new guinea patrol

July 18 2010

Yesterday at the National Film and Sound Archive’s Arc Cinema I caught an 1950’s Australian doco New Guinea Patrol, which I’ve been wanting to see for quite some time, primarily because Australian composer John Antill wrote the soundtrack – another example of the influence of Melanesian culture on Australian art in the early-mid 20th century.

The soundtrack was more or less underwhelming, although historically quite interesting.  It featured lush impressionist orchestration over the top of simple percussion lines, similar to Antill’s famous 1946 Corroboree.  The film itself was a fascinating insight into the Australian perception of New Guinea in the post-war period.  It followed a patrol made up of a few Australian officers and local volunteers from Tari (Southern Highlands Province), who were trying to establish another base further West, towards the Strickland River, and who were making ‘first contact’ with communities from the local Duna ethnic group.

The film was more or less ‘the voice of god’, although in some respects, demonstrated a degree of relativism about Western Culture (for example, the voice over mentioned how the Patrol were “bringing civilisation as we know it to the local inhabitants”.  In this respect, the film had not yet caught up to Jean Rouch’s cinéma vérité techniques which were being developed at around this time.  Nonetheless it was a fascinating insight into Australian cultural, filmic, and musical history, and begs the question – what would we do differently now??

Surprisingly, what was more interestingly musically was a soundtrack by a very young Nigel Butterley to Jennie Boddington’s Three in a Million (1959), which was also screened at the NFSA, which told the story of three immigrants to Australia.  I’ve never really found much of Butterley’s instrumental music to ‘grab’ me – but this soundtrack (which was written when Butterley was 24, and a few years before his development as a major Australian composer) was gripping.  It featured intricate chamber vignettes which were perfectly matched to the three main characters and their respective locales (an Italian man in downtown Melbourne, an English woman in outback SA, and a German man working on the Snowy Mountain Scheme).

For me, this only confirms that Australian music has such a rich and interesting history of which is still largely uncovered or hidden, and I’d be fascinated to see other examples of documentaries from this time which involved collaborations with Australian composers.

**UPDATE** ABC have uploaded a clip from New Guinea Patrol, which can be found here.

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