’d rate highly. I guess the key word here is “favourite”. A more academic list of “significant” films might include Hanging Rock, Newsfront, etc. A more “edgy” list might include Mad Max, Bliss, Bad Boy Bubby.

  11. Sam says:

    Did anyone see Backsliding. Apparently a very bad Australian film, but starring Tim Roth – I’ve always wanted to see it for that reason. David, in your edgy list I’d also include Romper Stomper.

  12. outlandinstitute says:

    Speaking of Forgotten Films, I sometimes think David and I were the only people to see Tracey Moffatt’s Bedevil, a great portmanteau ghost film. Moffatt doesn’t make films anymore, she’s know a highly successful visual artist, which is also more financially rewarding in this country. How weird is that? If you want to make a living wage in Oz you don’t make films, you make art or do breakfast radio…

    Speaking of retiring, if you haven’t seen it we’ve added the appearance of Storm Boy’s Greg Rowe on Where Are They Now to the Storm Boy entry, it’s at the bottom (under “where are they now”).

  13. Dave AA says:

    Ooh yeah, Bedevil. I’d like to see that again sometime. I wonder if it’s out on DVD?

  14. Dan Cardone says:

    I never did see Bedevil and I’d even forgotten it existed. I really want to track it down. Let’s have a Bedevil night! I’ll bring the dip (French Onion of course)

    And should I point out, Mr Outland Institute, that even your ‘Bargain Bin’ collection of Oz movies is pretty damn good – it’s kind of nice as it makes me remember that we do make quite good films from time to time. Maybe not brilliant, but quite good.

    On the other end of the spectrum is not only Reckless Kelly, but Yahoo Serious’s follow-up Mr Accident. There are no words – NONE! – to describe this film. As Lisa Simpson said when confronted with the Yahoo Serious Film Festival: “I know what those words mean but that sentence doesn’t make sense”.

  15. outlandinstitute says:

    I realised that there’s no overlap between my “best Australian films” list and “Australian films I own” list, which is a bit odd. No, hang on, I’ve got a copy of Mad Max. Mad Max is odd in that you’d think it was made for a DVD box set with feature-length documentary but almost all editions are bare-bones. I bought one thinking it had a doco, which turned out to be a few pages of text only…

    Speaking of text, quite a while back I saw ads for a week-by-week magazine series on Aussie film – DVD and magazine, which you then put in folders (or whatever). they’ve got a website but there’s no indication they ever went past the first six issues. It’s another interesting list – partly for it’s random nature – The Man From Snowy River, Gallipoli, Sunday Too Far Away, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Picnic At Hanging Rock and Crackerjack.

    http://www.deagostini.com.au/australian/index.htm

  16. Edward says:

    My DVD collection contains 4 Australian films:

    Strictly Ballroom, The Proposition, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and the as yet unwatched Roadgames (a post-Not Quite Hollywood bargain buy purchase). The three I’ve seen would match my top 3.

    The worst Australian film I’ve ever happened across was fortunately on TV – so I was able to turn over after 10 minutes. It was ‘Strange Bedfellows’ with Paul Hogan and Michael Caton.

  17. Glenn says:

    “Newsfront” is certainly in my top five Aussie films. I think it’s marvellous, really. Sprawling and fascinating in equal measure, wonderfully acted and, perhaps, the most patriotically Aussie film ever made (or, at least until “Australia” I suppose).

  18. Anne-Marie says:

    Strange Bedfellows is like a car crash – you are so horrified you just can’t look away – and it even has the disfiguration of Paul Hogan’s plastic surgery! Seriously – if you’re thinking about it – DON’T.

    I’ve seen Bedevil. (But that’s kind of like me to have seen the obsure AND the crass)

  19. syms covington says:

    Where are they now? Bill Hunter: drunk on stage at the IF Awards.

  20. outlandinstitute says:

    He’s now touring that as a one-man show, isn’t he Syms?

  21. Sam says:

    In the free train paper today they were asking various people what they thought should have been the plot of the new marketing extravaganza Australia – I think it was Cal Wilson who suggested a small town setting, the populace, who having lost their way, are brought together by a loveable kid to create ‘a big’ something for their town, which of course turns out to be a big Bill Hunter. I’d go visit that town.

  22. Anne-Marie says:

    Has anyone dared to see Baz’s epic?

  23. Dave AA says:

    I hope someone’s seeing it, as apparently the whole future of the Australian film industry is resting on it.

    I’ve heard that Bill Hunter’s role in it consists of one shot…

  24. Sam says:

    going to see it Friday…

  25. Narrelle says:

    Dan: I saw ‘Undead’ on DVD a month or so ago and while it is undoubtedly terrible, it was also undoubtedly entertaining. I would put that in my collection to watch on days when I need a lot of mindless LOLZ.

    I recall ‘Incident at Raven’s Gate’ with much fondness – quirky and also very frightening in parts.

    I’m not at home so I can’t confirm this list of Oz films, but off the top of my head I think we have Priscilla, Muriel’s Wedding, Crackerjack, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Strictly Ballroom and Breaker Morant.

  26. Dan Cardone says:

    I just happened to be in my storage unit the other day and went through my collection of DVDs to check for Australian content, and I was absolutely appalled. There were four films in total:

    1. “Priscilla”. While i quite like this film, the only reason i own a copy is because JB Hi Fi were selling it for $6.

    2. “Sample People”. Given to me by Mr John Richards who bought it in a bargain bin. This was shot in Adelaide where i was living at the time, and quite a few people I know are in it or worked on it, but i still haven’t managed to get more than 20 minutes into it. And Kylie really can’t act, but she looks great if she just keeps her mouth shut and pouts.

