Almanac Film Review: ‘Brothers Close and Far’, a film/documentary by Anthony O’Brien

 


Image: fivestarcinemas.com.au

 

Anthony O’Brien’s debut film Brothers Close and Far premiered in Brisbane last weekend to an enthusiastic audience. As well as tracing the history of the famous Brisbane Brothers Rugby League club, the film’s dual focus is the club’s sad demise after the 1987 season but not before, against the odds, the Fighting Irish won the last BRL premiership prior to the Brisbane Broncos entering the NSWRL competition the following year. Three members of the Almanac community offer the following reviews.

 

Graeme Orr was a State schooler but nevertheless a Brothers fan through the 1970s. He is now a professor of law at the University of Queensland.

 

‘Brothers: Close and Far’ is a moving and intriguing film about the past of Past Brothers RLFC. ‘The Brethren’, ‘Butcher Boys’, ‘Fighting Irish’ or ‘Leprechauns’ were, for many decades until 1988, a leading fixture on the Brisbane senior league scene. They were also a conduit for a network of regional Brothers’ clubs – typically fed by Catholic schoolboys – to state and international honours.

 

Its moving nature centres around the demise of Brothers, unable to fully pay its players, as it triumphs over Redcliffe in the final Grand Final of the elite version of the BRL (1987). The following year, the Brisbane Broncos entered the NSWRL. To the lasting detriment of local league, organic rivalries have largely been supplanted, as Brisbane became a one-horse town ridden by a myopic media.

 

The film is spliced full of heartfelt and funny reminiscences from former players and coaches. Most impish of all is that Leprechaun-in-stature convert to Brothers, coach Ross Strudwick. Strudwick is hailed by his players, and yet seen (almost comically) abusing them from behind the goalposts at Lang Park at a crucial moment in a preliminary final. He credits the club as the making of him not just as a tactician, but as a person. Despite being mostly based on archival footage and montage, and head-shot interviews, the film drips with passion. It is also haunted with backdrops of old Brothers’ territory.

 

The most intriguing aspects of the story are its social backdrop. Brothers were famously built on a religious divide that defined white Australia for much of the 20th century. But Brisbane, a city of thongs and BBQs as much as Olympian spires, is, almost literally, a melting-pot. Sub-tropical suburbia is not fertile ground for sectarian ghettoes.

 

Ultimately, it is the socio-economic background that will make this film of lasting value to followers of the sport.  It tells of how a rugby club turned to league when the older code paused during World War I; of how a strong club rose, then fell, on the back of innovative then disastrous investments; of how, in an otherwise strictly district-based league, one team maintained broader community roots; and of how an entire league was undermined by the financialisation of football.

 

This film mixes understandable nostalgia with less understandable regret. What would basing a league on poker machine revenue have done to communities?  How did valourising the on-field ‘stink’ fit with what was even then known about risks to the brain, of men paid modest sums for a modest part of their lives? How much greater would earlier Brothers’ teams have been had there been less beer-n-ciggies and more of Wayne Bennett’s professionalism? (Bennett cut his teeth as a Brothers’ player and coach.)

 

At just over two hours, the film could drag if you lack a soft spot for Brothers. But editing one’s own work isn’t easy.  The length reflects its dual purposes, as a testament and a documentary.

 

Friendly histories of community organisations are usually crammed. But that aside, this is at both an emotive tribute and a wonderfully compiled chronicle. To call it a league ‘love story’ may seem mawkish unless, as I did, you watch it in a roomful of gnarled veterans, with voices catching as they reminisced about things close to them, yet now far away.

 

 

Greg Mallory is Vice-President of the Brisbane Labour History Association and has written three books, Uncharted Waters, Social Responsibility in Australian Trade Unions: The Coal Miners of Queensland Vol 2, the Pete Thomas Essays, and Voices from Brisbane rugby league, Oral Histories from the 50s to the 70s.  He is also a former Tom Brock scholar and an internationally recognised rugby league historian.

 

As an ardent Brothers supporter, I was very much looking forward to watching the film Brothers Near and Far. It did not disappoint. The film tended to concentrate on the 1987 victory of Brothers over Redcliffe. Brothers had a star-studded side who were playing in their last game for Brothers under the infamous Ross Strudwick. Most of the team had been signed up by Sydney clubs for the 1988 season. As well as this, Brothers were undergoing financial difficulties with a debt of three million dollars. This had the effect of eventually eliminating Brothers from the senior competition.

 

The film gave a detailed history of the Brothers club, starting with its formation in the 1920s. The club started of as the Christian Brothers where players were chosen from Catholic schools. In 1933 when district football was introduced Brothers did not have a district to represent so it was decided that players show proof that they attended a Catholic school.

 

The film then went on to discuss the famous players who represented Brothers. Some of these were Tom Gorman who was the first Queenslander to captain Australia, Brian Davies who captain-coached Australia, Johnny Gleeson who went on two Kangaroo tours, and Peter Gallagher who captained Australia in a Test in London. There was also reference to the ‘Terrible Six’ of the 1930s and the Terrible Six of the 1950s/60s which included Peter Gallagher, Brian Davies and the O’Connor Brothers. It then went on to highlight some of the other players including Eric Gelling and ‘Tubby’ Dowling.

