Charles Chauvel (filmmaker)

Charles Edward Chauvel OBE (7 October 1897 – 11 November 1959) was an Australian filmmaker, producer and screenwriter and nephew of Australian army General Sir Harry Chauvel. He is noted for making the films Forty Thousand Horsemen in 1940 and Jedda in 1955.

Charles Chauvel
Charles Chauvel in 1936
Charles Edward Chauvel

(1897-10-07)7 October 1897
Died11 November 1959(1959-11-11) (aged 62)
OccupationFilm director, producer, screenwriter
Spouse(s)Elsa Chauvel (1927–1959) (his death)

Early life


Charles Edward Chauvel was born on 7 October 1897 in Warwick, Queensland, the son of James Allan Chauvel and his wife Susan Isabella (née Barnes), pioneer farmers in the Mutdapilly area.[1][2] He was the nephew of General Sir Harry Chauvel, Commander of the Australian Light Horse and later the Desert Mounted Corps in Palestine during World War I. His father, a grazier, at 53 also enlisted to serve in Palestine and Sinai in World War I. The Chauvels were descended from a French Huguenot family who fled France for England in 1685, and soon established a tradition of serving in the British army. The Australian Chauvels descended from a Charles Chauvel who retired from the Indian Army to New South Wales in 1839 and was a pioneer in the New England region.

Chauvel was educated at the Normanby State School (now the Mutdapilly State School), The Southport School and Ipswich Grammar School in Queensland.[2][3]

Early Work in Film Industry

After leaving school, he worked on Queensland properties, and on his family property when his father was at war, before studying commercial art and taking drama classes in Sydney. He was fascinated by films and pestered a friend, showman Reginald "Snowy" Baker, to give him work as a production assistant; usually, he was the man in charge of the horses. Chauvel worked on The Shadow of Lightning Ridge (1920) and The Jackeroo of Coolabong (1920) with Baker; he also assisted on Robbery Under Arms (1920)

He designed the St Aidan's Church of England in Mutdapilly in 1921 (the church closed in 1974 and is now used as a private residence).[2][4]


Chauvel followed Baker to Hollywood in 1922, at his own expense, and spent some time as a jack of all trades including working as an extra, a lighting technician, a publicist, a stunt double and so on. The films he worked on included Strangers of the Night (1923).


Moth of Moonbi (1926)

Back in Australia after about a year, Chauvel obtained finance from Queensland businessmen and friends to make his first film The Moth of Moonbi. It was a romantic melodramas exploring a theme of the decadent city vs the authentic country. The Moth of Moonbi is a country girl who flutters to the city lights, loses her fortune, but eventually returns home and finds love with her father's trusty stockman.

The film was profitable enough for Chauvel to raise funds for a second film.[5]

Greenhide (1926)

In Greenhide a city girl struggles to cope on a cattle station and gradually finds love with her polar opposite, an extremely taciturn bushman. Like Moonbi the film was made in Harrisville near Brisbane, enlisting the locals as extras and using locations around his family property "Summerlands", near the edge of town. While making Greenhide he met Elsa May Wilcox (professional name Elsa Sylvaney), an actress, whom he married on 1927. After their marriage she traveled with him and assisted him on all his films.

Both these silent films were released in 1926 and were reasonably successful in Australia. Unfortunately Chauvel could not arrange for the release of his silent movies in Hollywood because of the transition to sound.[6]

Chauvel returned to Australia and worked as a cinema manager during the Depression.[7]

In the Wake of the Bounty (1933)

In 1933 he made his first talkie: In the Wake of the Bounty starring Errol Flynn as Fletcher Christian before Flynn went on to Hollywood. The film mixed re-enactments with documentary, and focused not so much on the mutiny itself as on its consequences.[8] To provide a long postscript to the story of the mutiny, the Chauvels went to Pitcairn Island and shot interesting footage of the Bounty descendants, spending three months on the island. He also included footage of bare-breasted Tahitian dancers which caused a temporary problem with the censors.[8] The documentary parts were later edited out and used as promotional material for the 1935 Hollywood film about the mutiny.[9]

Heritage (1935)

In 1935, Chauvel won a Commonwealth Government competition for Heritage which gave a panoramic view of Australian history. It begins with a character from the earliest days of white settlement (1788), following his struggles, his loves and his marriage, then skips to the modern generation, where a romance between descendants of the original characters completes a circle. The modern hero is struggling to run an outback cattle station, the modern heroine is an expert aviator.

Uncivilised (1936)

In 1936 he made Uncivilised, a "jungle story" filmed in Cape York, in Far North Queensland, Australia.[7] Aimed at the U.S. market, it is the story of an upper class "girl-reporter" investigating the white leader of an Aboriginal tribe.

