The Overlanders (film)

The Overlanders
Directed by Harry Watt
Produced by Michael Balcon
Ralph Smart (associate)
Written by Harry Watt
Ralph Smart
Starring Chips Rafferty
John Nugent Hayward
Daphne Campbell
John Fernside
Peter Pagan
Helen Grieve
Jean Blue
Music by John Ireland
Cinematography Osmond Borradaile
Edited by Inman Hunter
Leslie Norman
Distributed by British Empire Films (Aust)
Ealing Studios (UK)
Umbrella Entertainment (Aust)
Universal Pictures (US)
Release dates
27 September 1946 (Australia)
1947 (France)
Running time
91 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Budget ₤40,000[1] or £80,000[2]
Box office ₤160,000 (Australia)[3]
1,143,888 admissions (France)[4]
£250,000 (total)[2]

The Overlanders is a 1946 British film about drovers driving a large herd of cattle 1,600 miles overland from Wyndham in Western Australia through the Northern Territory outback of Australia to pastures north of Brisbane, Queensland during World War II.

The film was the first of several produced in Australia by Ealing Studios, and featured among the cast Chips Rafferty.


In 1942 the Japanese army is thrusting southwards and Australia fears invasion. Bill Parsons becomes concerned, and leaves his homestead in northern Australia along with his wife and two daughters, Mary and Helen. They join up with a cattle drive heading south led by Dan McAlpine. Others on the drive include the shonky Corky; British former sailor, Sinbad; Aboriginal stockmen, Nipper and Jackie.

The cattle drive is extremely difficult, encountering crocodiles, blazing heat and other dangers. Mary and Sinbad start a romance. Dan speaks out against Corky's plans to develop the Northern Territory.



The film came about because the Australian government were concerned that Australia's contribution to the war effort was not being sufficiently recognised. They contacted Britain's Ministry of Information, who in turn spoke with Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios, who was enthusiastic about the idea of making a film in Australia. He sent Harry Watt out to find a subject. Watt travelled the country as an official war correspondent and guest of the Australian government. He would spend eighteen months in Australia making the film.[1]

Watt decided to exploit the Australian landscape by making a film set entirely outdoors. When visiting a government office in Canberra to advise on making documentaries, he heard about an incident in 1942 when 100,000 cattle were driven 2,000 miles in the Northern Territory to escape a feared Japanese invasion.[5]

Watt was only allowed to import four technicians from Britain to assist – editor Inman Hunter, cinematographer Osmond Borradaile, production supervisor Jack Rix[6] and camera operator Carl Kayser. The rest of the crew were drawn from Australia. Sound Recording Engineer: Beresford Charles Hallett [7][8]

Watt spent 1944 travelling the route of the trek. Dora Birtles researched the subject in government files and archives. She later wrote a novelisation of the script which was published.


There were nine lead roles and the casting process took two months.[9] Watt ended up selecting four professional actors, an experienced amateur, and four newcomers to films. Chips Rafferty, who Watt described as an "Australian Gary Cooper"[10] was given his first lead role. Daphne Campbell was a nursing orderly who had grown up in the country but had never acted before. She was screen tested after her picture was seen on the cover of a magazine, and selected over hundreds of applicants.[11] Peter Pagan had worked in Sydney theatre and was serving in the army when selected by Watt.[12] Clyde Combo and Henry Murdoch were cast as the aboriginal stockmen; they came from Palm Island because Harry Watt believed Northern Territory aboriginals did not speak English sufficiently well.[13]

Chips Rafferty and John Nugent-Hayward were paid £25 a month for five months.[14]


Five hundred cattle were purchased by Ealing for use in the film. They were marked with the "overland" brand and later sold off for profit.

Shooting began in April 1945 at Sydney's North Head quarantine station, which stood in for the meat export centre at Wyndham in Western Australia.[15] The unit was then flown by the RAAF to Alice Springs where they were based in an army camp.[9]

A second unit headed by John Heyer spent several weeks filming movement of cattle from the air.[16]

Three months later, the unit moved to the Roper River camp on the Elsey Station for another month, where the river crossing sequence was shot. This station was famous from the book We of the Never Never. In mid-September the unit returned to Sydney after five months of shooting.[17]

During the making of the film, Campbell met and married her future husband.[18]

The Australian government later declared they spent £4,359 to assist in the production of the film.[19]

Post production work was done in Britain. The film score was written by the English composer John Ireland. It was his only film score. An orchestral suite was extracted from the score by the conductor Sir Charles Mackerras after Ireland's death.[20]

Harry Watt claimed the original ending was more cynical, finishing with the unscrupulous 'Corky' being the only one who got a good job out of the trek, and a fade out on a roar of sardonic laughter from the rest of the overlanders. However he says he was advised to put a more upbeat ending.[21]

Ealing were so pleased with Rafferty's performance they signed him to a long-term contract even before the film had been released.

Post Production

According to Leslie Norman, Harry Watt was not satisfied with the editing job done by Inman Hunter "so they asked me to take it over. I actually ripped it all apart and started over again. But I thought this could ruin Ted Hunter's career so I suggested they credit him as editor and I would take the title of supervising editor."[22]


Neither Rafferty nor Campbell were able to make the film's Sydney premiere because Rafferty was making a film in the UK, and Campbell was looking after a one-week-old baby in Alice Springs. However local actor Ron Randell attended and was mobbed.[18]

Reviews were extremely positive.[23]

Box office

The film was enormously successful at the box office in Australia and Britain; by February 1947 it was estimated 350,000 Australians had seen it, making it the most widely seen Australian film of all time.[24]

According to trade papers, the film was a "notable box office attraction" at British cinemas in 1946.[25] It was the 11th most popular film at the British box office in 1946 after The Wicked Lady, The Bells of St Marys, Piccadilly Incident, The Captive Heart, The Road to Utopia, Caravan, Anchors Away, The Corn is Green, Gilda, and The House on 92nd Street'.[26]

It was also the first Ealing picture to be widely seen in Europe.

