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The making of “Captain Thunderbolt”

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Sunday 8 April 1951, The Sunday Herald (Sydney)

Australia Makes Debut In T.V. Films

Australia will get television-“this year, next year, some time, never . . .” We know tenders for television equipment have been considered and we know Sydney’s first television station will be at Gore Hill, near St. Leonards – and that is all we do know.

Yet Australia, despite her lag compared with Britain and America, is making a good start in a connected field: films for television. Our first feature, “Captain Thunderbolt,” will soon be finished in Sydney. It is intended for the overseas markets.

This is the story of “Captain Thunderbolt.”

By Max Brown

[Photo of local extras in the cast courtesy of James Vickers. GS.]

IF “Captain Thunderbolt,” which presents a real Australian subject, is a success it will give a badly needed boost to Australia’s ailing film industry.

Success would pave the way for the production of at least four television films a year in Australia.

There is a David and Goliath flavour about the story of the making of “Captain Thunderbolt.” For this is a time when the experienced film studios of Britain, Europe and Australia are reeling from the competition of the monster companies of Hollywood, and those, same Hollywood companies are at a loss for means of dealing with the television threat.

Yet now a small Australian company, a newcomer to films is tackling the new field of pictures for television.

The company is Associated T.V. Pty Ltd., and the brain behind it is C. G. Scrimgeour, former Director of Commercial Broadcasting in New Zealand, mention of whose name still precipitates arguments in New Zealand homes, although “Uncle Scrim” himself has been living in Sydney since the war’s end.

He decided to make a television film on the N.S.W. bushranger Thunderbolt because the subject had a genuine historic interest and because he was handed a script well-suited to the requirements of the American market he had studied so closely in recent trips to the United States.

The film “Captain Thunderbolt” is intended for normal screening in theatres; but a “cut” version will go abroad for television.

I SPENT three weeks with the Captain Thunderbolt Production Unit in real Thunderbolt country 200 miles south of the Queensland border this month and have seen the unit at work in Sydney.

The shooting of “Captain Thunderbolt” – the film, not the man – had the quiet, cultured New England town of Armidale in a buzz for a fortnight.

A notice offering £500 reward for capture dead or alive of the outlaw was posted on a board outside the town’s erstwhile police station. Horsemen flourishing guns thundered up and down the dirt roads outside the town almost every day chasing mailcoaches and buckboards.

The Armidale Court House was turned inside out over one week-end for the trial of the outlaw for horse-stealing, and half the University College faculty, including the vice warden, Dr. James Belshaw, filed into the jury box in period dress.

Armidale folk, riding comfortably on the sheep’s back in shadow of the high stone factories of learning which dominate the town (Armidale is the only town in the State with more schools than hotels) were debating again whether the police shot Thunderbolt or his accomplice.

Several approached bearded, frock-coated members of the cast in pubs and in the street and told them that Thunderbolt, for all his law-breaking, was a saint compared with a lot of men in Sydney and Canberra nowadays.

[Photographs in the original newspaper article.]

RIGHT: Thunderbolt (Grant Taylor) and Joan Blake (Rosemary Miller), before Thunderbolt is sent to Cockatoo Island Prison.

BELOW: A British television newsreel, as it reaches the viewing screen.

NEW ENGLAND is impregnated with Thunderbolt lore. His saddle is in the Armidale Museum. The original entry of his death is in the Court Register.

Numerous landmarks, caves and lookouts over a wide area are associated with his exploits. For many years local residents and visitors believed he was alive and left letters addressed to him in a box on his grave at Uralla Cemetery. Many local people are descended from pioneers who were helped or hindered by the bushranger.

Almost everyone from Glen Innes in the north to Singleton in the south can tell you some myth that has grown up around the bushranger and most of them are agreed on one thing that Thunderbolt killed no one and was a good deal more particular in his methods than Schoolboys watch director Cecil Holmes setting-up a shot near the bowling green at Uralla. Holmes is talking to the actors on the waggon. On the right are cameraman Ross Wood and his assistant Ian Vibart. The waggon was loaned to the company by Mr. Tom Fletcher, owner of Kentucky Station, where Thunderbolt was shot by police in May 1870. many respectable citizens of his day and ours.

