Dropping in on the Americans at the South Pole for afternoon tea, having driven there by tractor, was one of the most unusual events of Derek Wright's career as a National Film Unit cameraman. In his 40 years with the NFU he filled many other roles, from laboratory assistant to producer: but it is for his filming in the Antarctic that he is particularly remembered.
The film unit provides the only full training in cine photography in New Zealand, and I'm glad I had the opportunity to take advantage of it. Derek Wright in The Dominion, 6 October 1956
This documentary heads to the Southern Ocean to explore New Zealand’s subantarctic islands. The Antipodes, Bounty, Snares, Campbell and Auckland Island groups are remote outposts between Aotearoa and Antarctica, home to vital breeding grounds for millions of seabirds and marine mammals – from penguins to sea lions and albatrosses – plus unique plants like giant tree daisies. Director Conon Fraser also looks at human efforts to live there from whaling depots, to the short-lived Hardwick Settlement. The hour-long NFU film is narrated by Ray Henwood (TV's Gliding On).
This doco looks at the relationship between dogs and shepherds in Kiwi sheep farming. It covers the history of dog and man, and reveals Dog Show-worthy secrets behind the dogs' training and personalities, from ‘heading dogs' who stare sheep (and geese!) "into submission" to the "loudmouth" ‘huntaways' who drive flocks on vast high country stations. This Swanndri-saturated doco is shot, scored and narrated in an old-fashioned Disney style (shepherds are "the very substance of romance"). As the title states, the canines are the stars.
This NFU tourism promo from 1986 showcases all that the north of the North Island has to offer. As holidaymakers Dave and Julia peruse the sights and sounds of Auckland, they provide a high speed guided tour of its nightlife and many attractions. After Julia exits unexpectedly for LA — possibly to moonlight on another tourist film — Dave is joined by Jacky. The two venture up to Ninety Mile Beach and, after exploring the native bush and enjoying a spot of fishing, end their stay with a bonfire by the sea, a stark contrast to the cosmopolitan delights of Auckland.
In the early 80s the New Zealand ski industry was burgeoning. This 1983 National Film Unit production promotes the Southern Alps as a ski tourism destination — “the most exciting alpine area south of the equator”. The promo accentuates southern difference (“no trees to get in your way”), as the film tours from Ben Ohau and Tasman Glacier descents, to offseason international downhill racers at Mt Hutt, and après ski attractions. The skiing is paired with orchestral music, a classical-sport combo that director Arthur Everard also memorably used in rugby film Score.
This NFU documentary gets in the saddle to follow the professional riders in the world’s southernmost road cycling race. Held in October 1981, the Tour of Southland went from lowland towns like Lumsden to the spectacular trans-Southern Alps road to Milford. Chopper shots and pre-GoPro camera mounts follow riders through Fiordland National Park rainforest. As cyclists rest aching muscles, an unusually philosophical narrator wonders “but is it worth it?”. Date stamps include cigarette sponsorship and a Cortina support fleet. The film screened in cinemas alongside Smash Palace.
This documentary looks at the construction of a replica of the HMS Bounty, in Whangerei. The ship was commissioned to be built for a David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia) film of the famous mutiny. Fidelity to the original is paramount, except the 20th Century edition has a steel hull. Construction of the boat carries on regardless of uncertain fortunes of the film, as producer Dino De Laurentiis and David Lean part ways. The Lean film was ultimately unmade after financing faltered, but the boat went on to star in Kiwi director Roger Donaldson's film of the story.
White Water Ride scoffs a fry-up, zips up a life jacket, straps on a helmet and joins a guided rafting trip down the Mohaka River (with extra scenes shot on the Tongaririo and Rangitikei). There’s a rafter overboard and 70s era wetsuits, but no menacing locals or duelling banjos here (à la backwoods rafting classic Deliverance) — just a jaunty guitar and harmonica soundtrack, and the thrills and spills of a white water paddling trip, with a friendly splash war to finish. The narration-free NFU short played in NZ cinemas alongside Bond movie For Your Eyes Only.