    3. “Cut”. Again, given to me by Mr John Richards. Do you really hate me John? And again, of interest because it was shot in Adelaide, and my flat mate at the time played the killer. I went to see this one at the cinema, and it is, to put it politely, a fucking disaster.

    4. “Garage Days”. Which was given to me by someone who worked on it as they thought I might like it. i still haven’t watched it.

    So that’s it. I am shamed.

  27. Dave AA says:

    I think most people’s DVD collections tend to be an almost random collection from bargain bins, gifts, impulse purchases etc.

    My own DVD collection is heavily weighted towards TV shows – I think that’s because watching DVDs is like watching TV, only better, whereas movies should properly be seen in the cinema. I’ll happily catch up on films on DVD if I miss them at the cinema, but I don’t feel the need to collect and keep movies on DVD.

  28. Anne-Marie says:

    The bargain price at JB is the exact same reason I have my copy of Priscilla

  29. outlandinstitute says:

    Me too. They sold a lot of those six dollar Priscillas, didn’t they?

    One of the reasons I like Newsfront so much is the sense of scale in the film – not in a “sweeping epic vistas” way, ala Australia: The Motion Picture, but in its themes – where do we stand in relation to the rest of the world? How important is the Australian voice? Is it selling out to leave the country or just inevitable if you want to have a career? I think all of these points have become more relevant as the years have gone by, and a film like Australia is a perfect example of what the film was talking about – is it a vision of Australia created for an international audience, that just uses our country and history as a gimmick? Or is it a genuine expression of Australian culture?

    The other thing about Newsfront is the incredibly bold cinematography, mixing b&w and colour, and different film stocks. It could have been distracting or a really cheap effect, but the film does it so well you hardly notice after a while – it allows them to use real newsreel footage, and also suggests the passing of the years, especially when you reach the Olympics section near the end of the film.

    All this on the standard tiny Aussie budget – the ideas are big but the execution is on a human level. Why do we seem incapable of doing that anymore? Our films now seem to be small ideas on a small scale, little more than big-screen soaps…

  30. Sam says:

    The only Australian films I have on DVD are Noise, and Love and Other Catastrophes. Proof would be a good one to have.

  31. M aus M says:

    1. I am German.
    2. Australian cinema is not nearly as bad as the average Australian thinks.
    3. Germany really liked “Australia”. It topped the DVD section of amazon.de for weeks.
    4. Germans put up with one or two good German films a year, but still endure atrocious acting in 99 percent of the other films. That is the only reason why our local market share is regularly around 20 percent. Whereas Hollywood nowadays is chock-full of Australian actors, I am unable to name a single German actor who has made it big in the US, apart from one-hit-wonders. Australians, however, do their very best to badmouth and choke off their own industry by still deluding themselves that they should be able to compete with Hollywood. You can’t. With 21 million people, you will not be able to rival Britain’s or Germany’s output, either. It’s almost like in sports where you Australians seem to lose interest whenever you can’t win.

    The one thing I like most in Australian films is that they are almost always made with passion and integrity. Whether they are well or badly made, you can sense the conviction of everybody involved. Rarely will you find a film that is made solely for the purpose of commercial success (and the rare attempts to stoop to a lowest common denominator are miserable failures, anyway – see below).

    My personal aim is to watch every Australian film I can get hold of at least once, and write a review about it (yes, I am aware of the fact that there are nearly 700 Australian films available on DVD). Apart from approx. 120 films recorded from German TV, here is my collection of Australian DVDs, in alphabetical order. With about 800 Euro investment this is multiple times the box office take of George ‘Man from Snowy River’ Miller’s latest offering, “Prey” – oh my, Mr. Miller, how deep can you fall?

    So here it is, the usual assortment of the good, the bad, and the ugly:

    2:37, Age of Consent, Alexandra’s Project, Angel Baby, Australia, Babe, Babe: Pig in the City, Black Water, Bliss, ‘Breaker’ Morant, Caddie, Candy, Children of the Revolution, Chopper, Clubland, Cosi, Crocodile Dundee I+II, Dead Calm, Death Defying Acts, December Boys, Dirty Deeds, Evil Angels, Gallipoli, Garage Days, Gone, Happy Feet, Harlequin, Heaven’s Burning, Holy Smoke, Irresistible, Japanese Story, Jindabyne, Lantana, Like Minds, Little Fish, Long Weekend, Look Both Ways, Lost Things, Love’s Brother, Mad Max 1-3, Mary Bryant, Moulin Rouge!, Muriel’s Wedding, My Brilliant Career, Ned Kelly (2003), Newsfront, Oscar and Lucinda, Paperback Hero, Paradise Found, Phar Lap, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Proof, Quigley Down Under, Rabbit-proof Fence, Razorback, Restraint, Roadgames, Rogue, Romulus My Father, Shine, Somersault, Spotswood, Strictly Ballroom, Summerfield, Swimming Upstream, Ten Canoes, Thank God He Met Lizzie, The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, The Bank, The Big Steal, The Dish, The Hard Word, The Jammed, The Last Wave, The Lighthorsemen, The Man From Snowy River I+II, The Man Who Sued God, The Night We Called It a Day, The Piano, The Proposition, The Quiet American, The Rage in Placid Lake, The Sum of Us, The Sundowners, Thunderstruck, Two Hands, Undead, Visitors, Walkabout, Wolf Creek, Young Einstein

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