Stanhope Andrews was well aware of the dangers of making films that looked beautiful, but had nothing to say. A passionate believer in film as both art form and force for communication, Andrews campaigned for a government film body that was about more than just pretty scenery — then led it for ten years.
Andrews was born in 1908. His film career grew from a series of jobs in education. While editing a magazine for the New Zealand Educational Institute he found revelation from the apparently mundane: a film that used animation to explain the workings of diesel engines. For Andrews the film was "miraculous"; it showed him cinema’s potential as a teaching device.
In the 1930s Andrews reviewed films for Wellington’s Dominion newspaper, and spoke publicly about film’s usefulness for teaching. He also helped out when his playwright wife Isobel founded a local theatre group.
Stanhope’s correspondence with legendary Scots documentarian John Grierson would fire his belief in film’s potential as a national medium of communication. Grierson had recently taken charge of Britain’s GPO Film Unit, which soon demonstrated that government-sponsored filmmaking could be artful as well as worthy.
Like Grierson, Andrews was "intensely interested" in how motion pictures could be used to communicate with, and educate people in a modern democracy. As Andrews told New Zealand writer Julie Benjamin: "Grierson thought that surely we could find some means of communicating with each other, so that the blokes we sent up the hill to organise things for us could tell us how they were getting on".
In 1940 the government invited Grierson to New Zealand, where he argued for the worth of establishing a local Government Film Unit, and the cultural importance of New Zealanders seeing themselves on-screen. After meeting him, Andrews worked with teachers Frank Combes and James Harris on a report to government, along similar lines.
The government’s filmmaking efforts dated back to 1923, much of it tourist-based. The government had recently purchased a studio and lab in Wellington, but the war threatened to bring production to a standstill.
Andrews was given a key to the Miramar studio — "I could get in, look at things and fiddle around". He began working on short films about government war bonds, and was introduced to longtime government filmmaker Cyril Morton, who was also keen on using motion pictures for the war effort.
Andrews edited some unused newsreel footage of troops departing for WWII, and added a commentary. After asking Morton to help tidy it up, the finished film Country Lads was screened to Prime Minister Peter Fraser and his War Cabinet.
"I hadn’t seen it on the big screen," Andrews said later. "It was magnificent, some beautiful photography. There were tears pouring down Peter and Janet Fraser’s faces, there wasn’t a sound in the theatre ... I knew then that we were going to have a film unit."
In August 1940 Andrews was appointed producer of the newly renamed National Film Unit, with Cyril Morton second in command. According to Andrews his terms of reference were broad: "They were 'to further the war effort'".
Film industry colleagues argued that they simply lacked the resources to pull off a short every week. Weekly Review initially recorded war-related activities at home, and then abroad. It would go on to run for nine years.
The duo hired, jury-rigged and bought second-hand equipment; Andrews gathered together a few experienced filmmakers and for the rest, added in "teachers, newspapermen, radio announcers, poets, public servants and carpenters". He also employed women in creative roles, a door that was to swing shut again for roughly two decades after his departure.
In 1943 Andrews and cameraman Bert Bridgman risked their lives, filming on the front-line on the island of Guadalcanal, for the film Base for Attack. Andrews wrote about it in his booklet Close-up of Guadalcanal.
A passionate believer in motion pictures as an art whose appeal was "immediate and universal", Andrews felt it was possible to make government films without falling into propaganda. Looking back in 1990, Andrews told writer Julie Benjamin that "in the early years, we all believed in what were doing. It wasn’t just naivety: it was wartime."
As the Unit grew from 18 staff to 80, growing pains were inevitable. Staff no longer met to provide input into rough cuts of films. When younger staff-members asked to be given individual credits on films, rather than the normal generic title ‘The National Film Unit Presents’ Andrews acquiesced. But he added his name first, since "if anything went wrong with it, I was responsible".
In 1948, Andrews argued forcefully against criticisms that the Unit was acting like a socialist propaganda machine. Andrews said that in six years, the Weekly Review had faced only three requests from the powers-that-be for cuts to films. "None was carried out".
Indeed there were also accusations made against an NFU filmmaker of "communist leanings". The infamous 'satchel snatch' smear campaign saw NFU director Cecil Holmes implicated in militant union activity for the Public Service Association (by the Labour government) and lose his job. Holmes was reinstated after a court case, but left New Zealand in 1949 for a successful directing career in Australia.
Andrews left the Film Unit in 1950. Two years later he wrote about his departure in surprising detail, for magazine Here and Now. According to Andrews, the Unit had increasingly been "fenced in" by growing administrative procedures and financial obligations. As a result, he felt that many of the most talented and arguably eccentric staff had left, three of whom had to be bribed with handsome pay rises to return.
Following a disinterested visit by new (National) prime minister Sidney Holland, Andrews was tiring of how "every move had to be approved by somebody else". Feeling his public service filmmaking ideals compromised, and that he’d neglected family and health, Andrews relocated to Whāngarei, and moved into retail.
Responsibility for the unit was handed back to the Department of Tourism and Publicity, the Weekly Review series was axed (replaced by Pictorial Parade), and there was cost-cutting pressure for the unit to "stand on its own feet"; thankfully more talented and eccentric NFU talents were still to come.
Later Andrews became head of general studies at Auckland Technical Institute. He was married to playwright and occasional scriptwriter Isobel Andrews for more than 50 years. Stanhope Andrews passed away in Auckland, in September 1992.
Profile updated on 4 July 2022
Stanhope Andrews, ‘The National Film Unit’ - Here and Now, December 1952 (Volume 3, No 3) page 7
Stanhope Andrews, ‘Shadow Catching: Some thoughts on Documentary Films in New Zealand’ - Year Book of the Arts in NZ, 1948, No 4, page 139
Beatrice Ashton, 'Andrews, Isabella Smith 1905 - 1990' - Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Updated 22 June 2007. Accessed 4 July 2022
Julie Benjamin, ‘Film Pioneer’ - Onfilm, April 1990 (Volume 7, No 3), page 36
‘Film critic Andrews dies at 84’ - The Dominion (Second edition), 3 September 1992, page 9