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Shooting the war: Australia's first Oscar

Margot Riley
'There'll be so much to be done when this is all finished…So many big subjects to be covered where the right kind of film will be useful.' Damien Parer (1943)

Australia’s ace cinematographer Damien Parer (1912-1944) took his cameras into the far corners of New Guinea for four months in 1942. Facing the personal dangers and privations of jungle warfare, he brought to the world the first vivid, starkly genuine glimpses of this new type of conflict through his amazing pictures and films. He also showcased the heroism of Australian soldiers operating under incredible hardship in a battle against their unseen enemies.

Damien Parer
Damien Parer by Max Dupain, ca.1942.

Parer’s remarkable footage was used to spectacular effect in the creation of Kokoda Front Line! (1942), a special full-length edition of the Australian Cinesound Review newsreel which first screened in Australia on 18 September 1942. It was the first time that local audiences saw the gruelling conditions under which the campaign in the Pacific was being fought, in a war that had seemed until that point, 'a million miles away’.

A powerful example of wartime propaganda, Kokoda Front Line! (1942) became the first Australian film nominated for an Academy Award and Australia’s first ever Oscar. This was was awarded to Ken G Hall (1901–1994), chief director of Cinesound Review, at the 1942 Awards ceremony held in Hollywood on 4 March 1943. It is also believed to be the only newsreel to ever be awarded an Oscar.

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Parer with cine camera shooting film from an open plane, ca.1942.

More than a combat cameraman, Parer was utterly fearless and devoted to his job; no risk stood in the way of his doing it thoroughly. He placed himself ahead of the troops at Kokoda in his determination to present an emotionally true account of events as he saw them. Lugging his 35mm camera and film stock, he filmed from precarious locations, often spending days at a time perched in a tree in order to represent the narrowness and steep inclines of the track.

The nature of the mountainous countryside also meant it was almost impossible for Parer to shoot long sequences that didn’t include close-ups of the soldiers standing in the driving rain or trudging through ankle-thick mud along the track. As Parer himself explained, his New Guinea films are as a result much more personal, centred almost entirely on the boys themselves.

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Parer’s achievement in creating some of our most memorable images of the Second World War was all the more remarkable as the cinematographer couldn’t see any of the pictures he was taking. There were no facilities for developing film on the spot in the jungle. All of Parer’s footage was sent back to laboratories in Sydney where it was processed and cut together using his shooting notes as a guide.

The impact of Kokoda Front Line! was further enhanced by the extra authenticity created by Parer’s oration to this film, recorded just weeks after his return from the Owen Stanley track. With Kokoda still very much on his mind, and bearing visible traces of pain and sympathy on his face, Parer convincingly and urgently reminded viewers that that the war was ‘just outside our door’.

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Film still: Damien Parer addressing the audience, 'Kokoda Front Line', 1942.

The Oscar was presented by David O. Selznick (producer of Gone with the Wind) and accepted by Australian director John Farrow on behalf of the Australian News Information Bureau. Kokoda Front Line! was one of four recipients of the inaugural Oscar for best documentary short in 1942, sharing honours with Battle Of Midway, Prelude To War and Moscow Strikes Back. Writing to Ken G. Hall to offer his congratulations in June 1943, Selznick quoted the words which would appear on the plaque commemorating the award: 

‘To Kokoda Front Line! 

For its effectiveness in portraying, simply yet forcibly, the scene of war in New Guinea, and for its moving presentation of the bravery and fortitude of our Australian comrades-in-arms. 

A plaster-cast replica of the famous statue was sent out to Sydney for presentation to Hall on 14 December 1943, as metal was scarce during the war. This was swapped for the gold-plated copper alloy version in 1945, and later donated by Hall to the National Film and Sound Archives (NFSA) dedicated to the memory of Damien Parer – ‘to his bravery, skill and endurance … He made it possible.’ 

Parer, aged 32, was killed by Japanese machine gun fire on 17 September 1944, while filming an American advanced combat manoeuvre in the northern part of the Philippines.  Initially buried in a shallow grave on Peleliu, a Japanese outpost in the Palau Island group located on the western fringe of the Carolines, Parer's body was later reburied at the Anzac cemetery at Ambon Island off Indonesia.

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Parer's grave at Peleliu, Phillipine Islands, ca. 1944.

On 23 March 1944, he had married Elizabeth Marie Cotter, a 22-year-old clerk, at St Mary's Catholic Church, North Sydney.  Their son, Damien Jnr, was born in the following year.

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Wedding photo, Sydney, 23 March 1944.

Damien Parer was a war correspondent, cinematographer and reporter who used words and images ‘to catch the absolute reality of the moment’; reading his vivid writing is like hearing him talking. His letters and diaries were donated to the Mitchell Library by his widow in 1964, along with albums of photographs.

 


Margot Riley, Curator, Research and Discovery 


References

1. Kokoda Front Line! (1942)

2. Parer, D., 'Shooting the War', SALT: authorized educational journal of the Australian Army. Vol. 5, No. 10. (1943) Australian Army Headquarters Educational Publications, Melbourne, Vic.


 

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