This 1981 NFU film is a tour of the contemporary world of Aotearoa’s tangata whenua. It won headlines over claims that its portrayal of Māori had been sanitised for overseas viewers. Debate and a recut ensued. Writer Witi Ihimaera felt that mentions of contentious issues (Bastion Point, the land march) in his original script were ignored or elided in the final film, and withdrew from the project. He later told journalists that the controversy showed that educated members of minority groups were no longer prepared to let the majority interpret the minority view.
The line “where the bloody hell are you?” generated controversy when used in a 2006 Aussie tourism campaign; so who knows what 1980 audiences made of this promo’s exhortation to “Come on to New Zealand.” But as the narration assures: “It’s a safe country. You can walk without being molested.” Aimed at the US market, the film was made as long haul air travel was opening up NZ as a destination. Māori culture, sheep and pretty scenery are highlighted, alongside skinny dipping and weaving (!). Narrated by Bob Parker, the NFU promo marked an early gig for editor Annie Collins.
This award-winning National Film Unit production soars on thermals with the world's largest seabird, the toroa or royal albatross. Director Grant Foster captures the majesty of the flyer with a three metre-plus wingspan (“as wide as two volkswagen cars parked side by side”); laments historic slaughter; celebrates conservation efforts (hat tipping legendary toroa custodian Dr Lance Richdale); and surveys the albatross's life cycle at its only mainland breeding colony on Otago Peninsula, from courtship and nesting to taking off on an epic oceanic OE.
The theatre of sport is given full-blown operatic treatment in this National Film Unit classic. Footage from the French 1979 rugby tour of New Zealand is rendered in slow-motion and cut to a Tchaikovsky score. The result is an often glorious, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, paean to rugby. Balletic lineouts, driving tackles, and the dark mysteries of the ruck, make for a ballsy Swan Lake in the mud. It includes the Bastille Day French victory over the All Blacks. Directed by NFU stalwart Arthur Everard, it won a jury prize at the Montreal World Film Festival.
This short 1979 National Film Unit documentary heads up the steep bush-clad West Coast valleys from Rūnanga, to profile the men at work at five private coal mines. Director Conon Fraser (Looking at New Zealand) showcases the remarkable DIY resourcefulness required by the small groups of miners. The rugged individuals work the seams, push bins along steep incline railways and dump the loads down vertiginously steep flumes. At the time this film was made waning prospects for the unique way of life were looking up, as high oil prices spurred demand for coal.
In 1979, Red Mole was arguably New Zealand's best-known alternative theatre troupe. During two seasons in New York they wowed audiences with their Dada-influenced shows. The Villager wrote: "All possible elements of theatre and spectacle are employed by the skilful members of the group." In this 49 minute film, Red Mole take a surreal journey through actual and imaginary New Zealand. Sam Neill had done time as a travelling actor in schools before directing this for the National Film Unit. He collaborated again with editor Judy Rymer on NZ screen history Cinema of Unease.
Kauri stand amongst the giants of the tree world, able to grow more than 50m tall and girths of up to 16 metres, and live over 2000 years. This NFU film looks at the ancient conifer and its relationship with people. A thoughtful narrative traces the kauri's utility, and contemporary efforts to preserve remaining trees — the tree’s timber and gum fuelled colonial growth, but milling devastated the great northern forests. Archive footage evokes the pioneer days: kauri dams, woodsmen dwarfed by felled trunks, and Dalmatian gum hunters scaling sky-scraping trunks.
This 1978 National Film Unit documentary chronicles the daily lives of New Zealanders in various places: factory, beach, hospital, oil rig, country town, sheep farm, market garden, Auckland produce market, art gallery and primary school. Narration-free, the film features montages of stills by photographer Ans Westra. The impression is of New Zealand as a busy nation of makers and growers, alongside singing ‘Oma Rapiti’ at the bach and visiting the art gallery. Terry towelling, walk shorts, and denim shirts are date stamps. The script is by onetime Variety film reviewer Mike Nicolaidi.
