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Holmes, Cecil William (1921–1994)

by Robert Raymond

With the death of Cecil Holmes, this country has lost one of its most unrecognised, unrewarded and yet unforgettable characters — film-maker, writer, polemicist, passionate protagonist of the people against the establishment, unforgiving opponent of big business and bad government.

I first met Cecil Holmes in the 1960s, when I was making the "Project" series of documentary films for the Nine Network. We had made one on the bushranger Thunderbolt. Cecil came to see me and told me in a roundabout way that it was feeble compared with the feature he had directed on the same character many years before.

I asked him if he would like to make something for me. He said there was a great story in Tom Ronan, the old bush author. I gave him a little money and he went off and made a fine film of Ronan wandering around the north, telling outrageous stories of people and places he had known.

After that he made another for me for the Seven Network. Return to the Dreaming followed the great painter, Yirrewala, on his first trip back to his tribal country for many years. Cecil battled through bitter opposition from the NT Administration to come back with as sensitive a portrayal of what land and art and belief mean to Aboriginal people as any white man has ever made.

Then we got involved in trying to make Call Me by My Proper Name. It would have been Cecil's first major feature since Three in One, his now forgotten but masterly trio of Henry Lawson stories.

We worked on this film for months in the early '70s. We had many script doctors in attendance, including Frank Hardy. We had a fine cast and found superb locations for this story of inter-racial lust, murder, pursuit and retribution. I got as far as Twentieth-Century Fox in Hollywood with the script, and came away with an offer of worldwide distribution. But like so many other things in Cecil's life, it never got the backing it deserved.

In more recent years Cecil worked with Tony Buckley on the story of Morrison of Peking, again without realisation. When he died he had a powerful script with his agent about Pat Mackie, the legendary American organiser who left an indelible mark on the labour scene in Mt Isa.

Part of our loss is that Cecil, who was a vivid writer, never got round to putting it all down. His single autobiographical volume, One Man's Way, only whetted our appetite for more. When he died he had a book about the desperate social and political problems in the Philippines almost finished.

Cecil Holmes was a communist for most of his life — or at least a "lefty"as he liked to call himself — but although disillusioned by recent history, he never lost his affection for "lefties" everywhere. Cecil's two wives, Elizabeth and Sandra, are both alive, as is his daughter Mandy. Life will seem much emptier, if quieter, for them.

Cecil Holmes died yesterday in the Sacred Heart Hospice of cancer.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 August 1994

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Robert Raymond, 'Holmes, Cecil William (1921–1994)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 13 August 2020.

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