Reviewed by Lee Broughton
A quite unique cop show/thriller/biker flick crossover, Sandy Harbutt's Stone is a little seen Australian production that cult movie fans have held in high regard for many years. After viewing Severin UK's new two disc special edition of the film, it's not too hard to see why Stone acquired its cult movie status: an intermittently freaky rock soundtrack score (parts of which sound like Hawkwind's early seventies space rock synthesizer players jamming with Rolf Harris and an Aboriginal rhythm section), a Satanic biker character who wears a top hat and cloak and sleeps in a coffin in a gothic seafront fortress, expertly choreographed bike stunts and road-based cinematography (including a funeral cortege that features 400 bikers riding in unison), occasionally trippy visuals, a plethora of seemingly authentic glimpses into the outlaw biker lifestyle and an unorthodox ear-piercing ritual are just some of the highly idiosyncratic elements that hold this strangely appealing movie together.
A political assassin is aware that a member of the Grave Diggers motorcycle gang saw him shoot an outspoken environmentalist, which results in the assassin's paymasters ordering him to track down and eliminate all of the witness's fellow gang members. The local cops soon realize that the Grave Diggers are being picked off one by one and they subsequently assign a motorbike-riding undercover detective, Stone (Ken Shorter), to the case. Stone gets a rough reception when he first meets with the suspicious bikers and explains his game plan but he proves his worth during a brazenly public attack by the assassin. Stone's quick thinking saves a couple of the bikers' lives, resulting in the Grave Diggers' leader, the Undertaker (Sandy Harbutt), reluctantly allowing him to ride with the gang.
Deemed highly controversial at the time of its release, Stone marks a distinct point in the evolution of the Australian film industry. Hoping to prove that Australian national cinema could move beyond the culturally specific comedy films that had marked its rebirth a few years earlier, the makers of Stone set out to produce an ambitious, gritty and hard-hitting bit of serious cinema that also possessed something of an auteurist bent. Sandy Harbutt co-wrote, produced, directed and starred in the film as well as designing its costumes but his hard work found little favour with local critics and cultural commentators. A film about Sydney-based outlaw bikers seemingly didn't sit too well with the likes of the newly emergent Australian Film Commission and within a year a new and more culturally acceptable direction for Australian national cinema had been signposted by Peter Weir's superlative Picnic at Hanging Rock. However, Stone did good business at the domestic box office and the film soon attracted a huge cult following (particularly amongst Australia's biking community) that endures to this day. Thanks mainly to Harbutt and executive producer David Hannay's dogged faith in the film, Stone did eventually enjoy an international release in the early 1980s.
I'd never come across the film before but, as it turns out, Stone is a surprisingly curious and intriguing affair. Indeed, despite being a little flawed and rough around the edges in parts the film remains strangely compelling and appealing overall. The show was put together on a low budget but the quality of its cinematography aids appreciation of its content immensely: the film's motorbike/road-based camera work is particularly impressive and a couple of sequences that attempt to telegraph the protagonists' stoned perceptions of their surroundings are creatively and effectively executed too. Perhaps reflecting the film's low budget origins, the overall quality of the acting on display remains a little uneven in places. Some of the show's stars do turn in creditable performances: Harbutt looks the part and is convincing as the fairly complex head biker and Helen Morse (Picnic at Hanging Rock) really stands out as Stone's pain in the ass girlfriend. By contrast, some of the supporting cast get by purely on the strength of their personal charm and/or enthusiasm: luckily, the film possesses an intermittently naturalistic approach which serves to make the instances of shaky acting that are occasionally found here appear less pronounced and problematic than they might be under different circumstances. Interestingly, a number of scenes actually feature real bikers, real gang members and other non-professional actors and parts of these sequences take on an almost documentary-like feel.
The film's unmistakably mid 1970s aesthetic look, its focus on an outlaw subculture and counter-culture lifestyle that embraces drug use and flirts with Satanism, its at times quite violent content (gang fights, beatings, shootouts, the assassin's deadly hits, etc) and a smattering of both male and female nudity has resulted in Stone being described as an exploitation flick in some circles. Such a description might well be apt but it perhaps runs the risk of devaluing and limiting the appeal of what is essentially a pleasingly quirky and decently assembled film that is undoubtedly of some cultural and historical interest. The film does contain its fair share of generic biker flick/exploitation film cliches but Sandy Harbutt brings an understated but earnest political angle to the proceedings too. Ecological concerns are aired early on in the film and the murder of the green campaigner Dr Townes (Deryck Barnes) is ordered by the representatives of big business and commerce, who value personal profit over the wellbeing of the environment. The Grave Diggers have all seen action in Vietnam or Korea and have ultimately lost faith in the political institutions that govern mainstream society and shape foreign policy. In the counter-culture world inhabited by the Grave Diggers and their fellow outlaw motorcyclists, Aboriginal bikers are routinely accepted and embraced on equal terms.
