For three decades film pioneer Charles Chauvel brought remote Australia and its people to Australians and the world in a remarkable career that he shared with his wife, Elsa.
Story By Susanne Chauvel Carlsson
Charles Chauvel, often described as the ‘legendary film producer’ or the ‘action director’, was also jokingly dubbed a frustrated explorer by one of his stars, the iconic Chips Rafferty. It was a perceptive comment. My father, who was born in Warwick, Qld, and grew up on the family farm, had been fascinated by both geography and history from an early age. He went to Sydney in his early twenties to study art, and he met a sporting idol of the time, Snowy Baker, who was producing silent movies. Fascinated by this new, exciting medium, Charles used his expertise with horses, learned from boyhood, to persuade Snowy to hire him. He cleaned the stables, groomed the horses, took ‘bit’ parts in the movies and drove the Cobb & Co coach to rural locations. These humble beginnings led to training in Hollywood and, in 1926, his first two Australian productions. They were silent films with simple stories, depicting the Queensland landscapes familiar to him around Rosevale and the Fassifern and Dawson valleys.
My mother, Elsa, who was born in Victoria but had had an adventurous upbringing in South Africa, was the perfect partner for the audacious young Queenslander. Together they formed a 30-year husband-and-wife working partnership at a time when funding was meagre, schools of training for film craft were non-existent and the government had little interest in Australian film production.
From the time he made his entry into filmmaking to his untimely death in 1959, the Australian landscape was the focus of all Charles’s films bar one. The visual aspect was always important to him and he annoyed his cinematographers by looking through their camera lenses to check composition and lighting. In each story there was an intense sense of place. Queensland’s Hinchinbrook Passage provided exotic rainforest backgrounds for the artistic, backlit photography of Charles’s 1936 adventure story, Uncivilised. The colourful, mysterious, brooding landscapes of the Northern Territory and the Kimberley, WA, were perfect backdrops for the dramatic sequences in his 1954 feature Jedda.
Elsa resigned herself to the strenuous demands of outback-location shooting, and later I shared some of their adventures. These were long before the days of motels, camp grounds or even sealed roads. We drove through an unforgettable dust storm between Marree and Oodnadatta, SA, on a dirt track; spent a mosquito-infested night on a crocodile barge on the Roper River, NT; were marooned by floodwaters at Round Mountain, Qld; and got bogged in black soil on the Barkly Tableland. None of this dampened my father’s enthusiasm.
This story excerpt is from Issue #79
Outback Magazine: Oct/Nov 2011