This Land of Birds edition sees Kiwi naturalist Sir Robert Falla train his binoculars on the black-backed gull, or karoro. Familiar to most New Zealanders from stealing their hot chips, it's one of the few natives to have boomed in numbers since humans arrived in NZ, after adapting to feeding in “the effluent of human affluence”. The film follows the large bird's life cycle and examines its relationship with people, from airports (birdstrike risk) to farms (where they help control insects but also scavenge lambs). Falla died soon after the film was completed.
It was a Kiwi that invented the jet-boat, so it is probably unsurprising that at the time of this film’s production New Zealand teams had won Mexico's Rio Balsas Marathon three times. Directed by Derek Wright, the award-winning NFU doco showcases what was then the longest jet-boat race yet staged: a five-day 1000km race across NZ, with the locals putting their trophy on the line. The race hits the rapids and — despite the odd tree stump — speeds past scenery on six rivers (from the Whanganui to the Waimakariri), Lake Brunner, and through the surf to Sumner Beach.
The Years Back was a 13-part documentary series made for television by the National Film Unit and first broadcast in 1973. Covering six decades from 1900 to 1960, it was promoted as "people and events that shaped the New Zealand of today", and content was largely influenced by what historic film had survived. Presented by Bernard Kearns, fascinating footage (including the 1931 Napier Earthquake and Jack Lovelock’s 1936 Olympic triumph) is accompanied by interviewees recalling or commenting on past events, big and small, as they unfold on the screen.
Made for television, this 13-part National Film Unit series aimed to showcase "people and events that shaped the New Zealand of today". The Bernard Kearns-presented series is mostly composed of footage taken from NFU stock. Fascinating early film clips are accompanied by interviews with elderly gents and ladies who reminisce about events as they unfold on the screen. This edition focuses on the opening decades of the 20th century; the nostalgia takes a dark turn when bow tie-wearing Kearns discusses World War I and provides alarming statistics of loss of life.
Bernard Kearns presents a survey of NZ life in the 30s in this episode of the National Film Unit series The Years Back (“people and events that shaped the New Zealand of today”). The documentary includes a wealth of footage taken from NFU stock: the aftermath of the 1931 Napier earthquake, the Depression (as Kearns bluntly states, “there was a lot of misery in the 30s”), and runner Jack Lovelock’s gold medal triumph at the Berlin Olympics. There’s also editorial flair as King George VI’s lavish coronation ceremony is juxtaposed with the A&P show back home.
The Years Back was a documentary series that used archive footage and interviews to survey New Zealand’s 20th century history. This episode details events in the Pacific during World War II, from Japan’s 1941 attack of Pearl Harbour through to mid 1944. Japan’s aggressive thrust into South East Asia threatened New Zealand and Australia (“any day now it’ll be us”), and forced the countries into war close to home. Veterans and commanders recall sea battles, rallying of air defences and jungle warfare, from New Caledonia to New Guinea.The series was made by the National Film Unit.
New Zealand's relationship with Antarctica and the explorers and scientists who went there is the focus of this episode in The Years Back series, with Bernard Kearns as guide. Early last century NZ was the starting point for most polar expeditions, including Robert Falcon Scott's fatal attempt to reach the Pole. Footage of Scott on the ice is featured, and as well as clips of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s epic survival tale. Of course the Sir Edmund Hillary-led 50s Kiwi expedition is shown: Hillary made a defiant dash for the Pole on tractors, arriving 4 January 1958.
This consolidating episode of the archive-based New Zealand history series finds World War II at an end, the return of Kiwi servicemen and the country in an optimistic mood. That's sealed by the 1950 British Empire Games where New Zealand is third on the medal table. But rising prices and low incomes lead to more militant unionism, culminating in the fractious waterfront workers dispute of 1951. At the same time there's a new flowering of the arts. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra is established and a new generation of writers and artists take centre stage.
