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Charles Edward Chauvel (1897–1959)

by A. F. Pike

This article was published:

Charles Edward Chauvel (1897-1959), film director, was born on 7 October 1897 at Warwick, Queensland, second son of native-born parents James Allan Chauvel, grazier, and his wife Susan Isabella, daughter of Henry Barnes. His father, aged 53, joined the Australian Remount Unit in 1916 as a lieutenant and served with the Australian Imperial Force in Sinai and Palestine; he ended the war as a temporary major and was appointed O.B.E. in 1919. Educated at Ipswich Grammar School, Charles worked on several southern Queensland stations then studied commercial art in Sydney. He also attended drama classes and from 1920 worked as a production assistant, primarily responsible for the horses, with R. L. ('Snowy') Baker and other film-makers.

In April 1922 Chauvel followed Baker to the United States of America; he survived in Los Angeles by writing articles about Australia and taking small jobs in Hollywood studios. He returned late in 1923, fired with enthusiasm to produce his own films. Financed by Queensland businessmen and friends, he embarked on The Moth of Moonbi (released January 1926) and Greenhide (released November). The heroine of Greenhide was played by Elsie May Wilcox, an actress known professionally as Elsie Sylvaney (Silveni). On 5 June 1927 Elsa (as she became known) and Charles were married in Sydney at St James's Church; thereafter she worked closely with him as a production associate.

Chauvel was self-reliant—serving as his own business manager, director, writer, publicist and distributor. His publicity was flamboyant and both of his silent films were modest commercial successes. In 1928 he went to Hollywood to seek American releases but found the market in the throes of transition to sound. He returned to Australia and worked as a cinema-manager in Melbourne before settling at Stanthorpe, Queensland.

Chauvel's first feature with sound was In the Wake of the Bounty (released March 1933), which merged a dramatic reconstruction of the Bounty mutiny in 1789 with documentary footage of life on Pitcairn Island nearly 150 years later. He had a strong urge to find spectacular backgrounds for his films, even at considerable personal discomfort and risk, and in 1932, with Elsa and a cameraman, he spent three months on Pitcairn shooting material for the film.

In 1935 Chauvel won the Commonwealth government's film competition with Heritage, a panoramic view of Australian history. Next year he made a jungle adventure, Uncivilised, then visited Hollywood. In July 1937, inspired by the distinguished war records in Palestine of his father, his uncle General Sir Harry Chauvel and his first cousin (Sir) Michael Bruxner, he began preparations for Forty Thousand Horsemen, a tribute to the Australian Light Horse in the campaigns of World War I. Shot in and around Sydney, with sand-dunes at Cronulla representing the Palestinian desert, the film was released in Sydney on 26 December 1940 and was an immediate success with both public and critics. It served as an important boost to Australian morale throughout World War II, and was screened widely overseas, helping to form popular American and British attitudes to the Australian 'digger'.

After another war feature, The Rats of Tobruk (1944), and several short propaganda films for the Department of Information, Chauvel directed Sons of Matthew (1949), a saga of pioneering life in the rugged mountain forests of south-eastern Queensland, filmed on the remote locations under difficult physical conditions. The result was considered by many to be his finest work. His final feature, Jedda (1955), was Australia's first in colour. It was shot largely in central and northern Australia and told the story of a young Aboriginal torn between her own people and her white foster-parents. He then made a series of thirteen half-hour films entitled Walkabout for British Broadcasting Corporation television. The series taxed Chauvel's energy, and he died of coronary vascular disease at his home at Castlecrag, Sydney, on 11 November 1959 and was buried in the Anglican section of Northern Suburbs cemetery. He was survived by his wife and daughter.

Chauvel was the only major director to persevere with production after World War II in the face of increased foreign domination of the Australian film trade. Intense and tireless, he often made severe demands on his employees and took extravagant physical and financial measures to perfect his work. Like many of his contemporaries, he was obsessed by the romance of the movies as exemplified by Hollywood; yet he expressed in most of his films, with varying clarity and strength, a heroic vision of Australia as a grand and exotic land, peopled by spirited sons of the soil.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Dunn, How They Made Sons of Matthew (Syd, 1949)
  • E. Chauvel, My Life With Charles Chauvel (Syd, 1973)
  • Picture Show, 1 Apr 1922
  • Everyone's, 21 July, 15 Sept 1926, 23 Mar 1927
  • Film Weekly, 18 Aug, 12 Dec 1935, 1 Oct 1936, 26 Dec 1940, 2 Jan 1941, 21 Dec 1944, 4 Aug, 15, 22 Dec 1949, 13 Jan, 14 Apr, 12 May 1955
  • Sydney Mail, 24 Mar 1926, 12 Feb 1936
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 Mar 1927, 20 Mar 1933, 14 Apr 1935, 20, 25, 30 Dec 1940, 17 June, 11 Dec 1944
  • Canberra Times, 12 Dec 1970
  • C. E. Chauvel papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Chauvel scrapbooks and material, and films (National Film and Sound Archive) Dept of Information, SP109/1 item 78/7/14 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

A. F. Pike, 'Chauvel, Charles Edward (1897–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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