Charles Chauvel - Australian Silent Star of October, 1998

by GLen Pringle

In 1685 Simon and Margaret Chauvel fled their home country of France, escaping the bloodshed which destroyed the rest of their family during the French Revolution. They set up home in England with several becoming officers in the Indian army and later emigrating to Australia in the late 1830s. They were pioneers on the land, initially in New South Wales, and later also in Southern Queensland. On 7 October, 1897 Charles Chauvel was born in Warwick, Queensland. His early life was a tough outback life, rising at 3am to milk the cows, clean the sheds then ride to school. Charles and his older brother, John, both had an interest in acting, however, Charles always had to play second fiddle to the bigger John. Following his completion of school, Charles worked at an outback sheep station as a jackeroo (a novice on a sheep or cattle station). At the age of 17 his father called him home to look after the property while he volunteered for the Australian Light Horse in Sinai. Following his father's return, he moved to Sydney to study art, later studying drama.

Charles met Rex "Snowy" Baker who was signed by E.J. Carroll. Desperate to enter the movie making business, Charles begged for any job.

"Where in the world could you fit in, young man?" Snowy asked. "Horses," the determined young Queenslander replied, "you will be using horses and I know all about them and can ride."[3]
When offered a job as horse and stable hand that was intended to discourage him, Charles eagerly accepted. During that time, he drove coaches to location and looked after the horses for Snowy's films such as The Shadow of Lightning Ridge and The Jackeroo of Coolabong. Snowy went to America to fulfill his contract and Charles followed his idol, initially supporting himself by writing articles for a magazine. As part of the publicity tour for a forthcoming film Snowy was to perform some whip-cracking stunts and needed someone to hold a lighted cigarette in their mouth while he whipped it out. Charles volunteered and nightly showed that his faith in Snowy's abilities were not misplaced. His career then moved into a stream of odd-jobs, including work as an extra and "stunt man" in low-budget films. After securing a position at MGM, he played some small roles in the films Captain Fly-by-Night and Harry Carey Snr.'s The Man from the Desert. Fred Niblo helped Charles out, making him his assistant in the 1923 film, Strangers of the Night. After two years in Hollywood learning movie making, Charles returned to Australia. He spent some time raising money to form a film unit and at the age of 24 was a producer-director, claimed to be the youngest in the film world.

With funding mainly from family, friends and local pastoralists, Chauvel made his first film, Queensland's first feature film, The Moth of Moonbi in 1926. It was a romantic melodrama based upon Mabel Forrest's novel The Wild Moth. The story is of a simple country girl who goes to the big city, where she is exploited and eventually runs out of money. On returning home she is attacked by a former colleague of her father, but is rescued by a suitor who had looked after her when she was younger. Charles chose to use genuine bush settings in this film. One location required a difficult "safari" up an almost completely inaccessible trail at Spicer's Gap, one of the highest points in Queensland. This began a tradition of Chauvel's where many of his films, always filmed in the outdoors whenever possible, were often at exotic and remote locations. Through his work, he attempted to show the beauty of his country to the world.

Later in 1926 Chauvel was looking for a girl for the leading role in his next film, Greenhide. A young lady named Elsie Sylvaney who was completing a season in the theatre in Brisbane caught his eye. He asked her to take a film test but after having agreed to it for the following day, she never turned up. However, Chauvel was able to track her down and after the film test, talked the still reluctant Elsie into the signing a contract. Once again, Charles used remote country locations for the country scenes (Walloon Station was about 500 miles from Brisbane), but it was in the Brisbane studio that he and Elsie fell in love, eventually marrying in June 1927. From then on Elsie was known as Elsa Chauvel. Greenhide was a success, showing to packed out audiences in both Sydney and Brisbane, however Charles and Elsa had to take the film around country locations and show it themselves as the American distribution companies were reluctant to show an Australian film.

Despondent with the difficulty in marketing their film, Charles and Elsa took the two films to USA in an attempt to sell them there. Their timing left something to be desired, arriving at the dawn of the talkies era. Elsa landed a role as the second lead in Conway Tearle's stage production of Mid Channel but after it's run completed they had difficulty in extending their stay and had to return to Australia.

Suzanne was born in 1930 and for the next 14 months the Chauvels focused their attention on her before moving to Sydney. Charles' fascination with the history of the Bounty lead to the formation of the film company "Expeditionary Films", whose first film was to be In the Wake of the Bounty. Insisting on authenticity, Charles dragged his wife and crew all the way across the Pacific to Pitcairn Island for some filming of background shots before they returned to Tahiti to complete the main filming. On returning to Sydney to complete the interior shots of the Bounty Charles was faced with the problem of finding an actor for the part of Fletcher Christian. He noticed the picture of a handsome young man in the newspaper, who had been shipwrecked off th coast of New Guinea and had swum ashore. When approached to take the role, he agreed. After the film's release, Warner Brothers cabled Chauvel to ask where they could find the leading man and that was the turning point of Errol Flynn's career.

When the Australian Government offered a prize of 2,500 pounds for the best Australian-made film, Chauvel rose to the challenge, planning an historical epic tracing 150 years of Australian history. He managed to convince the board of "Expeditionary Films" to provide funding and soon began filming, a large scale process which ended up spanning all three Eastern mainland states of Australia. Naturally, incredible attention to detail in the historical authenticity was made by all involved in the making of this film. In 1935, Heritage was released, and it went on to win the prize for best film for that year.

Uncivilised was Chauvel's attempt to break into the American market. It was a major financial success for the small distribution company which bought the American rights for a pittance from Chauvel's company. However, none of the profits came back to Chauvel.

The war film 40,000 Horsemen released in 1941 proved to be a major world-wide and Australian success, breaking all box-office records in Australia. But the second world war led to the Australian film industry almost closing down, and Chauvel's only film work over the next few years was a serious of documentary war films made for the Department of Information. These included Soldiers Without Uniforms, The Power to Win, While There is Still Time, A Mountain Goes to Sea and "Russia Aflame". Then in 1943 he put together a full production to make a film about the Aussie diggers who had fought against Rommel's forces in North Africa. The Rats of Tobruk drew praise from returned soldiers for its accuracy in portraying their experiences.

Chauvel's last two feature films, Sons of Matthew and Jedda were both largely filmed in the Australian outback. Sons was another safari film, while Jedda was the first Australian colour film. It was ground-breaking in another way, being possibly the first Australian feature film based around Australian Aborigines. It received sound praise at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival.

In 1959 Charles Chauvel died of a sudden heart attack. Behind him he left a legacy of films and not a few actors who can thank him for starting their careers.


1. Elyne Mitchell. Chauvel Country: The Story of a Great Australian Pioneering Family. The MacMillan Company of Australia, 1983.
2. Stuart Cunningham. Featuring Australia: The Cinema of Charles Chauvel. Allen & Unwin, 1991.
3. Elsa Chauvel. My Life With Charles Chauvel. Shakespeare Head Press, 1973.
4. Susanne Chauvel Carlsson. Charles & Elsa Chauvel: Movie Pioneers. University of Queensland Press, 1989.
5. Mabel Forrest. The Wild Moth. Cassell and Company Ltd , 1924.

Glen Pringle /
Copyright © 1998 by Glen Pringle
ISSN 1329-4431