Classic Ellis: Stone Revisited

Stone, with a few caveats, is a big unexpected success. Pre-dating by five years its bedfellow Mad Max, it gives us not just a preview of what the Australian film industry – raw, action-packed, nork-flashing and unafraid – might have become, but a time capsule of the talent then spilling out of it. Bill Hunter, the barman, seems a pale nonentity; Terry Bader, the garage mechanic, a superstar; Hugh Keayes-Byrne, the operatic bully, the next Oliver Reed; Drew Forsythe, quite remarkable as a shy teenager warily refusing Hugh’s tongue-kiss, a potential Michael York; Rebecca Giblin the next Susannah York; Helen Morse the next Jean Simmons; the lead Ken Shorter, somewhere between the next Malcolm McDowell and the next Tommy Steele. Other faces out of Mad Max – Vince Gill, Roger Ward – crowd the frames, and one finds oneself wondering what went wrong and why they were not all eventual superstars like Mel. The costumed prissification that followed Picnic at Hanging Rock, probably, and the tax-dodge banalities of 10BA. And it’s a pity.

Stone is the surname of the undercover cop (Shorter) whom the Gravediggers permit to ride along with them while he searches for their serial assassin, who beheads one of them with a wire across the road (I was pleased to the furry face in the rolling helmet was the producer, David Hannay) or snipes at them accurately from high angles. Stone is a long-haired, pure-hearted fellow. He refuses cannabis, alcohol and all offered sex from the frequently naked molls around him, succumbing to just one kiss and is beaten near to death for it by Undertaker, her bloke (Sandy Harbutt); but, like an anthropologist among Nuigini savages, comes to like the Gravediggers and their Homeric, heroic, violent, wandering lifestyle – much of the movie being a study of how they steep themselves in the codes they live by: the fealty, the fidelity (a girl can say to a bloke it’s over, but must never cheat on him) and the roaring Arthurian-quest they vroom down streets in, skidding round corners and getting up on one wheel, similar to that of Easy Rider and Romper Stomper.

The urban vistas, often twilight, by Graham Lind, the cinematographer, are amazingly beautiful. The editing by Ian Barry is terrific. The costume design by Helen Morse and Margaret Ure and the bike stunts by Peter Armstrong and others are very good indeed. Most of the acting is very fine, with outstanding walk-ons by Garry McDonald and Susan Lloyd.

But…the dialogue is no good (Sandy Harbutt and Michael Robinson), and, though not fatal, it hurts. Great actors have agonies with long expository lines that a half day with John Dingwall or David Williamson would have sorted, and it hurts.

Nonetheless, it is a success, the storyline true-hearted and well-structured, the research honest and unstinted. The Gravediggers are minor terrorists but also a tribe and they have a right, we feel – like the Tauregs, like the Apaches and the Aruntas – to be on earth, roaring down its highways and punching each other out in pubs.

Sandy Harbutt’s direction is wonderful, and his management of the violent scenes as good as, say, Scorsese. And it would have seemed a toss-up then as to whether he or George Miller would have become a world figure. Sandy lived off the film for about two decades (it was always in a drive-in somewhere in South America, selling out) and he got, perhaps, a bit lazy. He had for years in development an Alex Buzo adaptation of The Drums of Mer (to be produced and directed by and to star himself) and he lost Helen Morse, and may have lost heart. And it’s a pity.

Ken Shorter, for a long time a local star, did well in England in the RSC and Morse, affrighted by Far East, left film for good and played Coward and Tennessee Williams a lot in Perth, Newcastle and similar places, on stage. Bill Hunter leapt out of apparent mediocrity in this film to Newsfront four years later and the perpetual national affection he persisted in for forty years. But…

I’m not saying the film had a curse on it. But it was a false dawn in some ways. It proved an Australian genre – the bikie western, or the highway western – that could, in Sandy’s hands, have become a world-conqueror in a modest way that George Miller refused to stay in, getting more and more like science fiction.

It had honesty, and honour, and modesty. And it looks thrillingly good now. Frame by frame, fight by fight, gunfight and bike crash and ride after ride into urban sunsets, it is a great inspirer of young movie makers then and now. And well worth rediscovering, about twice a year.

  1. I think it was as you say a good film and an even better one in retrospect. If you wanted it to be a gritty cop drama with the kind of polish of The French connection that was after all three years earlier then you’d probably be disappointed. But if you want to get it out once in a while to bathe in Australian sensibilities of a time we may remember fondly then it’s a perfect indulgence not to be missed.

  2. It was difficult to take Stone seriously as all the bikies were on pastel coloured Hondas or scooters or something.Maybe with a low budget,the producers got to use 50 or so brand new bikes as an early example of product placement.I didn’t mind the movie with its Sydney locations and all but it was really just a late entry in the bikie exploitation genre.Werevoles on Wheels is my favourite of the type.

  3. Tempting fate here:)

    In answer to Michaels post.The bikes were authentic for that year. Stone- 1974,and also obviously written in years previous. There were more Harley’s and Triumphs in the mix though. You could fix them easily on the side on the road. They were made for it. I’ve put new rings in a Triumph on the side of the road and they were cheap.I never paid more than 100 dollars for one in those days.

    The “Jaffa” was the iconic superbike. The Jaffa coloured Kawasaki 900. The bikini fairing was authentic wear for those years.I had Honda fours, Triumphs- Bonneys and Tridents and the 750 Kawasaki two stroke Triples. Widowmakers became their nickname.Just had to be careful.

    Somehow,the Americans found the Japanese to be cheating on imports and there was some furore about it and with racism and war memories still high in presence in those times, some of the US born and faithful clubs here followed suit and declared no Jap bikes in the clubs. This happened after mid 70′s with the guys I lived with. Only Harley’s or British.

    Interestingly, a President faithful to US club groundings took a trip over to the states at this time.The vehicle he was lent there to go to a party was, unknown to him, owned by a man who killed a relative of someone at the party. Plus Americans didn’t like anything strange to them. He used his medical travel insurance up in short time, was in hospital for many months and his family was down over a hundred thousand dollars by the end.
    Here in OZ, many bikers in those earlier years were from war broken homes. Fathers missing from their family lines or war damaged or alcoholic or abused backgrounds. They found family, brotherhood and role modelling and the decent amongst them were highly revered. Australian values were high. Things got worse mid 70′s.

    The Japanese bikes were awesome. modern electrics, CDI etc. Reliability and performance. I did two trips to Mt Isa passenger on a 750 waterbus. Once out of the towns and dodging roo’s, we were rarely under 100 mph and it was dirt roads in those days. I had a mother of pearl peace dove I use to wear around my neck. I would tuck it down the back of Shane’s jacket and go to sleep were I could.
    Real bikers ride anything,scooters included.
    The Americans can thank the Japanese for waking up their industry and for the modern Harley.
    The guys I lived with were worthy of any community. Sound, sane, brave and law abiding but the club ranged to “horror stories”. Toys ranged from old Webley pistols to old Thompson machine guns and Uzi’s in the 70′s.
    Stone is a classic.

    • I vaguely remember seeing a bit of that show at a drive in many years ago. I drove out.
      Bruno has a presence. I might have to revisit it for a look.

      • It only has three actors, it isn’t the greatest film, but it has its moments. The set and the cinematography do it for me. You might have seen “The Great Bookie Robbery” a TV series with Bruno in it as “Cracker” and it must have been Utu, the other film I’ve seen him in where he was brilliant, which I have to revisit.

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