Stone, released in 1974, is the only feature film directed by Sandy Harbutt. The film, over time has become synonymous and symbolic of Australian biker mythology.
Police Officer Stone goes undercover, joining the notoriously dangerous ‘Gravediggers’ outlaw motorcycle gang. An unknown perpetrator has been killing the members of the gang one by one - so its up to Stone to find out ‘whodunnit’. The Gravediggers seem to have it all - women (moles), drugs, their gang ‘colours’, and the rival motorcycle gang ‘Black Hawks’.
Although the film has aged in such a way it almost seems like a parody of itself, and of 1970’s counter culture Sydney, there are some interesting explorations of morality, trust, and the group mentality buried beneath the surface. The Australian biker comes across as some kind of wolf split from the regular pack - or perhaps bushranger for the modern age, sticking it up at life with any other misfits he can find around for his company.
The exploration of biker culture was not a new concept - the subject for many films, books and photography particularly in the USA. Hunter S. Thompson’s book ‘Hells Angels’, (1966) the account of his time on the road with America’s most infamous outlaw gang was a seemingly revealing insight into the subculture. Sonny Barger, the main character studied in the book and the head of the gang, claimed in his memoir that Thompson was a ‘sissy’, he portraying himself as the fearless Rolling Stone reporter riding high and fast with the Angels - but in actual fact he remained in his room and out of sight most of the time, scared for his life. Regardless of Hunter’s behaviour, the book and his photographs from his time with the Angels are an incredible document of the subculture - the imagery, iconography, and politics in particular.
The road movie as a genre was perhaps forged to mainstream audiences through the releases of both Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s ‘Easy Rider’, (1969) starring Jack Nicholson - and Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop (1971) with James Taylor and the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson. Blacktop documents traversing Route 66 at the beginning of the 1970’s as some kind of lost, eternal journey, almost pre-empting Sarafian’s Vanishing Point.
Easy Rider centres around two friends taking an ill-fated motorcycle trip. The images of two men speeding their lowrider cycles along the highway has become synonymous with the image of motorbike riding and the road movie, of which is an enduring and often explored style of film, (See Mad Max, Quadrophenia, The Motorcycle Diaries, etc) arguably the first being Brando’s The Wild One. (1953) The images in Easy Rider combined with the iconic soundtrack - The use of Steppenwolf in particular - captured some kind of adolescent desire to be free, to be ‘wild’.
Peter Fonda had earlier played a biker alongside Nancy Sinatra in the mainstream Hollywood production ‘The Wild Angels’, (Roger Corman, 1966) which follows a gang on their numerous ‘outrageous’ exploits, their club slogan stating; ‘Their credo is violence, their God is hate”. A memorable scene concerns a wake of a deceased gang member, where the body is taken out of its coffin at the church funeral, the minister punched out, and propped up at a table with a joint in its mouth, GG Allin style.
Although all the films mentioned were seen to be particularly gritty and explosive in the context of the time, which to an extent they indeed are, STONE is another matter altogether. There is no compassion for the character Stone, despite the fact he is trying to help - and the Australian geography makes for a more deranged and isolated setting. The Australian Ugliness has replaced the American Dream.
Both Henry Fonda and Nancy Sinatra were stars in their own right, and exude some sort of depraved glamour about them - Nancy’s hair is never a pin out of place. There still exists here some kind of cinematic myth-making in The Wild Angels and Easy Rider where most things are idealised, romanticised. Stone holds none of these qualities - it is loud, weird, and strange in parts. The fact most of the cast and crew were not ‘industry professionals’ is perhaps illuminative in this context.
Stone himself, (played by Ken Shorter - a real-life cop, which information makes some of his actions all the more humerous) finds himself caught between two worlds - The seemingly straight police force, greater society and culture, and that of the drinking, drugs, ‘moles’, relative social isolation and high velocity riding undertaken by the gang. Throughout the film Stone comes to symbolise the folk hero, the lone outsider - trying to do the ‘right’ thing - seeking to uncover why someone would want to murder a pack of bikers, and to understand the dynamics of the group itself - as it comes across to him as a very alien landscape. The complex relationships and politics that form a strict highrarchy led by the aptly titled ‘Undertaker’ (played by Harbutt) is of great interest to Stone, as from the outside the group seems to have no laws or specific ideals. It turns out however, to have its own peculiar sense of order. The gang is a world onto its own, at times seeming quite isolated despite their camaraderie and relative freedom. The bikes’ interactions with each other, the fact a few of them are Vietnam Vets, the way they treat their leader, intricate moral code that goes into arranging the death of a member is all of interest here. The funeral scene towards the end of the film, with the procession of hundreds of motorbikes is a moment of striking eloquence.