This episode of history series The Years Back focuses on the impact of World War II on Kiwi women. Through archive and interviews it looks at home front life: rationing (as recalled by Dame Pat Evison), fashion (‘Simplicity Styles’), and the arrival of American troops — around 1,400 women would later emigrate to the United States as war brides. It also shows the liberating effect of the war on many women as they took up the jobs left vacant by men serving overseas. Women joined the services too: with more than 8,000 enlisted across the army, navy and air forces.
The end of World War II is in sight in the 10th episode of this series about 20th century history. But there's still fighting to be done by New Zealand troops and their allies, as they battle tenacious Japanese forces in the Pacific. Future Prime Minister Jack Marshall addresses his men in the jungle, and war correspondent Stan Wemyss recalls being under fire with Fijian troops in the jungles of Bougainville (while his footage of the event plays). When the war finally ends, Prime Minister Peter Fraser delivers his victory speech and there is dancing in the streets.
With the Second World War over, Kiwis stood with their more powerful allies in the occupation of Japan. But with Britain increasingly preoccupied with its home affairs and Europe, New Zealand began to set its own foreign policy agenda. In this episode of The Years Back presenter Bernard Kearns explains how New Zealand turned to its own backyard to create new export markets. That also meant military involvement in Korea and Malaya and a sometimes fumbling attempt at being a colonial power in the Pacific.
In this episode of the archive-compiled history series, Bernard Kearns focuses on the Roaring Twenties. Soldiers returning from the First World War struggle to tame the land as commodity prices fall. The Labour Party, with miners as its backbone, gains a foothold on the political scene, and the Ratana Church emerges as an alternative to more distant Māori leaders. In Dunedin, the New Zealand and South Seas International Exhibition proves a huge success and members of the Royal Family are popular visitors to our shores. But the Great Depression looms.
This edition of the New Zealand history series looks at the beginning of World War II. With war declared in 1939 NZ faces the new decade with a call to arms. Presenter Bernard Kearns explains how Kiwis mobilised and set sail for the Middle East, before being sent to Greece and Crete where overwhelming German superiority sent them into retreat. Prime Minister Peter Fraser explains the defeat to New Zealanders in an NFU newsreel filmed in Egypt. The contemporary footage also shows the victory at the naval Battle of the River Plate and looks at some Kiwi war heroes.
In this episode of the The Years Back presenter Bernard Kearns explores New Zealand's part in the famous campaign against Rommel in the Libyan Desert. Using rare footage of the action and contemporary post-battle reconstructions, the episode follows the New Zealand 2nd Division in the lead up to the battle of El Alamein and pursuit of the German Afrika Korps, and victory under the guidance of legendary British commander Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery. A notable moment is Kiwi Sergeant Keith Elliott being presented with his VC for his deeds at Ruweisat Ridge.
In this The Years Back episode Bernard Kearns charts New Zealand's 6th Brigade and Maori Battalion as they fight their way through Italy between 1943 and 1945. Reaching Monte Cassino in 1944, the force suffered 1600 casualties in 12 weeks of bitter fighting. Using NFU pictures, the documentary traces the advance north after Cassino falls, and includes the bloodless capture of Padua and the setting up of the New Zealand Forces Club in the best hotel in Venice. The documentary ends with Kiwi forces facing down Tito's Yugoslav partisans in Trieste.
This episode of archive-compiled The Years Back series sees presenter Bernard Kearns exploring how New Zealand coped on the home front as World War II expanded into South East Asia and the Pacific. Access to imports was hampered and rationing bit. Fuel and rubber shortages are overcome with novel approaches and farmland becomes the garden for our allies. The episode also examines how industry switched from civilian needs to making war materials. The Home Guard changes from a bit of a laugh to deadly seriousness as the threat grows of invasion by Japan.
