The Back of Beyond (1954): Pre-Production Contexts

In her book on The Back of Beyond (1954), Sylvia Lawson describes John Heyer’s Shell Film Unit production as “a key moment in Australian film history in general, not just in the special register of documentary”. [1] Lawson considers the film across a history of viewing and reviewing, and in a variety of teaching situations pointing to “its emotional charge, even while it changes with history and distance. Seeming to connect differently each time with the moment in which I’m watching”. [2] Lawson goes on to account for the film in terms of Heyer’s career in government filmmaking prior to joining Shell, the film’s belonging and departing from the Griersonian documentary tradition, its textual qualities and reception, as well as some glimpses into the production and enduring presence of the film in Australian culture.

In this essay I will further contextualise the film within the larger Shell organization, and the filmmaking undertaken in Australia at the time, by closely examining the detailed pre-production efforts of Heyer and Shell prior to a foot of film being shot. My aim is to demonstrate how the film was deeply embedded in the 1950s Australian culture from which it emerged.

In the early 1930s, publicity and public relations strategies in large commercial organisations were gaining momentum. There was a marked shift towards the use of sponsored documentary films, experimental films, cartoons and other visual media for promotion. In 1933 John Grierson, the father of the British Documentary Movement, was asked to advise Shell petroleum on the use of film for publicity purposes. [3] Grierson made many recommendations about a large program of publicity, including setting up a permanent film unit within the company in the same vein as the units he headed at the Empire Marketing Board and the General Post Office. The unit was established in 1934 with Alexander Wolcough in charge, and with Edgar Anstey who had worked with Grierson at both the Empire Marketing board and the G.P.O. Film Unit. Anstey was best known for Granton Trawler (1934) and later for his and Arthur Elton’s Housing Problems (1935). Anstey’s role at Shell was later taken up by Elton, who cemented the Unit’s name as the leading technical documentary film production unit in the world.

Part of the Shell’s operations included the funding of several satellite Shell Film units around the globe. These included units in Venezuela, Egypt, Nigeria, South East Asia and Australia. To accompany these Units were a series of film libraries to screen and distribute products made locally or that had been sent out from London. The setting up of the Australian unit began when Geoffrey Bell, an experienced Director from London, visited Australia and produced Peter Witchurch’s Alice Through the Centre (1950), David Bilcock’s Around a Gum Tree (1949) and Geoff Collings and Shan Benson’s Farming for the Future (1949), all for Shell. Bell would have reported on the viability of Shell setting up a Unit in Australia.

A position of Producer was advertised in 1948 to which John Heyer, then Senior Producer at the Films Division, Department of Information, successfully applied. [4] Heyer produced films for Shell including Geoffrey Powell’s Rankin Springs is West (1950), Cecil Holmes’ first Australian film The Food Machine (1952), and a collection of short instructional films with titles such as Shellubrication (1951), Saving Petrol: Correct Driving (1952) and Getting out of Trouble (1954).

Heyer’s initial role was as Producer of the Shell Film Unit, commencing work on the 15th November 1948. In some sense, Heyer was the unit, aided by newcomer Max Lemon whose only previous film experience was as a child actor playing the junior role to Ken Wayne’s Barney in Charles Chauvel’s Sons of Matthew (1949). The other permanent member of the Unit was Erica Hill, Heyer’s personal assistant in the Shell office in Sydney. Initially Heyer was to answer to Frank Cave, Head of Advertising and Marketing, as an immediate supervisor for expenditure. [5] Heyer was also answerable to George (Lewis) Luxton, Managing Director, Shell Australia, Chair of an already existent Film Committee that met once a month in Luxton’s office in Melbourne. Other members of this committee included Cave, John Blanch, Head of Public Relations and Staff development and D.A. Whitehead, Manager of Personnel. The various Departments of Shell would submit suggestions or requests to the Film Committee and, depending on what was available from within the international Shell organisation, the Committee could approve of new films to be made or request that a film made by the Unit in London be brought out to Australia.

Shell had, in the main, employed Heyer to put together a major film that would do credit to Australia and to associate Shell with Australia. It may have been the potential for a great film that made Heyer shift into the Director’s seat for this film and, from its infancy, The Back of Beyond was a film that that was to have the full and unequivocal support of Shell. However, the budget was set at £12, 000. Within this budget Heyer began investigating the possibility of making a film similar to his Department of Information film The Valley is Ours (1948), set on a farm or perhaps closer to the coast to avoid prohibitive budget requirements. Heyer’s role was to direct and produce, that is coordinate, the bringing together of the best people available in Australia to make a film that would promote Shell’s interests in this country.

The film Committee of Shell decided that Heyer should proceed immediately with the research for this film. It was Rob Jolley of Shell Public Relations, Adelaide, who suggested to Heyer that the community in the area north of Adelaide provided “a cross section of people and you had a spirit of community all spread over this distance, which immediately brought out a lot of aspects of the best communities”. [6] In this way, the inland community around the Birdsville Track suggested itself as a model that recalled The Valley is Ours. But this area of outback Australia was already enjoying some currency in journalistic and literary circles, a phenomenon that aided Heyer’s initial research.

In the 1 March 1948 issue of Walkabout, the journal of the Australian Geographical Society, George Farwell, who made his name as a travel writer with books such as Land of Mirage and Traveller’s Tracks, reported on a journey he took along the Birdsville Track. [7] Farwell traveled the track with a predecessor of Tom Kruse, the eventual central character of The Back of Beyond: Ken Crombie. He followed this former mailman because “he had been born in this country, knew it as a blackfellow [sic] knows his hunting grounds, and had once spent three years driving the mails between Birdsville and Maree”. [8] Farwell’s report includes a visit to Dulkaninna Station, Etadinna Station, the Kopperamanna Mission ruins, Oorawillanie Sandhill, Mungerannie, and Clifton Hills, all later used as locations in The Back of Beyond.

