» » For the Term of His Natural Life (1927)

Short summary

Based on the Australian classic by Marcus Clarke, the story of convict Rufus Dawe was based on fact and reflects that of many convicts of Australia's early days. Rufus Dawe has been wrongfully accused of a crime he did not commit, and sent to the harsh penal colony of Van Diemen's Land, Australia - for the term of his natural life. In his attempts to escape the colony forever, he falls in love with a warden's daughter, Sylvia, confronts his sinister lookalike John Rex, and the evil convict Gabbet. American director Norman Dawn's movie adaptation strays from the original book but retains a strong visual style, especially in climactic crowd scenes. It is notorious as the movie that was meant to launch Australia into the world movie market, but instead cost investors thousands after the coming of sound stymied its potential for overseas success.

A real sailing ship was burned for the movie's climax. Called the Inca, it was loaded with dynamite and - sadly - nitrate film. The effect was spectacular, but countless early Australian films were lost in the blaze.

Marion Marcus Clarke was a granddaughter of the author of the classic book on which the film was based. She was an experienced stage actress.

At a time when an Australian film could easily be made for £1,000, this movie cost an astounding £50,000.

Five hundred unemployed men were used to take part in the many crowd scenes, including a prison riot, convict treadmill, and human plough.

A "cuddy", mentioned on the intertitles, is a small cabin on a boat, usually not big enough to stand up in, unlike the one portrayed in this film.

Gabbett's escape from Port Arthur and subsequent cannibalistic behaviour is based on the story of the escape of the convict, Alexander Pearce, from Macquarie Harbour. Pearce's story has been told in two films, Van Diemen's Land (2009) and The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce (2008).

Rex's escape on the Osprey is based on the seizure of the brig, Frederick, by ten convicts after the closure of the Macquarie Harbour penal settlement. The convicts landed their captives on the shore and then set sail. Unlike Rex who is recaptured in the film, these convicts managed to sail the Frederick to Chile.

According to an advert in the Sydney Sunday Times (24/7/27), the Australasian Films Ltd. spent 60,000 pounds to make this film.

User reviews

  • comment
    • Author: Jake
    I have seen 'Term' several times now, and, while it is not the usual 'megaplex' kind of release, it is nonetheless a film which should be experienced. Admittedly, the narrative could have been more engaging; but at least it is a faithful reproduction of the original text, even if it did retain irritating Victorian plot devices, and the astoundingly unquestioned use of 'coincidence.'

    There are truly out-of-the-ordinary settings, and some lush lighting, too. I loved the gothic touches. It is obvious that Norman Dawn had a very photographic eye. At times, though, it seems that the film is wanting us to notice the spectacle, rather than the characters (or at least, being engaged by their experiences).

    As an Australian committed to the integrity and development of Australian culture and identity, of course I resent the employment of non-Australians in the film, but the Americans WERE adequate (it must be said). And George Fisher as Rufus just gets better as the film progresses.

    If you like your film experiences to be pre-digested, with a straightforward narrative and offer no challenge, then don't bother with 'Term.' But if you can turn off your expectations of what a film should be, and watch with fresh eyes, you will find 'Term' to be an insight and an appetite-whetter.
  • comment
    • Author: Gamba
    This is an amazing silent film to watch because of its scope and grand scale. For a Hollywood production, this would have been very impressive. But, being an Australian film, it's simply amazing. Sadly, however, despite there being so much to admire from this film, the plot, even by 1927 standards, was hopelessly permeated with holes--very, very serious plot holes.

    The film begins in England in the 1920s. A young man (Rufus Dawes) has just had an argument with his wealthy father. And, in his anger, the son is disowned AND informed that he is illegitimate! Apparently his mother was pregnant when they married. So, he's now homeless and life couldn't possibly suck and more...or could it?! On the way from the manor, he comes upon a guy who was beaten and robbed and offered him assistance. Sadly, the man dies AND when help comes, they think the young man is responsible and he's sentenced to be sent to the prison colonies in Australia. Oddly, there was a witness to this but the guy stayed hidden--not revealing himself. Frankly, this made no sense at all. Even when the reason why the witness didn't speak up was later revealed, the reason seemed lame AND there were so many chances for him to make things right. Plus, the witness had become a preacher--so why wouldn't this guy speak up about what he saw?!?! Duh.

