MILESAGO - Film
PRODUCTION: Hedon Productions
Editor: Ian Barry
Ken Shorter (Stone)
The Grave Diggers:
Synopsis: A police detective goes undercover with a motorcycle gang to investigate why its members are being killed off one by one.
Its a sad reflection of the bias and snobbery that permeates certain quarters of the Australian film industry that Stone has been virtually ignored by critics and commentators for a over a quarter of a century. For evidence, one need look no further than Scott Murray's book Australian Cinema: although it is one of the most widely available reference books on Australian film, it contains no mention whatsover of Sandy Harbutt's landmark movie. It wasn't until the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the making of the film that a fairer picture of the true influence of this remarkable film began to emerge.
Stone is not a perfect film, and there are of course elements that have dated badly, but it was a strong and original first feature, and a remarkably successful one. It certainly demonstrated that Harbutt had plenty of promise as a writer-director. Yet, though it broke box office records on its release, Harbutt has never been able to get another project off the ground. Deplorably, this seems to be a fate shared by some of our most original filmmakers: Bert Dehling (Dalmas, Pure Shit) has also never made another feature. Similarly, it was only in 2001 that director Ray Lawrence was able to complete his second feature film ; incredibly, despite winning the AFI 'Best Film' award in 1985, for his classic adaptation of Peter Carey's Bliss, it was fifteen years before he was able to make his secoond film (Lantana). Executive producer David Hannay is unequivocal in his belief that conservative elements in the film industry and the government film bureaucracy ganged up against him and Harbutt and not only tried to hinder the film, but have consistently opposed any project he and Harbutt have since tried to mount.
In one sense, it can be argued that -- at least in the eyes of critics -- Stone failed because it was the exact opposite of films like Picnic At Hanging Rock, which were soon being lauded as laqndmarks in the revival of Australian cinema. Stone is definitively not an arthouse costume drama (films which David Hannay disparagingly describes as "frock movies").
Like the Barry McKenzie films, Stone is unequivocally Australian and contemporary in both setting and language; it was also raw, violent and uncompromisingly in-your-face, with sex, violence, nudity, bad language and drug use galore. In most respects its hard to imagine two films more radically different than Stone and Picnic. Yet ironically it can be argued that Stone operates in the same territory where Peter Weir has worked very successfully throughout his career -- dealing with characters isolated on the fringes of 'normal' society.
I'm not trying to imply that Weir's choice of subject for Picnic was merely cynical or opportunistic, but it was certainly a fortunate one given the prevailing critical mood of the time. Picnic was based on one of the best known Australian novels of the postwar period; its genteel, oblique style, eye-catching costumes and photography gave it broad appeal and set it apart from the "vulgarity" ocker films that were so detested by mainstream critics, notably the National Times' P.P. McGuiness, who hated films like Alvin Purple and The Adventures of Barry McKenzie with a passion, and said so regularly.
Despite the critical backlash, Stone was a major box office success and it was also a huge hit on the (now regrettably long gone) drive-in circuit. It had flaws, but it also had many strengths, and it is an one of the few independent releases of the period that has largely stood the test of time. Although it's only now being acknowledged, there can be little doubt that Stone (together with Weir's The Cars That Ate Paris which was in production at the same time) exterted a strong influence on George Miller's hugely successful Mad Max series. It surely can't be a coincidence that one of the characters in Stone is called "Bad Max"! It's also worth noting that two leading Stone cast members, Hugh Keays-Byrne and Vincent Gil, both turned up in Mad Max.
"Sandy Harbutt's Stone (1974),
for example, explored very similar genre material several years
earlier. Yet Stone was very much a cult success: Mad
Max was a huge international hit and was therefore far more
influential. Its first sequel, Mad Max 2 (1981), was even
more so, gaining a major release in the United States (as The
Road Warrior). Mad Max 2 was the first film to hit
major paydirt by keeping a major focus on the mainstream American
The basic plot of Stone is a murder mystery: the lead character (a detective) goes undercover to find out who is killing the members of a motorcycle club. He eventually discovers that it is because the bikers had witnessed a political assassination and may be able to identify the men who carried it out.
The story's locaation within an Australian bikie gang gives it a unique twist. Road movies were not new, and the popularity of genre had been dramatically demonstrated over the previous few years by the huge popularity of Easy Rider and subsequent films like Two Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point. But Stone delved much deeper into biker culture than any previous film, and it depicted the Australian biker subculture, which like the local surfing subculture, was significantly different from its overseas counterparts. The clothes, the language, the customs and even the choice of bikes was distinctively Australian -- Aussie bikers tended to favour faster and more powerful bikes than their American cousins, and often chose Japanese brands such as Honda, Yamaha and Kawasaki.