As part of this issue, Walkabout included a Photographic Supplement to “The Birdsville Track”, including images of Mungerannie Sandhill, a truck crossing a flooded area near Clifton Hills, the hot water bores near Mount Gason homestead, the crumbling Kopperamana Mission and Ken Crombie in front of the remains of a mail truck “which he ‘drove to death on the track’”, as well as the map of Australia that appears at the opening of The Back of Beyond. [9] In January 1949, Walkabout followed up Farwell’s report with an article by Charles H. Holmes, the journal’s Managing Editor, entitled “Australia’s Outback Mail Services”. This article reports on a host of mail runs such as the one from Laura, just inland from Cooktown, to Coen in North-East Queensland. In this article, Holmes characterises Tom Kruse, a carrier who operates between Marree and Birdsville, using Farwell’s earlier description:

Easy-going, cheery and never rattled, he gives the impression of always having plenty of time to spare. Yet the contract stipulates that he cover the distance in a little over two days each way – through creeks with difficult sandy bottoms when they are not unpredictable running a banker, over high sandhills that call for lightning low-gear work, across gibber plains that dazzle the eyes, canegrass swamps and miles of boggy red soil which rains make almost impassable. But no one ever has any doubts that he will get through. [10]

Holmes’ article has accompanying photographs of Kruse, his Leyland truck (later used in the majority of The Back of Beyond), an aerial shot of the Diamantina, and a mail contractor employing oil drums attached to a mail car to float it across a flooded river.

In November 1950 Heyer contacted Rob Jolley, Shell Adelaide Publicity Manager, to ask him to send a letter on to Joe Waites, the Shell representative in Port Augusta (servicing the larger part of South Australia), asking for answers to a host of questions designed to commence the investigation into the possibility of making a film based on Kruse. Heyer asked for:

(a) A short description of Kruse’s activities, covering such points as the type of vehicle he uses, the route he takes, the approximate number of calls he makes along the route, the time it takes him to traverse the route and the type of country and the conditions over which he travels.
(b) Does he run on a regular schedule leaving Marree and/or Birdsville on definite dates? If so, what are the dates?
(c) Is there any time of the year when he does not operate? If so, when?
(d) What would be a typical load he would carry, both in total weight and items. That is, can you indicate the type of goods he carries?
(e) Is his truck fitted with radio receiver and/or transmitter?
(f) Does he run one truck or a series of trucks?
(g) Which is his home town, Maree, Birdsville or neither?
(h) Is his route impassable for any period of the year because of the wet season? If so, what is this period?
(i) Has he been operating long? If so, for how long?
(j) Is there at present any indication that he will cease operating?
(k) Does he travel alone, or does he take a companion? If so, who is his companion?
(l) Did Kruse start this service, or did somebody else start it before him? If so, who and for how long did they conduct it?
(m) Any other information would be very useful. [11]

Waites provided answers to all these questions. He reported that Cooper’s Creek and the Diamantina River were in flood and that a large detour from the track had to be taken. This detour was not without its dangers. The boat that Kruse uses had, at one time, sunk, fortunately in shallow water because Kruse, who cannot swim, and the goods, were saved. At present it seems it will be impossible to cross the Cooper before February or March. The mail runs once a fortnight. Kruse operates a Leyland truck and two “Blitz” vehicles on the Birdsville side of the Creek and one Blitz on the Marree side. Usually he runs the Leyland, capable of carrying 8 tons, and one Blitz, capable of carrying 5 tons. Seven calls are made between Marree and Birdsville and at present the trip takes about 8 days – normally about 4. The country is poor, consisting of sandhills and Sturt’s Stony Desert. The only trees are dead ones in the usually dry bed of Cooper’s Creek and some live ones around waterholes in the Diamantina. The run operates on a fortnightly schedule. For example, Kruse left Marree on Friday 10 November 1950, and will be leaving each fortnight from that date. Kruse operates all year round. He carries mainly stores such as tinned groceries as well as beer, fuel, mail and chaff and there no refueling points, accommodation or food available between Marree and Birdsville. He has a licence for a transmitter but at the present isn’t using one. Kruse lives in Marree. He has operated this run himself, for the last three years and there is no indication that he will cease. He does have a companion but at present he is operating alone while an Aboriginal employee operates another truck driving with his wife and children. This is Waites’ reply to questions (l) and (m):

Originally the trip was made with horse-drawn vehicles. In 1915 S. Kidman, later Sir Sidney Kidman, put two motor vehicles on the road. These carried on for only a few years and it reverted to the old order. Later, mail only was carried by motor vehicle and goods transported by camels in charge of Afghan camel-drivers. In 1936 H. [Harry] Ding, then of Yunta, put trucks on the road and commenced carrying both goods and mail. Kruse was his original driver. The camel drivers, apparently concerned at losing the carrying, offered a little, active resistance to such tricks as laying broken glass, etc. in the wheel tracks of the road. However, the trucks continued and some three years ago it was taken over by Kruse.
(m) Last year the P.M.G. Department decided to make a film on this subject and asked G. Farwell to write the script for it. I understand that Farwell has written the script. They decided that September or October would be the best time of the year to make the film and intended to make it during those months last year. However, the film was not made. Why – I do not know – though possibly because the Cooper was in flood. [12]

As early as November 1950, Heyer began calling on some old friends for assistance. He wrote to Stanley Hawes, then Head of the Films Division, Department of the Interior, asking him for a copy of Farwell’s script that Waites had told him about. He then telephoned E.J. Brereton, still with the Postmaster-General’s Department at Treasury Gardens, Melbourne, and an old friend from the production of Journey of a Nation, to ask him for a copy of the treatment that the Department had asked Farwell to prepare for them. Later in December, Heyer met with Farwell to discuss his trips and research into the Marree to Birdsville mail run also finding out that Farwell had just completed his book Land of Mirage which Heyer immediately asked the publishers Cassell and Company for a copy of. In December Heyer asked Rob Jolley to obtain maps of the area surrounding the Track including “physical features such as mountains, deserts and valleys, metalliferous features such as minerals and metals, agricultural features such as rainfall and winds and historical features such as explorer’s tracks”. As early as December 1950 the pre-production project reference code for the Film Unit was TK (Tom Kruse).

In 1951, the research and other pre-production intensified. In that year Heyer bought a swag of books on and around the topic. Farwell’s Land of Mirage was published at the end of 1950. Heyer also obtained Farwell’s earlier Traveller’s Tracks and The Outside Track. He also bought Ernestine Hill’s The Territory and Flying Doctor Calling, Charles P. Mountford’s Brown Men and Red Sand, C.J. Madigan’s Crossing the Dead Heart, Arthur Groom’s I Saw a Strange Land and T.G.H. Strehlow’s Aranda Traditions. [13] The books by Mountford and Groom, in particular, provided useful illustrations that acted as models for Heyer’s imagining of what the film would look like.

