‘Sorely tried men’ : the male body in World War Two Australia

as published with illustrations in Artlink, Vol 16, No 1, Autumn, 1996.

During World War Two  the Australian Government’s Department of Information represented the male body in at least two distinct ways. The photographer Edward Cranstone photographed a heroically active, phallicised body; and the cameraman Damien Parer filmed a heroically suffering, abject body.

Edward Cranstone’s main assignment for the DOI was to photograph the Civil Construction Corps of the Allied Works Council. (1) Established in 1942 the AWC conscripted men between the ages of 35 and 55, who were otherwise ineligible for military service, to work on large building projects in northern and interior Australia. However the CCC quickly began to attract adverse publicity. There was industrial unrest on many projects with workers accusing the management of inefficiency and rorting, and management accusing the workers of unpatriotic union activity. (2) Against this background the DOI sent Cranstone, accompanied by a journalist who wrote captions, on an extended assignment to all the AWC projects. His photographs were extensively published in the press, in everything from the Tribune to the Women’s Weekly, and were eventually formed into a large exhibition, which also included paintings of CCC workers by Dobell and other artists, that toured capital cities in 1944.

As a member of the Communist Party of Australia Cranstone was exposed to a rich source of propagandistic imagery. Soviet socialist photographs were regularly published in the Tribune, and the Soviet Australia Friendship League held frequent screenings of classics of revolutionary cinema. Their influence can be clearly seen in Cranstone’s Modernist visual rhetoric — his use of upward looking camera angles, strong diagonal compositions, bright sunlit forms and heroic poses. Although the Soviet photography published in the Tribune can be identified as a specific source for Cranstone, his was a global style shared by other American, British and German propaganda photographers of the period.

Cranstone’s photographs appear to have been effective in persuading the public of the value of the CCC’s contribution to the War effort. As one article reviewing the exhibition stated:

The Australian worker—bareheaded, steady-eyed, stripped to the waist—is the dusty, sweating keynote to a display of about 450 photographs [….] It would be surprising if most people did not take away a warm impression of that typical Australian, stripped to the waist, working on untouched land, levelling it, digging into it or building up from it. In a real immediate way, the show tells the story of how Australia—the country itself— has gone to war.(3)

Cranstone’s men are heroic soldier/worker/pioneer hybrids. The battle which they fight is in the familiar industrial workplace and on the equally familiar colonial frontier. There is a strong erotics to many of Cranstone’s photographs: skin is pneumatically pumped out by muscle, sheened by sweat, and ribboned by shadow; the men vigorously swing crowbars and work machinery.  His photographs turn their bodies, which were by definition not Australia’s finest, into splendid specimens indeed.

Although Cranstone’s photographs were widely exhibited and published and generally well received, some commentators reacted against their overt visual rhetoric and mechano-eroticism. In Canberra the exhibition was displayed hidden away in the basement of Parliament House rather than in the usual exhibition space of Kings Hall. The Speaker of the House, complaining about the Modernist paintings of William Dobell with their thick fleshy strings of paint, claimed that the show “was a grave reflection on the manhood of Australia generally, and particularly the fine types who have discharged essential duties during a critical period in Australia’s history.” He added, in reference to Cranstone’s brand of photographic Modernism, that a “photograph allegedly taken in a quarry made me feel that I was in Dartmoor [Gaol].”(4)

Damien Parer was also employed by the DOI, but as a war cameraman. The footage he shot in New Guinea was supplied to newsreel companies to be cut into their weekly newsreels. Parer’s two most famous newsreels, Cinesound’s Kokoda Frontline and Assault on Salamau, were essentially collaborations between himself and the head of Cinesound Ken Hall. In both cases Damien Parer appeared as the ‘star’ to introduce the newsreels. After some titles telling us that Parer has already been responsible for some of the ‘classic footage’ of the War and that he is a reliable witness, Kokoda Frontline opens on Parer, in his uniform, in an empty domestic room, leaning casually against a table. The camera slowly moves in on his handsome face as he speaks directly to the camera.