Stone also most remarkable for its direct references to the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the often disastrous experiences of Vietnam veterans, who were then reviled and rejected by the very society they were supposedly fighting to protect. As David Hannay proudly points out, it was certainly years ahead of any other film in the world in that respect and is probably the first feature film in the world to deal with the problems faced by Vietnam veterans in a dramatic context, years before hit features like The Deer Hunter.
Stone also broke new ground (at least in Australia) with the subtext of the murder plot. The assassinated politician is the leader of a pro-environment, anti-development party -- concerns very much at the forefront of progressive thought at the time, and exemplified by issues like the flooding of Tasmania's Lade Pedder, the mining of Fraser Island and the attempts to redevelop historic Sydney precints like The Rocks and Kings Cross. Indeed, Stone was quite prophetic in that respect -- within months of its release Sydney had witnessed a very similar real-life assassination prompted by the conflict between pro- and anti-development forces -- the infamous kidnapping and presumed murder of activist and publisher Juanita Nielsen.
To be fair, some elements of the film might seem corny or exaggerated nowadays, but in general Stone avoided a lot of the pitfalls of typical genre biker flicks. Above all it's a movie that respects its subject reather than exploiting it. It's often been called the best biker film ever made, and its enduring appeal in the biker community was clearly demonstrated by the events of 1998. The memorable opening credits of the film feature the famous funeral procession in which 400 bikers roar up the (then newly completed) Gosford expressway. To mark the 25th anniversary of the filming of that scene, Sandy Harbutt put out the call for bikers to gather and recreate the scene. On the day an incredible 35,000 riders turned out.
The movie comes on fast and strong, and Harbutt hits the audience with string of unforgettable scenes in the first half-hour. The successive murders of the Grave Diggers are extraordinary -- one is gruesomely beheaded by a wire stretched across the road (although the shot of the decapitated head rolling onto the road was cut in some versions); a second is blown up, a third (Go-Down) is forced over a cliff into the sea in a spectacular stunt that still looks terrific today. A lot of credit for these scences must go to stunt coordinator Peter Armstrong and his crew.
The cast is a veritable 'Who's Who' of Australian stage and screen; besides Harbutt and Ken Shorter (both TV veterans by then) it includes English-born actor Hugh Keays-Byrne, Drew Forsythe, Vincent Gil, Rebecca Gilling, Roger Ward, the ubiquitous Bill Hunter, Garry McDonald, Lex Mitchell, Ros Spiers, Patrick Ward, stage legend Owen Weingott and pioneering Aboriginal actor Bindi Williams. It's a curious irony that Stone was a career-maker for several cast members including Morse and Gilling. Gilling lucked into the film while taking a break from her studies -- prior to that she had only featured in a one shampoo commercial -- but her performance as a bikie chick and her striking good looks led a string of successful roles.
Shorter had already made a name for himself with his starring role in the TV adaptation of Jon Cleary's You Can't See Round Corners, causing a stir in the series' debut episode with a (for the time) steamy love scene with co-star Rowena Wallace. He had worked with many other cast members on this and other TV shows including the action-adventure series Riptide, in which Harbutt, Morse and Shorter all appeared.
Business-wise Stone is also a classic low-budget indie success story. Made for only $192,000, it was shot totally on location in and around Sydney. Many of the cast doubled as crew -- Helen Morse worked in wardrobe, Vincent Gil (Dr Death) worked as a grip. While "between jobs" Shorter had made leather goods to sell at local markets, and he made his own leather outfit for the film.
The punchy score was by Billy Green, former guitarist with Doug Parkinson In Focus, and Doug performs the opening song, an adaptation of a poem by Dylan Thomas, which is played over the famous funeral scene.
The premiere at the Forum Cinema, Sydney (since demolished) was attended by members of the Hells Angels and the Gypsy Jokers, but the following week when it opened it was panned, notably by Mike Gibson, Susie Eisenhuth and (predictably) by National Times' critic, former libertarian and loudmouth-for-hire Padraic P. McGuinness. Despite the brickbats, it was a huge and immediate hit with bikers and the general public, and quickly became a hit in spite of its 'R' rating.
In 1998 Harbutt and Hannay made a documentary about the film entitled Stone Forever. When Stone was given its long-overdue release on DVD in 1999, Sandy Harbutt took the opportunity to recut the film. Remarkably, like Peter Weir's DVD release of Picnic At Hanging Rock, Harbutt made the unusual decision to shorten the film (in this case to 98 minutes) enabling him to finally make cuts he had been unable to effect in 1974 because of budget restrictions during production. One remarkable revelation in the "Stone Forever" documentary is that money was so tight that Harbutt was not able to see a complete run-through of the film until it was screened at the premiere!
"Meeting Sandy [Harbutt] in 1967 was most
important. It was just meant to be that I would meet this person
who was going to take me on this extraordinary trip.
|REFERENCES / LINKS|
There was an official STONE website at www.stoneweb.com.au, but this has since been taken down.
Urban Cinefile - 'Stone Forever' Feature
Urban Cinefile, June 2000
Oz Film database