US Release

Some minor changes for censorship were made for the film's US release including the removal of the word "damn".[27] The film was listed one of the 15 best films of the year by Bosley Crowther of the New York Times.[28]

The movie was distributed in the US by a prestige department of Universal, a company created specifically to distribute British films from the Rank Organisation. The Overlanders was the second most popular of such movies, after Brief Encounter (1945).[29]


This acclaim prompted Ealing (and its parent company, Rank, who distributed) to make a series of films in Australia out of Pagewood Film Studios.[5] Among the first discussed projects was an adaptation of the James Aldridge novel, Signed with Their Honour.[30]

By mid 1947 it appeared the company would make a co-production deal with Cinesound Productions but in August Sir Norman Rydge withdrew Cinesound. Ealing went ahead by themselves to make Eureka Stockade with Chips Rafferty.

Daphne Campbell received Hollywood enquiries and made a series of screen tests in Sydney but elected not to pursue a Hollywood career, staying with her husband and children in Alice Springs.[31] Peter Pagan moved overseas and worked extensively in the US and London.

Home Media

The Overlanders was released on DVD by Umbrella Entertainment in November 2012. The DVD is compatible with all region codes.[32]


  1. 1 2 Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper, Australian Film 1900–1977: A Guide to Feature Film Production, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1998, 204.
  2. 1 2 "The research bureau holds an autopsy". Sunday Mail. Brisbane Queensland: National Library of Australia. 17 February 1952. p. 11. Retrieved 28 April 2013.
  3. 'Who doesn't go to the pictures today?', The Mail (Adelaide) Saturday 22 May 1954 Supplement: Sunday Magazine p 21
  4. Box office figures in 1947 France at Box Office Story
  5. 1 2 Philip Kemp, 'On the Slide: Harry Watt and Ealing's Australian Adventure', Second Take: Australian Filmmakers Talk, Ed Geoff Burton and Raffaele Caputo, Allen & Unwin 1999 p 145-164
  6. "Film producer in Sydney". The Sydney Morning Herald. New South Wales: National Library of Australia. 29 December 1944. p. 4. Retrieved 20 August 2012.
  7. IMDB
  9. 1 2 "Romance on Location.". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 9 February 1946. p. 6. Retrieved 20 August 2012.
  10. "Late News: Australia Could Be Film-making Centre.". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 21 December 1945. p. 1. Retrieved 20 August 2012.
  11. "Women's News AAMWS in film role.". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 22 March 1945. p. 5. Retrieved 20 August 2012.
  12. "U.S. stage offer to film actor.". The Daily News. Perth: National Library of Australia. 22 November 1946. p. 6 Edition: Emergency Final. Retrieved 20 August 2012.
  13. "Cast for Overlanders' passes through Broken Hill.". The Barrier Miner. Broken Hill, NSW: National Library of Australia. 11 April 1945. p. 1. Retrieved 20 August 2012.
  14. "To confer on Actors' pay.". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 19 November 1946. p. 3. Retrieved 19 March 2012.
  15. "Filming of cattle trek story begins.". The Australian Women's Weekly. National Library of Australia. 14 April 1945. p. 16. Retrieved 20 August 2012.
  16. "Filming Great Cattle Trek For "The Overlanders".". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 5 June 1945. p. 5. Retrieved 20 August 2012.
  17. ""Overlanders" film unit returns.". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 5 September 1945. p. 5. Retrieved 20 August 2012.
  18. 1 2 "Stars Of "The Overlander" Had To Miss The Premiere.". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 28 September 1946. p. 1. Retrieved 19 August 2012.
  19. ""THE OVERLANDERS".". The Morning Bulletin. Rockhampton, Qld.: National Library of Australia. 15 November 1946. p. 1. Retrieved 20 August 2012.
  20. id=the-overlanders-film-score-mc0002367341 label=John Ireland: The Overlanders, film score/ The Overlanders at AllMusic. Retrieved 29 April 2015.
  21. "Watt Talks on Plans For Australian Films.". The Mail. Adelaide: National Library of Australia. 21 December 1946. p. 9 Supplement: SUPPLEMENT TO "THE MAIL" MAGAZINE. Retrieved 14 February 2012.
  22. Brian McFarlane, An Autobiography of British Cinema, Metheun 1997 p439
  23. "New films reviewed.". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 30 September 1946. p. 10. Retrieved 20 August 2012.
  24. "'Outlaw' gets past censors". The Daily News. Perth: National Library of Australia. 15 February 1947. p. 14 Edition: first edition. Retrieved 20 August 2012.
  25. Robert Murphy, Realism and Tinsel: Cinema and Society in Britain 1939-48 2003 p209
  26. "Hollywood Sneaks In 15 Films on '25 Best' List of Arty Britain". The Washington Post. 15 Jan 1947. p. 2.
  27. ""The Overlanders'" Damn Was Not For Americans.". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 21 December 1946. p. 3. Retrieved 20 August 2012.
  28. "The World This Week.". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 1 January 1947. p. 1 Supplement: Playtime. Retrieved 20 August 2012.
  30. British Move In on Aussie Motion Picture Making: Will Have 2 Units There Before 1947 Pope, Quentin. Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963) [Chicago, Ill] 30 June 1946: e7.
  31. "Actress Says Goodbye To Films.". The Advertiser. Adelaide: National Library of Australia. 17 April 1947. p. 1. Retrieved 14 February 2012.
  32. "Umbrella Entertainment". Retrieved 4 May 2013.

Further reading

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