The film was the first Australian film with a big-budget, costing A$1.2m to make. English actors Susannah York and Trevor Howard were brought from the United Kingdom to headline this Australian picture, which was filmed in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. The film has been described as a classic Aussie tale of colonial hardship and bawdy beginnings, and has been described as a sex romp.
Captain James Fraser, and his young wife, Eliza Fraser, sail from Sydney on the Stirling Castle. Captain Rory McBryde, the most notorious rake in New South Wales, manages to get on board and tries to seduce Eliza. Captain Fraser stops off at the penal colony of Moreton Bay which is run by Captain Fyans, who tries to seduce convict Bracefell. Bracefell escapes and hides in Eliza's room; Eliza sleeps with him, thinking he is McBryde, but is not unhappy when she sees who it is. She helps Bracefell escape.
The Frasers resume their trip on the Stirling Castle when they and the ship's crew are shipwrecked on an island near Australia on 21 May 1836. They live with the indigenous Aboriginal people, but Captain Fraser is later killed by convicts from Moreton Bay. Eliza meets Bracefell, who is now living with aborigines, and helps rescue her.
Once rescued, Eliza earns her keep at county fairs by regaling audiences with her own tales of her adventures.Cast in order of appearance
Tim Burstall had been interested in telling the story of Eliza Fraser for a long time, writing a script back in 1969. He envisioned the film as a picturesque piece in the vein of an 18th-century novel like Humphrey Clinker or Tom Jones, as he felt this was closer to the Australian ocker sense of humour. Originally the movie was to have a Rashamon type structure with Eliza's story told three times from three different points of view. But eventually it was decided to turn Eliza into a comic figure. "She was essentially a con woman, and I thought the possibilities for satire were great", said Burstall.
The budget was originally $750,000. The Australian Film Commission loaned Hexagon $187,000, invested another $187,000 and Hexagon would put in the rest. Burstall had originally intended to use Wendy Hughes in the lead role, supported by Frank Thring, but Roadshow felt the movie needed an international film star. "They had what we call in the business 'a touch of the Hollywoods'", said Burstall.
Burstall met with Charlotte Rampling but did not feel she was a comedy actress. The film was meant to start on 2 January 1975 but Burstall was unable to find a lead until 11 February – this delay cost the film $50,000. The international actors cost an extra $200,000 – $125,000 for Susannah York, $48,000 for Trevor Howard and $32,000 for John Castle. This meant the budget increased to $1 million and ultimately blew out to $1.2 million. John Waters was paid $2,000 a week.
Shooting started in March 1976, taking place at Sovereign Hill, the old penal settlement of Trial Bay, and Fraser Island. About 120 aborigines were flown to Fraser Island from Mornington Island. The scale of the film meant it was much publicised and eagerly awaited.
For a time it seemed Hollywood might come up with a rival movie on the same topic. Shipwrecked, a $3.5 million film produced by Sandy Howard from a script by Bill Norton Snr and Michael Luke, was announced for filming 16 June 1976. However this did not eventuate.
Burstall later claimed the film's price tag caused the press to misrepresent the movie as a serious epic when it was always intended to be a comedy, leading to poor reviews on the whole. The public liked it and the film was very successful, but struggled to recoup its large cost. It returned $600,000 to the producers, representing only half the budget. Burstall felt he made a mistake in not having an overseas partner helping him produce the film. The film had its first public screening in Maryborough, Queensland (the largest town within 50 km of Fraser Island). In the same week, a ticket-only dinner-dance was managed by the local council in the town hall. Sussanah York was in attendance, as was Tim Burstall
Eliza Fraser was released on DVD by Umbrella Entertainment in June 2011. The DVD is compatible with region codes 2 and 4 and includes special features such as the theatrical trailer, a photo gallery, and an interview with David Williamson, John Waters, Robin Copping and Alan Finney.