In March 1950, the Shell Film Committee met in Melbourne to discuss forthcoming projects. Top of the list was the “Tom Kruse film” that Heyer had been developing. It was decided that the film should go ahead. Concerned with how the initial contacts were to be made with the inhabitants of the Birdsville Track and Tom Kruse in particular, Heyer sought guidance from Bob Jolley. From his earlier experiences in films such as The Valley is Ours, The Overlanders and Rankin’s Springs is West, where the success or failure of productions often depended in the support of local communities, Heyer was concerned that the right approach be taken so as not to jeopardise the project. On the 6th of March Heyer wrote to Jolley:

We have always found in film production that the basis of the early introductions has a strong bearing on the success of the film. If the early negotiations get away to a bad start it is very difficult to correct them and such a start can easily be the death knell of the production. I would like to stress this point because it is one of those things that unless you have seen it in operation it is difficult to comprehend the seriousness of its implications.

So our problem now Bob is should I blow into Marree and introduce myself to Kruse or should I be introduced by Waites. It all depends of course on Waites’ relationship with Kruse – if he is on personal terms or merely business terms …

We intend this film to be a major effort – providing of course Kruse will collaborate – that’s why I want to be careful about not bungling our initial steps. I know by bitter experience how such can easily jeopardise and in some cases ruin a production. [14]

Heyer and Jolley both found it difficult ascertaining when it would be possible to meet up with Kruse. The area was experiencing some of its worst flooding since 1942, making the crossing of the Cooper’s Creek at the Kopperamanna Crossing on the Track impossible. The timing of the initial trip needed to coincide with the abating of flood waters. Heyer also needed to meet up with Kruse, a task that was going to prove slippery over the next couple of years. It was decided that Heyer would meet up with Kruse when he next visited Adelaide to organise for Heyer to travel with Kruse on one of his trips up the Track. Heyer and Jolley awaited on some word from Kruse. While the practical planning of the first research trip was underway, Heyer set out to gather together people who he felt were appropriate for putting together a shooting script and treatment. Douglas Stewart was the first “behind the scenes” contributor to come on board. Stewart was undoubtedly the doyen of Australian literary culture at the time, successfully straddling establishment institutions such as in his roles as editor of the annual collection Australian Poetry and short story collection Coast to Coast as well as reader and commissioning editor for Angus and Robertson. More specifically, at the time he became involved in Heyer’s film production Stewart belonged to the avant-garde of his time with the verse experiments “Glencoe” (1947) and “Worsley Enchanted” (1948) and famous the radio play Fire on the Snow (1941), and the verse drama Shipwreck (1948), and was about to publish his best-known radio play Ned Kelly (1952). [15] From 1940-60 he was editor of The Bulletin’s “Red Page”, a radical nationalist publication that had earned its reputation in the 1890s, and, although probably in decline by the post-World War II period, remained a hub of Australian poetry publication. In 1955 Stewart published The Birdsville Track and Other Poems.

On the 12th of March 1951 Heyer wrote to Roland Robinson on Douglas Stewart’s recommendation. Robinson had established himself as an important writer and poet, with landscape imagery a specialty and the reviewer for the Sydney Morning Herald in the 1950s and 60s, his poetry collections Beyond the Grass-Tree Spears (1944) and Language of the Sand: Poems (1949) were well known works but it was probably his collection of Aboriginal myths, Legend and Dreaming (1952) gleaned from his time working in the Northern Territory following the war would have had him on Stewart’s radar as a suitable writer for Heyer. [16] Heyer and Robinson discussed the matter over the phone and Robinson was contracted to Shell as a researcher and script collaborator to provide a loose combination of research and writing that would feed into the finished film alongside Stewart’s contributions as well as that of John and his wife Janet. Heyer sent Robinson the articles and books that he had been read including Groom’s I Saw a Strange Land which Robinson found “an exciting book and torments me with longing for those regions again”. [17] In Groom’s book he read about the Lutheran Missionaries who had founded the Hermannsburg Mission and he read about Vogelsang and Jacob who had set up the Kopperamanna Mission. Robinson’s attention to minutia as well as background in researching proved invaluable to the project. Things such as the fact that “the Birdsville Track had been a natural travelling route from the north to the south for the natives, as they spread their culture by this track” and that “an important circumcision corroboree came down from the north by this way” and that the Track had been a traditional trading route for Aboriginal people. Robinson read the journals of Sturt and Eyre in the Mitchell Library, Sydney, read Farwell’s books and H.H. Finlayson’s Red Centre. [18] He also took Heyer’s advice and read Sergei Eisenstein’s The Film Sense and Pudovkin’s The Film Technique and Film Acting. [19]

Meanwhile Jolley had been tracking Kruse and sent an urgent telegram to Heyer saying he expected Kruse to be in Adelaide on Thursday the 29th of June and could Heyer fly to Adelaide to meet him on the Monday or Tuesday. On July 3, Kruse arrived in Adelaide, so Heyer left Sydney by rail for there. Heyer and Kruse got along well, and the latter happily agreed to participate in a film about himself and the track. Heyer and Kruse arranged to meet up in Marree on August 3 or 17 to coincide with Kruse’s run out of Marree. Heyer and Roland Robinson met on July 19 to prepare for their trip out to the Track. They departed Sydney by car on Saturday 11 August 1951 to arrive in Marree on Wednesday the 15th. Both men departed Marree with Kruse on the 17th and arrived in Birdsville on the 22nd. They returned to Marree on the 28th. Robinson stayed for an extra two weeks working on some rough ideas that he and Heyer had come up with for the film treatment.

Robinson’s experiences on the track were subsequently published in the first volume of his autobiography, The Shift of Sands. Here Robinson recounts the sense of wonder that he felt upon returning to this region as well as a none too subtle, possibly disingenuous rewriting of his take on race relations from a mid 1970s perspective.