THE screenplay “Captain Thunderbolt” tells how Fred Ward (alias Thunderbolt) was sentenced to Cockatoo Island Prison for horse-theft, escaped by swimming Sydney Harbour, and carried out a series of robberies in New England before he finally disappeared during a gun battle with police at a dance in a woolshed.

Unfortunately the requirements of British censorship do not permit the inclusion of the true and highly romantic story of the association between Thunderbolt and the half-caste girl, Mary Ann Bugg.

According to a history of Thunderbolt by the editor of “The Manilla Express,” Mr. A. R. Macleod, Mary Ann Bugg had been educated at a girls’ school in Sydney, but found herself unwanted by both blacks and whites and fell desperately in love with Thunderbolt.

When the outlaw was imprisoned at Cockatoo Island she swam between the north shore and the island on four occasions until she eventually contacted Thunderbolt secretly.

Several nights later Thunderbolt swam to the north shore and freedom, some say with leg irons.

Macleod says the bushranger began his northern exploits in 1864 by holding up the Northern Mail in quick succession at Bendemeer, Muswellbrook and Singleton. He recounts the famous story of how the outlaw bailed-up a German band and had it play for him. He ends his account by telling how Thunderbolt stuck up an inn at Kentucky on May 25, 1870, was shot by police in the ensuing chase, and buried in Uralla Cemetery.

WHATEVER people may say of Thunderbolt now, one thing is certain-he lived in violent times.

A glance through the Armidale Court Death Register of the time shows the following causes of death, typical of the times:

Visitation of God.
Suffocation, occasioned by falling out of bed onto his face in a state of helpless intoxication.
Spearwound in left side and skull fractured.
Found drowned in well.
Died whilst thigh was being amputated.
Accidentally shot by constable in discharge of duty.
Softening of brain.
Injury from stone thrown by husband.
Head cut off by someone unknown.

Each bald statement covers a story that would make headlines in any newspaper to-day. Other causes in the book are too terrible to print.

“Captain Thunderbolt” has some well-known screen and radio actors in its cast.

Grant Taylor made a name for himself as an actor of virile roles in “Forty Thousand Horsemen” before the war. Petite Rosemary Miller, who recently played the lead in “Dark of the Moon” in Sydney, is his boyhood sweetheart.

Rosemary is pretty in real life, but rushes show her beautiful on the screen.

Loretta Boutmy, former blues singer with Les Welch’s band in Sydney, has her first screen part as the half-caste girl.

Charles Tingwell came straight from the “Kangaroo” unit in South Australia to play the part of Blake, Thunderbolt’s lieutenant. Sydney stage and radio actor John Unicomb, American actor Harp McGuire, and John Fegan, play the police troopers who run the bushrangers to earth.

Jean Blue of “The Overlanders” and “Bitter Springs” is the outlaw’s mother.

THE location team for “Captain Thunderbolt” worked enthusiastically and with the minimum of fuss.

The hub of the activity in Armidale was the Imperial Hotel where the unit lived. A typical shooting day began with a call at 7 a.m., and there was the brief scurrying around corridors in dressing gowns, uniforms, bush dress or bustles before bacon and eggs at 7.30.

By the time the more usual run of hotel guests had come down for breakfast, trucks with gear and cars with technicians and cast were on their way to one or other location beyond the town for the day’s work.

Most days, of course, were of the usual sort experienced in film-making exacting, patient work with many rehearsals and the camera crew trying to outwit the clouds.

Two days had special interest including one in which Thunderbolt held up a coach and robbed Miss Kathleen Drummond, daughter of the Federal member for New England. Mr. Drummond, M.P., had loaned Grant Taylor his own horse for the hold-up.

The coach, a four-in-hand drag owned by Mr. Geoff Forster of Abbington property, was built in London in 1870 and actually served on the New England coach-routes soon after Thunderbolt had been loose. Mr. Forster, dressed as Thunderbolt, drove it in the “Back to Armidale” celebrations four years ago.

