The Cult of Director David Hemmings’ The Survivor (1981)

*contains spoilers

The movie The Survivor (1981) is a part of my mythos in terms that it reflects a story which happened and had events played out differently I would not be alive or even been born as a result. The Survivor is also a film which was shot in my home city of Adelaide and is a film which encapsulates that city and the ‘failure’ of its satellite city to the north in one fell swoop.

I saw The Survivor when it flopped on the first day of its appearance in the Hindley St. cinemas when I was fourteen back in 1981. As a kid I had always had pretensions to be a child actor as I thought I had the looks and the South Australian Film Corporation was making a lot of movies when I was a kid which featured kids. I missed out on my first or only ever appearance in a film because I was a misbehaving student in Year Five who cheated on his multiplication tables. Always easily led and one to suffer the tattletales of other students, I guess, I like everything else in my life – I deserved it.

The Survivor (1981) poster ….
Mugshot of a would be child actor and maths cheat …
Foreign poster

I missed out on this appearance with the other students in my class when I deliberately wasn’t chosen as a punishment when they shot part of the movie in our school library. I could only watch the film crew through the window as I did a minor errand. It was all a part of the bad luck or jinx which has plagued me my entire life.

I turned on the television when I was living in London in the mid-1990s and lo and behold the scene appeared as I saw the footage of my ten-year-old friends snap frozen on the television screen and thought I was never immortalised forever as a result… It’s amazing how lives can be destroyed or marred as children by such minor events.

Anyway, The Survivor flopped that late afternoon as very few people turned out for it and I don’t know that it ever recovered its $1.2m budget even when it was released internationally. I had caught the ‘Redhen’ train from Brighton into the city, especially to see the movie on its opening day and caught the Redhen home again after being slightly disappointed by what was supposed to be Adelaide’s first world class all-star movie. I then announced to mum and dad the story of The Survivor which told the tale of a plane crash in an Australian city, which was obviously Adelaide, and how there were burnt bodies all over the place as a part of the epic scene which followed the incredible pyrotechnics of the original crash… That and body bags galore!

Recreation of a fiery crash for The Survivor (1981)
The crash at Heathrow in October 1965
Eerily similar to the one recreated once more for the movie

It was then that my mother began to get teary and my father ushered me out of the kitchen where she was preparing dinner. I was told that when they were living in London in 1965 where I was conceived and where they were originally married, a couple of her close friends had been killed in a plane crash at Heathrow airport. So, in a way, this is why mum was the original survivor… to me anyway.

As I write this article my mother still doesn’t want to relive these events… Her friend Peter from Tasmania who she caught the boat over to England with from Australia and her friend Robyn who was her flatmate in London in the Swinging 60s died in the crash which happened on the runway… What is most tragic about the crash is that Robyn was organising mum’s hen’s party just before she and Peter took off on a trip to Scotland which mum was also invited along. She couldn’t afford the fare…

Upon Peter and Robyn’s return on a foggy night on 27 October 1965, they became a part of the worst crash in Heathrow’s history. The BEA Vickers 951 Vanguard airliner descended too low in fog and killed 36 people including a baby. The accident happened on the pilot’s third attempt to land. The crash was attributed to pilot error and the plane overshot the runway…

Director David Hemmings in Thirst (1979)
Thai poster

The tragedy of an air crash is perhaps for those who survive and I remember discussing how mum found out about the accident. My father told her originally outside her work the following morning and you must remember she was only 23 years old. She was catching the Underground tube home when the news sunk in and she finally let out a scream in the crowded train over the death of her close friends as people held up the newspaper headlines in their hands… She married 13 November. There was talk that she might have to identify the bodies and the authorities kept pestering her about identifying marks on poor Robyn for what seemed like weeks since she was mum’s flatmate and was burnt beyond recognition… She suffered Post traumatic stress disorder before it was fashionable.