Let me be clear from the beginning. I had to produce the kind of script Heyer wanted. This, I could already see, was going to be about the heroic pioneers. If I had had my way, the film would have been about the destruction of a whole region of this continent by the hungry, mean, vulgar, ignorant and materialistic white man. [20]

In the chapter “Back of Beyond”, Robinson tells the story of his and Heyer’s meeting Kruse in Marree, followed by the journey they took with him and his off-sider William Henry on a return trip to Birdsville. Robinson’s account of the trip contains many images and episodes that were to eventuate in The Back of Beyond. These include Tom working on his truck in his backyard in Marree; the arrival, in town, of a camel-drawn buggy; a meeting with Bejah Dervish; the loading of Kruse’s Leyland; the crossing of the Kopperamanna Sanddune aided by a run-up taken on the gibber plain; and the laying of iron plates on the dune. Other episodes include the crossing of the flooded Cooper’s Creek and the meeting with a dingo-hunter called Harry Inkerman and with Old Joe the Rainmaker, characters in the film.

The 1951 trip stirred something exceptional in Heyer’s creative will. He returned to Sydney on 1 September of that year brimful of enthusiasm for a project that he felt would be difficult and time consuming but worth the extra effort. He wrote to Kruse upon his return:

This is just a note to thank you very much indeed for all you did for us. I only hope we did not throw you out too much. I would like you to know that I am very impressed with the possibilities of making an outstanding film. It is obviously not going to be easy but I believe if we persevere and don’t get impatient we will finish up with an exceptional production. (And they tell me I’m not easy to please!) [21]

Heyer’s delight immediately shifted to a concern with maintaining the positive and cooperative relationship with the community around the Track. He wrote to Jolley asking for his assistance in making available some of Shell’s films to the Marree people who had some screening facilities but had had trouble locating films. Heyer’s concern behind this gesture was because he would be calling on their assistance as participants in the production. He wrote that he was “anxious to do anything I can in these early stages to help them”. [22] Heyer was also keen to obtain a radio transmitter because “he would not like to think that the organisation and maintenance of our Unit when we are shooting along the track depended on that amazing conglomeration of tricks and wires that Kruse refers to as a radio”. [23] After some enquiries, Jolley’s off-sider Howard Glen Adkin suggested that they purchase a £160 Traeger set, because it was the one favoured by the Flying Doctor Base stations and because of its reliability.

Heyer’s next task was to return the favours he had promised the people of Marree. Having taken many stills while on this first trip, he proceeded to send copies back to Kruse and Sister Henry at the A.I.M Hostel in Birdsville. He also sent copies of New Horizons, the publication of the New Educational Fellowship of which Heyer was a member, to V.M. Barlow, the Police Sergeant at Birdsville, following a conversation the two had about educational concerns. Heyer also provided some stills for the Shell House Journal. From this point on, all the stills relating to the production were labelled with a code and number e.g. TK 66. As the pre-production work began to escalate towards the end of 1951, Heyer began the negotiations to obtain permission from Shell for Janet Heyer to accompany the Unit on the shooting of the film. To persuade Shell that this was a viable proposition, he suggested that Janet travel with him on the “organising trip” in the beginning of March 1952 “so that she will get a first-hand idea of local food supplies and conditions and at the same time give me company during the long drive and give me assistance in Marree – physical help in arranging details and social help in winning over the co-operation of the people”. [24] Heyer nominated Janet as a “cook-cum-camp housekeeper” for the Unit – replacing Heyer’s usual offside, Bern Gandy, who was unavailable – because she was known to members of the Unit, she knew the country from the previous trips, she and Heyer had taken in far west New South Wales and Queensland, and she had experience running film unit camps as well as understanding the filmmaking process. D.A Whitehead, Personnel Manager, replied that, although it was against company policy but given the exceptional circumstances, he would permit Janet to accompany Heyer on the organising trip, to see how that worked out before the question of the later trip is considered.

A Carrier Called Kruse
By October 1951 Heyer, Robinson and Stewart had almost completed a draft script. Robinson had, in particular, worked extremely hard to bring together the experiences of the trip he and Heyer took with Kruse and Henry. Stewart’s contribution was, initially, to provide a narrative structure upon which to build the shooting script. His first inclination was to draw upon what he saw as a recurring structure of Joseph Conrad’s novels. On 15 October 1951, he wrote in his notes on A Carrier Called Kruse:

The basic plan of this film if you are to concentrate on Kruse as the central figure, must essentially be that of Conrad’s Typhoon and The Nigger of the Narcissus: a man against the desert, as Conrad gives you a man against the sea. Without faking up a drama and making Kruse into a professional actor you can’t have anything quite like the sick nigger in The Nigger or the Chinese coolies in Typhoon deepening the drama of the sea and the collateral drama of character by setting up situations of mutiny. But you can still get an effect very much like that of old Singleton in The Nigger and Captain McWhirr in Typhoon: of a man’s character, especially his fortitude, displayed in a journey through the antagonistic elements … It is not necessary to follow his journey from Marree to Birdsville mile by mile or day by day; every advantage for free movement in time and space that the camera offers should, of course, be used: but whatever liberties are taken, the basic movement of the film should always keep pressing from Marree to Birdsville and every incident that is included – must illustrate, deepen and broaden this single theme; Kruse in his truck fighting the desert from Marree to Birdsville; Kruse as a heroic character (I don’t mean in a high-falutin way) arriving at Birdsville in triumph. [25]

More specifically, Stewart believed that the film, while maintaining a heroic journey as the structuring principle, should also rely on “three or four incidents leading up to a major struggle and then the final arrival at Birdsville”. [26] The emphasis on the “incident” or episode comes directly from Heyer and Robinson’s experiences with Kruse on the Track, but was picked up most distinctly by Robinson who had, since the initial trip, been working on gathering together a history of the Track that had led him to conceive of the narrative in terms of the distinct stories that emerged from particular places along it. It is also possible that Heyer was drawing on Robert Flaherty’s ‘humanity against the elements’ documentaries Nanook of the North (1922) and Moana: A Romance of the Golden Age (1926), with their episodic structures. It was established by October 1951 that the shooting script would include eleven episodes or sequences. These were:

1. An Introduction

Desert country – the vanished race – Leichhardt and Burke and Wills perished, buried beneath the sand and the salt – the ruins of the pioneers – the skeletons of their mobs – and across it all the wheelmarks of the explorers, pioneers and the few who remain. The hardly discernible track that runs for 330 miles to join the briney bubbling springs of Marree with the milky water of a Diamantina soak at Birdsville.

