1974 – Australia
Director: Sandy Harbutt
Starring: Ken Shorter, Sandy Harbutt, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Vincent Gil, Roger Ward, Helen Morse, Rebecca Gilling, Dewey Hungerford
Words: Nathan Scatcherd
Few films have the kind of honest, DIY, punk committal to an underground or ‘fringe’ lifestyle as this Aussie biker gang movie from 1974. The film is a real labour of love from director Sandy Harbutt, who also wrote the script, produced, designed costumes and indeed appears in the film as the head of our biker gang antiheroes, The Gravediggers. After several of the Gravediggers are mysteriously bumped off, titular cop Stone (Ken Shorter) approaches the gang and joins them in an initially uneasy, temporary capacity to help them find the people responsible. However, in time-honoured ‘cop on the inside’ fashion, he begins to find his loyalties torn as he develops a kind of camaraderie with these violent outlaws.
While the plot is ostensibly about the Gravediggers finding whoever has murdered their boys (in as much as the murders are the inciting incidents kicking off the story) it’s never the real focus. The film is far more interested in showing the day to day lives of these self-described outsiders who find fellowship and community in each other, riding fast bikes and preaching a life of true, pure freedom from mainstream society, even as such a lifestyle frequently threatens their own lives.
The film clearly finds these characters fascinating (and they are – take for instance Vincent Gil’s ‘Doctor Death’, who dresses like some demented heavy metal vampire, sleeping in a coffin and praising Satan at the funeral of one of the Gravedigger’s fallen comrades); and this often manifests itself perhaps inevitably as a kind of veneration of their wild lifestyle, as we find ourselves as oddly charmed by these characters – with their code of honour and strangely endearing acceptance of each other as social exiles – as Stone himself becomes.
However, the blackly cynical gut punch of an ending seems to subversively undercut any admiration or fondness we may accrue for these characters. There’s a reason they exist on the fringes of society; they’re too violent, too uncompromising, too extreme to exist anywhere else.
The film’s low budget ($192,000) no doubt helped its air of authenticity. It looks slightly grainy, dirty; an almost documentary style look at biker culture, with the whole production steeped in ‘the real thing’ (for instance, one story details how a crowded fight scene was filled out by real bikers as extras, all paid in weed and booze).
Stone is also arguably one of the first films to prove that Australia could make films just as engaging and exciting as anything coming out of the States or Europe, and indeed three of its stars – Hugh Keays-Byrne, Vincent Gil and Roger Ward – went on to appear in Mad Max. Interestingly enough, there is a member of the Gravediggers referred to as ‘Bad Max’, and you can just imagine George Miller watching Stone, hearing that name, and having a kind of epiphany.
The rest, as they say, is history, but the legacy of Stone lives on forever (as can be seen in the terrific documentary, Stone Forever).