Cyril Morton's career began in the 1920s, during New Zealand's first sustained burst of filmmaking. Morton helped create Government filmmaking body the National Film Unit. The former cameraman was later second-in-command at the Unit for 13 years, until retiring in 1963. Morton passed away in 1986.
A film pioneer, who for more than 40 years guided the production of government films; a founding father of the National Film Unit; a man whose work in capturing New Zealand on film was seen by people all over the world. Former National Film Unit archivist Clive Sowry
The Waitomo Caves are a longtime tourist magnet, thanks to their bioluminescent glow-worms and spectacular stalagmite and stalactite formations. Aside from the glories of the caves, this National Film Unit tourism film mentions the surrounding countryside as “a good reason to stay another day”. Set to a laid-back jazz score, a tour from Waitomo Caves Hotel takes in lambing, limestone outcrops, scenic driving and a picnic by the Marokopa waterfalls. But "to float down the underground river as galaxies pass silently overhead is the crowning pleasure in the valley of Waitomo.”
In this award-winning tourism promo, an easy-going narrator guides us through a land of contrasts — “where else would you find golf and geysers?”. The sights range from frozen to boiling lakes, characterful cities to odd natives (kiwi, takahē, carnivorous snails). Visual highlights include quirky road-signs (“beware of wind”, “slow workmen ahead”), toheroa digging and a flotilla of capsizing optimists. Directed by NFU veteran Ron Bowie, the film won an award at the 1963 Venice Film Festival, before headlining a special Amazing New Zealand season of shorts in NZ cinemas.
This National Film Unit doco illustrates the early days of the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Performances from the company’s touring program include Bournonville’s Napoli, kiwi Arthur Turnbull’s Do-Wack-A-Do, a quirky 1930s flapper themed production (also with a NZ composer, Dorothea Franchi) and the tulle and poise of Fokine’s Les Sylphides. Prismatic Variations, choreographed by ballet company founder Poul Gnatt, and produced by another dance icon Russell Kerr, is the finale for this tribute to those who have made New Zealanders “ballet conscious.”
This 1963 film looks at how the development of high country aviation is taking on the challenges presented by the South Island’s rugged geography. Piloted by war veterans, small aircraft parachute supplies into remote locations for Forest Service hut building and service lighthouses. Meanwhile helicopters and airlines open up opportunities for industry (venison, tourism, forestry, topdressing) and recreation (fishing, hunting). Good keen men, smokos and Swannies abound in this classically-filmed National Film Unit documentary.
This 1962 National Film Unit production is a comprehensive survey of the history and (then) state of Māori carving. Many taonga are filmed on display at Wellington’s Dominion Museum, and the design aspects of ‘whakairo’ are examined, from the spiral motif to the origin of iconic black, red and white colouring. Finding reviving tradition in new “community halls”, the film shows the building of Waiwhetu Marae in Lower Hutt in 1960, recording the processes behind woven tukutuku panels and kowhaiwhai patterns, as the tapping of mallets provides a percussive presence.
Directed by David Fowler for the National Film Unit, tourism promo Holiday For Susan enthusiastically follows 22-year-old Aussie Susan's tour of Godzone with Kiwi lass Lorraine Clark. En route, Susan finds a husband in Auckland's David Thomas. Abounding with shots of scenic wonder (cleverly integrated with signs of the country's industrial progress), and Susan's legs (many aspects of the film would have had Kate Sheppard rolling in her grave), the film presents a jaunty portrait of 60s NZ as a destination for young, well-to-do, globetrotters.
This 1962 film about geothermal power generation begins with animated sequences telling the Māori legend of how the North Island’s volcanoes were created. Then it explores the “crazy idea” of volcanic power, and how New Zealand might harness its potential. At Wairakei, roads have collapsed and the ground can rumble: “nothing is ever quite predictable on this battleground for power”. Nearby, steam is used for heating, hangi, bathing, and … growing pineapples. The animation was handled by Mike Walker (later producer of Kingi’s Story), of Levin-based Morrow Productions.
This National Film Unit short captures the action with the RNZAF’s 75 Squadron aerobatic team. The pilots, all in their early to late 20s, fly their de Havilland Vampire jets through low and high altitude manoeuvres. NFU cameraman John Hutchinson squeezed himself and his camera into the cockpit for 14 flights over five days, to capture spectacular images from a fifth Vampire piloted by Flight Lieutenant Barry Gordon. The team was formed in 1958 for the RNZAF's 21st Anniversary Air show at Ohakea. It then toured New Zealand, giving displays at all the major airports.
Shot by photographer Brian Brake as a NFU tourism promo, Snows of Aorangi surveys New Zealand's mountain landscapes. Brake captures stunning imagery: ethereal ice forests, lightning storms, volcanic craters, glaciers, avalanches, kea. Three skiers are mesmerising as they scythe downhill from Almer Hut: "for a little while they've given themselves to the rhythm of sky and earth" runs the James K Baxter-scripted narration. It was the first NZ film to compete for an Oscar, nominated in the Best Short Subject (Live Action) category in 1959.
This booster's gem was produced by the NFU to mark Canterbury's centennial. The original Canterbury crusaders' dream of a model England colony is shown in settler life re-enactments. The importance of meat and wheat to the region's prosperity is extolled and a progressive narrative — "in one brief century they've turned the wilderness into fertile farms and built their red-roofed homes" — underpins contemporary scenes (cricket, church) and much bucolic (plains, alps) scenery. Trivia: Peter Jackson used an excerpt from the film to open Heavenly Creatures.
