Starring: Ken Shorter, Sandy Harbutt, Deryck Barnes, Hugh Keays-Byrne
Rumble Down Under
In a lot of ways, Australia is a relatively similar country to Canada or the U.S. We share a common language, have a lot of similar customs and enjoy much of the same entertainment. In other ways, however, Australia is bizarro land. It’s all tucked away down there, they refer to ketchup as ‘tomato sauce,’ and people box kangaroos for sport (they do that, right?).
Suffice it to say then, that STONE, the Aussie biker exploitation cult classic, approximates the North American biker exploitation mold in some ways but in many other ways establishes its own unique, twisted and immensely entertaining model.
Well before MAD MAX and the passion of Mel Gibson, there was STONE. An epic tale of fast bikes and rough necks, STONE tells the story of the Grave Diggers motorcycle gang and their struggle to survive amidst a series of deadly attacks on members of their organization. Sent in to infiltrate the Grave Diggers and to protect them from outside forces and from themselves is Stone, the bike-enthusiast cop who’s one part SERPICO, one part SHAFT and one part Eric Estrada. Not like any other pig they’ve ever met, the Grave Diggers allow Stone to go under cover amongst them in the interest of keeping everyone alive.
With a plot and exploitation feel similar to Roger Corman’s biker movies, one could conceivably go into STONE not expecting much. About 20 minutes in, however, I found myself really enjoying it, realizing that it was perhaps more than the throw-away genre fare I expected it to be.
Director/Writer/Star Sandy Harbutt does a great job of making STONE about the bikers themselves as opposed to being about the actions of bikers. We the audience are like Stone himself; we become immersed in this culture and learn its rules and code of ethics.
While there’s no doubt that these bikers love to brawl and get high, they seem only a degree or two away from being flat out hippies. They are not so much shunned from society because of their criminality as much as they are shunned for their unwillingness to conform to the conservative moral standard.
Although Harbutt hired legitimate actors to play the principal characters, the many back round bikers seen in the film were played by actual members of the Sydney chapter of the Hell’s Angels. During the film’s opening sequence, for instance, we watch as a massive funeral procession made up entirely of bikers thundering down an Australian interstate. A scene which would have been nearly impossible to choreograph comes off as more realistic due to its use of actual bikers. This opening scene is all the more stirring because of the musical accompaniment supplied by Billy Green, whose soulful anthem does for STONE what “Born to Be Wild” does for EASY RIDER.
On the topic of ‘RIDER, anyone expecting STONE to be filled with the kinds of choppers and hogs made popular by Captain America and Billy may be disappointed. The bike of preference in STONE is the Kawasaki. To see these leather-clad bikers zipping around on their Japanese sport models is just one of the aspects that gives this film its unique aesthetic.
Almost as captivating as the film itself is the feature-length documentary which accompanies it on the two disc special edition DVD. Made on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of STONE’s release, this doc covers every aspect of the production of the film, as well as the massive cultural impact that this film has had in it’s native Australia.
The documentary goes further into depth about the make up of these biker organizations of the sixties and seventies, who, as it turns out, were composed largely of Vietnam veterans and, in the case of some of the older members, Korean war veterans. It lends a sobering perspective as to why these men come together in these organizations in the first place. Sent by their government to foreign lands to kill people they don’t know for reasons that aren’t too clear to them, they return to their home country with a muddled sense of allegiance and a growing feeling of isolation. The men who turned to bikes found solace on the road and the prospect of only be accountable to each other.
The part of the documentary which focuses on the making of STONE itself is fascinating for its demonstration of guerrilla film making in the works. Some of the anecdotes like the one about paying the aforementioned ‘extras’ with beer and other illicit substances are great.
It’s a real shame that STONE was director Sandy Harbutt’s first and last feature film. Better on the creative end than the business end, Harbutt was able to make this logistically complicated minor masterpiece but wasn’t able to make many friends on Australia’s national film board or other film execs in general. While he ended up bringing the film to Cannes and securing some distribution deals, the bridges he burnt along the way are probably the reason Harbutt has never been allowed to get near a production again. It’s fortunate then that the one film Harbutt was able to complete is so great.