Harbutt, who had connections with the biking community in real life, successfully offers little glimpses of his biker characters' human sides at times. They're occasionally presented as sympathetic individuals who possess strict personal codes of honour and loyalty but the film is no white wash exercise and Harbutt hammers home in no uncertain terms the fact that extreme violence and disregard for the law is also a feature of these characters' lives. Intriguing narrative counterpoints are introduced throughout the film that proffer a couple of cleverly intertwined and tantalizing enigmas: will Stone's sober presence make the Grave Diggers mellower fellows who are prepared to respect the laws that he is determined to uphold or will the influence of their extreme behavior result in Stone going native and adopting their violent and unorthodox methods? All is revealed in the show's uncompromising and disturbing final reel. Interestingly, Harbutt's anti-establishment agenda also offers some revealing contrasts between the bikers and the little people who come into their orbit (the burger flippers, garage mechanics, bar men, night club managers, etc, that Stone encounters when carrying out a brief bit of police procedural work) and the haughty middle class professionals and idle rich types who look down on them. In one scene Stone's spoilt and under-worked journalist girlfriend telephones his commanding officer from a secluded retreat to complain that Stone's extended undercover assignment means that she and her aristocratic chums are one man short for their mid-afternoon tennis games.
One interesting aesthetic and cultural feature of the film is the gang's endorsement of Japanese motorbikes. Biker movies tend to feature classic makes and models (Harley-Davidsons in the US, Nortons and Triumphs in the UK) but the Grave Diggers all ride Kawasaki Z900s that are fitted with ultra-modernist aquiline windshields and sport personalized colour-coded paint-jobs. The film's front titles actually play over a series of lovingly photographed, almost fetishistic close-ups of a Z900's key working parts. While it's not uncommon for bikers in US genre flicks to ride without a helmet, most of the Grave Diggers wear identical, full-faced black helmets that are fitted with opaque black visors. Scenes where the gang members are seen riding the road in strict formation are all the more striking and impressive thanks to these thoughtful aesthetic touches. Viewers looking to see other models of motorbike are well served by the bikes that are favoured by the members of rival gangs. In fact, one of the film's big fight scenes kicks off because a rival gang member doesn't like the look of Stone's Japanese bike. All in all, Harbutt managed to assemble something of a personal film here that still manages to just about live up to its legendary status 35 years on.
Stone may not be the best film you'll come across this year but Severin UK's two disc special edition represents a night's worth of excellent and informative entertainment. The first disc presents the film and its theatrical trailer. Too few Australian films have been selected for release on DVD in the northern hemisphere and so Stone in itself represents something of a rare treat for fans of antipodean cinema. The second disc features two quite superb documentaries. The Making of Stone (23 minutes) was made at the time of the film's release and features behind the scenes footage and interviews with the show's stars and some of the real bikers who acted as extras, etc. Stone Forever (63 minutes) dates from 1999 and serves as both a retrospective appraisal of the film and a document of the film's 25th anniversary celebrations, which involved over 30,000 bikers meeting up in Sydney. Just about every key member of the cast and crew are interviewed here and the show offers a valuable insight into the Australian film industry circa 1974. Also interviewed are some of the film's loyal fans and it's interesting to see the effect that the film has had in the real world, prompting the formation of the Stone Social Club and a number of self help groups for veteran bikers. The director's slide show feature (22 minutes) sports a commentary by Sandy Harbutt in which he talks about members of the film's cast and crew and offers details about the show's shooting locations.
Given the age and obscurity of this film, the picture quality here is near enough excellent. Odd minor scratches pop up now and again but these don't pose a problem. The disc's sound quality is near enough excellent too: Billy Green's eclectic soundtrack score comes through loud and clear. Both discs appear to be NTSC Region 0 pressings that have been re-badged for the UK market.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Good + / Very Good -
Video: Excellent -
Sound: Excellent -
Supplements: trailer, The Making of Stone, Stone Forever, Stone make-up test footage and the director's slide show.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 8, 2009
Text © Copyright 2009 Lee Broughton
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson
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