The Woman Suffers is an early Australian silent film billed as ‘the greatest problem-play ever screened’. 1 It may well be Australia’s first feminist film, and dealt with some of the more controversial moral issues of the day.
So what storylines and plots were audiences drawn to in 1918?
The Woman Suffers opens at a small farm where Philip Masters lives with his wife Marion and his three year old son. Once a hero of the Boer War, Masters has now succumbed to drink and his homecomings are marked by great cruelty to his wife and child.
One day, he is enraged by the sight of his son playing in the dirt with one of his war medals. He reacts violently and Marion is forced to flee holding her child in her arms. Whilst in drunken pursuit Philip trips and falls, fatally wounding himself on the kitchen knife he had been carrying.
Marion, having wandered off the track in her desperate bid to escape, has collapsed from exhaustion. Marion’s great material devotion is emphasised as she clings to her child. Our sympathies are thus aroused when Philip wanders away and cries himself to sleep.
The violent scenes that occur at the beginning of The Woman Suffers are lost. Stills, photographs taken of each scene for copyright and censorship authorities, have survived. These stills provide us with an adequate indication of the scene’s dramatic intensity. 2
The murderous intent and rage brought on by alcohol and its devastating effect on the wife and child are quite graphic. Marion’s protectiveness toward her child is emphasised through her expressions and gestures. The director has been sensitive however to the husband who is shown by a use of flashback as a hero of the Boer. One cannot automatically cast blame on to the man. The evil that must be combated is alcohol.
Excessive drinking was a vice that, more often than not, was the prime cause of violence in the home, leaving women and children defenceless against cruelty and economic deprivation. 3 The narrative’s use of a returned soldier in this situation is particularly interesting. Judith Allen notes in her article, ‘The invention of the pathological family’, that returned soldiers were a noticeable group of defendants in cases of men murdering their wives, particularly when the wife had left the man. 4
Juries often accepted the defence of ‘crime of passion’ and returned sympathetic verdicts due to the man’s war record and his shell-shock. Despite any sympathy the audience may have for the husband as a returned solider and ‘victim of alcohol’ 5, the audience cannot fail to recognise the effects on mother and child, the innocent victims.
The film, in this way, identified a ‘problem of today’ and adapted it for its own purposes of plot and characterisation.
It is now that the narrative takes shape. Twelve years later, Marion has married Stephen Manton. Their son, Ralph Manton, leaves for the city by motor on a business trip for his father. A few days later, he is forced to halt his journey due to a flooding of the road. The audience is treated to several shots of the Murray in flood. He is directed by a stockman to the nearest station – Kooringa. Ralph, introduced to the daughter Joan, is immediately captivated by her beauty and they fall in love.
I’ll write you every day, Joan, and in a few weeks I will return and make you my little wife. 6
Nevertheless, when the time comes for Ralph to continue on his journey, Joan is faced with ‘the old old story’. “I’ll write you every day, Joan, and in a few weeks I will return and make you my little wife”. The portrait of Joan is one of pure desperation. She clings to him in such a way that Ralph is forced to physically disentangle himself. As he drives away, we see a close-up of Joan with her head in her hands: ‘A pathetic goodbye to the man who holds her honour and her future in his hands.’ 7
Joan is depicted as ‘the silent sufferer’ as she weeps alone. In an interposing scene we see Ralph, who has entered city life with full vigour, drinking, gambling and playing cards in the lush surroundings of the Grand Central hostel. A deliberate interposing of the scenes of Joan’s great, and yet silent, suffering and of Ralph, in the company of another woman and drinking champagne, invited the audience to identify with Joan and to feel outrage at the injustice being portrayed.
The inter-titles are used to great effect: ‘When torturing anguish racks the soul: and sorrow points its dart’.
This clearly does more than simply indicate a turn in the plot. It is an example of the use of intertitle to further enhance the impact of the pictures.
The portrayal of a pure and hard-working station life and a city life full of vice and indolence in the film was a common phenomenon in many Australian productions at the time. In The Woman Suffers, the dichotomy between city and rural life mirrors the characterisations offered to the audience by the film. It is no coincidence that Joan is described by inter-titles in the film as ‘the little bush girl’ and lives an honest life on the station. Meanwhile, Ralph is seduced by the city and is thus transformed into a villainous character.
Critical reviewers of The Woman Suffers seized upon these characterisations adding their own embellishments. The review in The Critic, an Adelaide literary journal, described Ralph Manton as a ‘betrayer’ and a ‘deceiver’. 8 The actor Roland Conway, who played Ralph, was described as scoring success in ‘the unsavoury part of the villain who abused a kindly hospitality by betraying a young and innocent schoolgirl.’ 9
The plot and its elements were thus relived in critical reviews in the same terms as delivered by the film itself. The scene of Ralph enjoying city life interposed with Joan’s suffering is clearly instrumental in establishing this link between innocence and the bush and between degradation and the city: ‘And the man who had broken the heart of the little bush girl’ .
The tragedy of Joan’s plight is heightened as she walks towards the river clutching to her breast the portrait of her lover. She prays:
To God in Heaven, she
makes her plea
Thou lovest all
thy erring child may be
Lost to herself
but never lost to thee
- Promotion of the film in The Advertiser (Adelaide), Mar-Apr 1918 in National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) documentation collection ↩
- Reference has also been made to the a detailed synopsis of the film written by the director, Raymond Longford. Copyright material on The Woman Suffers, Australian Archives (Canberra) Series A1336/1, Item 6509 ↩
- Patricia Grimshaw, ‘Women and the Family in Australian history’ in Australian Historical Studies, no.72, 1979, p412-421 ↩
- Judith Allen, ‘The invention of the pathological family: a historical study of family violence in NSW’ in Carol O’Donnell and Jan Craney (eds), Family Violence in Australia, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne 1982, p6 ↩
- The character of Marion’s husband is described in this way by a critical review in The Advertiser (Adelaide), March 1918, documentation collection (National Film and Sound Archive) ↩
- Ralph to Joan on leaving her for the city, The Woman Suffers (1918) ↩
- A phrase used in the Longford synopsis, p4) ↩
- The Critic, 20 March 1918, documentation collection (NFSA) ↩
- The Critic, 27 March 1918, p16 ↩
- The Longford synopsis describes a different sequence where Joan simply walks into the river out of sight, p5 ↩
- Longford synopsis, p5 ↩