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The Siege of Pinchgut

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Siege of Pinchgut
Original UK quad format film poster
Directed byHarry Watt
Written byJon Cleary
Alexander Baron
Harry Watt
Based onStory by Inman Hunter
Lee Robinson
Produced byMichael Balcon
StarringAldo Ray
Heather Sears
CinematographyGordon Dines
Edited byGordon Stone
Music byKenneth V. Jones
Distributed byABPC
Release dates
2 July 1959 (Berlin Film Festival)
August 1959 (UK)
July 1960 (Australia)
Running time
104 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Budgetmore than £200,000[1]
Box office338,711 admissions (France)[2]

The Siege of Pinchgut (released in the US as Four Desperate Men) is a 1959 British thriller filmed on location in Sydney, Australia, and directed by Harry Watt. It was the last film produced by Ealing Studios, and was entered into the 9th Berlin International Film Festival where it was nominated for the Golden Bear Award.

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An ambulance drives through Sydney, having been hijacked by escaped convict Matt Kirk and his three accomplices, Matt's brother Johnny, Italian Luke and Bert. The four men manage to avoid detection at Sydney Hospital, and head out through Sydney Harbour in a purchased vessel, intending to go north. However the boat breaks down before they can get through Sydney Heads and the men decide to take refuge in Fort Denison (also known as Pinchgut), unaware it is occupied by caretaker Pat Fulton, his wife and daughter Ann.

Kirk and the others take the Fultons hostage and decide to wait until the following night before leaving again. A boatload of tourists arrives but Pat Fulton manages to act as if everything is normal. However, when a police officer, Constable Macey, visits the fort bringing some milk, Ann Fulton screams for help and the authorities are alerted to the kidnappers' presence.

A siege situation results, with the police led by Superintendent Hanna. Matt Kirby is initially reluctant to hurt anyone, but becomes less stable after his brother Johnny is shot and injured by Constable Macey. Bert, who is an ex-naval gunner, realises the gun on Fort Denison could be fired at a nearby munitions ship in the harbour and cause tremendous damage similar to the Bombay Explosion of 1944. However, shells for the gun are locked behind three heavy doors at the bottom of the fort, which need to be laboriously prised open. Kirby demands a retrial for his conviction in exchange for not firing the gun.

The police order an evacuation of harbourside suburbs and the stealthy unloading of the munitions boat. They position snipers around the fort as they try to negotiate a peaceful surrender. The injured Johnny starts to develop feelings towards Ann Fulton and suggests they surrender, but Matt refuses. Luke is shot dead by police snipers, and a sailor on the munitions ship is trapped under some crates. Bert and Matt manage to retrieve the ammunition and are in the process of transferring it to the gun when Bert is shot and killed. Matt loads the gun and prepares to fire when Johnny reveals that he has disabled the firing pin. A furious Matt tries to kill Johnny. Hanna leads a squad of police as they raid the island and Matt is killed. Johnny is arrested and taken away, but not before Pat Fulton promises to speak up for him.


Saturday to Monday

The story was written by Australian filmmaker Lee Robinson and British editor Inman Hunter in 1949 when both were working in Sydney at the Film Division of the Department of the Interior. According to one account, the original idea began with Hunter, who saw Fort Denison while travelling on the Sydney ferry shortly after arriving in Australia, and thought it would make a perfect location for a film. Lee Robinson had worked as an anti-aircraft gunner on Denison in the early days of the war, and together they developed a story about two German POWs who escape and take over Fort Denison, then hold Sydney to ransom by threatening to fire a gun there on a munitions ship.[3]

According to Robinson, he came up with the idea in 1947 when he would see posters of German and Italian POWs who were still at large in Australia. The original story was set in 1947 and concern Germans, one of whom spoke English and the other one who didn't, who were trying to escape to Argentina. They committed a crime and wound up at Pinchgut. They used the guns "for pardon onto a ship that was leaving two nights later to South America...also two men were trained artillerymen. You know, they had been in the German army in artillery. So they knew how to handle the gun, they knew what they could do with it, and they had no love for the people. As far as they were concerned, this was still the enemy."[4]

In 1950 Robinson and Hunter announced the film would go into production the following year under the name Saturday to Monday, with both intending to direct. The following year it was announced the film would be the first of three made by a new company, One World Film Productions. The story would be about two escaping prisoners who board a tourist launch at Fort Macquarie and inspect Pinchgut. They remain behind after other tourists have gone and imprison a soldier who is there to guard some army equipment left behind after the war. They commence a siege, threatening to fire an anti-aircraft gun at the city. The second film would be about the pearling industry and the third would be set in Kosciusko National Park.[5] (Robinson says Harry Watt, while making Eureka Stockade was keep to help Robinson make a film about Aboriginals called The Brimming Billabong.[4]

However although they secured some backing they were unable to get the necessary finance, and their script was sold to Ealing Studios.[6][7][4]

