Creating a National Spirit: Celebrating New Zealand's Centennial
19: One Hundred Crowded Years: The Centennial Film
19: One Hundred Crowded Years: The Centennial Film
When the government decided its general centennial policy in May 1936 the Tourist and Publicity Department received additional funding for the coming four years to promote the centennial abroad, but there was no suggestion of the inclusion of a feature film to celebrate the nation's first hundred years. The first task for the Hon Frank Langstone, the department's forceful minister, and L. J. Schmitt, its general manager, was to strengthen its film-making capacity, and they began by negotiating what would become a phased take-over of Filmcraft Studios at Miramar.1 The general manager of Filmcraft Studios, R. W. Fenton, and Cyril Morton and Bert Bridgman, Filmcraft's cinematographers, were very experienced in the making of films in New Zealand conditions.2 Filmcraft was also the only studio in the country with up-to-date film-processing equipment. It had been used in the past as the production arm for official publicity films, and would become home to the National Film Unit when it was set up in 1941.
The catalyst for what became One Hundred Crowded Years was the screening in Sydney in early 1938 of the official film to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the founding of New South Wales. Directed and produced by the internationally acclaimed film maker Frank Hurley, A Nation is Built played to enthusiastic audiences in Australia and was hailed as a 'living document of Australia's progress as a nation'.3 It had been made for screening on commercial cinema circuits as the first-half feature of a film programme and lasted about an hpur. Hurley wrote to Prime Minister Savage offering his services (at £30 a week) to make a similar film for the New Zealand government.
Heenan viewed A Nation is Built and was impressed with its Very high character'. But, as he reported to Parry, he was equally clear that 'the romance' of New Zealand's history combined with its beautiful scenery meant that an even more attractive documentary film could be made here. The film he had in mind would present a 'comprehensive Centennial pictorial survey depicting New Zealand's March to Nationhood'. If it were to be screened overseas before the centennial celebrations began it would attract overseas visitors to the country.4
Langstone was enthusiastic about the possibility. He had grown up in the King Country, had been MP for Waimarino since 1922, and identified strongly with the page 261 country's pioneer tradition. Schmitt supported the idea but doubted if it would be a commercial success. There was clearly a strong expectation that, as far as possible, the film would be a New Zealand production. In the views exchanged between Langstone, Schmitt, and Fenton it seems also to have been assumed that the department would be the producer. But although the department had expert cameramen, sound technicians, and laboratory technicians and resources, there were few in the country with any experience of directing or acting for the screen. 'Acting in the true sense' would have to be kept to a minimum, Fenton advised. He nevertheless thought that 'a fairly simple kind of film . . . based on colonisation, Maori Wars, development etc' would have 'very good entertainment value'.5
The government decided that a centennial film of about fifty minutes' duration would be made and the Tourist and Publicity Department would have charge of it. Schmitt's first problem was how to fit this new project into workloads that were already heavy, and he explored the possibility of getting one of the British film companies to make the film under contract to the department. His nationalistic feelings were nevertheless engaged because, of the two British companies he had in mind—Gaumont British and Fox Films—he preferred Fox Films because its editor-manager was a New Zealander and it had 'an excellent cameraman' who was also a New Zealander. A British company could also be expected to engage one or two leading actors and handle the film's distribution.6 Nothing came of these inquiries. The centennial film would be an entirely home-grown effort, made as well as managed by the department. Fenton would produce it with the aim of having it completed by the latter part of 19397 This would have been a formidable deadline even for a studio experienced in the making of feature films. It would be missed by nearly two years.
Fenton's first thought was to tell the nation's story through three generations of a family. He turned to Nelle Scanlon's Pencarrow novels for inspiration but found the idea too complex. He was influenced, too, by Wells Fargo, a popular American film about the taming of the West then doing the cinema rounds. He thought that its approach could be used to make a good 'romance' out of a shorter period of our history, but could not be made to work for a century.8 Wells Fargo and other westerns exerted a strong influence on the screen drama—what Fenton referred to as the photoplay—that tells the story of the pioneer generation.
The opening section, which takes thirty of the film's fifty-four minutes, tells the story of the pioneer generation through the lives of Tom and Mary, who came to New Zealand as young settlers. The title of the film and the introductory credits are presented as the turning pages of a book. The stirring climax of Grieg's 'Homage March', provides a suitably solemn musical background to the film's dedication to the New Zealand pioneers
. . . who came forth from Britain's ordered ways to the wildness of an untouched land. Through trials and dangers they toiled and struggled to hew from the wilderness a fair heritage for their children—and they fulfilled their purpose. One hundred years have passed, and we who come after remember with grateful pride those brave men and women—our Pioneers.9
The action begins in a foggy London street with a young man declaring that England might be good enough for older people but it is not good enough for him: he wants to go to some far-off land of opportunity like New Zealand where there is page 263 'lots of fresh air and lots of hard work'. Then Wakefield is shown assuring a sceptical Member of Parliament that 'New Zealand is an ideal country' and will be 'one of England's most cherished colonies' a century hence. The location shifts to Waitangi where, in a big scene based on William Colenso's account of the first Treaty signings, Maori chiefs seal the transfer of their sovereignty to Queen Victoria and shake hands with Captain Hobson.