That year also saw the release of Rangle River (1936), based on a script by Charles and Elsa Chauvel.

Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940)

The outbreak of war meant that Chauvel turned to war-themed films, making Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940), a tribute to the Australian Light Horse Brigade in Palestine in World War I, in the Cronulla sand dunes. It was both a popular and critical success and was credited with boosting morale. It also launched the career of actor Chips Rafferty.

Chauvel then focused on making a series of propaganda shorts for the Australian war effort including Soldiers Without Uniform (1942).

Rats of Tobruk (1944)

Chauvel attempt to repeat his Horseman success with The Rats of Tobruk in 1944.[7] It was not as successful.[7]

Sons of Matthew (1949)

After the war he made a film about a pioneer family in Queensland, Sons of Matthew (1949), drawing on his own family history

Jedda (1955)

In 1955 Chauvel made perhaps his best known film, Jedda. Jedda is a story of an Aboriginal baby girl raised by a white station owner and kept in ignorance of traditional ways, and the Aboriginal man who carries her off, even though this is a forbidden "wrong way" marriage, and brings tragedy to both of them.

Both Jedda and Matthew involved travel to remote areas and difficult conditions for filming, and are considered Chauvel's best works.[10][11] Jedda was the first Australian feature film made in colour, and had to be developed overseas as there were no colour processing facilities in Australia.[12] For Jedda, the Chauvels sought out Aboriginal people for the lead roles, and in Robert Tudawali, playing the male lead, they found someone with great natural ability. Both these films were made in a period when the Australian film industry had virtually collapsed, unable to compete with imported films.[12]

Final years and death

After this, Chauvel turned to television, making the BBC series Walkabout which travelled to interesting locations in Australia. He died unexpectedly of coronary vascular disease on 11 November 1959, less than a month after Errol Flynn, whom he cast in In the Wake of the Bounty. According to Ken G. Hall, Chauvel had left a message asking to speak to Hall on the day he died, and left an estate worth ₤32,000.[13]


Since 1992 the Brisbane International Film Festival has awarded a Chauvel Award to a "distinguished contributor to Australian Cinema".

Chauvel Cinema, an art-house cinema in the Sydney suburb of Paddington, is named after him.

Chauvel was posthumously inducted into the Queensland Business Leaders Hall of Fame in 2013.[14]

In 2009 as part of the Q150 celebrations, Charles Chauvel was announced as one of the Q150 Icons of Queensland for his role as an "Influential Artists".[15]



1920Robbery Under Armsactordirected by Kenneth Brampton
1920The Shadow of Lightning Ridgeactordirected by Wilfred Lucas
1920The Jackeroo of Coolabongactordirected by Wilfred Lucas
1922Captain Fly-By-Nightactor
1922The Man from the Desertactor
1923Strangers of the Nightactor
1926The Moth of Moonbidirector / producer / screenwriter
1926Greenhidedirector / producer / screenwriter
1933In the Wake of the Bountydirector / producer / screenwriter
1935Heritagedirector / producer / screenwriter
1936Unciviliseddirector / producer / screenwriter
1936Rangle Riverscreenwriter (with Elsa Chauvel)directed by Clarence G. Badger
1937Screen Testdirector / producer
1940Forty Thousand Horsemendirector / producer / screenwriter
1942Soldiers Without Uniformdirector / producerdocumentary short
1942Power to Windirector / producerdocumentary short
1943A Mountain Goes to Seadirector / producerdocumentary short
1943While There is Still Timedirector / producerdocumentary short
1943Russia Aflamedirector / producerdocumentary short
1944The Rats of Tobrukdirector / producer / screenwriter
1949Sons of Matthewdirector / producer / screenwriter
1955Jeddadirector / producer / screenwriter


1958Australian Walkaboutdirector / producer / screenwriterproduced for the ABC and BBC

Unmade projects

Chauvel announced a number of projects over the years that were not made, including:[16]

  • Conflict – a project for which Chauvel registered scripts in 1930[17] and 1933[18]
  • adaptation of the novel Geoffrey Hamlyn about early Australian pioneers[19]
  • a script called The Man from Down Under which Chauvel registered in 1941[20]
  • adaptation of the novel My Love Must Wait by Ernestine Hill about the life of Matthew Flinders – Chauvel claimed he paid a record price for an Australian novel to get the rights[21] and gave a copy of the novel to Laurence Olivier during his 1948 tour of Australia in an attempt to interest him in playing Flinders[22]
  • the life of boxer Les Darcy starring Tommy Burns[23]
  • adaptation of the novel When Cobb and Co Was King by Will Lawson[24]
  • adaptation of the novel Wards of the Outer March by Kathleen Glasson Taylor, a story of convict-bushranger days[25]'
  • wartime documentary about the wool industry.[26]


