Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life (1874) is the greatest of all ‘convict’ novels. It is epic in scale and sweep, with multiple characters, locations, situations, and whilst there are major inconsistencies and wild melodramatic flourishes, nonetheless, it is a truly thrilling adventure story. The novel is still in print, although I’m not too sure how many ‘modern’ 21st Century Australians have actually read, or even know about it. However, after it was first published it was probably the most popular and well-read work of Australian fiction in the late-nineteenth century.
For the Term of His Natural Life was virtually immediately adapted for the theatre, and there were two early silent film versions in 1908 and 1911. It is, however, Norman Dawn’s 1927 silent film epic that was and remains the best dramatic realization of the novel – even though what remains of the original feature film is incomplete.
At the time it was the most expensive Australian film ever made. The film was produced by Australasian Films and was to be directed by Raymond Longford. Australasian Films, however, desiring an American release instead employed American director Norman Dawn, and imported American silent film ‘stars’ to play the major roles of Rufus Dawes (George Fisher) and Sylvia Vickers (Eva Novak), amongst others. The film was a great success in Australia but did not repeat that success when shown in the UK and USA. It was actually not released in the USA until 1929, which by that time was already going through its film revolution with the introduction of ‘sound’, subsequently making For the Term of His Natural Life seem old-fashioned and out-of-date.
For some it may still be regarded as such, nonetheless, there are some truly extraordinary scenes, particularly those depicting convict life in Port Arthur, Adelaide. The film-makers went to great lengths and expense in authentically re-creating convict life in Port Arthur, including location shooting at Port Arthur, as well as borrowing clothes from Tasmanian museums and duplicating them for the film. Some of the Port Arthur footage from the final film was used by Charles Chauvel in a 1932 ‘travelogue’ called Ghosts of Port Arthur.
It is primarily due to these extraordinary Port Arthur prisons sequences that For the Term of His Natural Life earns and deserves its place amongst the ‘Top Australian Films of All Time’.