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King of the Coral Sea (1954)

Rod Taylor plays Jack Janiero -- an American -- in his first role in a full-length feature film. This Australian production starred ever-popular Aussie Chips Rafferty and was a box office success.

Rafferty plays Ted King, a pearler who lives on Thursday Island, the center of Australia's pearling industry. When King discovers a body floating in the Torres Strait, the clues lead him to a gang of crooks who are smuggling migrant workers onto the island.

Determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, he is joined by his first mate, Janiero; his daughter, Rusty (Ilma Adey); and Peter Merriman, the heroic owner of the pearling company. Merriman is played by Charles "Bud" Tingwell, who worked with Rod during his radio days.

Rod also had previous experience working with the director, Lee Robinson, on radio programs. Robinson began teaming with Rafferty on feature films during the 1950s. But at the time, he was inexperienced as a movie director.

In his book, "Rod Taylor: An Aussie in Hollywood," author Stephen Vagg quotes Robinson as admitting. "As far as performance was concerned, Rod had more guidance from Chips and Bud." Furthermore, Vagg notes, that Rod "was allowed considerable creative input behind the scenes -- rewriting portions of the script, having input behind the scenes, even directing some sequences."

However, in an interview to promote the film, Rod says to Robinson, (perhaps teasingly), "You were the boss ... I just went where you said and did as I was told."

In the interview, Rod also describes his part as "an American ex-GI who has settled in the islands" and noted that, "I've rather kind of specialized in American accents on radio."

Robinson replied, "Rod plays these kinds of roles excellently. Chips and wrote the script ourselves and when we knew Rod would be available, we wrote the part specially to suit him."

And the role is a perfect fit: He's a tough guy with a tender side; a roustabout who is responsible, hard-working and loyal.

Here's the interview, posted on YouTube and edited to include stills and clips from the film's promotional materials:

The movie was a financial and scenic success. ScreenSound Australia called the movie "a dashing and romantic thriller shot in the beauty of the Barrier Reef Islands."

The film is indeed notable for its spectacular sequences of underwater camera shooting, including a fight scene that occurs in about three feet of water just off the shore.

Exploiting the scenery was perhaps director Robinson's main goal. According to "Australian Cinema: The First Eighty Years," Robinson recognized the limited local exposure for Australian features and aimed his work at the overseas B-movie market. His films stressed the exotic nature of Australia:

[In "King of the Coral Sea"], Robinson's principal theme was the uniqueness of Thursday Island's sail-powered pearling fleet and the conflict between old and new generations of pearlers over the introduction of the aqualung. The more dynamic elements concerned the bringing to justice of pearlers using their operations as a front for smuggling illegal immigrants. ... The mainstay was again the strong location atmosphere ...

Three weeks after editing was complete, "King of the Coral Sea" had made its money back in overseas sales and proceeded to do well in the Australian market.

-- Australian Cinema: The First Eighty Years,
by Graham Shirley and Brian Adams, 1983.

Taylor's film debut, however, came at about the time the Australian feature film industry was withering away. The growth of television in the United States was cutting down on the demand for the kind of movies Robinson and his brethren were making.

Meanwhile "visiting" productions -- films made by overseas companies -- were on the rise. One of these was a co-production by Twentieth Century-Fox and Treasure Island Pictures -- "Long John Silver," the film that sent Taylor on his way to Hollywood.



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IMDb // Wikipedia

Oz Movies: Extensive descriptions and images

AustralianScreen: Includes curator's notes and video clips (see list, below).


DVD available via the National Film and Sound Achive

Interview with director Lee Robinson and Rod Taylor on YouTube

Audio commentary by Stephen Vagg, author of the Rod Taylor biography

AustralianScreen clips:

Clip 1: Introducing the characters, including Rod

Clip 2: Just a glimpse of Rod.

Clip 3: Rod's fight scene.