Ealing Studios

The film was eventually directed by Harry Watt, who had previously made two feature films in Australia for Ealing. He had resigned from the company in 1955 to work for Granada Television, but had not enjoyed the experience and asked to return after eighteen months. Watt came across the script and became enthusiastic about its possibilities. It was the only one of Watt's three Australian films made without a historical basis and was a deliberate attempt on the director's part to create a commercially successful film. "I determined on my return to film to make a box-office success," he wrote. "This was the first time I had thought like this because before that I had just made pictures, and if they were a success, so much the better."[8]

Watt went to Australia in February 1958 to begin pre production on the project, then called The Siege. Watt said that month he had a 60 page treatment which he wanted to spend the next two-three months turning into a full script. "I largely walk around, listening to how people talk, and learning how Australians should behave and feel," he said.[9]

Watt said the Robinson-Hunter story "was a hell of a good idea. But it now has a completely different set of characters."[9] he story so it was no longer about a German POW, but an escaped convict fighting to prove his innocence to an uncaring judicial system.[10]

Watt said the story "is basically a character study of a man, an escaped convict with a persecution complex. But it is also an action picture.. a thriller. I have always wanted to make a film of this modern city. But it has to appeal to the world; otherwise it goes on the shelf, and I feel The Siege will appeal to America and Britain and Europe."[9]

Lee Robinson later said "Harry had a bug about some bloke in England who'd been sent to gaol, and years later it'd been proven that he was innocent... And he made these two fellas local fellas who in effect were going to use the gun on their own people, to get what they wanted - whatever it was. And I didn't find that acceptable. But it was acceptable that two escaped strong Nazis would fire a gun, either at local shipping or local people."[4]

Watt travelled out to Fort Denison and was "delighted with it. It's a wonderful location, from every angle you turn."[9]

Watt felt that Sydney had not changed too much in the 12 years he was last in the city. He felt the people had become friendlier and less insular, and that the city was "spreading all over the place... like lave" and "I am still enormously struck by the number of good looking girls."[9] He then returned to Britain but returned months later to begin the film.[9]

The script was assigned to British writer Alexander Baron, who brought in his friend, Australian novelist Jon Cleary, to help him with the dialogue. This was done despite reservations of Michael Balcon who worried that Cleary's involvement would make the script "too Australian".

Despite Cleary's international reputation, he is an Australian which will mean that the picture may be too Australian in its outlook, whereas I was relying on the fact that you have a fair knowledge of Australia and its background, and the international aspects might be better protected by our working with a British writer. [11]


Watt would have preferred to make the film with unknowns but Associated British insisted on casting a name actor in the lead role of Matt Kirk, and American Aldo Ray was selected. This meant the nationality of Matt and his brother Johnny was changed to American. (In January 1959 Hedda Hopper reported that Stewart Granger turned down $200,000 to make The Siege in Australia because his mother was visiting from England.[12]) [13]

The rest of the key cast were imported, with only supporting roles given to Australians. Heather Sears and Barbara Mullins came from England; Jerry Duggan was an Irishman who had recently settled in Australia. Neil McCallum was Canadian and Carlo Justini came from Italy. Watt said "I'm making it a sort of international cast because I think that is right now for Australia."[14] It was reported that more than 30 Australians would have speaking parts.[15]


Filming began on 30 November 1958 under the title The Siege at Fort Denison. The Maritime Services Board picked that day to start repairs on the Martello round tower on the fort, causing "a real mess up" according to the Sydney Morning Herald.[16] Shooting took place on the fort for three weeks.[1]

Over sixty technicians were imported from Britain to make the movie, although production facilities were provided by a local company, Southern International Productions, which had been established by Lee Robinson.[17]

"Marvellous setting, this fort" said associate producer Eric Williams. "Ideal for a film - it has a real medieval touch."[1]

The Australian National Line agreed to anchor a freighter in Farm Cove for the filmmakers to depict an ammunition boat.[1]

Scenes were shot in police headquarters in Philip Street, the Town Hall clock, Bondi beach. Watt said in the scenes were the public was warned about the attack "no one takes any notice of it, of course. It's real Sydney."[1]

Ealing Studios were in flux during production. They had just completed six films for MGM – including the Australian-set The Shiralee (1957) – before moving over to Associated British Picture Corporation at Elstree. The association would prove to be an unhappy one and this film wound up being the last one ever made under the Ealing banner.[3]

In November 1958 Michael Balcon announced he was leaving Ealing although he said he would stay until June to see Pinchgut through to completion.[18]

Soon after filming began, Associated British announced they no longer wished to continue Ealing's production programme. Jon Cleary says this hurt morale and that Watt's "heart wasn't in it" when making the movie.[19] Production was also held up when Aldo Ray tore a leg muscle while jumping into a boat.[20]

In December the unit shifted to London for studio work at Elstree.[21]


The film was entered in the 1959 Berlin Film Festival and released in the UK and Australia. Although aged almost 50, Gerry Duggan was nominated for the BAFTA Film Award for Newcomer to Leading Film Roles in 1960 for his role as Pat Fulton.[22] He lost to the 13-year-old Hayley Mills in Tiger Bay.


