Fighting Back (review)

Fighting Back, a 1949 film by Cecil Holmes. Reviewed by Dean Parker in LHP Newsletter 46.

‘The first on-the-spot film of an industrial dispute ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere… Workers demonstrate through Queen St, Auckland… Trade Unionists’ solidarity meetings… Boycott scenes: watersiders, drivers, railwaymen… Police interference with pickets… On-the-spot pictures of a real scab meeting… This living record of the Auckland carpenters’ dispute is available for showing to workingclass audiences. Get your union to ask for it!’

It was probably the most fascinating event of Auckland’s Heritage Week last September — the showing of a fiercely left-wing movie documentary made nearly 60 years ago on the streets of a class-divided Auckland.

And speaking before it was one of its stars.

Fighting Back is a thirty-minute documentary feature made in 1949 by two famous names from New Zealand movie history — famous way before Peter Jackson, way before Jane Campion, way even before Sam Neill. One of the names was a notorious communist, the other a celebrated pioneer feature director.

In February 1949, Auckland employers had initiated a major confrontation with the local Communist-led carpenters’ union. Union members were locked out of work. All building work in Auckland came to a standstill.

In a parallel piece of red-baiting at the National Film Unit in Wellington, Cecil Holmes, a Film Unit director, had his satchel stolen from a car. The contents of the satchel mysteriously appeared in Parliament. Among them was a membership card of the Communist Party and a letter discussing a stop-work at the Film Unit. Holmes was suspended.

With time on his hands, and, in his own words, ‘itching to make a film’ which utilised documentary techniques pioneered in Britain, Holmes came up to Auckland and talked to the Auckland carpenters’ union. ‘Maybe they could muster up a few quid,’ he later wrote, ‘and I could make a movie, telling their story.’ The chippies said yes.

Holmes worked for nothing, bought film stock and brought in pioneer New Zealand film-maker Rudall Haywood, who had made films back in the days of silent movies and had built his own gear.

This wasn’t your normal movie-shoot along Ponsonby Road. Said Holmes, ‘We had a rough time making it, as I had anticipated. Wherever we went we had the support of union heavies for protection against the Catholic Action bully boys, but happily their aim in stone-throwing wasn’t up to much. When one missile wrecked the sound gear, Rudall spent all night fixing it and was back on the job, as phlegmatic as ever, next morning’.

One of the union members who starred in the film was Cecil’s younger brother Basil. He currently lives on Waiheke Island.

‘Time has flown,’ he said in an interview in the New Zealand Herald. ‘I suspect I must be the last of those who were in or near the centre of the ’49 Carpenters struggle.’

What was great for those who watched the Heritage showing was that Basil Holmes attended the showing, introduced it and then took questions on it, addressing a new century’s audience on the film’s relevance to today.

It’s a unique 30-minute documentary of industrial war in Auckland. It analyses the specific circumstances of the carpenters’ lock-out — which was almost a dry-run for the major confrontation that would shatter New Zealand two years later, the 1951 waterfront dispute.

It recounts the employers’ tactics and shows the response those tactics got, that of widespread solidarity among Auckland workers. Scenes from the carpenters’ struggle are skilfully re-created, but the film also sets the dispute against the more general background of a class-divided Auckland. We see the poverty of 1940s Freemans Bay slums, and then we see its contrast, the luxury homes of Auckland’s eastern suburbs — homes that we even enter in a wonderfully over-the-top dramatised scene of Remuera matrons discussing the latest ocean cruise they’d taken.

Nothing like Fighting Back had ever been produced in Australia or New Zealand. And it would be another thirty years before anything like it would be seen again in this country. Fighting Back was presented by the Auckland Labour History Group with the assistance of the New Zealand Film Archive who cleaned up the sound track on the original 16mm print and transferred the print to digital format. DVD copies are available from the Film Archive.