2. Fighting a Sandhill
3. A Station
4. In Marree
5. Marree to the Cooper
6. The Cooper Crossing.
7. Kopperamanna
8. Generalisation
– on and on
– a chapter summarising the major (in terms of distance) part of the trip.
9. The Dead man
10. The Breakdown
– clutch plate
11. Birdsville
– reaction to his arrival
– A.I.M. Sister advises Marree on radio
– The hotel meal has potatoes again[27]

From his very first research into the life along the track, Robinson had been working on distinct episodes that would contribute to the film. One of these, from the earliest research, was the Kopperamana Mission episode. From early in May 1951, Robinson was struck by the account of the Lutheran missionaries Vogelsang and Jacob in Groom’s I Saw a Strange Land. He wrote to Heyer:

I feel that the Lutheran missionaries Vogelsang and Jacob are very significant figures in the history of “the track” – Vogelsang striding between the warring tribes with a flashing sword and conqueror’s words – and quelling them. What a journey that was of the missionaries who founded the Hermannsburg Mission in Groom’s book! The subject scares me, scares me that I may not do justice to it, but I’ll do my best. [28]

By the end of 1951, Robinson had completed a draft of the Kopperamana Mission sequence, the Cooper Crossing sequence and the Dead Man sequence (which was ultimately not to find its way into the final film). Some attention to these early drafts is useful.

The Kopperamana Mission sequence provided an opportunity for Robinson to combine his enthusiasm for the myth of the Lutheran Missionaries and his emerging interest in the stories that have emerged from encounters between white settlers and Aboriginal communities. Robinson’s story is quite similar to that employed in the final film. In Robinson’s treatment for this sequence, Kruse, Henry and their passenger Uley drive across the Kopperamana Sandridge and happen upon a “dogger” or dingo hunter who is camped in the ruins of the Mission. As in the completed film, the conversation comes around to the subject of the ruins being haunted, which Tom attributes to Father Vogelsang. The wind howling through the ruins leads to the voices of a choir singing in the Dieri dialect to be replaced by the imagined voice of Vogelsang who speaks in prayer. The images that accompany the voice and the re-emerged singing are of the pulpit and empty pews in the church itself. Robinson’s draft also contains the dogger exclaiming “Dorgs! dorgs! dorgs! That’s all I ever hear about. There’s other things to talk about besides dorgs!”

This earlier version also contained the transceiver relay scene that was to appear in the Cooper Crossing episode of the final film. In this earlier version, Tom relays a message between 8.J.T., the code belonging to a woman and the Flying Doctor Service. Like in the finished film, the woman cannot contact the Service and asks Tom to relay a message. The problem she has is that her husband’s nose has been bleeding for several hours. Tom, of course, obliges. In this version Tom has the call signal N.H.U.6.

The Cooper Crossing episode was always going to be a part of the film. From his earliest research, Robinson was interested in this story because of its historical significance to the area, while Stewart and Heyer saw great dramatic potential in it. This significance and potential arose, in part, from Robinson’s initial research, where he began with the journals of Sturt, Leichhardt, Warburton, Eyre and Burke & Wills. [29] Much of the impetus for the approach taken to the Birdsville region stems from Robinson’s research. Before he and Heyer had even visited the area, Robinson had preformed an imaginary heartland coloured by the narrative of failure that Sturt had employed. Most importantly, it was Sturt’s journal, Two Expeditions into the Interior of South Australia, which provided a framework within which to understand not only the area in which Kruse drove his truck, but also Kruse’s journey itself. [29] In many ways, Sturt’s journal sits well with Stewart’s employment of Conrad as a model for the film. While Conrad provides a basic narrative model, it is the psychological aspect of Sturt’s writing, something Ross Gibson calls “a country of the mind”, that emphasises how Sturt was prepared to invest his descriptions of the landscape with his own emotions, which derive from his experience in the country”. [30]

“The Dead Man”, later “The Perish”, was an episode that stemmed from the journals of the explorers, as well as the tales that Heyer and Robinson heard when they travelled with Kruse. The December 1951 version of the treatment reads:

There are many stories of men who have perished along the Birdsville Track. It is this fact and continual danger which perhaps, more than anything else, shapes the lives and actions of everyone in the area. It is the constant menace that fundamentally influences how they move, the way they behave to each other, and the way they think. There are perish stories – of prospectors who got lost – new chums who didn’t hobble their camels – drovers whose horses collapsed. Only last Christmas, 1950, William Henry who has driven the district for years nearly perished when a truck he was driving got bogged in the Cooper and he tried to walk to the nearest Station, 35 miles away. The following is one of these many perish incidents, it happened two years ago.

“The Perish” runs something like this. Kruse is travelling along the Track when he spots something moving in the distance. As he moves closer the outline of an elderly woman be can be discerned walking towards him. She is in a simple house frock and apron. She is nearly exhausted. Tom gives her food and water as she tells him that she has walked for three days. Her husband left last week to locate some horse but never returned. She followed his footprints but they became blown over with sand. She knew of Tom’s schedule so she then headed for the Track. Tom takes the woman back to her station and then sets off with William Henry to find her husband. Tom and William follow the tracks until they disappear again. William then walks ahead of the truck “tracing the signs unrecognisable to the white man”. [31] Tom follows in the truck until they come to a dry creek bed. There in the creek is the man propped up on a slab of granite, dead. Tom and William bury the man and put a stone over his grave. This sequence was to have prefigured what Stewart and Heyer considered “the climax of the film”. It was to provide the last physical struggle that Kruse was to overcome, and is basically the story of the truck lurching on a dry riverbed crossing and becoming bogged.

While Tom attends to the truck, William Henry lights a fire and sets up a gramophone while he waits for the billy to boil and some steak to cook. After a while some Aboriginal men appear. Tom and William share their food as night falls. The Aboriginal men build a fire and in response to the music from the gramophone begin “beating time and dancing”. One of the men starts playing a didgeridoo as Tom continues to work on the truck. When he has reloaded the now stabilised truck, Tom joins the others, sits down cross-legged and sings a song called “Mighty Diamantina”, to the delight of the Aboriginal men. When he finishes the song he packs up climbs aboard the truck and waves as he drives off down the river bed and disappears around a bend. [32] These two sequences were not to make it into the final film.