In England The Guardian said it had "a story with depth and real life which sometimes holds up the pace of what must succeed as a thriller."[23] Variety said:

Within the first couple of minutes, even before the credit titles, an atmosphere of considerable tension is created, but suspense at that pace and standard is hard to maintain.. Nevertheless Siege of Pinchgut is a lively action pic with prospects of brisk b.o. returns. In the U.S., the star billing of Aldo Ray should help some... The siege of the island has its complement of suspense - but not to compare with original getaway scenes... Ray’s virile and vigorous portrayal is right for the role: Victor Maddern turns in another fine part as one of his friends. Heather Sears, as the caretaker’s daughter, gives a completely negative performance. The kid brother role is ably filled by Neil McCallum. Carlo Justini makes an acceptable showing as the fourth fugitive. Gerry Duggan and Barbara Mullen hit the right note of restrained fear as the girl’s parents. [24]

The film was not released in Australia until July 1960. The Sydney Morning Herald said "as a thriller, it is not half as bad as has been painted.".[25] The Age said Watt was "seen at his best and his worst in this piece of tough suspense. His best is the real life location work. His worst is the fictional character studies and their melodrama."[26]

Box office

It was not a success at the box office and turned out to be not only the last movie made by Ealing, but the last adult feature film Watt ever directed.[17]

Later reputation

However, the film's reputation has risen in recent years: Quentin Tarantino screened it at the Quentin Tarantino Film Festival in Texas, and in 2006 it was restored by the National Film and Sound Archive.[27] It has historical value, depicting postwar Sydney, its harbour foreshore and the remains of the Fort Macquarie Tram Depot which was being demolished for construction of the Sydney Opera House.


  1. ^ a b c d e Burke, David (2 November 1958). "Shots at Last from Old Pinchgut". Sydney Sunday Herald. p. 37.
  2. ^ French box office for 1960 at Box Office Story
  3. ^ a b Philip Kemp, 'On the Slide: Harry Watt and Ealing's Australian Adventure', Second Take: Australian Filmmakers Talk, Ed Geoff Burton and Raffaele Caputo, Allen & Unwin 1999 p 145–164
  4. ^ a b c d Robinson, Lee (15 August 1976). "Lee Robinson" (Oral history). Interviewed by Graham Shirley. National Film and Sound Archive.
  5. ^ Tomholt, Sydney (13 January 1951). "FILMS SYDNEY'S FAMOUS PINCHGUT FEATURED IN FILM". ABC Weekly. p. 30.
  6. ^ "Sydney Will Be The Star In New Film". The Sunday Herald. Sydney: National Library of Australia. 10 December 1950. p. 8. Retrieved 19 March 2012.
  7. ^ "SOMETHING NEW IN LOCAL FILMS". The Sunday Herald. Sydney: National Library of Australia. 17 December 1950. p. 5 Supplement: Sunday Herald Features. Retrieved 19 March 2012.
  8. ^ Kemp p 161
  9. ^ a b c d e f O'Neill, Josephine (22 February 1958). "Sydney is his set". Sydney Morning Herald. p. 17.
  10. ^ "FORT DENISON: Island star of British film". The Australian Women's Weekly. National Library of Australia. 19 November 1958. p. 12. Retrieved 28 February 2012.
  11. ^ Kemp p 161
  12. ^ Brando Lauded for Paternal Behavior Hopper, Hedda. Los Angeles Times 15 January 1959: A6.
  13. ^ Kemp p 161
  14. ^ "London Girl to play "Aussie" Part". Sydney Morning Herald. 28 October 1958. p. 28.
  15. ^ "Work on Film Next Week". Sydney Morning Herald. 22 October 1958. p. 12.
  16. ^ "Column 8". Sydney Morning Herald. 31 October 1958. p. 1.
  17. ^ a b Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper, Australian Film 1900–1977: A Guide to Feature Film Production, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1998, 228-229
  18. ^ "Sir M Balcon to Leave Ealing". The Daily Telegraph. 15 November 1958. p. 7.
  19. ^ Jon Cleary Interviewed by Stephen Vagg: Oral History at National Film and Sound Archive
  20. ^ Kemp p 162
  21. ^ Wiseman, Thomas (19 December 1958). "Limelight". Evening Standard. p. 10.
  22. ^ " Awards for The Siege of Pinchgut". Retrieved 10 January 2010.
  23. ^ "Australian life". Sydney Morning Herald. 29 October 1959. p. 15.
  24. ^ "Siege of Pinchgut". Variety. 8 July 1959. p. 5.
  25. ^ "Sydney Harbour Crisis". Sydney Morning Herald. 22 July 1960. p. 2.
  26. ^ Bennett, Colin (30 July 1960). "Ealing's Swan Song in Sydney Harbour". The Age. p. 19.
  27. ^ 'NFSA provides iconic films for Chauvel Cinema Film Feast' AFC Archive 8 Sept 2006

External links

This page was last edited on 5 May 2023, at 11:03
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