My middle name is Peter after the young man who died in that crash along with her best man who created a false quote about the crash from my mother to suit a Murdoch newspaper article and a cousin named Peter who was left a vegetable after being hit by a car on the way to The Beatles concert in Adelaide back in 1964. Thus, The Survivor in my mythology… being poor isn’t necessarily a bad thing, or saving up for a wedding…

As for the movie The Survivor, it is underrated and forgotten and I appreciate it more as the years have gone by. It is directed by that underappreciated actor David Hemmings (1941-2003 heart attack) who had directed a couple of interesting movies previous to this one which were Just a Gigolo (1978) starring David Bowie (1947-2016 liver cancer) and Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992 kidney failure) and Race for the Yankee Zephyr (1981) which was shot in New Zealand with so many American stars it annoyed the Australian actors’ union.

Race for the Yankee Zephyr (1982) trailer
Hemmings also directed Just a Gigolo (1978)
Horror novelist James Herbert
The paperback

The Survivor was based on the horror novel of the same name by James Herbert (1943-2013 suddenly) which was published in 1976. In Herbert’s book, it is a 747 that crashes outside the town of Eton in England. It is a favourite of many Herbert fans although I have never read it and never got beyond The Rats books which are childhood favourites. The book is gory whereas the movie is not. In fact, there had been a discussion between director Hemmings and producer Anthony I. Ginnane (no info) as to whether they should use gore and it was the director who decided against the use of bloody scenes which probably affected the movie’s box office and VHS sales. Herbert hated the movie version of his book by the way.

What is interesting about the movie is the element of time slip in the narrative. One of the stars is the actress Jenny Agutter (1952-) who had been in Australia a decade earlier to film Walkabout (1971) with Nic Roeg (1928-2018) and who was nominated for an Australian Oscar for her performance in The Survivor. She plays a character named Hobbs who appears with blond and blue-eyed children playing What’s the time Mr. Wolf in a playground, as a small Cessna light aircraft flies over and she shields her eyes from the sun… That night the 747 crashes just outside of the city onto that very playground.

The staging of the explosion of the crash was a major event in Adelaide at the time and other cast members of international renown included Robert Powell (1944-) who played Jesus of Nazareth (1977) and who had already appeared in cult tv series Doomwatch (1970). He was also the slain father in Tommy (1975). Check out The Asphyx (1973) with him in it as well. Another cast member is classic Hollywood actor Joseph Cotton (1905-94 cancer and pneumonia) who plays the Priest.

The Asphyx (1973) is an early movie to star Robert Powell
Jenny Agutter
Robert Powell and Jenny Agutter in The Survivor (1981)
Joseph Cotton here in his heydey made several horrors later in his career
Lyricist Tim Rice as he appears in The Survivor (1981)

Aussie members of the cast include Peter Sumner (1942-2016 long illness) who had a brief appearance in Star Wars (1977) as Lieutenant Pol Treidum and Ralph Coterill as the chief villain. Noted too must be English lyricist Tim Rice (1944-) in a bit part as a newscaster and the voice of David Hemmings is used on a couple of occasions.

The film admittedly lacks frissons as well as gore but it makes up for this in being one of the most beautifully shot horror movies in Australia. It is of the Not Quite Hollywood category in that the picture you get doesn’t quite pass for an American product, nor an English one at that. It has that strange sense of visual beauty and timeless dislocation amid the mild horror.

The cinematographer of the move is John Seale (1942-), who would go on to win an Oscar in 1996 for The English Patient (1996). He also got nominated for Peter Weir’s Witness (1985), Rain Man (1988) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) … Seale had begun his career with the juvenile flicks Fatty Finn (1980), Doctors and Nurses (1981) and Ginger Meggs (1982) but his use of the widescreen in The Survivor really showed he had talent when working beside an international director such as Hemmings.

Peter Sumner in Star Wars (1977)
Cinematographer John Seale
Ginger Meggs (1982) DVD cover

It turns out that Agutter’s character is some sort of clairvoyant when she sees the light plane in the sky as murders take place around Adelaide with a child whose face is burnt appearing like that of a doll which is left over at the crash scene and which a hapless photographer snaps with his camera in the hope of making money. He dies by ‘Redhen’ – that old classic South Australian Islington Railway Workshops carriage and engine which were built between 1955 and 1971 and remained in service until 1996. I remember the Redhens back in the day and how you could open the door and let the air in if it was too hot in the summer. Others said this manual open-door system made it great to urinate through… They remain iconic to those who remember them. Incidentally, there were 111 of these carriages built which would move in formations of two or three and they were always painted red.

