Thursday 31 August 2017

Idriess and the Drums of Mer film

I joined a dozen other history buffs in shuffling our chairs about the small area at the back of the old bookstore in order to get the best advantage to hear the story about to be told by Fairlie Sandilands.  Fairlie, who has a degree in Anthropology and qualifications in Museum Curatorship, spent many years living in Townsville and was the start-up curator for the Magnetic Island museum.  Now at the age of sixty years and retired to a home at Topaz, she has looked back some forty years to when she was a nineteen year old teenager working for a film company and the adventure she was to have researching for a proposed film.

Drums of Mer book
With a screen in place and the projector set for the powerpoint show, Fairlie began her tale of a movie project that could have been one of the great Australian films but was not to be.  The talk she entitled, 'Drums of Mer Revisited' started with an over-view of the history of the Torres Straits and the culture of the islander people who call the Straits home.  Fairlie then told of how a young adventurer and prospector named Ion L. Idriess, known then as 'Jack', wandered into the Straits and came to learn much of the Islander culture.  While camping at old Somerset, Ion had the privilege to be one of the last to read the decaying journals of the Jardine family and having learnt from Rev MacFarlane of the great anthropological expedition of the 1890's, he later studied the reports of this Cambridge Expedition.  This study was the background to the writing of his 1933 novel 'Drums of Mer' which he based on the true story of the wreck of the ship 'Charles Eaton'.

Ion L. Idriess 1950
Fairlie went on to explain how she became involved with a group of film makers led by Sandy Harbutt who had just made the classic Australian movie 'Stone'.  Have been a fan of Idriess since boyhood, Sandy sought to make a feature film of 'Drums of Mer' and spoke to Idriess about his project and obtained the film rights.  He found funding near impossible to find but had obtained a little money to finance the researching of the proposed movie and sent the young Fairlie to interview Ion Idriess and up to the Torres Straits.  Fairlie spoke of her three months long expedition to Mer Island to talk about the project with the Murray islanders.  She found the people there had been so impressed with Idriess' novel that they were using it as a text book on their culture with a few even believing it was actually non-fiction.  They were quite keen to see the film made especially after they discover that the actor Mr Harry Belafonte had shown interest in starring as the lead character.

Sadly, the film could not be financed, although Sandy Harbutt still believes in the project to this day.  Fairlie ended her story telling of her time spent with Ion Idriess and how it took her many years to realize what a privilege it had been to be able to meet and talk with this truly iconic Australian.  Been a fan of Ion Idriess myself, I found great delight in this afternoon's discussion.  It also gave me a greater appreciation of the academic value of Idriess' writings.  Especially after having just re-read many of his northern Queensland books after nearly thirty-five years of history study since my first reading.  So thank you Fairlie Sandilands for sharing your experiences.
Fairlie Sandilands with her hosts and some of her audience