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Robert Ronald Williams (1911–1999)

by Deane Williams

This article was published online in 2023

Robert Ronald Maslyn Williams (1911–1999), journalist, musician, writer, photographer, and film-maker, was born on 20 February 1911 at Woolwich, London, eldest child of Irish-born parents Albert Robert Williams, soldier, and his wife Florence Charlotte, née Maslyn. His father was often away from home, and his mother, who had extended family in Australia, died in 1928 when Maslyn was seventeen. Family life was therefore a ‘muddled one’ and his education ‘fragmentary in many ways’ (Williams 1967, 2), as he lived for periods in Ireland, Australia, France, and England. With the aim of ‘either being a poet in the romantic tradition or a virtuoso pianist’ (Williams 1967, 3), he went to the Sydney Conservatorium of Music in his late teens, and then to the Royal Academy of Music, London, before settling permanently in Australia in his early twenties.

Williams lived in the New England and Southern Highlands districts of New South Wales, working on rural properties and dabbling in journalism and radio scriptwriting. He became interested in film-making when employed as general factotum on Charles Chauvel’s Uncivilised (1936) at the National Studios Ltd, Pagewood, Sydney. He also worked on the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation production of Miles Mander's The Flying Doctor (1936), and on Clarence Badger's Rangle River (1936). His training in music enabled him to become adept at editing and continuity in films. On 2 December 1939, at the Office of the Government Statist, Melbourne, he married American-born Ruth Delores Christensen, a stenographer. The marriage was to end in divorce in the mid-1960s.

During the 1930s Williams had established a close friendship with the war photographer and cameraman Damien Parer, which strongly influenced his approach to film-making. A devout Catholic, Parer taught Williams to seek the essential humanity in his subjects, and to recognise people ‘as a continuing miracle of existence’ (Williams 1967, 3). In the late 1930s Williams became a writer and editor, working alongside Parer in the Commonwealth government’s cinema and photographic branch in the Department of Commerce, Melbourne. During World War II the branch became a part of the film division of the Department of Information, and Williams worked in the Middle East as a scriptwriter, producer, and director under the photographer Frank Hurley in association with Parer, Alan Anderson, and George Silk. The division supplied footage to the Australian War Memorial, and to Cinesound Productions Ltd and Fox Movietone News for newsreel production.

After the war Williams travelled extensively, including stints at the Australian News and Information Bureau, New York, (1945) and the National Film Board of Canada (1946). Returning to Australia, he became a senior producer for the Australian National Film Board (from 1956 the Commonwealth Film Unit), and was responsible for such productions as Goldtown (1948), Music Camp (1949), This Is the ABC (1955), and The Music Makers (1956). These films displayed his interest in music and sound, with an emphasis on dialogue and ensuring that the music score complemented the image. Williams’s films formed a distinct oeuvre which reached its apotheosis in one of the film division’s finest achievements, the feature documentary Mike and Stefani (1952). Eschewing the conventions of institutional documentary in favour of a romantic neo-realist drama of displaced persons at the mercy of the forces of history, and with only a shoestring budget, Williams and his cameraman Reg Pearse made this beautiful film of a family’s struggles in war-ravaged Europe. In 1957, with John Bishop and Ruth Alexander, he established the Australian Youth Orchestra, following the groundswell created by the National Music Camp movement that Williams had documented in The Music Makers.

Towards the end of his time with at the Commonwealth Film Unit, Williams produced a series of films for the Department of Territories dealing with political, economic, and social developments in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea. His interest in the broader Pacific region was guided by his continuing search for honesty and truthfulness of representation. His New Guinea films included New Guinea Patrol (1958), Way to a New World (1959), An Agricultural Officer in Papua and New Guinea (1961), and The Cruise of the Magi (1963).

Frustrated by the limits placed on his romantic and often exotic vision of the world, Williams left the confines of institutional film-making to further pursue the representation of Papua New Guinea and countries surrounding Australia. He travelled extensively to research and write The East Is Red: The View inside China (1967); The Land In Between: The Cambodian Dilemma (1969); In One Lifetime (1970), a study of Papua New Guinea; The Story of Indonesia (1976); and Faces of My Neighbour: Three Journeys into East Asia (1979). In the early 1980s he collaborated with the Pacific Islands expert Barrie McDonald on the book The Phosphateers: A History of the British Phosphate Commissioners and the Christmas Island Phosphate Commission. These non-fiction works were interspersed with a series of novels, including The Far Side of the Sky (1967), The Benefactors: A Novel of New Guinean Conquest (1971), and Florence Copley of Romney (1974).

On 29 June 1971 Williams had married Laraine Woodley-Page, a musician, at the Divine World Chapel, Epping, Sydney. The couple lived in Canberra during the 1970s, and then moved to Moss Vale. His literary endeavours culminated in the autobiographical His Mother’s Country (1988) which won the Fellowship of Australian Writers Christina Stead award that year, and the Douglas Stewart prize for Non-Fiction in the 1989 New South Wales literary awards. In 1993 he became an emeritus fellow of the Literature Board of the Australia Council. A ‘prodigiously talented photographer and musician’ (Gibson and Williams 2017, 204), he authored sixteen books and produced more than thirty films. Slightly built and at times diffident, he classified himself as ‘in a sense, a literary hippy: my cry is “Make love not War”’ (Canberra Times 1964, 3). He died on 11 August 1999 at Southern Highlands Private Hospital, Bowral, and was buried in Bowral cemetery; his wife, and John and Kerry, the two sons of his first marriage, survived him.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Canberra Times. ‘Earning a Place.’ 17 September 1964, 3
  • Gibson, Ross and Deane Williams. ‘The Maslyn Williams Network.’ Critical Arts 31, no.5 (September 2017): 202–17
  • McDonald, Neil. War Cameraman: The Story of Damien Parer. Port Melbourne, Vic.: Lothian, 1994
  • National Library of Australia. MS 3936, Papers of Maslyn Williams
  • Shirley, Graham, and Brian Adams. Australian Cinema
  • The First Eighty Years. Paddington, NSW: Currency Press, 1989
  • Williams, Deane. Australian Post-War Documentary Film: An Arc of Mirrors. Bristol, UK, and Chicago, USA: Intellect, 2008
  • Williams, Kerry. Personal communication
  • Williams, R. Maslyn. Interview by Andrew Pike and Merrilyn Fitzpatrick, 23 July 1977. National Film and Sound Archive of Australia
  • Williams, Ronald Maslyn. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 21 July 1967. Transcript. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Deane Williams, 'Williams, Robert Ronald (1911–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/williams-robert-ronald-32347/text40092, published online 2023, accessed online 16 July 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Birth

20 February, 1911
London, Middlesex, England

Death

11 August, 1999 (aged 88)
Bowral, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

unknown

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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