Ausrtralia’s history is littered with folk devils and its subsequent moral panics, starting with bushrangers in the Colonial era and leading us up to Bikers, Punks, Goths, virtually anyone looked upon as an outsider. Bikers are seen as though they were born to be bad which sets them apart from the other subcultures mentioned - the prevalence of bike related interviolence where bystanders have been killed or involved has been the main source of this opinion. Stone gives a human face to an overly stereotyped subculture that actions of few represent the way many are perceived.
In present times we are still in the midst of bikie related violence, perpetrated by gangs such as the Rebels, Notorious, Comancheros, Bandidos, and Gypsy Jokers. Events such as the Milperra Massacre in 1984 and the Sydney beating in 2009 are ingrained into the Australian psyche. In the 2009 event, the Comancheros were involved in a well- publicised incident at Sydney airport where a Hell’s Angel member was bashed to death with a metal bollard at Sydney Airport. Apparently the men has all been on the same plane from Perth, and called in others who met the man at the entrance to the airport.
Australia in the 1970’s is perhaps looked upon as a culture otherwise idyllic. The use of locations such as the Domain, Gore Hill Cemetery, Balmain, Northern Beaches and the most iconic, Middle Head, reveal the potential for crime and violence that lurks behind every surface, noting that things are not always as they seem - with the bikes themselves being subject to more violence than any other party. The violence present in Stone its not implied, its seeping though its very core - like the ability to fight is an inherent part of each character.
In the 1970s, an effort was underway by the Australian Film Institute and other funding bodies to generate a film culture that was stand alone, serious, indicative of our quickly forging national identity - wanting, as a new country, to portray through film an idyllic paradise. Stone is so good it represents none of these things - now categorised as an ‘Exploitation’ or for a better word ‘Ozplotation’ film. RICHARD KUIPERS, the director of ‘Stone Forever’ (1999) a documentary dealing with the cultural climate and enduring legacy of the film, states that Stone “was sent out on the ‘ozoners’ circuit on wild double and triple bills with exploitation gems such as ‘Girl On A Motorcycle’, ‘The Losers’ and, best of all, the notorious Italian cannibal gore-shocker ‘Man From Deep River’. I was too young to sneak into Caringbah drive-in and saw it for the first time on Channel 7 when it aired the AO Modified TV Version in 1980. Even without the final scene which made sense of the whole film and minus the famous decapitation, Stone left an indelible mark on my consciousness as the first Australian film I could relate to. I wasn’t into bike culture and didn’t aspire to be but we had The Rat Pack MC in Gymea and here at last were representations of these scary Australian dudes up there on the big screen. It had something to say about the real Australia which historical dramas popular at the time simply didn’t. Everyone watched the same broadcast and it was the main topic of schoolground discussion for weeks afterwards. Those with older brothers who’d seen it on the big screen held court with painstaikingly detailed descriptions of what 7’s censors hadn’t let us see.”
The fact that Stone is Sandy Harbutt’s only feature film as director gives the work all the more mystery, as we have nothing to compare it to, there is no path within his ouevre, its all alone - it also works in its favour, it becomes more of a grand statement, its own entity. He, like his silence since, has become a bit of a mystery, furthering the intrigue into ‘Stone’ as his only statement.The film has endured the test of time, both inside and outside motorcycle culture, with 34,000 motorcyclists gathering on the Newcastle Freeway to mark the 25th anniversary of the day 400 motorcyclists turned up to take part in the famous funeral procession scene.
*** Stone will be screened this Sunday at DOME HOME CINEMATHEQUE, 7pm at TONE in Surry Hills.