King of the Coral Sea

King of the Coral Sea is a 1954 film starring Chips Rafferty and Charles Tingwell, directed by Lee Robinson and shot on location in Thursday Island. It was one of the most commercially successful Australian films of the 1950s and marked the feature film debut of Rod Taylor.

King of the Coral Sea
Directed byLee Robinson
Produced byChips Rafferty
Lee Robinson (uncredited)
Written byLee Robinson
Chips Rafferty
StarringChips Rafferty
Charles Tingwell
Rod Taylor
Music byWilbur Sampson
CinematographyRoss Wood
Noel Monkman (underwater photography)
Edited byAlex Ezard
Distributed byBritish Empire Films
Release date
17 July 1954 (Australia)
Running time
85 mins
Box office£34,000 (England)
£26,000 (Australia)[2]


A body is found floating in the Torres Strait and pearler Ted King is asked to investigate.

He discovers the murder is connected to a people smuggling ring and involves one of his men, Yusep.

He is helped by Peter Merriman, the playboy owner of King's company who romances King's daughter Rusty.

Yusep kidnaps Rusty but Merriman and King rescue her.



Lee Robinson had previously made a documentary on the pearling industry, The Pearlers (1949). All Australian slang was removed from the script to ensure it would not be confusing for international audiences.[3] The shoot took place from June to October 1953.[4]


The supporting cast included Rod Taylor in his feature film debut. He plays an American who elected to stay on in Australia after World War II, a character Robinson created with the aim of making the film more appealing to the international market. Taylor, Robinson, Rafferty, Charles Tingwell and Lloyd Berrell all knew each other from working in Sydney radio.[5]

Also featuring in the cast was Ilma Adey, a model and cabaret entertainer without any previous acting experience,[6] and Frances Chin Soon, a local nurse from Thursday Island.[7]

Underwater photography

The film was shot almost entirely on location on Thursday Island, except for the underwater footage, which was filmed off Green Island. Noel Monkman was primarily responsible for this.[8][9]

The filming was unique as the cameraman and the actors dived with a rare scuba known as the Lawson Lung. It was a patent violation of the Cousteau-Gagnan patented Aqua Lung. It had a unique appearance, which came from the tank being worn on the diver's back, with the regulator worn on the chest. The Lawson Lung was made in Sydney in small numbers, because getting scuba gear in Australia was very difficult at the time. Rafferty dived in an open British made Heinke helmet as well as using the Lawson Lung towards the end of the film.

Thursday Island was known for its pearl shells, which were collected for jewelry and buttons. The film was noted for the documentation of pearl shell divers and the luggers they sailed in.[10]


The movie was originally entitled King of the Arafura[11] but was retitled King of the Coral Sea as it was felt the Coral Sea was a better known sea than the Arafura.[12]

The world premiere was held on Thursday Island on 17 July 1954, with a simultaneous screening in Melbourne.[13][14] The film enjoyed a successful release and Robinson estimated it tripled its costs within three months.[2]

A "Queen of the Coral Sea" competition was held to promote the movie.[15][16][17]


  1. Lee Robinson papers at the National Film and Sound Archive
  2. Lee Robinson interview with Albert Moran, Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture vol. 1 no 1 (1987)
  3. "Slang Taboo In Aussie Films". Townsville Daily Bulletin. Qld.: National Library of Australia. 18 July 1953. p. 2. Retrieved 8 March 2012.
  4. "RAFFERTY FILM COMPLETED". The Cairns Post. Qld.: National Library of Australia. 26 October 1953. p. 3. Retrieved 8 March 2012.
  5. Stephen Vagg, Rod Taylor: An Aussie in Hollywood (Bear Manor Media, 2010) p36
  6. "FOR FILM ON THURSDAY 1s". The Courier-Mail. Brisbane: National Library of Australia. 15 July 1953. p. 3. Retrieved 8 March 2012.
  7. "FEATURES Monsters Looked On When Australians Took Their Camera Underwater... Film Cast's Peril On Sea Bed." The Sun-Herald (Sydney) 11 Apr 1954: 26 accessed 16 December 2011
  8. "FAR NORTHERN SCENES." Cairns Post 21 Aug 1954: 5 accessed 16 December 2011
  9. "FEATURES Monsters Looked On When Australians Took Their Camera Underwater... Film Cast's Peril On Sea Bed". The Sun-Herald. Sydney: National Library of Australia. 11 April 1954. p. 26. Retrieved 8 March 2012.
  10. Stephen Vagg, King of the Coral Sea: A Royal Achievement, Metro Magazine 158 Sept 2008 p88
  11. "FILM UNIT MOVING NORTH". The Cairns Post. Qld.: National Library of Australia. 11 July 1953. p. 5. Retrieved 8 March 2012.
  12. "THE LOCAL SCREEN SCENE: Feature on Atomic Bomb Spies Planned -- Of Guided Missiles -- Other Matters" by A. H. WEILER. New York Times 24 Jan 1954: X5.
  13. "ISLAND FILM." Cairns Post 16 Jul 1954: 7 accessed 16 December 2011
  14. "Natives enjoy local character, places." The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld) 20 Jul 1954: 12 accessed 16 December 2011
  15. "QUEEN OF THE CORAL SEA" Cairns Post 30 Oct 1954: 7 accessed 16 December 2011
  16. "CHIPS RAFFERTY MAY MAKE FILM HERE". The Mercury. Hobart, Tas.: National Library of Australia. 3 August 1954. p. 2. Retrieved 8 March 2012.
  17. "ON HER WAY TO FINAL". The Courier-Mail. Brisbane: National Library of Australia. 31 August 1954. p. 7. Retrieved 8 March 2012.
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