By February 1952, John and Janet began preparing for the second trip with Kruse to scout for locations and to visit the Kopperamana ruins that had not been visited on the initial trip. The Heyers employed a Mrs Smedley to stay in Sydney and look after their two young children, Elizabeth and Frederick Heyer, while their parents were away. Heyer wrote to Rob Jolley in mid February, sounding him out about some skeletons of pre-historic animals in the Adelaide Museum that Robinson had told him about that he may want to use in the film, as well as the possibility that the Unit may want to shoot some scenes in the Adelaide G.P.O. On 8 March, Heyer and Janet left for the Track but had difficulty locating Kruse. Finally, they found the elusive mailman 110 miles south of Birdsville; they all travelled back to Birdsville before heading down to Marree on Kruse’s regular run. Together they decided on locations appropriate to the sequences that were in the draft of the treatment. This trip also alerted Heyer to another factor that he had not counted on, and that he could never have foreseen affecting the production as much as it would. The area was now in the grip of a severe drought. He wrote to A.H.O Publicity on 7 April, two days after returning, that “there is now little chance of rain falling this year which means the area is in for a bad time. From the point of view of films, it means that conditions for the Unit will be at zero”. [33] The fear here was that the extended drought would make for oppressive desert-like conditions in a region already known for unforgiving circumstances.

While Heyer and Janet scouted for suitable locations with Kruse, Robinson was back in Sydney working away on fuller versions of the sequences under consideration. When Heyer returned, the Kopperamanna sequence was waiting for him. He was very impressed with the inclusion of a first-person canto spoken by what at this stage was a character called Uley.

Heyer, upon his return, continued to maintain good relations with the locals on the Track. He sent photographs he had taken back to the Wilson’s at Clifton Hills, Station, photographs of the Kruse children to Tom’s wife Valm, for Clem Parsons at Betootat, to Monty Scobie at Marree, Sergeant Barlow at Birdsville, the Turnbull’s at Finniss Springs Mission, the Bell’s at Dulkaninna, Bejah Dervish and a host of images for the Shell House magazine and the Touring Service. [34] For Max Bowden at Birdsville, Heyer did a special favour. Bowden asked Heyer to see if he could find a copy of Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” and photographs of Dorothy Lamour and Jane Russell. Heyer wrote to Paramount Pictures in Sydney to obtain the images, and was successful in providing the Lamour photo, although he was unable to obtain one of Russell. [35] In short, Heyer went to great lengths to maintain the good relations that he and Janet had established with the community along the Track.

The Back of Beyond Unit
In April 1952 the Shell Film Review announced to employees:

This year we … expect to release the feature documentary, A Carrier Called Kruse – a general interest subject dealing with Central Australia’s Birdsville Track – a stock route that runs from Marree, on the Central Australian Railway, to Birdsville, the most isolated town in the world, situated just inside the Queensland border. Central character will be mailman, Tom Kruse. [36]

On 27 June 1952, Heyer wrote to Kruse with an itinerary proposed for the shoot, beginning in the month of August. Both men had agreed that this would give Heyer enough time to organise a shooting unit for when Tom would be around. Heyer also mentioned that he was attempting to obtain an RAAF helicopter to enable the aerial shots. The itinerary went like this:

August 21 Heyer and Stewart depart Sydney.
August 26 Heyer and Stewart arrive Marree.
August 27 Heyer and Kruse depart Marree in Heyer’s car to pick out locations, visit old Kopperamana and generally line up all arrangements and pick out all shooting spots so that shooting can start as soon as main unit arrives in Marree on Sept. 19th.
August 29 Stewart departs with Monty Scobie on mail truck for Birdsville. (O.K?) Stewart is the main writer I am using and just needs to do the trip up and back and will then return to Sydney. He will not stay for the shooting.
Sept. 19 Truck with Camera Equipment, etc. arrives Marree by (definite) road from Sydney and technicians arrive by train from Adelaide.
Sept. 20 Start shooting. This period Sept. 20th to approx. October (definite)15th should cover the main shooting and complete 80% of the work. The first two or three days would be around Marree and the remainder out along the track.
Oct. 15 Main unit returns and departs for Sydney. Small unit (approx.)(call it the Second Unit) continues along the track picking up odd shots.
Oct. 29 Meet up with helicopter and spend three or four days (approx.)doing aerial shooting.
Nov. 5 All shooting completed; second unit returns to Marree (approx.) and thence to Sydney.

The full unit was to consist of a cameraman, assistant cameraman, assistant director, electrician, sound man, assistant sound man, truck driver, John and Janet Heyer.

Heyer had ordered from America 2,000 feet of 35mm infra red raw stock film, in either the Kodak or Dupont stock, for the envisaged night shooting. However, due to shipping costs and the exchange rate at the time, the cost was prohibitive. Heyer then asked if Shell in London could make some available, and airmail it out to the Unit. The stock was never obtained, so the Unit had to make do with Kodak Plus X 35mm film stock for the whole shoot. [37]

Heyer’s other concern at this time was to locate some dinosaur bones for the opening images. He wrote to Rob Jolley on 21 July 1952 to ask him to obtain a “prehistoric monster” from the Adelaide Museum. Roland Robinson had seen some prehistoric bones there and Heyer has been told by the people at the Sydney Museum that Adelaide had what they were after. Following investigations by Jolley’s offsider Howard Adkin it was discovered that there were no such fearsome creatures in the South Australia area and that the Giant Emu and the Hippopotamus-sized wombat known as the Diprotodon was the closest that were in existence. With much disappointment it was decided that the advice of Mr Hale, Director of the Adelaide Museum, was probably the best that could be done. That was to “take a close-up of the smaller wombat skull which to the layman is identical”. [38] Heyer later abandoned the idea, and used the skull of a cow and that of a human being.

The Unit had a five-ton table top truck adapted from the standard Ford model for the shoot. The truck was supplied by Shell Operations Division. It had a hard-top with tarpaulin sides and an ex-army Ford V8 engine, a searchlight generator mounted on the front to power the lights and significant storage space to house the sleeping bags, blankets, pillows, pannikins and cutlery that the unit required. The table top platform was to enable shooting and could be adapted to attach a tower for high-angle shots. The trailer attached to the truck housed an aeroplane engine replete with propeller as an unsophisticated wind machine. Frank Dudgeon was the Shell staff driver for the unit.