The Survivor (1981) trailer
An Adelaide Redhen
The workshop where the Redhens were constructed
The very oily Platform One at Adelaide Railway Station in the 1980s

The mystery of the light plane flying over the playground with the Robert Powell character of the pilot of the crashed jumbo plane who is the sole survivor at the controls is one of those time paradoxes and alternate universe puzzles. His character is kind of Christ-like as he must solve the mystery of the crash with the help of his new friend Agutter. Was he actually the one who caused the crash through pilot error? The same cause of the 1965 Heathrow crash. Is he suffering in some sort of limbo as a result as he solves the mystery? Several large portions of the movie take place on the site where the plane has crashed and we know we are in Adelaide as there are late 1970s police cars as well as the St. John Ambulance… Perhaps the most ironic part of the movie is that it is pointed out near the end that the plane which crashes on this inner suburb of Adelaide, albeit on a playground, is named The City of Elizabeth… The city of Elizabeth is in the north of Adelaide. It was created as a satellite city in the late 1950s and is where many British immigrants chose to settle and congregate in the 1960s onwards. In fact, singer Jimmy Barnes is from that area as well as several other celebrities. The city of Elizabeth was seen as a failed social experiment in terms of government housing and was well-known for its poverty and high crime rate… But the Redhens brought the kids and teenage population into the city from several different directions of suburbia, including Elizabeth and the south where I came from. The city was where they could escape the mundane neighbourhoods and mix in the city centre, especially the cinemas and Rundle Mall. Brawling or in harmony, Adelaide was and remains a well-designed city with the problems of any city. I was just sad at fourteen that I thought no more international movies would be made there…

A doco on the beginnings of Elizabeth
My favourite Harlequin (1980) poster
I interviewed composer Brian May once at the Gold Coast
The Survivor won an award at this festival

The film’s composer Brian May (1934-97) is probably best known for his work on Mad Max (1979) and Thirst (1979) but he had also worked with Hemmings on the underrated Harlequin (1980) which was a modern-day Rasputin type tale which worked in the story of missing Aussie Prime Minister Harold Holt (1908-67 drowned), and his soundtrack of The Survivor is typical of his oeuvre which was usually high on Psycho-like muted strings. The amount of work that May churned out before his death showed he worked at a remarkable pace which may have contributed to his early demise.

The minor touch of the City of Elizabeth named plane bringing Adelaide to a standstill by plunging upon its middle-class blonde and blue-eyed children (perhaps in a Redhen on weekends) is part of a screenplay by British novelist and playwright David Ambrose (1943-). His script won the Best Script award at the International Film Festival at Catalonia. It is perhaps not surprising that the production company formed for this movie has a Latin sounding name like the producer. It also apparently won an award at the Sitges International Film Festival for Best Script.

Ambrose wrote the underrated Aussie bushfire mystery A Dangerous Summer (1980), as well as another time travel adventure which featured the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz entitled The Final Countdown (1980) which starred Kirk Douglas (2016-2020), Amityville 3-D (1983) and the childhood favourite D.A.R.Y.L.(1985)…

The Final Countdown (1980) trailer
Screenwriter David Ambrose
Alternative 3 (1977) poster
A scene from Alternative 3 (1977)

He also wrote the hoax documentary Alternative 3 (1977) … I remember being suckered in by this one when we sat in front of the television set when I was only about ten or eleven years old between the Redhens roaring by on the railway line right beside our house. This doco which told of the possibility of humans inhabiting either Mars or the moon should there be an environmental catastrophe on Earth used actor Richard Marner (1921-2004) playing Dr Carl Gertein who told the whole fantastic tale. From memory the end of the doco had some sort of creature burrowing underneath the surface of the moon which showed there really was life on the satellite. Then it ended with us all in shock before realising that it was really an April Fool’s Day joke… especially if you stayed for the credits. It was one of those rare Orson Welles War of the Worlds type moments and you had to be there to suffer the shock of it all. So, Ambrose had hit a pitch perfect nerve and it kickstarted his career which led to a few classics, one of which is the forgotten The Survivor.

And there we have it, without going too much into the movie itself … I like to think the movie of The Survivor, or at least the title, pays homage in epic style to my mum in that without her turning down the chance for a holiday in Scotland and thus surviving something oh so terrible, I would not be here today…

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