The First Real Aussie Cult Film was Sandy Harbutt’s Stone

*contains spoilers

Australian cinema remained in the doldrums for decades after its heady days in the 1930s and it wasn’t until the early 1970s thanks to some funding from the Federal Government that filmmaking got underway again in the country.

A modern DVD cover for Stone

One of the handful of films which kicked off this renaissance in Aussie filmmaking was Sandy Harbutt’s (1941-2020) biker movie entitled Stone (1974).

It was by pure coincidence after having not seen the film for a number of years, that I threw it in the DVD player and found that the opening shot shows a memorial stone on the site where the first white man from Englishman Captain Cook’s (1728-79 clubbed and stabbed) expedition to Australia first set foot on the shore at Botany Bay. It was the date that struck me, as I was watching the film 250 years to the day of that event in 1770. The subconscious or coincidence sure moves in mysterious ways.

Captain Cook is killed in Hawaii. Echoes of Drums of Mer.

Just two hundred years later or so – at the time Stone was made – and the same area is adorned in the film by signs which read No Swimming Extreme Pollution and No Fishing Extreme Pollution. Little did the Aboriginal population know that these ghostly figures which turned up on 29 April 1770 would pollute their country just as the white man polluted the rest of the world through colonisation.

The director, co-writer and star of Stone Sandy Harbutt

There are a few meanings to the title of the movie Stone and that stone, probably the ultimate in Australian modern history, is just one of them. Others include that it’s the name of the lead character in the movie and more relate to gravestones and of course getting stoned on drugs such as LSD and marijuana.

The which film was co-written by Harbutt, who also directed and produced, opens at a political rally against pollution and for the cleaning up of the environment which was already an issue back in the 1970s. It is there at a scene shot outside the New South Wales Art Gallery that the movie opens with a Satan worshipping bikie gang turning up during the rally. One of the bikers is obviously on acid from the blurry point of view shot as he climbs to the roof of the building as the other bikers mill around threatening to throw beer cans. The gang is called the Grave Diggers. The symbol or colours of their gang features a skull wearing a slouch hat in the style used by Australian soldiers since the First World War.

A Grave Diggers gang member displays his colours in Stone (1974)

It is actor Hugh Keays-Byrne (1947-2020) as the tripping biker and he possibly sees an assassin with a rifle who shoots the speaking politician at the rally. This assassination is the catalyst of the film as Keays-Byrne escapes along with the bikies in the subsequent melee. But the assassin has seen the bikie colours which leads to whoever it is behind the shooting to track and kill Grave Diggers members so the assassin can’t be fingered.

Actor Hugh-Keays Byrne led a biker gang as the Toecutter in Mad Max (1979)

The first deaths in the film include a bikie being decapitated by a wire being stretched across a road which he then drives through, while another uses a great stunt where a biker’s brakes have been tampered with and he drives off an 80-foot cliff to his death in the ocean below.

What follows is an epic scene where bikers follow in procession along a highway behind a motorbike and sidecar carrying a coffin of one of the murdered bikers.

One of the stunts in Stone (1974) off an 80-foot cliff

It’s a great scene and Harbutt apparently put out feelers into the bikie community to get together for filming some of the major scenes in the movie. They were apparently paid throughout the film with free beer.

This coffin is taken to a cemetery which is filled with beautiful wildflowers and buried upright by his fellow Grave Diggers.

“Anyway, old Satan will be in there with you, so you’ll be all right,” comments the leader of the gang played by Sandy Harbutt.

Part of the epic funeral procession near the start of Stone

One of the pallbearers is actor and stuntman Roger Ward (1936-), while the character who cries “Satan” at the funeral is played by Vincent Gil (1939). It should be noted that these two actors featured in George Miller’s original Mad Max (1979) along with Keays-Byrne who was the Toecutter in that film. Note that the original Mad Max had a mini-funeral procession as well, so the influence of Stone is obvious from the start.

“You’re persecuting a minority religion,” says Harbutt when the cops turn up to their funeral among the gravestones.

Early biker movie The Wild One (1953) trailer

The Grave Diggers could be described as a bit of an Australian tribe, just like the Aboriginals, and there is even an Aboriginal member of the gang – but they are a biker gang for a reason as I’ll later point out.

A cop turns up at a pub where the Grave Diggers hang out and where the latest attempt on the life of one of them is made. A pinball machine is killed instead! The cop wears a pig-tail just like the ones used by seaman back in the days of Captain Cook. He could be the first policeman or white man to come into close and honest contact with the bike gang or indigenous population. To compare them as an analogy within the microcosm of Australia.

Ken Shorter as Stone in white shirt and the ‘dead’ pinball machine

“That’s right, I’m a cop. I’ve been sent to find out who’s been killing your mates,” says the cop played by a real ex-cop Ken Shorter (1945-). The cop’s name is Stone and the Grave Diggers are a democracy who, while at first scoffing at the idea that Stone should join their gang, eventually vote by a slim margin for him to do so.

Stone is taken back to an old fort where the Grave Diggers hole up. The location is a real old fort in Middle Head National Park in Sydney. There are tunnels for the bikes and a sandstone gun pit.

The gun pit where the cop Stone is initiated into the Grave Diggers

It is in this pit that the Grave Diggers decide to initiate Stone and give him a denim jacket with the gang colours. The initiation includes Harbutt, whose character’s name is the Undertaker as leader of the gang, holding Stone’s head in a headlock as if almost to break his neck. It also involves Gil’s character named Doctor Death piercing Stone’s ear with a syringe to he can wear an earring in the shape of a skeleton. It is almost buccaneer like. That and the naked girls.

