1942. World War II is at its height and as Japanese forces move southwards, Australia fears invasion. Plans are made to relocate from the Northern Territory to Queensland. Bill Parsons (John Nugent Hayward) is one such, leaving his home with his wife (Jean Blue) and daughter Mary (Daphne Parsons). Rather than having to leave valuable cattle behind or destroy them, Dan McAlpine (Chips Rafferty) proposes what seems impossible: to drive 100,000 head of cattle 2000 miles across the frequently inhospitable wilderness.
The Overlanders was a project initiated by the Australian government so that their contribution to the war effort would not go unrecognised, and is based on a true story. Michael Balcon responded enthusiastically to the idea of making a film in Australia, and the opening titles follow Ealing's credit with the proud words “Their First Australian Production”. Scottish director Harry Watt had begun his career in documentary, co-directing the 1936 classic Night Mail before graduating to features in 1943 with Nine Men. That was also a World War II subject, set during the African campaign though exteriors were shot in Wales. However, arriving in Australia in 1944, he decided to make The Overlanders entirely on location, with a mainly local crew (Canadian-born DP Osmond Borradaile being an exception) and a mixture of professional and non-professional actors. This was the only film for John Nugent Hayward and Daphne Campbell and the first of two for Helen Grieve. Much of the film was shot around Alice Springs.
This was the first lead role for Chips Rafferty (born John William Pilbean Goffage in 1909), who had held a number of jobs (including, relevant to this role, cattle drover) before moving into acting in the late 1930s. The Overlanders was a great success both in Australia and the UK and made him a star. Rafferty was not classically handsome and at 6'5” had the same problem Christopher Lee later had by being too tall for romantic leads in any case. However, rather like Jack Thompson did a quarter-century later, he embodied a certain Australian type: the unpretentious, rugged masculine man, more at home in the great outdoors than in an urban setting. He went on to star in many of the films made over the next decade in Australia: the Ealing productions Eureka Stockade (1949, also directed by Watt) and Bitter Springs (1950), the Children's Film Unit production Bush Christmas (1947), the locally-shot Hollywood production Kangaroo (1952) and the family films Smiley (1956) and Smiley Gets a Gun (1958) and in the next decade worked for Michael Powell on They're a Weird Mob. He also worked on Australian television: you can see him in the “No Trespassers” episode of Skippy. Rafferty formed a one-man bridge between Australian cinema's early revival. Powell's film provoked debates as to whether Australia could have a film industry again, and Rafferty's final film was one of the key harbingers of its revival,
Wake in Fright. Shortly after he finished work on that film, he died of a heart attack, aged sixty-two.
The Overlanders tells a very simple story, an Outback western as it were, but is none the less effective because of that. Nowadays, CGI would run rampant through a film like this (see the cattle-drive sequence in Baz Luhrmann's Australia for an example) but inevitably the fact that there are real cattle on screen (five hundred of them, later sold off by the production) on genuine locations certainly gives this film the edge, certainly aided by Watt's and Borrodaile's backgrounds in documentary. You can feel the blazing heat and the perils along the way – including some crocodiles – keep the film tense, though a budding romance between Mary and sailor “Sinbad” (Peter Pagan) lightens the tone appropriately. As a patriotic piece the film certainly does its job. This was the only film score by composer John Ireland. The supervising editor was Leslie Norman (father of film critic Barry) who later went on to direct the later Ealing Australian production from 1957, The Shiralee (though in that case the interiors were shot back home at Ealing Studios). Ealing continued to make films periodically in Australia through the 1950s, finishing with the company's last film, The Siege of Pinchgut (1959), also directed by Harry Watt, which again had its interiors shot in England after location work in Sydney.
The Overlanders was released on DVD by Optimum (now StudioCanal) as part of their Optimum Classic line. The DVD is single-layered and encoded for Region 2 only. The BBFC cut the film for a U certificate back in 1946, but this release is uncut, still with a U.
The film was shot in black and white and, as was universal at the time, Academy Ratio. The DVD transfer is in 1.33:1 so anamorphic enhancement is not necessary nor present. The print is clean, though not without the occasional minor telecine jitter. Contrast, so vital in a monochrome film, is good and the greyscale seems accurate. This is a pleasing transfer.
The soundtrack is the original mono, and is clear and well-balanced, with John Ireland's music score coming over well. The Australian accents on display here aren't too strenuous which is just as well as there are no subtitles for the hard of hearing. Nor are there any extras either, not even a trailer.