Burke & Wills

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Burke & Wills
Film poster
Directed byGraeme Clifford
Written byMichael Thomas
Based onBurke and Wills expedition
Produced byGraeme Clifford
John Sexton
StarringJack Thompson
Nigel Havers
CinematographyRussell Boyd
Edited byTim Wellburn
Music byPeter Sculthorpe
Hoyts Edgley
Distributed byHoyts Distribution
Release date
31 October 1985 (Australia)
May 1986 (Cannes Film Festival)
Running time
140 minutes
BudgetA$8,900,000 (estimated)[1]
Box officeA$1,567,000 (Australia)

Burke & Wills is a 1985 Australian adventure film directed by Graeme Clifford, starring Jack Thompson and Nigel Havers. The film is based on the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition across Australia.

The film follows Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills in their crossing of Australia's interior in 1860–1. The film's account of the story changes the expedition's ending by having the explorers actually reach the northern coast. This upbeat idea was vehemently criticised by Australian reviewers. The film was released a week after the similarly themed comedy Wills & Burke.[2]

Plot synopsis[edit]

Irish explorer Robert O'Hara Burke (Thompson) and British scientist William John Wills (Havers), have set out to make the first maps of the interior region of the Australian continent in 1860. During their journey, they and their compatriots run low on food and suffer from heat exhaustion until there is only one survivor.



Graeme Clifford was an Australian who had become a leading editor in Hollywood and had moved into directing. He was interested in making a film about the Burke and Wills expedition and in 1978 approached EMI Films, who had commissioned a script from Terence Rattigan based on the story. This did not work out so Clifford then hired a fellow Australian expatriate, Michael Thomas, to write a screenplay. Early financial assistance was provided by David Williams of Greater Union.[1]

Clifford then went to make his first feature, Frances and discovered that Greater Union's enthusiasm for the film had cooled. However, he received support from Hoyts-Edgley who agreed to finance. The budget would be particularly high because of Clifford's insistence at filming along the actual path of the expedition.

Charlton Heston was once interested in playing Burke but Clifford says he only ever envisioned Jack Thompson in that role. After seeing Chariots of Fire, he wanted Nigel Havers to play Wills, a decision opposed by Actors Equity, but this was overturned at arbitration.[1][3]

Filming started in September 1984 and took 13 weeks. Many of the original locations were used, such as Coopers Creek, because Clifford thought it was important to be as authentic as possible.[3] Additional filming was completed in England some months later.[1]

Painter Sidney Nolan came out on set and was the film's official painter.[3]


The film premiered in Melbourne on 2 November 1985 before Prince Charles and Lady Diana; the first Australian Royal Premiere. It opened in other Australian cities on 7 November 1985, was shown at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival in May,[4] the Toronto Film Festival in September 1986 and was released worldwide in early 1986.

Burke & Wills performed disappointingly, grossing $1,567,000 at the box office in Australia,[5] (which is equivalent to $3,729,460 in 2009 dollars). Jonathan Chissick later said "people in Australia were just not interested in seeing a picture about these two guys dying in the desert."[6]

The film was released in the US but also performed disappointingly there.[7]

The film was released on VHS Video in Australia by Charter Entertainment in 1987 and released in the USA on 26 October 1988 by Nelson Entertainment.

The film was released on laserdisc in the USA (UPC: 08258902146).

The film was released on DVD in 2014 through Umbrella Entertainment. Although released in Australia on the PAL format, the disc is region free. Umbrella Entertainment used the re-mastered version of the film produced by the National Film and Sound Archive (Australia) as part of the sesquicentenary activities in 2010; the sound was left as 2-speaker stereo. The DVD has no menu on the disc and the film is presented in its original 2.35:1 widescreen format.


Variety called it "satisfying entertainment despite its length and seemingly downbeat subject."[8][9][10]


Award Category Subject Result
AACTA Awards[11] Best Cinematography Russell Boyd Nominated
Best Original Music Score Peter Sculthorpe Nominated
Best Sound Syd Butterworth Nominated
Jeanine Chiavlo Nominated
Peter Fenton Nominated
Phil Heywood Nominated
Lee Smith Nominated
Best Costume Design George Liddle Nominated


A 1975 British documentary series called The Explorers on the BBC featured the Australian expedition story in the episode titled Burke and Wills. Directed by Lord Snowdon, it was narrated by David Attenborough in the UK version (but by Anthony Quinn in the 1976 US broadcast version),[12][unreliable source] and coincidentally the same Australian actor Chris Haywood who played Tom McDonagh also previously appeared in the British documentary released around a decade earlier. Moreover, in the same year as this film, Haywood also played a cameo role of the constable in the Burke & Wills spoof parody Wills & Burke (1985).[13][unreliable source]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d David Stratton, The Avocado Plantation: Boom and Bust in the Australian Film Industry, Pan MacMillan, 1990, pp. 31-32
  2. ^ Murray, Scott, ed. (1994). Australian Cinema. St.Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin/AFC. p. 117. ISBN 1-86373-311-6.
  3. ^ a b c Debi Enker, "Making Treks", Cinema Papers, November 1984, pp. 19-20
  4. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Burke & Wills". festival-cannes.com. Archived from the original on 7 August 2012. Retrieved 15 July 2009.
  5. ^ "Film Victoria // supporting Victoria's film television and games industry" (PDF). Film Victoria. Archived from the original (PDF) on 18 February 2011. Retrieved 21 March 2018.
  6. ^ Nick Roddick (September 1986). "The budgets, the pictures, the problems...". Cinema Papers. p. 10.
  7. ^ Mathews, Jack (23 July 1987). "This Explorer Yarn Went Nowhere At The Box Office". Los Angeles Times. p. SD_E1.
  8. ^ Variety Staff (1 January 1985). "Burke & Wills". Variety.
  9. ^ https://www.nytimes.com/1987/06/12/movies/film-burke-and-wills-a-trek-across-australia.html
  10. ^ http://articles.latimes.com/1987-06-18/entertainment/ca-7923_1_movie-review
  11. ^ "Burke & Wills". Archived from the original on 3 March 2016. Retrieved 21 March 2018 – via www.imdb.com.
  12. ^ ""The Explorers" Burke and Wills (TV episode 1972) – IMDb". IMDb. Retrieved 27 September 2019.
  13. ^ "Wills and Burke (1985) – IMDb". IMDb. Retrieved 30 September 2019.

External links[edit]