Eight days ago I was with our advanced troops in the jungle facing the Japs at Kokoda. Its an uncanny sort of warfare, you never see a Jap, even though he is only twenty yards away. They are complete masters of camouflage and deception, […] Don’t underestimate the Jap, he’s a highly trained soldier, well disciplined and brave, and although he’s had some success up until the present, he’s now got against him some of the finest and toughest troops in the world, troops with a spirit amongst them that makes you intensely proud to be an Australian. […] When I returned to Moresby I was full of beans, it was the spirit of the troops and the knowledge that General Rowell was on the job, and now that we had a really fine command. But when I came back to the mainland, what a difference, I heard girls talking about dances, and men complaining about the tobacco they didn’t get; at the front, they were smoking tea some of the time. There seems to be an air of unreality, as though the war were a million miles away. Its not, its just outside our door now. I’ve seen the war, and I know what your husbands, your sweethearts and brothers are going through. If only everybody in Australia could realise that this country is in peril, that the Japanese are a well equipped and dangerous enemy, they might forget about the trivial things and go ahead with the job of licking them.

After this introduction the film cuts to some spectacular combat footage, but most important to the film are the intimate close-ups of the soldiers in retreat down the Kokoda Trail with which the film ends. The soldiers either pass in slow procession past the camera, or compose themselves into tableaus as they have their bandages tenderly applied by their mates, or their cigarettes lit. Cut into these sequences are extended close-up shots of the faces of native bearers and Australian soldiers which act as still portraits of various emotions. The hortatory voice over commentary during these scenes contrasts with Parer’s tender pain, but it re-emphasises the theme he established:

[…] [Here are the] first vivid, starkly dramatic glimpses of the eerie jungle conflict. [Showing] almost incredible hardship. […] Where the patrols go the bearded Parer goes too, so that this strange uncanny warfare can be vividly brought to the outside world. […] This is war, the real thing. The utter weariness of sorely tried men is evident in their faces. […] These are grim pictures, brutally, terribly real, they smash a complacency as nothing written or spoken ever possibly could. […] Half the distance from Sydney to Melbourne men are sweating, suffering, dying in that jungle so that it cannot happen here. Are they getting all the support the deserve, from the mines, from the factories, from the ordinary civilian? […]

In the final seconds Parer’s soft face of concern returns, angelically superimposed over shots of the feet of the soldiers pushing down through mud. He repeats, but now in ghostly tones:

I’ve seen the war, and I know what your husbands, your sweethearts and brothers are going through. If only everybody in Australia could realise that this country is in peril, that the Japanese are a well equipped and dangerous enemy, they might forget about the trivial things and go ahead with the job of licking them.

The newsreel was immediately successful, with a queue snaking out from Sydney’s State Theatre newsreel theatrette and around into George Street. The soldiers in Parer’s films are very different to Cranstone’s workers. The frontline on which they fight is not the domesticated colonial frontier of the purifying, astringent desert, but the dark uncannily wet tunnels of a jungle beyond the borders of Australia. The men are not assertively doing, but passively suffering. Parer’s soldiers are sick, bleeding and blinded. They rely on the tenderness of comrades or natives to survive. Their feet slip through mud as they lean on sticks or each other. They are not symbolic nationalist cyphers like Cranstone’s men, they are individuals, suffering psychological, as well as physical privations on our personal behalf.

Parer was a devout Catholic and many have seen spiritual and religious connotations in his work.

Ron Williams [another DOI filmmaker] believes that Parer was portraying redemption emerging out of suffering in these sequences. While Damien’s notes give no indication of any such intention, one particular shot does have a religious undertone. It shows Salvation Army Major Albert Moore on the far right of the frame lighting a cigarette for a wounded soldier. This is carefully balanced by a group of soldiers on the other side. Parer’s composition is similar to a medieval or Renaissance painting showing as its centrepiece Christ being taken down from the cross. The religious analogy is strengthened by the fact that the soldier is naked, covered from the waist down by an army blanket.(5)

Through their suffering these men will lead us to redemption. We, the audience of Parer’s newsreels, are feminised: we are wives, mothers or sisters who weakly complain at home and don’t acknowledge the danger from overseas. Like Orpheus, Parer has been both there and here. He has suffered too, and has returned, but our indifference is making him suffer again. Unabashed emotion and direct physical contact is both the conduit and evidence of this transaction—it becomes the subject of the newsreel itself. We see with our own eyes that our delusion and triviality has personally dispirited Parer, when he arrived back he was ‘full of beans’ with ‘the spirit of the troops’ but now he has experienced our complacency, he is worried and upset. His voice drops, and his face tightens.