Taufa'ahau Tupou IV was crowned King of Tonga on his 49th birthday. This NFU film covers the lead up to and the entire ceremony on 4 July 1967. It was the first coronation in the island kingdom since Tupou’s mother, Queen Sālote, in 1918. Tongans from the outer islands had been arriving in the capital Nuku'alofa for a month. Dignitaries included the Duke and Duchess of Kent and New Zealand’s Prime Minister Keith Holyoake, plus opposition leader Norman Kirk. Director Derek Wright covers the ceremony with decorum, reflecting the dignity of the occasion.
"The story of a four-day journey from Westland to Canterbury, across the Southern Alps." Narration from the four climbers accompanies spectacular alpine imagery in this classic NFU film. In crevasse country they rope up and climb to "half way across the frozen roof of New Zealand" and share a can of tinned pineapple as reward. At Malte Brun Hut they meet Sir Edmund Hillary, Murray Ellis and Harry Ayres, and they descend together down the Tasman Glacier. Ayres reflects on the Alps as training ground for famous polar and Everest expeditions.
In this 60s TV series Selwyn Toogood headed to the heartland to explore six Kiwi towns; it was one of the legendary presenter's first TV slots. In this fifth episode Toogood heads to Motueka to check out the hops, orchards and tobacco crops, and the impact of the seasonal workers on pubs and policing in the Tasman district. Toogood muses on machinery, and interviews pickers about their motives. Women pickers exalt the chance to meet some "jokers" and save for an OE. Toogood also asks a couple of Australian blokes “what do you think of New Zealand girls?”
NFU-produced TV series These New Zealanders explored the character and people of six NZ towns, 60s-style. Fronted by Selwyn Toogood, it was one of the legendary presenter's first TV slots. In this episode Toogood dons the walk shorts and long socks and visits Taupō, extolling the lake district as a place of play (camping, fishing, swimming, jet-boating) and work (the development of Lochinver Station for farming). Toogood does a priceless vox pop survey of summertime visitors, including the requisite quizzing of an overseas couple about whether they like it here.
This documentary series was presented by the legendary Selwyn Toogood. These New Zealanders was one of Toogood's first appearances for television, having previously become a household name as a radio host. The National Film Unit production was part-documentary, part-magazine, and part-travelogue, and took Toogood to six towns to capture their character and people. The towns visited were Gore, Benmore, Motueka, Huntly, Gisborne and Taupō. It provides a fascinating perspective of New Zealand life in the 1960s.
These New Zealanders was a series presented by Selwyn Toogood (one of his first television roles) looking at six Kiwi towns. Here Toogood travels to Benmore Dam, to find out what it was like to live and work on NZ’s (then) largest construction project. He interviews engineers, workmen and housewives, discussing work and pay, social opportunities and family life. As the town had the highest birthrate in the country, facilities for children were also important. The itinerant workers earned good money — about 25 pounds a week, and enjoyed a low cost of living.
These New Zealanders was a series presented by Selwyn Toogood (one of his first television roles) that looked at six Kiwi locations. Here Toogood visits the prosperous farming county of Gore. At that time Gore had a very high rateable value (75 million pounds) and was the only county in NZ to be debt free. A freak early summer storm has left seven inches of snow on the ground at a ‘rehab’ farm; a romney sheep breeder also dabbles in grain, rearing bulls and race horses; and Toogood chats with Maurice Cronin, who has been farming in the area for 45 years.
This half-hour film from 1958 documents New Zealanders in Antarctica: researching International Geophysical Year, and supporting the Trans-Antarctic Expedition by laying supply depots for Vivian Fuchs’ overland crossing. National Film Unit cameraman Derek Wright films Edmund Hillary's team, capturing the drama of their (in)famous dash to the South Pole as they roll precariously forward in converted Ferguson tractors — “the best crevasse detectors ever invented” as Hillary notes. Hillary's team got to the South Pole on 4 January 1958, 82 days after leaving Scott Base.