Cameraman Ross Wood was the first person that Heyer considered for the Birdsville Track film. Ross and another eight Australians, including the experienced electrician/gaffer Warren Mearns, were at the time employed on the UA/Aspen Production of Return to Paradise (1953) directed by Mark Robson, produced by Robert Wise and starring Gary Cooper, Barry Jones, Roberta Haynes and Moira MacDonald. Wood and Mearns were seconded from Supreme Sound Studios, an organisation run by Mervyn Murphy and Gwen Oatley that hired staff, equipment and their own facilities out to the Film Division and to commercial productions such as those undertaken by Shell.

Wood, has already made a name for himself with twenty years experience in film production at both the newsreel companies, Movietone and Cinesound and on Cecil Holmes’ feature Captain Thunderbolt (1953). Wood went on to make King of the Coral Sea (1954) with Lee Robinson, Long John Silver (1954) with Byron Haskin, Three in One (1957) for Cecil Holmes and On the Beach (1959) with Stanley Kramer. Wood was considered by Heyer to be the best cameraman in Australia at the time.

Warren Mearns had also established himself within a struggling industry. He began his career in 1949 on the production of Bitter Springs when Ealing studios were located at Pagewood studios in Sydney. On this production he dabbled in assisting on the lighting for the interiors. He later worked on Maslyn Williams’ Mike and Stefani (1952) for the Film Division, Department of Information before joining the large technical team working underneath Charles G. Clarke who directed the photography for Lewis Milestone’s Kangaroo (1952) before joining Wood in assisting Winton C. Hoch, the recent Academy Award winning photographer of John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952), on the Samoan location shooting for Return to Paradise.

Ross Wood and Warren Mearns were to have departed Sydney by car with the Shell vehicles but due to delays with the Samoan shoot were to depart with Max Lemon, John Heath and Keith Loone. It was arranged that on Wednesday 17 September, Wood, Lemon, Heath and Loone would depart Sydney for Adelaide aboard the T.A.A. Cannonball Service departing at 10.10 a.m. and after a night’s stay in Adelaide would depart from Marree aboard the train.

As it eventuated, Woods and Mearns missed the T.A.A. flight because of their late arrival in Sydney from Fiji. The date of their arrival in Adelaide was shifted from the 17th to the 19th of September, with Rob Jolley again making the new arrangements. It was now decided that Heyer would drive from Marree to Leigh Creek to meet the T.A.A. Channel Service plane that departed Adelaide at 5.30 a.m. to commence the shooting on the 20th as originally planned.

Meanwhile Mervyn Murphy had been developing some special equipment, including the wind machine towed by the Shell truck, for the Unit. He wasn’t entirely happy with what he had come up with so he chartered a Marshall Airways flight to Marree to check the equipment. He decided to take sound engineer Hans Wetzel – who worked with Murphy, and whom Heyer knew from Ealing Studios at Pagewood – with him on the plane piloted by the legendary figure of Warren Penny on the 20th of September. [39] Murphy and Wetzel had hand built a sound recording device for Heyer, and they wanted to make sure that this device was fully operational and that the Unit understood how it worked. [40] Instead of Wood and Mearns taking a separate flight to Adelaide the following day they accompanied Murphy and Wetzel to Marree. The story goes that Penny, with the rest of the crew on board, buzzed the Marree pub to let Heyer, George Heath and Max Lemon know that they were arriving. Those waiting in the pub quickly dashed out to their cars, driving out to the airfield. With their headlights on, they set a grid for Penny to know where the field was. In the morning when the whole crew went out to unload the plane they discovered that they had actually set the cars at a right-angle to the runway and the plane had landed across the runway rather than on it. The plane had also come to a stop a few meters from the barbed-wire that fenced off the airfield.

While Heyer was waiting for Woods and the others to arrive, Douglas Stewart had completed his trip with Monty Scobie back to Marree from Birdsville and had caught a train from there back to Adelaide before returning to Sydney on the 9th of September. He had immediately leapt into writing with great enthusiasm for the material he had garnered for his poetry and the film. On the 19th he sent Heyer a copy of the Birdsville Track poems which he thought would help in putting together the commentary for the film. He wanted to get these to Heyer while he was shooting in case the poems suggested any further shooting. He wrote:

By God’s grace the country was all so new and exciting to me that there was a poem in every stone: the whole sequence of poems came out in one blind rush, in four or five days – exactly the way Glencoe was written, the total effect much like Glencoe. So seeing you were hoping for something like Glencoe I hope you’ll be pleased with this lot. I don’t expect you to use all of course – just what fits in. [41]

Stewart also suggested to Heyer that because his original brief, which was to sub-edit Roland’s work, had been extended, that he might like to increase his fee; at least to the equal of Roland’s. Nevertheless, Stewart was delighted to have taken the research trip with Scobie because he was so “delighted to have had what amounts to a short book fly out of the blue so unexpectedly”. [42] He also used the material for an article that he was putting together for The Bulletin ostensibly as publicity for the film. [43]

The film unit brought together some of the very best practitioners available in Australia at the time, including the involvement of Roland Robinson, Douglas Stewart, Janet Heyer, the support of the Shell organisation in Australia, as well as drawing on the journalistic and literary cultures of the period.

The unit began shooting on 21 September 1952.

