Kokoda propaganda film nabbed Australia's first Oscar 75 years ago

Seventy five years after a propaganda film won Australia its first Academy Award, the Oscar lies locked in a vault in Canberra largely forgotten. But the impact of the Kokoda front line on the Australia psyche endures.

Seventy five years ago a newsreel filmed by a legendary war cameraman made history by winning Australia's first ever Academy Award. The powerful images earned 'Kokoda Front Line!' the title co-recipient for the Best Documentary category, in 1943.

It was the first time audiences saw World War II's impact on in Papua and New Guinea, the heroism of Australian troops and the "Fuzzy Wuzzy" angels -  locals who were recruited to bring supplies and carry injured Australian soldiers. 

The wartime newsreel was filmed by Damien Parer and produced for production company Cinesound by "Australia's Cecil B DeMille" of the movie industry, Ken G Hall. It documented the Kokoda Front Line and brought home the brutal reality of war in in the Pacific.

"Fuzzy Wuzzy" stretcher bearers carrying injured Australian soldier
Source: Australian War Memorial

On the Kokoda front line

Parer captured iconic images of the grim conditions in the jungles of Australia’s territory just to the north, showing battle-weary soldiers trudging through the mud and Papuans carrying the wounded and dying from the front line.

Jennifer Coombes, a film curator at the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) in Canberra, said the newsreel placed Australian filmmaking on the world stage for the first time.

“It was a propaganda film, that was part of what their job was, to sell and raise the awareness of the war in the Australian public, but I think Parer felt he was telling a true story and it was very important for him to tell it well and sincerely,” she said.

“One of the really interesting things about film, it is a timepiece and you get a lot of the biases and attitudes of the time, so the language used about the "Fuzzy Wuzzies" is a little hard to hear in the contemporary context but it shows the absolute respect they were held in by Australian soldiers and it shows the amount of work they did.

The actual Oscar is locked away in the NFSA’s vaults and is inscribed with the words: "For its effectiveness in portraying simply yet forcefully the war in New Guinea, and it’s moving presentation of the bravery and fortitude of our Australian comrades in arms".

Australian soldiers in the mud on the Kokoda front line
Source: Australian War Memorial

An intrepid cameraman 

In 1942, as thousands of soldiers and civilians were dying in the Papua and New Guinea mud Damien Parer - the then Australian Department of Information cameraman - disobeyed orders and went to film on the Kokoda frontline.

In a piece to camera that introduces the nine-minute film, Parer said: “Eight days ago I was with our advance troops in the jungles, facing the Japs at Kokoda. I saw militia fighting over there, fighting in extremely difficult conditions, don’t underestimate the Japs, they're highly trained soldiers, disciplined and brave.” 

He added a warning as the battle raged on Australian soil: “There seems to be an air of unreality like the war's a million miles away, it's not, its right outside our front door.” 

The Kokoda campaign was not going well at this stage.

“People were much very more familiar with battles in Europe and how that looked, so the jungle, the terrain, the notion of Japanese enemy were quite new to the Australian public,” Ms Coombes said.

“He really brought that home with his beautifully framed images he presents to the audiences and the shots of Australian soldiers mucking it through mud.”

Parer was the son of a Spanish migrant and was renowned for his battlefield footage in Crete and North Africa before he went to Kokoda.

Australian war cameraman Damien Parer setting up his camera in a tree at Kokoda.
Source: Australian War Memorial

His son, who is also called Damien Parer and a filmmaker too, told SBS News: “It seems to me as an observer later on, of course, I never met my father, he was killed in the war, that it became the Gallipoli of World War II, because the images were so extraordinary.” 

“My understanding is at first they weren’t going to show those images, they would have a negative impact on the war effort, but when he and Ken G Hall got together they realised it would work in favour of the war effort. So they did it and it did work," he said.

“To look again today to see those images of war and men struggling, and pointing out the war was just north of Australia, the effect of that was so strong."

Australian war cameraman Damien Parer's ID card.
Source: Stefan Armbruster

Winner of the golden statuette

Damien Parer's pictures were edited for Australian film production company Cinesound, which won film producer Ken G Hall the golden statuette.  

“Ken G Hall is the closest we have to a Cecil B DeMille in the Australian film industry. He directed 17 films and all but one of them made a profit,” Ms Coombes said.

"When feature film (production) wound down at the start of the Second World War he moved into Cinesound newsreel.

“He was a real entrepreneur, producing entertainment and putting the Australian story into a national context, and one of the interesting things about his relationship with Damien Parer, there was a real mutual respect."

“He liked the idea of introducing a dramatic element into the documentary by putting Damien into the role of narrator.” 

Kokoda front line Oscar.
Source: Stefan Armbruster

A staged battle 

Hall gifted the statuette to Australia in 1984, presenting it to then Prime Minister Bob Hawke at the NFSA.

Despite winning Best Documentary, some of the most icon Kokoda battle footage was staged.

Scenes showing machine guns being fired, a hut was blown up and troops in mock assaults were filmed away from the battlefield.

The Australian War Memorial (AWM) holds the original unedited footage filmed by Parer including shots of soldiers hamming it up for the cameras.

AWM film curator Daniel Eisenberg told SBS News: “What’s remarkable in our collection is we have all the unedited footage. Part of the (wartime) agreement was that the original (government) reels would come to AWM.” 

“It says in the dope sheets, which we hold, that he missed the conflict by a few days and he asked them to recreate it, which is not his modus operandi to stage material, but he obviously felt it was very important to document how this action took place,” he said.

“In the end for a newsreel, Ken G Hall and Cinesound knew action sells and to have that footage in there upped the effect of it. Unfortunately, as is the way with footage, it became the truth of it and is used time and time again, as actuality, which I think frustrated Parer on one level."

The real war

But the footage of "fuzzy wuzzy angels" helping Australia's wounded and dying was very real and showed them carrying soldiers on makeshift stretchers along the treacherous mountain paths in the midst of battle.

“It shows the massive effort and the contribution of the people of Papua New Guinea as well,” Mr Eisenberg said.

“Kokoda Front Line very much dictates how we see this conflict. The newsreel, when we talked of the 'fuzzy wuzzy angels', they're seen carrying men up that track."

“It's the power of the moving image."

“Beyond the award, beyond the message back home, it becomes this record of the men that served, their experience, and I think that’s what Parer would be relieved to know, the record has been retained,” he said.

Australian war cameraman, Damien Parer.
Source: Australian War Memorial

Dying on the battlefield

Damien Parer quit the Australian public service in 1943, frustrated by the restrictions on battlefield access. He went to work for US film studio Paramount and was with the first wave of US Marines as they drove the Japanese back across the Pacific.

He died behind the camera in 1944 on a beachhead assault in Palau, leaving behind his wife who was pregnant with their first child.

His final footage was turned in to another newsreel.

Published 4 March 2018 at 6:13pm, updated 6 March 2018 at 12:07pm
By Stefan Armbruster
Source: SBS World News