A ‘wartime western’ and Ealing Studios’ first Australian overseas offering: THE OVERLANDERS proved to be a smash hit and catapulted Aussie actor Chips Rafferty to international fame.

Despite its relatively simple plot (a 2000 miles cattle drive through an extremely punishing countryside) THE OVERLANDERS offers plenty of derring-do action. It’s 1942 and Australia finds itself under threat from a Japanese invasion. With the government’s ‘Scorched Earth Policy’ looming (a policy which was supposed to prevent the Japanese from seizing any possible resources for their war machine, including cattle for food), the official order is to shoot the cattle. However, the Parsons family and cattle driver Dan McAlpine (Chip Rafferty) won’t have any of it and boldly decide to drive a massive herd of cattle through the treacherous Northern Territory Outback. Good on them, mate!

At the beginning we see the Parsons family burning down their farmhouse in order to prevent the invading Japanese army from getting their hands on anything. The family consists of father Bill Parsons (John Nugent Hayward), his wife (Jean Blue) and their two daughters Mary (Daphne Campbell) and Helen (Helen Grieve). They all join forces with the aforementioned Dan as well as the dodgy Corky (John Fernside), former young sailor Sinbad (Peter Pagan) and two Aboriginal stockmen: Nipper (Henry Murdoch) and Jackie (Clyde Combo). The journey starts in Wyndham, Western Australia and will lead the troupe along a physically exhausting and perilous trip through the Northern Territory with the final destination being Brisbane in the North. From the outset the group encounter all sorts of dangers, including hungry crocodiles in a river they have to cross, unbearable heat, lack of water, and of course the inevitable differences of opinion. The trek is slow because the cattle aren’t exactly the fastest on the planet… with over 1,600 miles to cross the terrain this soon turns out to be a battle of willpower and sheer survival. Mary and Sinbad begin a romance but the young chap is badly hurt later on when the cattle decide on a stampede during which he breaks his leg and suffers a concussion. Although a small military plane had landed earlier with provisions for the area, unfortunately it takes off again seconds before Mary can alert the pilot to wait and airlift the injured Sinbad to the next hospital. Now the poor sod has to make do with lying on the back of Parson’s wonky wagon and there aren’t any smooth roads anytime soon. The group also lose some cattle during an excursion over a steep hill and some of the cows plunge over a cliff. At the end though, they reach their destination and Dan has another argument with Corky, who wants to develop the Northern Territory.

Scottish documentary maker und film director Henry Watt was chosen by Ealing Studios head honcho Michael Balcon to direct this film in response to concerns by the Australian government that the country’s contribution to the war effort wasn’t fully recognised. The film took ages to complete and in 1944 director Watt would travel the entire route of the trek! It’s interesting to note that Chips Rafferty was described by Watts as Australia’s answer to Gary Cooper. Truth be told, with his gangly appearance and goofy looks Rafferty was hardly matinee idol material though his performance in the film is impressive and also quite believable. That said, top classical composer John Ireland’s score appears to be a little over-dramatic.

THE OVERLANDERS is presented in a new High-Def remaster from original film elements, and in its original full-screen ration. While the result of this 1946 vehicle looks admittedly good it would have been better in colour so one can not only sense but actually ‘see’ the unforgiving Australian heat. Bonus material consists of ‘Extensive Image Gallery’.