[1] Sylvia Lawson, The Back of Beyond (Sydney: Currency Press, 2013), p. 30.
[2] Ibid., p. 2.
[3] A History of the Shell Film and Video Unit 1934-1999 (1999), unpaginated.
[4] Roland Beckett, Personal interview, 11/01/2001.
[5] Frank Cave is the grandfather of Australian musician Nick Cave. See Ian Johnston, Bad Seed: The Biography of Nick Cave (London: Abacus, 1995), p. 26.
[6] John Heyer, interviewed by Andrew Pike and Ray Edmondson (October/November 1979).
[7] George Farwell, “The Birdsville Track”, Walkabout: The Australian Geographical Magazine (1 March 1948), pp. 9-16.
[8] Ibid., p. 9.
[9] Ibid., p. 26.
[10] Charles H. Holmes, “Australia’s Outback Mail Services”, Walkabout: The Australian Geographical Magazine, p. 15.
[11] Letter from John Heyer to Rob Jolley, Shell Adelaide publicity, 1 November 1950.
[12] Letter from Rob Jolley to John Heyer on behalf of Joe Waites (27 November 1950).
[13] George Farwell, Land of Mirage (Melbourne: Cassell and Co., 1950), Traveller’s Tracks (Melbourne University Press, 1949) and The Outside Track (Melbourne University Press, 1951); Ernestine Hill, The Territory (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1951) and Flying Doctor Calling (Angus and Robertson, 1950); Charles P, Mountford, Brown Men and Red Sand (Melbourne: Robertson and Mullers, 2nd Ed., 1949); C.J. Madigan, Crossing the Dead Heart (Melbourne: Georgian House, 1949); Arthur Groom, I Saw a Strange Land (Angus and Robertson, 1950); T.G.H. Strehlow, Aranda Traditions (Melbourne University Press, 1947).
[14] Letter to Bob Jolley from John Heyer, 6 March 1951, 3 pages.
[15] Vivian Smith, “Douglas Stewart and the Fragility of Things”, Antipodes, Vol. 24 No. 2 (December 2010), p. 199.
[16] Peter Kirkpatrick. “Roland Edward Robinson (1912-1992)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2016. Accessed 3 June 2020:
[17] Letter to John Heyer from Roland Robinson (6 May 1951).
[18] Letter to John Heyer from Roland Robinson (6 May 1951); H.H. (Hedley Herbert) Finlayson, Red Centre: Man and Beast in the Heart of Australia by H.H. Finlayson (Sydney: Angus and Robinson, 1952).
[19] Letter to John Heyer from Roland Robinson (6 May 1951); Sergei Eisenstein (trans. & ed. Jay Leyda), The Film Sense (London: Faber and Faber, 1943); V. I. (Vsevolod Illiarionovich) Pudovkin, Pudovkin on Film Technique (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1929).
[20] Roland Robinson, “Back of Beyond”, in The Shift of Sands: An Autobiography 1952-62 (Melbourne and Sydney: MacMillan, 1976), p. 18.
[21] Letter to Tom Kruse from John Heyer (4 September 1951).
[22] Letter to Bob Jolley from John Heyer (4 September 1951).
[23] Letter to Bob Jolley from John Heyer (6 September 1951).
[24] Letter from John Heyer to Shell A.H.O. Publicity (17th December 1951).
[25] Douglas Stewart, Notes on A Carrier Called Kruse (15 October 1951). An edition of Joseph Conrad’s novellas The Nigger of Narcissus, Typhoon, Amy Foster, Falk and Tomorrow was published by Dent, London, in 1950.
[26] John Heyer, A Carrier Called Kruse: Suggested Treatment/1 (13 December 1951).
[27] Ibid.
[28] Letter from Roland Robinson to John Heyer (6 May 1951).
[29] Captain Charles Sturt, “Account of the Exploring Expedition from South Australia into the Interior”, Tasmanian Journal of National Science, Vol. 3; Extract of a Journal of an Expedition into the North Western Interior of New South Wales and Copies of Reports to the Colonial Secretary N.S.W. (Governor – Proclamation), pp. 3-8, 11-20; “Letter to Sir George Grey Reporting Progress of Central Australian Exploration Expedition”, Royal Geographical Society Journal (South Australia); “Two Expeditions into the Interior of South Australia 1828-31”. Royal Geographical Society of London – Journal, Vol. 3 (1834), pp. 284-256; and Narrative of an Expedition into Central Australia. Dr. Leichardt’s lectures delivered at the School of Arts, 25 August 1846, Moreton Bay Courier, Vol. 1 (19 September 1846); Journal of Dr. Leichardt’s Overland Expedition to Port Easington in the Years 1844-45, “revised by the explorer and Published with his sanction”; Leichardt’s letters from Australia 1842-1845; “Copies of Two Letters from Leichardt to Mr David Archer at Moreton Bay”, Australian and New Zealand Association of Advanced Science (20 September 1930), pp. 263-266. Colonel Rites Egerton Warburton, “Journey Across the Western Interior of Australia” (extract from the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, Vol. 8), pp. 41-51. Edward John Eyre, Journals of an Expedition of Discovery into Central Australia; “Letter to Sir George Grey Telling Him of an Earthquake”, New Zealand Herald Supplement (4 October 4 1902). P. 1. E. Scott, “The Burke and Wills Expedition (Extracts from Explorer’s Journals)”, Australian Discovery, Vol. 2 (1929), pp. 385-410.
[30] Ross Gibson, The Diminishing Paradise: Changing Literary Perceptions of Australia (Sydney: Sirius/Angus and Robertson, 1984), pp. 105-106.
[31] A Carrier Called Kruse Suggested Treatment 1 (13 December 1951).
[32] Ibid.
[33] Memo from John Heyer to A.H.O. Publicity, 7 April 1952.
[34] Respectively: TK/195; TK/143,144,145; TK/128,130, 135, 136, 158, 163,164,178, 180, 182, 183, 188, 189,191,193, 210, 219, 257, 256, 263; TK/121,122; TK/222,225,226,227,228,229,141; TK/97,98,102; and TK/233, 246.
[35] TK/105,108,109,128,130,133,137,159,174,178,180,182,188,189,191,193,197, 210, 248, 252, 256, 263.
[36] “Shell Film Review”, Shell House Journal (April 1952), p. 9.
[37] Personal interview, Tom Nurse, 10 January 2002.
[38] Letter from Howard Akin to John Heyer (25 July 1952).
[39] Personal interview, Nurse.
[40] Ibid.
[41] Letter from Douglas Stewart to John Heyer (19 September 1952).
[42] Ibid.
[43] Douglas Stewart, “Films for Birdsville: The Movies Come to Centralia”, The Bulletin (November 5 1952), p. 35.

About the Author

Deane Williams

About the Author

Deane Williams

Deane Williams is Associate Professor of Film and Screen Studies at Monash University. His books include Australian Post-War Documentary Film: An Arc of Mirrors (2008), Michael Winterbottom (with Brian McFarlane, 2009) and the three-volume Australian Film Theory and Criticism (co-edited with Noel King and Constantine Verevis, 2013–2017).View all posts by Deane Williams →