This 1949 NFU film visits Western Samoa. Director Stanhope Andrews surveys life in the “lotus land of the Pacific”, showing taro and coconut harvest, cooking in umu, and church and fale building, as “the flower-decked girls sing and dance beneath the palms”. The benefits of New Zealand’s then-administration are shown (eg. medical services, education) but the travelogue ignores earlier ignominious acts, such as the quarantine blunder that saw one in five Samoans fall to influenza. The Olemani Aufaipese (choir) provides the score. Samoa won independence in 1962.
This 1949 NFU film is a whistle-stop tour of Aotearoa that, per the title, takes in the full gamut of the scenic wonderland. Splendidly filmed in Kodachrome, there are lakes (Tutira, Manapouri, Te Anau, Wakatipu), caves (Waitomo), mountains (Cook/Aoraki, Egmont/Taranaki) and forests and farms aplenty, with the occasional city sojourn and an obligatory ferry shot. In the narration indefatigable nature is harnessed for man’s needs and appreciation. Of note is a sequence on gum-collector Nicholas Yakas, who shows impressive agility as he scales a giant kauri.
Prelude to Aspiring was the first National Film Unit title directed by legendary photographer Brian Brake, soon after he joined the Unit in 1948. It follows a group of climbers up the Matukituki Valley, west of Wanaka, towards Mt Aspiring for the opening of a new hut and a trudge through snow to resurrect a flattened shelter high up Mt French. The autumn alpine scenery is breathtaking even in black and white, and the film perfectly performs its role as one of a series of promotional ‘documentaries' made by the NFU.
This National Film Unit magazine film meets the NZ team for the 1948 London Olympics as they prepare to depart by boat (accompanied by a manager, and a chaperone for the sole female competitor). Each of the seven members is profiled in this reminder of an era when athletes had day jobs, training was 'several hours a day' and swimsuits looked more like impediments than performance aids. A nicely-shot demonstration of weightlifting technique by Maurice Crow is a highlight. Despite the enthusiasm of Selwyn Toogood's voiceover, the team failed to win any medals.
This postwar Weekly Review joins a welfare officer from the Crippled Children’s Society on her Wellington rounds: advising parents, chaperoning children to hospitals to undergo physical and speech therapy, and overseeing the supply of specialist footwear and splints. There’s also a Kiwi take on Heidi as a boy is offered a farm holiday, walking on crutches among the cows: “No care and treatment can substitute for the uplift of two weeks in the country.” Released in September 1948, the film was made by decorated war correspondent Stan Wemyss (grandfather of Russell Crowe).
This 1948 documentary follows 24 hours of work on the railways. It was directed for the National Film Unit by Margaret Thomson, arguably New Zealand’s first female film director. The film shows the engines and commuter trains preparing to leave Wellington, and the overnight train arriving from Auckland. Workers toil on the railway lines above the remote Waimakariri Gorge, and the town of Otira gets ready for a dance. The final shots are of an engine coming through the dawn and back to the city. Selwyn Toogood (It's in the Bag) narrates.
The coaster Breeze and her crew are immortalised in this much praised National Film Unit documentary. Poet Denis Glover and narrator Selwyn Toogood provide a rhythmic and lyrical commentary as the Breeze runs from Wellington to Lyttelton, then to Wanganui. Three weeks after the film's November 1948 release, director Cecil Holmes had his satchel snatched. He lost his NFU job after the resulting smear campaign accused him of communist leanings. Although reinstated after a court case, Holmes left for a successful screen career in Australia in 1949.
This National Film Unit documentary provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the various stages of 40s film production at the relatively nascent unit, from shoot to post production. It was made to be screened continuously (thus the ‘loop’ title) at exhibition theatrettes. There’s genial interaction among the cast and crew (see backgrounder for who they are). Directed by pioneer woman director Kathleen O’Brien, the filming took place at the unit’s Darlington Road studios in Wellington, close to where Weta Workshop and Park Road Post now operate in Miramar.
The Ballantyne's Department Store fire of 18 November 1947 was — until the 2011 earthquake — Christchurch’s biggest disaster. It claimed 41 lives and, as the narration says, was “one of the greatest civil tragedies New Zealand has known.” Shot by National Film Unit crew who happened to be in the city for another film, Christchurch Fire shows the battle to beat the blaze: from the mass of hoses on Cashel St, to a fireman swapping a ciggie for a cup of tea. After the footage was rushed to Wellington, the film debuted in cinemas the night after the fire, and was also seen overseas.
At 11am on 15 August 1945 news of Japanese surrender reached New Zealand, marking the end of the nation's six years in World War II. This newsreel records the public celebrations in windy downtown Wellington and on Auckland’s Queen St, where there are street parties, bagpipes and beer as tensions are released. At Wellington Town Hall on the second day of the public holiday, tributes are paid to “team spirit”; and Prime Minister Fraser hopes for social justice and that the dead have not died in vain. Then there is a mass rendition of ‘Land of Hope of Glory’.
This early National Film Unit newsreel traces the aftermath of the World War II Battle for Crete. It shows the arrival in Egypt of defeated New Zealand soldiers after their evacuation. However more than 2000 New Zealanders were left behind and captured by the Germans. The film also features Lieutenant Winton Ryan, whose platoon acted as bodyguard to Greece's King George II — they accompanied him during his flight across Cretan mountain passes to safety. For the people back home Prime Minister Peter Fraser puts an optimistic gloss on a comprehensive defeat.
"New Zealand is ready" is the message in this early propaganda film made by the National Film Unit. It follows Japan's entry into World War II in December 1941. Until then the war had been a largely remote experience for many New Zealanders. Now our own soil was threatened. Using robust language and delivery, along with pictures of New Zealand defence forces in live-fire exercises, the film seeks to reassure while warning against overconfidence. New Zealand's remoteness is presented as a plus for defence and there's a subtext of self-reliance.