Story: Holmes, Cecil William

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Holmes, Cecil William

1921–1994

Film-maker, unionist, communist

This biography was written by Russell Campbell and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

New Zealand’s first left-wing documentary film-maker, Cecil Holmes achieved notoriety in the late 1940s through the highly publicised exposure of his communist activity as a New Zealand Public Service Association (PSA) delegate in the National Film Unit. He went on to become a significant film director in Australia.

Born in Waipukurau on 23 June 1921, Cecil William Holmes was the son of English-born farmer Alan Holmes and his wife, Ivy Marion Watt. From 1934 to 1937 he attended Palmerston North Boys’ High School, where he came under the influence of a socialist history teacher. He became involved in the Left Book Club and in 1939 joined the Communist Party of New Zealand, beginning a lifelong commitment to political radicalism. After leaving school he worked as a clerk in an accountant’s office in Palmerston North. Holmes enlisted in the Royal New Zealand Air Force in July 1940, but after being injured in a flying accident in January 1941 he transferred to the Royal Navy. He served for the next four years, seeing action in the English Channel and the North Atlantic, and attaining the rank of temporary lieutenant. On 27 March 1945, in New York City, he married Margaret M. Enns, a Russian-born Canadian.

A film enthusiast from his teenage years, Holmes visited Denham studios while on leave in England and observed prominent film-makers at work. On his return to New Zealand in 1945 he joined the National Film Unit at Miramar, Wellington, quickly graduating to directing and becoming an active PSA delegate. A former NFU colleague described him as tall and slightly aggressive in appearance, with jet-black hair, a pale complexion and piercing brown eyes. Intelligent and hard driving, he was assigned to a greater number of major productions than others on the staff.

The documentaries that Holmes made in his three years at the NFU were technically adventurous, often verging on the unorthodox, and constitute a noteworthy body of work within the parameters of government film-making of the period. Children and music (1947) depicted a concert for schoolchildren held in the Wellington Town Hall by the newly formed National Orchestra. Karapiro (1947) was an efficient account of the final stages of work on the Karapiro dam and hydroelectric station on the Waikato River, while the more ambitious Power from the river , released the same year, was a deft and engaging account (including dramatisation) of the government’s attempts to keep pace with heavy post-war demands for electricity.

In Mail run (1947), which documented the weekly RNZAF flights from Auckland to Japan to supply Jayforce, Holmes was able to impart an anti-colonialist perspective to the film’s description of Asian trouble-spots the plane visited en route. The comments escaped censorship, but he was warned not to rock the boat in future. The change-over (1948) depicted the conversion of RNZAF C-47 Dakotas, used as transport aircraft in the Pacific during the war, to civilian airliners for the New Zealand National Airways Corporation. Imaginatively scripted, it incorporated flashbacks to wartime action as airmen’s memory sequences. Perhaps the best known of Holmes’s NFU films was The coaster (1948). A modestly observed study of seamen working on a coastal trader, it was distinguished by a commentary written in alliterative blank verse by Denis Glover, a mate from his Royal Navy days.

A political scandal erupted in late 1948 when Holmes’s satchel was snatched from his car while he was drinking with friends at Parliament on 26 November. Documents found inside, implicating him as a communist involved in militant union activity within the PSA, were released to the press three weeks later by the acting prime minister, Walter Nash. The Labour government seized the opportunity to discredit the industrial campaigns for pay rises being waged by the PSA and other unions, and Holmes was dismissed from the NFU.

If Holmes’s political beliefs were largely suppressed in his work for the NFU, they came bubbling out in Fighting back , made in 1949 for the combative New Zealand Carpenters’ Union about its major dispute in Auckland. The film exposed the tactics employed by the bosses to destroy the union, and documented the resilience of the workers and the widespread solidarity displayed by other unionists.

Legal action taken by the PSA on Holmes’s behalf was successful, and he was reinstated with back pay at the NFU. But he did not stay, shifting permanently to Australia in November 1949. His subsequent career as a film-maker, distributor and journalist was one of dogged tenacity in the face of blacklisting and the erratic growth of the film industry. He directed three features, including Captain Thunderbolt (1953) for fellow New Zealand expatriate Colin Scrimgeour, and the internationally acclaimed Three in one (1957). He made many television films and documentaries, notably a history of Australian union struggles and a series of ethnographic films for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies; he also taught film-making to young Aborigines.

Separated from Margaret, he formed two relationships in Australia, the first with Elsa Sandra Dingly Le Brun, with whom he had a daughter. The second, around 1981, was with Elizabeth Florence Warner. Cecil Holmes died in Darlinghurst, Sydney, on 24 August 1994, survived by Elizabeth and his daughter.