Eliza Fraser (1976) was a big-budget, bawdy adventure film. The film boasted at that time one of the biggest overseas stars ever to feature in an Australian film, Susannah York. The film was loosely based on the historical fact that Captain Fraser and his wife Eliza were shipwrecked on an island off the coast of Queensland in the 1830s. What follows is partly a romp in the tradition of a Henry Fielding story, as the energetic Mrs Fraser gets up to a lot of bed-hopping mischief.
The screenplay for the film was also by a young writer, who is now regarded as Australia's greatest playwright, David Williamson. Bruce Smeaton, the only widely recognised Australian film composer of this period (possibly aside from George Dreyfus who was writing numerous documentary scores) was commissioned to write the rollicking orchestral score. Brian May was the only other well known composer at this point in time, although mainly known as the conductor of the ABC Show Band. He was not yet famous for Mad Max (1979) which was still two years away from being made, although he had scored Richard Franklin's The True Story of Eskimo Nell (1975).
The True Story of Eskimo Nell and The Great Macarthy (1975) were huge steps forward in the development of scoring for feature films in the Australian film renaissance. Another score, for Let the Balloon Go (1976), composed by George Dreyfus (along with Break of Day, scored in the same year), also featured a small orchestra, and helped lead the way back into an orchestral style of scoring in Australian feature films. Bruce Smeaton's The Devil's Playground (1976) and Eliza Fraser confirmed this style of film scoring as effective and important, and eventually Mad Max (1979) cemented it. More importantly, they were a move away from films with library music tracks, pop songs or a couple of instruments. Film budgets were so low in these days that an entire Australian feature film could be made for less than a composer's fee for a Hollywood film.
These three composers were paid a pittance in those days in the mid-seventies, and often the money that should have been paying them for composing the music, was put back into getting a larger orchestra for the job. Composers such as Bruce Smeaton and Brian May were not able to devote themselves fulltime to film scoring: firstly there wasn't sufficient work around, and secondly, what work there was didn't pay enough to make it a viable career. Despite this, Smeaton scored some very important films that year, in addition to this one, by two directors who developed into two of our most important film directors - The Devil's Playground (directed by Fred Schepisi) and The Trespassers (directed by John Duigan). A year earlier he had scored Peter Weir's classic film Picnic at Hanging Rock. It is when listening to these scores and watching these films that one can hear and see the roots of modern Australian film music.
Poor recording conditions often made these scoring tasks a triumph of will over adversity, with quite a bit of experimentation going on in the studio at the same time as recording the music for the film. Recording to film wasn't always possible in those day either.
Around the same period as Eliza Fraser, another Bruce Smeaton-scored film opened around Australia - a mystery thriller called Summerfield, directed by Ken Hannam, the man who had directed the classic Australian feature film, Sunday Too far Away (1975). This eerie, Chabrol-like mystery, was enhanced by its offbeat scoring, featuring koto, piano and orchestra. Even a raunchy comedy like "Eliza Fraser" was essentially a period film. At a time when realistic dramas period pieces were fashionable, a genre film like a mystery thriller was a little offbeat, as a school teacher goes to a small town school only to discover that the previous teacher left under strange circumstances.
- Philip Powers
"'Eliza Frazer' is an adventure romp starring Susannah York and Trevor Howard… Bruce Smeaton's music has a wonderful merry feel and the opening sequence entitled 'The Chase' could easily have come from a Henry Mancini 'Pink Panther' score. This light and airy theme is used as the basis of many of the scores cues.
"'Summerfield' is a mystery [film]... The first eight cues comprise a beautiful suite of music that exhibits the same suspenseful tones that makes the neck hair stand on end in Bernard Herrmann's 'Cape Fear'. However, the delightful images of oriental harmony prevail throughout the score and the additional cues of theme variations and additional music added at the end of the album.
"'Eliza Frazer' is fun and light-hearted and an excellent example of Bruce Smeaton's lyrical style. The music for 'Summerfield' is full of tension and mystery with an oriental feel and a contrast to the frivolity of the first score. These are two interesting examples of Bruce Smeaton's work and ably demonstrate his flexibility."
- Andrew Keech, Music From The Movies, March 2003