Sovereignty assured, scenes of agreeable shipboard life are the prelude to the arrival of settlers to a friendly Maori welcome on an empty beach. A preacher asks for God's help 'to bring out those qualities that lie within us', and the story then focuses on Tom and Mary creating their farm in the bush. Warmly evocative scenes, enhanced by tui birdcalls and bits of Dvorak's New World symphony, show Tom building their rough cottage in 'the virgin forest', the birth of their son, sheep safely grazing, and Tom and Mary soberly enjoying life in the wilderness and the early reward of their labours.
Defending the fartherest imperial frontier. Frame enlargement: Stills Collection, New Zealand Film Archive/Ngā Kaitiaki O Nga Taonga Whitiāhua.
The rest of the film is in documentary form. The narrator becomes the film's personification, telling viewers what they are seeing and interpreting its significance in an unfolding depiction of the country's steadily increasing prosperity. That prosperity is rooted in the land itself. Refrigeration, the narrator declares, 'was perhaps the most important advance in the country's first hundred years'. Secondary industries were springing up but 'New Zealand exists in the land'. The country's material progress had been impressive: railways, bridges, roads and highways spanned it and aeroplanes had 'brought twentieth-century speed to a stone age land'. It had 'rushed forward from savagery to civilisation in one hundred crowded years', and its people 'would have been more than human if they had not made some mistakes'. Soil erosion had become an unexpected problem, but to 'take care of the land is to take care of our future' and governments in recent years had taken steps to replace forests, restrain rivers, and protect threatened farmland.
But what, the narrator asks, 'have we done for our people?' and he answers emphatically: 'We have done much!' New Zealand social legislation had 'amazed the world'. Land legislation provided opportunities for small farmers. Industrial law protected the legitimate interests of 'employers and their men'. New Zealand had been the first country to have universal suffrage and 'New Zealand women never had to be suffragettes'. Old age pensions had removed 'the fear of destitution in declining years'. Through Truby King's work 'New Zealand led the world' in infant welfare, and a benevolent state ensured that we remained in the forefront of social progress. The department of health 'is always watching over the health of the people'. Education was free and available from primary school to university, for all with 'ability and inclination'. The state housing department 'is carrying through a big national plan', and the houses it was building were 'not workers' houses but houses for people who work'.
Some problems nevertheless remained. The most important of these was the future of 'our Maori people', and several scenes showed how it was being tackled. At this point in the film the voice of the narrator is replaced by a distinguished Maori in a three-piece suit who is seated behind a large desk in a correspondingly large city office. It is Kingi Tahiwi senior, of Ngati Raukawa and Ngati Whakaue, one of the leading members of the Maori community in Wellington.10 He looks straight at the audience and speaks to it.
His people, he says, identifying himself immediately as Maori, were still adapting to changes brought about by Europeans. There had been 'a long transition period' during which there were 'differences and disputes' but 'happily' those days were now past. Both races were working to bring about changes 'through mutual respect, goodwill, and cooperation'. But, he says, speaking with great emphasis, 'we must retain our individuality in some things', in our music, dancing, and arts and crafts, page 265 for they are 'expressions of something deep within us'. Nor would they be enough in themselves. 'We must have our land development schemes' through which Maori working in their customary ways could adapt 'modern farming to the community instincts of the Maori. . . [We must] meet the Pakeha at his own game.' Education, too, was as important for Maori as for Pakeha.11
That completed the storyline. The film ended with shots of the Maori Battalion and Pakeha soldiers embarking for war and with multiple-image flashback shots of pioneer scenes accompanied by a repeat of the resounding chords of Grieg's 'Homage March'. Through it came the narrator's ringing invocation to New Zealanders to recapture the indomitable pioneering spirit.
But what is to be our future? Sadly, our first century finishes with conflict ravaging the world, conflict on a vast scale, conflict which we must rise to fight in 1940 with the same spirit in which we faced it in 1914. To secure the future we must first look to the present, taking courage from the past. Will we of this generation lay as good a foundation for New Zealand's second century as our pioneers did for us? They knew fears, and with hope they laid aside those fears and struggled on through a thousand trials and vicissitudes. Their very purpose breeds a challenge which we in the knowledge of their deeds carry on into a new century to face a new andpage 266 striving future with the undaunted spirit that was theirs, to leave to our children that precept that our pioneers have left to us. May God grant that we shall not fail them.12
Mary and Tom in their bush home. Stills Collection, New Zealand Film Archive/Ngā Kaitiaki O Nga Taonga Whitiāhua.
