Cessnock Library column Unlocking the Past: When soldiers became cinema stars

LABOUR: Soldiers from the Greta Army Camp were enlisted to work on the set of Ealing Studios' 1948 production Eureka Stockade. Picture courtesy Australian War Memorial.
LABOUR: Soldiers from the Greta Army Camp were enlisted to work on the set of Ealing Studios' 1948 production Eureka Stockade. Picture courtesy Australian War Memorial.

In January 1947 the Hunter Valley was abuzz with film fever. The famed English film company, Ealing Studios, was to shoot a film in Australia starring our own home-grown international cinema star, Chips Rafferty.

The film was Eureka Stockade, a re-telling of the 1854 rebellion on the Ballarat goldfields. Chips was to be supported by an English cast, who were flown out to Australia, along with cameramen, sound engineers, two directors and other technical staff.

ICON: Eureka Stockade star Chips Rafferty pictured in 1948.

ICON: Eureka Stockade star Chips Rafferty pictured in 1948.

The film would be the most expensive and most ambitious ever produced in Australia.

After visiting potential sites across NSW, a property belonging to Mr. C. Taylor at Blind Creek, Glendonbrook just outside Singleton was chosen. A replica of the Victorian gold diggings was constructed, along with a complete reproduction of the village of Ballarat.

The director, Harry Watt, approached the Australian military asking for soldiers from the nearby Greta Military Camp to be made available to work on the film set. Although World War II was over, soldiers were still on site at Greta, with the camp now being used as a training base for troops joining the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan.

Their expertise with explosives was just what was needed. The soil had to be blasted to resemble a gold digging site. Hundreds of soldiers would also be perfect as extras in background scenes and those with horse riding skills were particularly sought out.

The military agreed. Ealing Studios promised they would re-pay the Australian government’s co-operation by making a professional recruitment film for them to use.

ROLL UP: An original Eureka Stockade poster.

ROLL UP: An original Eureka Stockade poster.

Despite soldiers being keen for a moment of cinematic glory, by late 1948 a media controversy had erupted.

Why, asked publications such as tabloid newspaper Smith’s Weekly, were soldiers being paid from the taxpayer’s purse to pursue a film career? Even worse, the soldiers were doing menial work building sets and working as cheap on-set labourers.

Smith’s Weekly was relentless and their pressure led to questions being asked in the Australian parliament by Country Party Senator Walter Cooper. It ended up being a media storm in a tea cup.

The Greta soldiers kept up their film work, but the director Harry Watt wasn’t happy. Whe  filming finished he jumped on a plane and flew straight back to London. Ealing Studios didn’t ever make the recruitment film.