    On the way to Australia, there is a shipboard mutiny and the prisoners, led by the evil John Rex, try to take over. One of the prisoners, Dawes, manages to thwart the rebellion and save the day. His reward? NOTHING! Once at the colony, Dawes is a model prisoner and Rex is a big bad meanie. Oddly, the two men look a lot alike--almost like brothers (yes, it will eventually turn out that they actually are--what are the odds?!?!?!?!). Eventually, the colony is moved and the prisoners and non-prisoners leave on two ships. One ship is hijacked by the prisoners. Now you'd THINK they would have learned their lesson about this the first time...but no.

    Dawes and three others are set adrift by the mutineers. While it looks like they will starve or die from the elements, Dawes alone is able to keep most of them alive using his selfless courage. When they are rescued, his reward is...NOTHING! And, in a very stupid plot element, this is because the pretty young lady who survives has a mysterious case of amnesia. And so the wimpy and not at all helpful officer who is stranded with them claims HE was the reason they survived and Dawes is sent right back to hard labor!! And, for the next decade or so, this young lady cannot recall what happened during their stranding!! This is ridiculous. Unless she had a massive head injury or was a dope fiend, she would have remembered Dawes' kindness.

    Years pass and lots of crazy things happen in the plot. The film even goes back to England, has a shipwreck and the minister FINALLY gets around to telling everyone the truth---two decades later!!! The problem is that on one hand the film is very exciting and has a lot of plot elements in it (enough for two or three films), much of what happens strains all credibility...even for a film made in 1927. Seeing the crime committed but not getting around to telling anyone what really happened for almost 20 years, a lady who conveniently forgets AND, uggh, when it turns out Rex and Dawes are BROTHERS, the viewer is left conflicted. It's a great film but it's also a series of crazy clichés. Well worth seeing...but try to buy into the "Les Miserables"-like plot as best you can despite the plot holes.

    Oh, and by the way, like many older films, the print is a mess in places. Bits and pieces of the film are missing and are replaced by stills and descriptive intertitle cards that explain what you can't see. Other films that needed such restorations work would include Capra's "Lost Horizon" and Laurel and Hardy's "The Battle of the Century", as nitrate prints tend to decay, melt or even explode unless kept in 100% perfect conditions.
  • comment
    • Author: Elildelm
    This silent movie, an adaptation of a rip-snorting Australian novel from the 19th century, is a tough film to evaluate, because so much of it is missing, and that makes the exceptionally complicated plot very hard to follow. The story itself is a series of prisoner escapes and harsh sea voyages, linked together by a plot that relies on A Shameful Secret, A Noble Sacrifice, characters who Look Exactly Alike, and that favorite through the centuries, Amnesia. The book from which all this comes is a genuine page turner (with one of the scariest sea trips in literature) and well worth seeking out. But I don't see how anyone can even begin to follow this movie without either having read the book or at least having seen the miniseries.

    If you do attempt this film, be prepared to do a lot of reading, as gaps in the plot are filled in by title cards, and some lengthy breaks in the action, where the lost bits of the film are represented by stills. This makes it tough to evaluate all the performances. There are some fairly good set pieces in the film, but, since the actual film goes missing in some real inconvenient spots, there is a lot of frustration involved with watching this.

    Note that this reconstruction of the movie was attempted in the late 70s and early 80s, with the participation of the original director (who apparently directed from an annotated copy of the book, rather than a script) and is a true labor of love. This was truly Australia's most expensive silent movie. But it is only an approximation of what viewers saw in the 20s, and is mostly of historic interest. Maybe somebody will find a better copy of the film in their attic one of these days...
  • Cast overview, first billed only:
    George Fisher George Fisher - Rufus Dawe / John Rex
    Eva Novak Eva Novak - Sylvia Vickers
    Dunstan Webb Dunstan Webb - Maurice Frere
    Jessica Harcourt Jessica Harcourt - Sarah Purfoy
    Arthur McLaglen Arthur McLaglen - Gabbett
    Katherine Dawn Katherine Dawn - Mrs. Vickers
    Gerald Kay Souper Gerald Kay Souper - Major Vickers
    Marion Marcus Clarke Marion Marcus Clarke - Lady Devine
    Arthur Tauchert Arthur Tauchert - Warden Troke
    Beryl Gow Beryl Gow - Sylvia Vickers as child
    Compton Coutts Compton Coutts - Reverend Meekin
    Mayne Lynton Mayne Lynton - Reverend North
    Carlton Stuart Carlton Stuart - Commandant Burgess
    William O'Hanlon William O'Hanlon - The Crow
    Arthur Greenaway Arthur Greenaway - Lord Bellasis
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