Filming began in November 1938 to make the most of the summer months. Bridgman and Morton had four technicians in their production crew, and they had two large, modern camera trucks, sound equipment recently imported from Hollywood for 'its first major job', and a bare studio. Actors were yet to be signed up, period costumes found or sewn, studio sets built, and suitable locations found for scenes to be shot in natural surroundings.
Apart from some of the actors who were at the time working on Rudall Hayward's Rewi's Last Stand, there was no one in the country with experience of film acting. Radio personalities with experience of amateur dramatics or radio plays were commissioned to play the main roles. Bob Pollard, a 3ZB announcer who had recently toured the country with Gladys Moncrieff's Musical Comedy Company, played the part of Tom, the young pioneer. Mary, his wife, was played by Una Weller, who had played parts in radio drama. Captain Hobson was played by Bryan O'Brienn, well known to ZB listeners for his children's talks.13 For the Waitangi scenes the Anglican bishop of Wellington found a cleric for the part of Rev Henry Williams, and the Roman Catholic Monsignor found a priest for Bishop Pompallier.14 Bernard Beeby, supervisor of drama productions for the National Broadcasting Service, narrated the film.
Bridgman received much willing help with costumes and props and, in places where the filming was done, amateur theatrical groups lent costumes. Una Weller made her own bonnet, collar, and cuffs.15 People from Mt Maunganui turned up on the beach day after day to be unpaid extras for the scenes of the arrival of the settlers. They held an '1840 Ball' which 'brought to light many genuine old period pieces, preserved in camphor for many years'. Some of the residents of Arrowtown who trudged the rivers as film extras had memories of the gold rush days.16 Naval and army authorities provided information about the right uniforms for the Waitangi and Maori War sequences, and the Pageant Board provided suitable uniforms. The Police Department found 'two single-barrelled shot guns, 12 gauge' for use by Maori warriors. The owner of the motor camp at the head of the Miramar valley agreed to the temporary building of a blockhouse for the climax of the pioneer section of the film.17
The arrival —creating images of reality. Stills Collection, New Zealand Film Archive/Ngā Kaitiaki O Nga Taonga Whitiāhua.
Then the production team ran into problems. In its final form the film would have hundreds of 'fades' and 'dissolves' where one scene merged with another. But the studio was not equipped to make them,20 and the film had to be sent to Hollywood for this to be done. The outbreak of war brought further delays. Fenton, who was a Lieutenant Colonel in the artillery reserve, went on to the active list immediately, and some other members of the team also joined up.21 Morton took over the management of the production of the film as well as its editing. He and his colleagues worked night and day, sometimes till four in the morning. John Grierson, the celebrated British maker of documentary films, visited Miramar in March 1940 and was critical of the management of the film-making activities. Morton had seven other films on the go as well, he wrote, and was giving the centennial film 'piecemeal attention' for 'half an hour a day'.22
A working copy was ready for viewing in October 1940.23 Officials from Internal Affairs and Tourist and Publicity viewed it, were pleased with what they saw, and had few suggestions to make. Perhaps the Maori War sequence might be shortened a bit. Could some shots be added showing a Maori college and present-day Maori farming? Should there now be references to the war?24 In November it was ready page 268 for the addition of music. Frank Crowther, a freelance musical composer, and A. H. Whyte of the Department of Education cobbled together excerpts from symphonic works by Beethoven, Bruckner, Mendelssohn, Dvorak and Grieg to match the films changing moods.25
One Hundred Crowded Years had its first screening in the Tivoli Theatre, across the road from parliament, on 28 November 1940, before the Governor General and Lady Galway, the Prime Minister, several ministers and members of parliament, and prominent citizens. Langstone introduced it by stressing what for him were well-rehearsed themes. The film 'portrayed the progress of a century/ It emphasised the 'hardships and tribulations' of the pioneers 'whose beneficiaries we are'. It was a 'tribute' to the Maori people. The audience applauded enthusiastically during the scenes of the great war canoe escorting Hobson's whaleboat to Waitangi and the Maori Battalion marching to war.26
The torching of Tom and Mary's bush home. Stills Collection, New Zealand Film Archive/Ngā Kaitiaki O Nga Taonga Whitiāhua.