“CAPTAIN THUNDERBOLT” is now about half-way through filming. Many shots have to be made yet in and around Sydney. The woolshed dance will take place in a Pyrmont woolstore, a pub scene will be shot in The Hero of Waterloo at Millers Point, Grant Taylor will break stones in a quarry near Oxford Falls and hide from police in a cave in National Park.

When the film is finally finished shooting about one month from now it will then pass into the hands of the cutter and editor.

The amazing thing is that the film will cost £15,000 – about one sixtieth of the amount the “Kangaroo” unit from Hollywood is spending on a film of a somewhat greater length.

There are incalculable factors in any artistic production; and the attitude of members of the Thunderbolt Production Unit is that, if Australia can turn out a Bradman or a Bromwich, there’s no reason why it can’t make good films.

[Photo of local extras in the cast courtesy of Jim V.]

Written by macalba

September 12, 2010 at 8:09 pm

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9 Responses

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  1. http://www.panoramio.com/photo/18681592

    Hello, this provides a link to a photo of some of the cast of the movie including Grant Taylor and my mother and some explanatory notes from my cousin Jim Belshaw



    September 12, 2010 at 8:48 pm

    • Thanks James. I’ve added it to the main text for those readers who don’t make it as far as the comments. Gordon.


      September 12, 2010 at 9:05 pm

    • It would be good to have all those people identified with their full names. Who is ‘the prof’ — is that Frank Holloway? What sort of prof(lessor?)?


      March 19, 2014 at 10:05 am

  2. Below is copied another story on Thunderbolt. Although this story is centred around the Bourke (NSW) district it has some strong links to New England. Obviously there is a link through Thunderbolt himself but also through William Beaumont who was on the receiving end of Thunderbolt’s aggression. William Beaumont was the father of Albert Beaumont, the original settler of Deer Vale west of Dorrigo. Albert was my children’s Great Grandfather.

    From the “Empire” 2 May 1865 – Bushranging in the Far North-West – On the 26th of last month the station of Macleay, Little and Co. on the Culgoa, about 100 miles from Bourke was stuck up by four armed men. There were about five or six men on the station and Mr. Beaumont, one of the firm, was disposed to show fight, but there was no disposition among the others to help, so he was obliged to yield. They took what firearms and ammunition was to be had, and loaded two pack horses with shops and station stores, and took their departure. A special messenger was dispatched to Bourke, which place he reached on Monday evening.

    Next morning sergeant Cleary and constable Byrne, with the messenger, started for the station, which they reached in the evening of the Wednesday. They took their tracker with them, who happily belongs to the neighbourhood where the affair took place. On the following morning, that is on Thursday, having got fresh horses, they started, accompanied by Mr. Beaumont and another black. In order that your readers may understand the difficulties of this pursuit, I may observe that the bushrangers had four days start of the police. They took up their tracks up the Brie and across the country to the Bokarra, from thence to the Narran. The bushrangers had fired the grass for some eighteen miles, to obliterate their tracks.

    On the second night the police came to where it is thought the bushrangers had camped on Sunday night, the fire still burning. Here the gentlemen of the road had shot a bullock, and cut what meat they wanted out of the rump of the beast. The police took up the tracks next morning, which led them right into the Narran Lake. A considerable time was spent in looking about for the way they had passed out of the lake, which is about five miles across. At last the tracker found the track of a pickaninny and that of a gin, which would appear to be their way to water. Just before this they saw a horse galloping along the edge of the lake. The scrub being very thick, they followed the track up a hill, about three hundred yards from the lake, when, lo, they came upon the camp of the gentry, Mrs. Fredrick Ward, alias Captain Thunderbolt’s half-cast gin and pickaninnies were busy planting the stolen property. She recognised sergeant Cleary, and said, “So you are here again, are you, but you’re too late, they’re off; we saw you when you came on the lake this morning.” They found all the property stolen from the station, less what had been consumed – tea, sugar, flour, tobacco, slops, and three double-barrelled guns, loaded to the muzzle, and two pistols, ammunition, etc.

