The Siege of Pinchgut (UK-Australia 1959)

The Siege of Pinchgut is remembered as the fifth film made by Ealing Studios in Australia and also the last film made by Ealing as the entity headed by Michael Balcon. By 1958 Ealing had negotiated a deal to make films at ABPC’s studios at Elstree and release them in the UK through Associated British Pathé (although Rank still distributed The Siege of Pinchgut in various European territories). This last film was made mainly on location in Sydney with some scenes shot back at Elstree. The cast is mainly Australians in the smaller parts but with leading players from the UK and Hollywood star Aldo Ray in the lead role. I’ve known about the title for a long time but delayed watching it until now – in preparation for a Zoom event led by Dr Stephen Morgan, the Australian film scholar based in London. I’m not sure what I expected but ‘Pinchgut’ turns out to be a local name for a 19th century fort built on a rocky outcrop located in the wide entrance to Sydney Harbour. Its official title is Fort Dennison and it was used as part of the penal colony’s operations in the 19th century and as a defensive feature for the harbour in the 20th.

Luke (Carlo Giustini) and Aldo Ray as Matt Kirk. Neatly reflected in the mirror are Heather Sears and Barbara Mullen

The plot of the film is straightforward. An ingenious prison break sees Matt Kirk (Aldo Ray) evading recapture and seemingly set for an escape from Sydney with his brother Johnny (the Canadian actor Neil McCallum who was based in the UK). British character actor Victor Maddern plays Burt and Italian actor Carlo Giustini plays Luke, the other two members of the gang who spring Matt. But the boat taking them out Sydney harbour breaks down and drifts towards Pinchgut and its three inhabitants, the Fulton family. Matt Kirk believes he was wrongly imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit (but he does have a criminal background). His aim is to persuade the Attorney-General of New South Wales to grant him a re-trial. But now he can’t escape the city and negotiate a re-trial from a safe place. I don’t want to spoil the plot of a suspense thriller but the authorities become aware of the four men on the island and that the Fultons, father, mother and daughter (Heather Sears as second lead in the film in the same year that she appeared in Room at the Top), are hostages. At this point the narrative becomes a tense siege drama because of the presence of an ammunition ship in the harbour. Kirk threatens to use the naval gun on the island to fire at the ammunition ship and its cargo of gelignite. Such a move could kill thousands as had been seen in various wartime explosions such as that in Bombay in 1944 (which one of the gang had observed as a naval rating). On the other hand, the island is within range of sharpshooters stationed on the Harbour Bridge.

The sharpshooters on the bridge

The police are heavily armed when they aprroach the island

The film is in my view a well-made and engaging genre film. It was submitted to the Berlin Film Festival in 1959 at a time when commercial British films were often accepted at festivals and it was shown in competition for the Golden Bear. However, it wasn’t particularly successful at the UK box office and it received a thumbs down from some UK-based critics. The Kine Weekly described it on release in October 1959 as a “hearty action melodrama” and a “very good British booking”. The Monthly Film Bulletin Review by ‘JG’ (possibly John Gillet?) suggests that the central issue of Kirk’s ‘innocence’ is not properly established but equally the some of the dubious decisions of the politicians and the police authorities aren’t satisfactorily worked out. In the end the film strives for its ‘entertainment’ impact with Aldo Ray’s presence appealing to the US market. Charles Barr in his Ealing Studios book takes a similar line but expresses it slightly differently, accusing the film of a confused stance over the violence in the film – as much the violence of the authorities as of the gang. The film gives a kind of moral endorsement to the authorities that they have not earned. Barr suggests that this confusion is “typical of the weakness of ‘fifties Ealing”. I can see that these analyses have some force but it’s a pity that Barr has such a clear agenda in his overall study of Ealing that he doesn’t spend time on any of the plus points about the film.

One of several ‘noir’ images with expressionist lighting in the fort

The Siege of Pinchgut was directed by Harry Watt, the former documentary director from the 1930s who moved into fiction features with Ealing during the war and who made five features as part of Ealing’s attempt to create a ‘Commonwealth’ presence for the company. He made two films in East Africa and three in Australia, beginning with The Overlanders in 1946. Ealing attempted to build up Australian filmmaking facilities by investing in the National Studios in the Sydney suburb of Pagewood but a combination of financial constraints on Ealing initiated by Rank’s John Davis and a lack of support by public funding in Australia stymied future development. The Siege of Pinchgut which used only location shooting in Sidney with interiors back in the UK, proved to be the last attempt by a UK studio to establish itself in Australia. Watt’s documentary background is featured in several aspects of the film including the evacuation of dockside Sydney and the attempts to remove the explosives from the ship. These ‘procedural’ scenes are matched by the excellent cinematography of Ealing regular Gordon Dines. I was reminded of his great work on Pool of London (1951) for the exteriors but also impressed by the studio work inside the fortifications of Pinchgut. I was struck also by the evacuation itself and the sense of an Australian city preparing for a major disaster. I was reminded of the other major disaster scenario of the period, the adaptation of Nevil Shute’s novel about nuclear war, On the Beach (1959), shot presumably around the same time but in Melbourne. I think it is also worth mentioning that by making the fourth gang member an Italian, hoping to get back to Italy and buy his own fishing boat, this film, like Michael Powell’s They’re a Weird Mob (1966), points to some of the problems being experienced by Australia’s new migrants.

As in most sieges the telephone (and the TV) are important. This shot with the Fulton family (Gerry Duggan as the father) is one of several with great depth of field

Overall, I don’t think this film represents the kind of ‘sad’ ending implied by Charles Barr. I note that during the film’s Elstree shoot, Aldo Ray contributed to a fair amount of promotion for the film. I don’t know why the proposed production slate with ABPC didn’t take off – it may have been that the company became too interested in building up its TV interests. I certainly think this film is worth a watch. I recorded it from Talking Pictures TV which broadcast it in the correct 1.66:1 ratio. There is also now a new Network Blu-ray (Region B). Network discs are very good in my experience.

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