The official announcement of the film in New Zealand Centennial News was not admitting to any doubts. 'New Zealanders have good cause to feel proud of the Centennial film, which thoroughly justifies its title.' It was a film that would please audiences in all British Commonwealth countries and the United States.28 But any prospect of selling it to overseas commercial chains had long since disappeared. Tourist and Publicity archives do not record any attempts to sell it to commercial distributors, and the chances of success would have been slight. The department had tried unsuccessfully to sell its film of the Centennial Exhibition.29
Nor was the film released commercially in New Zealand.30 The government gave it to the National Patriotic Fund Board, which made it available to provincial patriotic committees to screen as a fundraiser. Matinee sessions were organised for school children and Sunday evening screenings for the general public. Theatre managers and the Film Operators Union gave their services free of charge. But Sunday evening screenings caused problems. The permission of municipal councils was required, and some as a matter of policy refused all applications and were not prepared to create a precedent even for so worthy a cause. There were also strong religious objections in various parts of the country. The Presbytery of Southland wrote to the prime minister reminding him that he had appealed to the churches to 'strengthen the moral fibre of the people' but that to make 'inroads on the sanctity of the Sabbath which is one of the bulwarks of our national life' would undermine that 'moral strength'.31
Religious objections were largely met by arranging public screenings on week-night evenings in places where theatres were not in commercial use. Two copies of the film were taken on nationwide itineraries that began in May 1941 and continued until the end of 1942, when one copy was sent to the Middle East to be screened for New Zealand servicemen and women. Appropriately, the first screening was in the Capitol Theatre, Miramar, on 7 May to a matinee audience of school children. The public screenings drew very small attendances and 90% of the film's takings of £1209 13s l0d were from captive audiences of school children.32
The eighteen months when One Hundred Crowded Years was being shown around the country were New Zealanders most anxious months of the Second World page 270 War. The celebratory mood that had built up during 1938 and 1939 in anticipation of the centennial year had been eclipsed by the grim consequences of a world war that was bringing grief to many families and anxiety to everyone. One Hundred Crowded Years had nevertheless done very effectively what had been expected of it, Bridgman and Morton had made the most of their well developed ability to capture the beauty of New Zealand scenery. Fenton had done pretty well, too, in concealing the technical limitations of actors who were making their first film. The centennial film told a story that Pakeha found compelling and uplifting: of well intentioned pioneers winning their way with Maori, some of whom had initially been misguided; of a century of spectacular development; of the emergence of a progressive modern nation; and of a coming together of Maori and Pakeha whose differences and disputes were now a thing of the past. One Hundred Crowded Years burnished the Pakeha public image of themselves in their centennial year.
1 Barry Gustafson, From the Cradle to the Grave: A biography of Michael Joseph Savage (Auckland: Penguin, 1986), pp.177-8, 285 (Langstone); Who's Who in New Zealand, G. H. Scholefield ed, 5th edition, 1951, p.209 (Schmitt).
2 R. W. Fenton, Obituary, Evening Post, 6 March 1980; Clive Sowry, 'Cyril James Morton', The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol.4, 1921-1940 (Auckland: Auckland University Press/Department of Internal Affairs, 1998), pp.359-60.
3 The Film Weekly, 17 February 1938, Tourism Office (TO) 1, 28/27, Pt 1.
4 Heenan to Parry, 5 May 1938, TO 1, 28/27, Pt.l.
5 TO 1,28/27, Pt.l.
6 Schmitt to Langstone, 21 February 1938, TO 1, 28/27, Pt.l.
8 The Weekly News, 9 November 1938, p.14.
10 Dominion, 29 November 1940, p.9; Rupene M. T. Waaka, Tirimi Pererika Tahiwi', The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol.4, 1920-1940 (Auckland University Press, 1998), p.509.
11 One Hundred Crowded Years.
13 New Zealand Listener, 13 December 1940, p.50.
14 L. J. Schmidt to Rt Rev Lord Bishop of Wellington, 3 April 1939 and to Monsignor Connolly, 11 March 1939, TO 1, 28/27, Pt.3.
15 Fenton to Schmidt, 24 February 1939, TO 1, 28/27, Pt.3.
16 New Zealand Listener, 13 December 1940, p.50.
17 TO 1,28/27/3, passim.
18 New Zealand Listener, 13 December 1940, p.50; The Weekly News, 9 November 1938, p.14; New Zealand Centennial News (NZCN), no.15, 6 February 1941, p.18.
19 TO 1,28/27/3, passim.
20 TO 1, 49/11/1, unsigned, undated office minute.
21 R. W. Fenton, obituary, Evening Post, 6 March 1980.
23 New Zealand Truth, 12 July 1940.
26 Dominion, 29 November 1940, p.9.
27 New Zealand Listener, 13 December 1940, pp.50-1.
28 NZCN, no. 15, 6 February 1941, p. 16.
29 Trade Commissioner Sydney to General Manager, Tourist and publicity, 8 April 1940, TO, 28/27/3.
30 IA1, 172/126/6 Pts.1-2.
31 Ibid., Pt.l, passim.
32 Ibid., Pt.2, passim.