Kiwi George Lowe directed this Oscar-nominated film of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1955-58), which made the first overland crossing of the continent via the South Pole. Lowe joined mission leader Sir Vivian Fuchs’ party coming from Shackleton Base, spotting hazards for the vehicles and dogs. NFU veteran Derek Wright filmed the Edmund Hillary-led NZ support crew coming from the other side of Antarctica, and helped drive the tractors. Worried about running out of food while waiting for Fuchs to reach the Pole, Hillary and his team headed to the Pole first, against his orders.
Pioneering woman director Kathleen O’Brien looks at NZ Correspondence School education in this 25-minute National Film Unit short. Lessons are sent from the school’s Wellington base to far-flung outposts, for farm kids and sick kids, prisoners and immigrants, from Nuie to Northland. Letters, radio and an annual ‘residential college’ at Massey connect students and teachers. In a newspaper report of the time, O’Brien remembering being stranded at Cape Brett lighthouse “for four days without a toothbrush and wearing only the clothes she stood up in”.
This NFU documentary chronicles a major milestone in NZ's presence in Antarctica: the building of Scott Base. Members of the Commonwealth Polar Expedition leave Wellington in December 1956, and sail through storms and pack ice. Led by Sir Edmund Hillary, they construct Scott Base, meet some local wildlife and begin preparations to support a British team led by Doctor Vivian Fuchs. After wintering over, Hillary would, in January 1958, controversially reach the South Pole before Fuchs — only the third party after Scott and Amundsen to do so overland.
This National Film Unit documentary shows the NZ contingent training in the Aoraki Mount Cook area for their mission to Antarctica, as part of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. On the Tasman Glacier, they practise polar survival techniques, huskies are put through their paces and an RNZAF ski plane dramatically flips before a blizzard blows in, and some classic Kiwi DIY repairs are required on the ice runway. Team leader Sir Edmund Hillary narrates in laconic style. Cameraman Derek Wright went on to chronicle Sir Ed’s famous tractor dash to the pole.
This 65 minute long documentary looks at the treatment of New Zealand children born with cerebral palsy (a set of conditions which affect motor control, caused by brain defects that typically occur around pregnancy and birth). Made for the Department of Health, the National Film Unit production visits a specialist unit in Rotorua, to praise the understanding and care applied to help the ‘cerebral palsied’ live full lives. Director Frank Chilton was made an OBE for services to handicapped children. This film won a Diploma of Merit at the 1957 Edinburgh Film Festival.
This is the official film of the Royal visit to Queen Sālote's Kingdom in 1954, made by the National Film Unit for the Tongan Government. There is comprehensive coverage of the welcome, traditional ceremonies and feasting, dancing and singing, the church service, and the farewell. The young, recently coronated, Queen Elizabeth and HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, leave the 'friendly islands' on the Royal liner Gothic, which will continue on to New Zealand.
The Cathedral Bells ring out in Christchurch as New Zealand celebrates the coronation of Elizabeth II. Inside the cathedral and in other places of worship, like the chapel at Longbeach Estate (near Ashburton) and the picturesque St James church at the foot of Franz Josef Glacier, the faithful give thanks (including pioneering mountain guides Peter and Alex Graham). Outside, the day is marked by processions and military parades in the main centres (filmed on 2 June 1953). In Wellington Governor General Sir Willoughby Norrie commands "God Save the Queen!"
It's a Wonderful Life meets driver education in this NFU film that aims to scare those who would be careless in bad weather conditions. This now-quaint precursor to 2011's Ghost Chips road safety ad sets up a low-key mystery plot, as five naive unfortunates find themselves at a bus stop in pea-soup fog. Purgatorial befuddlement — the bus goes via 'Infinity Terrace' and a saucy angel is handing out harps — turns to moralizing, complete with flashbacks and a lecture from the weather god, as they discover why they've ended up en route to 'Elysian Fields'.