 

Trevor Bailey and a lot of other former players were interviewed throughout the film and they gave a good insight into the recent history of the club. The film finished with the 1987 victory.

 

One minor criticism is the flicking nature of the presentation – it tended to grate a little.

 

The film is very well done and is a testament to the film maker, Anthony O’Brien of AOB Media.

 

 

Ian Hauser is one of the Almanac’s daily editors who has followed rugby league for 60 years. With a strong Protestant background, he grew up in the 50s and 60s with a well developed dislike of Brothers. Such were the sectarian attitudes of the times. But age has mellowed him and his growing respect for ‘the Catholic club’ became complete when he became friends with Grahame Cronk, the 1967 Brothers premiership player. They attended the movie together.

 

Although I have known about Brothers since I was a kid and am familiar with the names of many of its iconic players over the decades, I felt that I came to this movie as an outsider – non-Catholic, not part of the Brothers brotherhood, unversed in the wider history of club, and emotionally neutral about the whole thing. Those feelings were reinforced when we arrived as Grahame conversed with several fellow former players and acquaintances. Nevertheless, I was very keen to attend the screening to see, listen and learn.

 

What followed was two hours of education, enlightenment and insight into the history of what started as a single club in Brisbane which became (and remains) a very successful statewide network. But there was always a sense of tragedy lurking in the background with images of the eventual defunct facilities prominent from the opening minutes of the film. It was a happy reminiscence filled with nostalgia but also a dose of harsh reality epitomised by the fact that there was no physical club facility to return to for a celebratory wake.

 

The twin focus of the financial demise of the club and its progress to the last BRL Grand Final in 1987 reflected that dichotomy. A perfect storm of poor off-field decisions (which meant the players couldn’t be paid and the club was bankrupt) coincided with the development of a champion team under a great coach culminating in the club folding as it recorded one its greatest on-field triumphs. There was almost a touch of a Shakespearean tragedy about it all.

 

I enjoyed the journey through the club’s history, the respect shown to its champions through the decades, the often hilarious memories of past players and club stalwarts, the stories of great victories and infamous defeats, the yarns about Bob Bax, Tommy Raudonikis and Ross Strudwick. In that respect, the film was a rollicking, boys own adventure. And I was moved by the heart-felt testimonies of strong, tough men as they recalled the place of The Brethren in their lives.

 

There were a couple of technical aspects of the production that irritated me a bit and it all probably lingered a little too long in its closing stages. The absence of any mention of the Col Weiss years was puzzling. But these were minor quibbles.

 

Anthony O’Brien had the courage and the drive to take on this task without a template to work from. Full credit to him for doing a very good job. Other clubs from the old BRL might well consider doing something along these lines before the best primary resources they have, the people who were their clubs in that era, are gone.

 

As David Stratton might have said, “Four stars”.

 

We’ll do our best to publish two books in the lead-up to Christmas 2021. The Tigers (Covid) Almanac 2020  and the 2021 edition to celebrate the Dees’ magnificent premiership season(title is up for discussion at the moment!). These books will have all the usual features – a game by game account of the Tigers and Demons season – and will also include some of the best Almanac writing from these two Covid winters. Enquiries HERE

 

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Comments

  1. Graeme, you offer a sobering thought – ‘This film mixes understandable nostalgia with less understandable regret. What would basing a league on poker machine revenue have done to communities? How did valourising the on-field ‘stink’ fit with what was even then known about risks to the brain, of men paid modest sums for a modest part of their lives? How much greater would earlier Brothers’ teams have been had there been less beer-n-ciggies and more of Wayne Bennett’s professionalism? (Bennett cut his teeth as a Brothers’ player and coach.)’

    It is fitting and right to mourn the overall loss of the Club, its culture and its physical presence in the senior Brisbane league scene, but these are very good questions to ponder. For example, I fear the pokies would have won out – as they have in most other places.

  2. Speaking of poker machines, I wonder how rugby league (and plenty of other things in society) would have been different had poker machines been legal in Queensland back in the 1950s.
    I found the film interesting, and I must admit I didn’t know just how bad the financial situation was at Brothers. Wynnum-Manly also had diabolical financial issues at a similar time. It’s very telling that mismanagement, poor administrative decisions and not moving with the times all contributed to the faltering of the BRL competition, yet it’s too easy for some people (narrow-minded, it would seem) to single out the Brisbane Broncos as the sole scapegoat.

  3. I know nothing of Brothers and little of Queensland Rugby League, but Graeme’s insightful commentary and Ian and Liam’s follow up leads to issues that run deep in semi-professional and community sport. Is there a purpose beyond winning? What are we prepared to sacrifice to win and what are the long term consequences for society and individuals of that casual risk taking?
    Big issues as Duncan Murray (ex head of Cycling Australia) suggested in this excellent op-ed. Our commitment to “our people/players are our greatest asset is a mile wide and inch deep”.
    https://www.theage.com.au/sport/cycling-boss-decries-philosophical-cancer-at-heart-of-sport-system-20211105-p596f8.html

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