    They had to pick up the tracks of the retiring gentlemen, but they could not succeed, as they had taken different ways. They camped on the other side of the lake for the day, and at night they stealthily stole round to the camp, and planted themselves within sight of the camp, nearly the whole night, but without the anticipated reults. I ought to have observed that Mrs. Thunderbolt, who speaks good English, gave them a little Billingsgate and twitted them on their want of success, and was particularly severe on Mr. Beaumont, who, she said, was only showing off at the station when he wanted to show fight. On the morning succeeding their watch of the camp, they packed up the stolen goods and two splendid horses, and a mare and foal, bringing the good lady and young ones with them; however, she got rusty on the way, and threw herself from the horse, and attacked the constable and tore his shirt to ribbons. With her passion she brought on, or feigned to bring on labour, when they were obliged to take her to a station belonging to a worthy named Foster, where they left her. She frequently threatened them with “Fred’s” vengeance. The goods were taken to the station of the parties plundered, and the horses brought on to Bourke.

    As a finale to this paragraph I may observe that in January this worthy, with one mate, stuck up a hawker on the Culgoa, and took a large sum of money and goods from him. It will be remembered, too, for it was recorded in your columns, that on that occasion Sergeant Cleary succeeded in tracking him to his hiding-place, near the notorious Red Town Station on the Narran. He there found his lady love and the goods, and a horse with Mr. Moffit’s brand on; he very naively said the brand was his, but not the horse. Now, as the captain has got two recruits, his operations will be carried on a more extended scale. Anent this horse, it may not be out of place to say he was drowned a little time ago in the Darling, and there is some reason to believe he was driven into the Darling by some of “Fred’s” pals, as we had some bright boys from the neighbourhood in Bourke at the time. It has been said that a gallows is a mark of an advanced state of civilisation, so by a parity of reasoning I would say that the presence of these gentry as bushrangers in this remote and hitherto but little known portion of her Majesty’s dominions, might be taken as evidence of a like state.” Shortly after these events, Thunderbolt seems to have operated in the Cookeran (Corcoran) Lake area, and Mogil Mogil, Gunderbluie and Colarindabry (“Empire” and “Armidale Express”) and then in the Tamworth and Taree areas. Early in 1868 there was an outbreak of bushranging south-east of Walgett (Tery Wee Waa). (Acknowledgements to Mr. R. K. Cummins, Epping.)

    John Caling

    June 29, 2011 at 11:50 am

  3. The 1951 article by Max Brown was mistaken about the romantic relationships. It is quite clear from viewing what remains of the film today (2014) that Thunderbolt, played by Grant Taylor, is attached to Maggie, played by Loretta Boutmy. That is the primary love strand, so the film was the more damaged by its virtual removal (about 15 minutes is missing from the original 69 minutes). Much less important is the relationship of Alan Blake (Charles Tingwell) with Joan (Rosemary Miller). The original billing in the credits and in the posters gave prominence to Miller, presumably because she was so well known in Sydney at the time from her role in Dark of the Moon at Independent Theatre. Boutmy, who had much the larger role, had lesser billing and remains still (2014) somewhat unknown.


    March 19, 2014 at 12:13 am

    • Thanks for the supplemental comment David.


      March 19, 2014 at 8:48 am

      • There will be a small article ‘Looking for Captain Thunderbolt’ in the Key Moments in Australian Cinema section of the online journal Senses of Cinema, number 70, in April 2014. News about that, and developments in the search for the film (and there are some) will be posted in http://www.captainthunderboltfilm.vpweb.com.au from time to time. Comment about the search is welcome there. Any information about the career of Loretta Boutmy is welcome too.


        March 19, 2014 at 10:03 am

      • Oops, I myself was telling it wrong there. Actually, the character Maggie is attached to the sidekick Alan Blake. Much less important in the film story is Thunderbolt/Fred Ward in romance with Joan. For the film, it was true that the story of Mary Ann Bugg was ignored entirely. However, the character Maggie is stated in the film to be “half-caste”.


        August 30, 2015 at 9:18 pm

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