  1. "Search birth historical records". Queensland Government. Archived from the original on 12 March 2011. Retrieved 27 February 2014.
  2. Starr, Joan (1988), Moreton Shire Queensland : discovery and settlement, Southern Cross PR and Press Services, ISBN 978-0-9588021-0-9
  3. "Distinguished Old Boys". OBA. Ipswich Grammar School. 2007. Archived from the original on 29 August 2007. Retrieved 2 November 2007.
  4. "Harrisville & District" (PDF). Ipswich City Council. Archived from the original (PDF) on 6 April 2011. Retrieved 27 February 2014.
  5. "BRITISH FILMS". The Brisbane Courier (21, 656). Queensland, Australia. 24 June 1927. p. 14. Retrieved 25 July 2017 via National Library of Australia.
  6. Society of Cinemaland Nye, Myra. Los Angeles Times (1923–Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 24 June 1928: C27.
  7. F. Pike, "Chauvel, Charles Edward (1897–1959)" Archived 25 February 2011 at the Wayback Machine, Australian Dictionary of Biography
  8. "Curator's notes In the Wake of the Bounty (1933) on ASO - Australia's audio and visual heritage online". Archived from the original on 26 February 2017. Retrieved 6 February 2018.
  9. National Film and Sound Archive title details for In the Wake of the Bounty
  10. Dunn, M. How They Made Sons of Matthew Sydney, 1949
  11. "Charles Chauvel spotlight at the National Film and Sound Archive". Archived from the original on 29 November 2010. Retrieved 6 February 2018.
  12. "Charles Chauvel portrait on ASO - Australia's audio and visual heritage online". Archived from the original on 4 April 2017. Retrieved 6 February 2018.
  13. Philip Taylor, "Ken G. Hall", Cinema Papers January 1974, p. 86
  14. "Queensland Business Leaders Hall of Fame | Charles Chauvel (1897 – 1959)". Archived from the original on 8 March 2017. Retrieved 8 March 2017.
  15. Bligh, Anna (10 June 2009). "PREMIER UNVEILS QUEENSLAND'S 150 ICONS". Queensland Government. Archived from the original on 24 May 2017. Retrieved 24 May 2017.
  16. Stuart Cunningham Featuring Australia: The cinema of Charles Chauvel North Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1991 pp. 139–140
  17. Copyright registration of script Archived 4 October 2013 at the Wayback Machine at National Archives of Australia
  18. Copyright registration of script Archived 4 October 2013 at the Wayback Machine at National Archives of Australia
  19. "AUSTRALIAN FILMS". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 22 January 1927. p. 12. Retrieved 1 August 2012.
  20. Copyright registration Archived 4 October 2013 at the Wayback Machine at National Archives of Australia
  21. "Record Price for Novel". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 11 May 1946. p. 4. Retrieved 13 February 2012.
  22. "Ernestine Hill Book May Be Film". The Mail. Adelaide: National Library of Australia. 11 September 1948. p. 1. Retrieved 13 February 2012.
  23. "Burns in Film Role As Darcy". The Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW: 1888– 1954). Broken Hill, NSW: National Library of Australia. 25 September 1947. p. 7. Retrieved 13 February 2012.
  24. "Five Films by Chauvel". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 21 June 1946. p. 11. Retrieved 13 February 2012.
  25. "Introducing Dorothy ("Claudia") McGuire". The Mercury. Hobart, Tasmania: National Library of Australia. 10 June 1944. p. 8. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
  26. "WOOL INDUSTRY FILM". The Sydney Morning Herald. National Library of Australia. 5 September 1941. p. 6. Retrieved 18 August 2012.

Further reading

  • Susanne Chauvel Carlsson Charles and Elsie Chauvel Movie Pioneers Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1989.
  • Charles Chauvel Heritage Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1935.
  • Charles Chauvel In the wake of The Bounty from Tahiti to Pitcairn Island Sydney: Endeavour Press, 1933
  • Charles and Elsa Chauvel Walkabout London: W H Allen, 1959.
  • Elsa Chauvel My Life with Charles Chauvel (Sydney: 1973).
  • Stuart Cunningham Featuring Australia: The cinema of Charles Chauvel North Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1991.
  • Elyne Mitchell Chauvel Country: the Story of a pioneering Australian family Melbourne: 1983.
  • Neil McDonald Damien Parer's War Melbourne: Lothian Books 1991 (War photographer Damein Parer spent time as one of Chauvel's crew on Uncivilised and Forty Thousand Horsemen.)
  • Eric Reade The Talkies Era: a pictorial history of Australian sound filmmaking 1930–1960 Melbourne: Landsdowne Press, 1972.
  • Charles Chauvel at Australian screen
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