There is an eroticism here too. Not the auto-phallicisation of man and machine as in the CCC, but a polymorphous blending of mate into mate and man into mud. Australians would have easily recognised this eroticism as already part of the ANZAC myth, Australian men similarly suffered together on the beaches of Gallipoli or in the trenches of France. Citing Julia Kristeva and Klaus Theweleit, Leigh Astbury has explained how this eroticism was understood into gender terms.

Again and again accounts of war emphasise the stinking ooze, mud, slush, stench, slime, rotting corpses, gore, human excreta—hybrid substances and odours that could be associated in the male mind with the body, especially with its orifices and, negatively, with the erotogenic zones of the female. Given the soldier’s morbid fear of anxiety-producing, hybrid substances connected with the body, abjection could only be held in abeyance through controlling the body’s purity and integrity and expelling from it the improper and unclean. (6)

However rather than conventionally describing it as that against which the phallic ANZAC heroically struggles to define itself, to Parer the abjection of New Guinea is something to which this generation of ANZAC, mired in the grimmest days of the War, must heroically succumb.

Parer’s trinity of ‘mother, wives and sisters’ had been evoked once before in relation to Australian warrior masculinity. The sculptural centrepiece for the memorial which Sydney had built for its WW1 ANZACs was Rayner Hoff’s Sacrifice 1934. In this sculpture a symbolic Australian mother, wife and sister hold aloft a lithe, cleansed and perfect male body crucified on a sword, they successfully bear him up out of the miasma of battle and into a transcendent erotic masculinity. However in Kokoda Frontline Parer is sadly compelled to inform the women of WW11 Australia that, unlike these women, they have abandoned their soldiers to an abject eroticism.

The newsreel’s powerful message is that, in the darkest hour of the War, while their women are still enthralled by false images and trivial concerns, it is up to desperately abjected soldiers, redeemed by a spiritually defined homo eroticism, to defend Australia. In contrast to Parer’s psychologically specific homo-eroticism, Cranstone’s internationally symbolic, stylised auto-eroticism redeemed the home front labours of another potentially unstable category of Australian male—the worker.

Whilst these two types of male body were produced at a particular extraordinary juncture of Australian history and culture I cannot resist the temptation to extrapolate them into later manifestations. Cranstone’s phallic cyphers of labour have certainly found their way into corporate annual report photography. Large corporations such as BHP still, from time to time, use these ‘masculinist automatons’ as nostalgic labourist archetypes, particularly in areas which are undergoing extreme technological transformation. (7)  However this type of pneumatic body, flexing itself against machinery in self-absorbed labour, is perhaps more commonly seen today in the productivist potlaches of the gym.

The Winfield Cup statuette, The Gladiators, sculpted from a photograph of two David and Goliath sized Grand Final team captains helping each other off a muddy football field in 1963, has strong references back to WW11 imagery of the abjected soldier. Does the eroticism of male sport still rely on a mute accusation against sisters, mothers and wives?

Martyn Jolly

1 Martyn Jolly ‘Edward Cranstone: Photographer’ Photofile Vol 1 No 1 1984, pp1-3.

2 H.P. Brown,(Commissioner) Inquiry under the National Security Regulations into certain allegations concerning the administration of the Allied Works Council    5 March 1943.

3 K.K. ‘Australia Portrayed Stripped to the Waist’ Melbourne Herald 3 August 1944, p5.

4 Massey Stanley ‘Art Critic’ Sunday Telegraph 24 September 1944, p10.

5 Neil McDonald War Cameraman: The Story of Damien Parer, Lothian 1994, pp157-158.

6 Leigh Astbury ‘Death and eroticism in the ANZAC Legend’ Art and Australia  Spring 1992 Vol 30 No 1, pp68-73.

7 Charles Pickett ‘BHP & the Village People’ The Lie of the Land, Powerhouse and National Centre for Australian Studies, Monash University, pp27-28.

Captions will be supplied with illustrations


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