History and Heartbreak: The Saga of Australian Film 1896-1978

Sections dealing with Picnic at Hanging Rock

To the surprise of everyone, the South Australian Film Corporation figured prominently as the second winner for 1975 with the unforgettable Picnic at Hanging Rock, directed by Peter Weird, produced by Pat Lovell and Hal and Jim McElroy. If ever the camera assumed the role of storyteller, it did in Picnic. Under the guidance of Russell Boy and operated by John Steele, the camera captured the old world atmosphere of St. Valentine's Day 1900, painting the scenery in warm pastel tonings to add a joyousness to the memorable occasion of a picnic for the girls of Appleyard College. There is an air of freshness and innocence to starched dresses then the camera sweeps upwards to the towering and ever sinister Hanging Rock of Mt. Macedon. Even after the mysterious disappearance of the girls, the photography does not let us down and we watch the mists with wispy, spidery fingers of moist nothingness gyrate around the barren peak like steam from a witches' cauldron. David Williamson is credited with stating that Joan Lindsay's novel had the instant visual appeal for a good screenplay, yet it was Cliff Green who provided the framework for one of Australia's most successful pictures.

The storyline of Picnic is interesting: in this period of undoubted class distinction, Dominic Gurd portrays MIchael Fitzhubert, an English aristocrat who is enchanted with the sight of beautiful Miranda (Anne Lambert) as she with three other people cross a creek. The four continue their exploration but eventually one turns back in terror, and a second is found unconscious by the groomsman, Albert (John Jarratt). She cannot explain what took place. When a teacher goes to search for the two missing girls, she too vanishes. Michael is also found by Albert, after he too has sought the answer to the disappearance. Strangely enough, Michael has succumbed to the same mental collapse as that of the schoolgirl. He is found clutching a fragment of a white dress, but how it came to be in his hand remains as much as mystery as the fate of the three people who vanish. This mystery is never solved. A local myth says that when Hanging Rock topples, it will give up its secrets.

Rachel Roberts who played the headmistress, stepped into the role on two days' notice, after fellow British actress, Vivien Merchant who was originally signed for the role, fell ill in Hong Kong on her way to Australia. Rachel Roberts was superb as Mrs. Appleyard, whose main concern after the girls' disappearance, was whether the tragedy would bring disrepute upon her college. Martindale Hall in Mintaro, South Australia, a Georgian style mansion, became Appleyard College. Helen Morse was well groomed and serenely poised as the French Mistress-but the real stars of the picture were the camera and the director, Peter Weir.

Two minor faults in an otherwise outstanding production were the fact that the film was too long, and that the Jacki Weaver in-and-out-of-bed sequences struck a jarring note. When questioned about the inclusion of these scenes, Cliff Green defended them by stating that in his opinion, the maid and the handyman (Tony Llewellyn Jones )were the only two real people in a realm of fantasy. But do fact and fantasy make ideal bed fellows?

Picnic won the Grand Prize at the 7th Festival of the Nations in Sicily in August, 1976, but awards for this film in Australia, at least, were not as plentiful as with other films. Movie News in March 1976 gave the South Australian Film Corporation full recognition of its ability to produce first class pictures by naming Picnic at Hanging Rock as the "best Australian film of the year."

Picnic at Hanging Rock opened at the Hindley Theatre, Adelaide on 7 August 1975. When in arrived in Melbourne, The Listener In-TV paid this tribute - "At last, an Australian film that achieves the elusive double - artistic quality and wide popular appeal." In 1976, the film had a successful eleven week season in London's West End, then moved to sixteen cinemas around the city. The Evening Standard described it as "an Australian ghost story wholly original, and assured proof of the new cinema Down Under." Picnic at Hanging Rock had a return season at the West End in January 1977 and continued to attract huge audiences. Many Australians visiting London at the time found to their surprise that they had to book some considerable time ahead to obtain a seat to view the picture. It was listed among the ten best films shown in London in 1976.

On 7 October 1976 at the Sydney Opera House, rather belated praise for Picnic at Hanging Rock came during the Sammy Awards organized by TV Times in conjunction with the Channel 7 Network. Picnic was voted the best Australian film of the year. Helen Morse received a Golden Sammy for the best actress for her performances in Picnic at Hanging Rock and in Caddie. Dominic Guard received Second Best Actor Award as did Rachel Roberts for their roles in Picnic. Peter Weir was in top position for direction. it was left to the English Films Illustrated when writing on Australian features at Cannes in 1977 to state that in 1976, Australia had been a major force at the Festival.

In September 1977, Jim and Hal McElroy revealed that Picnic at Hanging Rock to that date had made 170 per cent profit on investment. but once again that hoary bugbear of every Australian producer raised its ugly head: exhibition and distribution used up approximately 75 per cent of the takings.

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