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Holmes, Cecil William (1921–1994)

by Richard Brennan

This article was published online in 2019

Cecil William Holmes (1921–1994), film-maker and writer, was born on 23 June 1921 at Waipukurau, New Zealand, elder son of English-born Alan Holmes, farmer, and his New Zealand-born wife Ivy Marion, née Watt. He attended Palmerston North Boys’ High School. After seeing the documentary Night Mail (1936), he decided on a career as a film-maker—preferably of ‘radical films’ that would ‘make people think’ (Holmes 1986, 12). In 1939 he joined the Left Book Club, a cover for the local branch of the Communist Party of New Zealand. He remained a member of the party for the next twenty years.

Holmes enlisted as a trainee pilot in the Royal New Zealand Air Force on 28 July 1940. After being injured in an aircraft accident at Blenheim on 9 January 1941 and assessed as medically unfit for flying duties, he transferred to the Royal New Zealand Navy in July. Sent to Britain for training, he was commissioned in October 1942. He served aboard the destroyer HMS Wensleydale (1943) and the aircraft carrier HMS Premier (1943–45), seeing action in the English Channel and the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans. While on leave in London, he visited Denham Studios, later describing this as his ‘own private film school’ (Holmes 1986, 21). He was demobilised as a temporary lieutenant on 15 August 1945.

On 27 March 1945, in New York City, Holmes had married Margaret Enns, a Russian-born Canadian. Returning to New Zealand, he joined the National Film Unit, first as a newsreel editor, later as a director. An active member of the Public Service Association, he became embroiled in a political scandal in 1948 after his satchel containing ‘evidence of communist activity in New Zealand’ (Bay of Plenty Times 1948, 3) was stolen from his car. He was dismissed from the NFU; however, the PSA won a legal battle to have him reinstated in May 1949.

Preferring to make a fresh start, Holmes moved to Australia in November 1949. Over the next four decades, he worked as director, writer, and sometimes producer on more than twenty films. His first feature film, Captain Thunderbolt (1953), a fictional drama about an Australian bushranger, was photographed by Ross Wood and featured the actors Grant Taylor and Charles Tingwell. Filmed in the New England area of New South Wales with a budget of £15,000, it recouped twice that amount from sales overseas; however, its Australian release consisted of a single week in 1956 at Sydney’s Lyric Cinema. With Wood and the writer Frank Hardy, Holmes developed a three-part feature, Three in One (1957), which celebrated the spirit of Australian mateship. The film won a prize at the International Film Festival at Karlovy Vary, Czechoslovakia (Czech Republic), but did not recover its costs.

Holmes made a number of documentaries on various Indigenous themes. His sponsors included the Australian Broadcasting Commission (I, the Aboriginal, 1960), the Methodist Overseas Mission (Lotu, 1962; How Shall They Hear, 1964; Faces in the Sun, 1965), the Commonwealth Film Unit (The Islanders, 1968), the Institute of Aboriginal Studies (Djalambu, 1964; The Yabuduruwa Ceremony, 1965; The Lorrkun Ceremony, 1968), and Opus Films (Return to the Dreaming, 1971). Based on the biography of the Alawa man Phillip Waipuldanya Roberts as told to Douglas Lockwood, I, the Aboriginal won a gold award in the documentary category at the 1964 Australian Film Institute (AFI) awards. That year Holmes moved to Darwin with his second wife, Elsa Sandra Dingly, née Le Brun, also a film-maker. He continued his ethnographic film work and joined the Northern Territory Aboriginal Rights Council, fighting alongside Roberts and other Indigenous leaders for citizenship rights and equal pay. While in Darwin, Holmes also edited the Rupert Murdoch-owned fortnightly magazine The Territorian.

Returning to Sydney in 1970, Holmes worked as a contractor at Film Australia. His major work in this period, Gentle Strangers (1972), was a drama examining the problems of Asian students in Australia. Often poignant, it won a bronze award in the fiction category at the 1972 AFI awards. Although occasionally gruff, Holmes was foremost a man of great compassion and a mentor to many young film-makers, including Roberts’s son and daughter. A self-proclaimed ‘unrepentant radical,’ he was the author of One Man’s Way (1986).

From the early 1970s Holmes taught film-making to young Aboriginal students, gave talks to Amnesty International, and tried, unsuccessfully, to mount another feature film. Survived by his third wife, Elizabeth Florence Warner, and the daughter from his second marriage, Holmes died on 24 August 1994 at the Sacred Heart Hospice, Darlinghurst, New South Wales. He was buried in the Church of England cemetery, Waverley. The Australian Director’s Guild named its most prestigious award for him.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Bay of Plenty Times (New Zealand). ‘Evidence of Communist Activity in New Zealand.’ 21 December 1948, 3
  • Campbell, Russell. ‘Holmes, Cecil William.’ Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara—the Encylopedia of New Zealand. Accessed 4 May 2018. https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5h32/holmes-cecil-william. Copy held on ADB file
  • Holmes, Cecil. One Man’s Way. Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin, 1986
  • Holmes, Sandra Le Brun. Faces in the Sun: Outback Journeys. Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin, 1999
  • New Zealand Defence Force Personnel Archives. ‘Holmes, Cecil William.’ Copy held on ADB file
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Pike, Andrew, and Ross Cooper. Australian Film, 1900–1977: A Guide to Feature Film Production. Melbourne, Vic.: Oxford University Press, 1980
  • Shirley, Graham. ‘Director Focused on Underdog.’ Australian. 31 August 1994, 13
  • Williams, Deane. ‘Holmes, Cecil.’ In Oxford Companion to Australian Film, edited by Brian McFarlane, 215. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1999

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Richard Brennan, 'Holmes, Cecil William (1921–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/holmes-cecil-william-27207/text34725, published online 2019, accessed online 16 September 2019.

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