Stone is the ultimate meeting of extremes and is either a tale of ultimate mateship and betrayal or possibly just evil manipulating good for their own means, or vice versa. But I think it is the former which is the truest as the Grave Diggers take Stone on face value and there is a sense of honour among the outlaws despite their violent altercations among rival gangs.

Actor Vincent Gil as Doctor Death likes a toke

The best scene in the film and the most telling one is when the gang retire to the fort for the day to get stoned and chill together. Doctor Death, taking a toke on a joint, is asked by Stone how they all got together. You can hear the words in Doctor Death’s head although he doesn’t speak them… that it’s peculiar “when you’ve been conditioned into believing something and you blow it, I mean you really blow it, you get this incredible sense of shame, ha, it’s funny because you can always recognise your fellow travellers” and then Doctor Death goes on to speak aloud and say: “when you really ride bikes… I suppose it’s inevitable.”

Vincent Gil as he is remembered as The Night Rider in Mad Max (1979)

As the characters get more stoned, we learn that a few of the characters went to Vietnam and one to Korea. Vietnam was still underway when the film mas made although it was coming to a close and Harbutt’s Undertaker relates angrily at one point how good people were thrown in jail just because they wouldn’t go to war and shoot people. They are a veteran’s gang and that is a part of the cult of Stone along with the fact it glorifies bike riding and the brotherhood of bike riders. As well as a wariness of the so-called: “Pigs.”

The bikers in Psychomania (1973) were true Satan worshippers

Harbutt says at the end of the stoned scene that when they ride the roads as the Grave Diggers: “We own the world. What can stop us? What can stop us?”

One of Leary’s books

This band of brothers would rather toke on dope that worship Satan seriously. And the scene serves as an explanation to the 1960s and Timothy Leary’s phrase of “turn on, tune in and drop out”. The Grave Diggers don’t seem to deal drugs to make money although they seem to take a lot of them. It is possibly this reason and the fact they only knock off knives and forks and sauce bottles at the local hamburger joint which makes them all the more sympathetic.

The following morning there is a tastefully edited nude scene as the gang go swimming together at the local beach. One of the actresses who appears nude in the film a couple of times and therefore got a reputation in the industry for taking her clothes off is Rebecca Gilling (1953-) who would survive a crocodile attack in the mini-series Return to Eden (1983).

A young Rebecca Gilling around the time of Stone looking Michelle Phillips-like

Stone was a box-office success in Australia, despite its R-Rating and hostile reception from the press. Harbutt first became aware of the film’s cult following when he toured the country promoting the film during its first opening month. Apparently, he was in Cairns in northern Queensland and he met a bunch of bikers who were hanging around and who had seen and loved to movie. When he moved on a couple of thousand kilometres down the coast to the Gold Coast, he ran into some of the same bikers. They had followed the circus and driven all the way down the coast such was their devotion to Stone.

An almost Christ-like Keays-Byrne as Toad at the beginning of Stone

It is the only feature by director Sandy Harbutt, which is a shame, because he showed a raw talent in this film. He is reported to have studied law before dropping out to do advertising and then acting. It was probably his advertising experience which helped the success of Stone – plus the fact it’s a bloody good movie! Remember it inspired Mad Max in terms of casting and one of the characters is even called Bad Max.

Harbutt’s pet desire for years

For years Harbutt was developing a film version of Aussie writer Ion Idriess’s The Drums of Mer and he lamented the day he no longer owned the rights. That book was a savage story about the members of a shipwreck and their survival against the backdrop of the Torres Strait Islands and their natives back in the 1830s.

There are two cuts of the movie Stone. The original cut ran just over two hours and was the version first shown in cinemas. But Harbutt thought he could cut almost a half hour from it and get an even better movie. He eventually did so and so the 95-minute version is the official director’s cut which exists today and has appeared on VHS and DVD.

The longer version, which is hard to see, contains a lot of backstory with the police at the beginning and midway as they discuss the murders and force Stone to do his duty. The police are boring and middle aged compared to the rest of the cast and wear dated clothing which also doesn’t help. In fact, the cast apparently supplied their own clothing.

There is no doubt that the shorter version is tighter and better.

The trailer for Stone (1974)

There is a climactic scene in the same cemetery used at the beginning of the film which is the Gore Hill Cemetery. It was a timely moment that Stone used the cemetery in 1974 because the following year it was earmarked for demolition. But it was saved and still operates today. In fact, it is the resting place of Australia’s first Catholic saint Mary MacKillop (1842-1909).

The ending has Doctor Death killed and Keays-Bryne’s character Toad mortally wounded.

“What a f#*#ing trip it’s been, eh,” says Toad before he expires.

Stone pulls a gun on the Undertaker near the climax of Stone

Stone protects the assassin who has survived the armed confrontation with his men against the bikers. The Grave Diggers want to kill the assassin but Stone, in what is seen as the ultimate act of betrayal – pulls a gun on the Undertaker. The gang walks off, their want for revenge unappeased.

The coda has a naïve Stone at home with his girlfriend waxing lyrical about his time with the gang and how he liked them as “they’ve got a sense of honour that I like”… only for the Grave Diggers to turn up at Stone’s residence almost home invasion style and kick the crap out of Stone who is left a bloodied mess on the floor.

Werewolves on Wheels (1971) trailer

So, with the police and the law satisfied with the arrest of the assassin… the violent law and the honour of the Grave Diggers is also finally brought to bear. Especially, since Stone’s bloody hand reaches out and stops his girlfriend from calling the cops.

Initiation scene lobby card from Stone

Filmed on a budget which is estimated at $192,000 and shot in a period which was described by one actor as “a six-week party”, Stone obviously had a sense of passion, commitment and discipline among the beer and bongs present because the movie is a low-budget classic. As the advertisement said: “Take the trip…”

For an interview with editor-on-set Ian Barry about the making of Stone PRESS HERE.

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