As a boorish, parochial Australian, I often wonder what my island nation’s contribution to world espionage cinema and television is. Sure, there’s been quite a few actors, George Lazenby and Rod Taylor readily spring to mind, but actual shows are few and far between. Spyforce was an Australian televison series that ran from 1971 to 1973 and starred Jack Thompson as archetypal Aussie, Luke Erskine, and Peter Sumner as his German born partner Gunther Haber (who Erskine constantly refers to as ‘Adolph’). The show depicted the exploits of a highly trained team of soldiers who carried out covert missions behind enemy lines during World War II.
The series was buoyed by an injection of money from Paramount Pictures, and benefited from actual location shooting in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Bangkok, Ceylon and New Guinea.
Despite Spyforce being a local production, I have found it extremely difficult to find episodes to review. Hopefully, this episode, Reilley’s Army (Episode 20) is indicative of the series. The episode begins in New Guinea during 1942. Roberts, is a Coast Watcher for the military. His job is to radio in descriptions of any enemy activity in the area. Upon observing a convoy of thirty-eight Japanese ships, he radios headquarters. Midway through his report, Japanese soldiers burst from the foliage and open fire. Outnumbered, and outgunned, Roberts attempts to flee. As he runs, he is shot in the leg, but he continues to evade capture, scampering deeper into the jungle. He makes his way to another hidden radio and continues his report, detailing the ships in the convoy. It is feared that the Japanese are about to move against Port Moresby or the Solomon Islands. As Roberts winds up, he is shot and killed.
Back at Headquarters, Colonel Cato (Redmond Phillips) interviews Mrs. Reilley (Diana Davidson). Cato asks her to radio her husband in New Guinea and ask him to come home. Her husband, Liam Reilley (Chips Rafferty) is living with the natives. Mrs. Reilley isn’t happy about her husband’s choice of lifestyle and refuses to help.
Reilley has gone renegade, blatantly refusing to follow orders from HQ. Deep in the jungle, he has created his own army, and they wage their own war against the Japanese. This would be fine, but it appears that they are too good at it. The Japanese attempt to strike back, but cannot catch them. Instead they turn their attention to men that they can catch – the coastal natives. In turn, the natives do not appreciate the attention that they receive from the Japanese. To alleviate the harassment, they expose the Coast Watchers. Robert’s happens to be the sixth Coast Watcher killed in the last week.
Summarising, indirectly, Reilley’s Army is responsible the death of the Coast Watchers. Military Headquarters have repeatedly asked Reilley to cease and desist, but he refuses. They have no other option to send men in to retrieve him. And if he refuses, then he is to be killed.
The men chosen for the job are Luke Erskine (Jack Thompson), and Gunther ‘Adolph’ Haber (Peter Sumner). A cursory overview of the plot reveals an ‘Ocker’ spin on Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness – years before Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Now that may not seem like much of a spy story – but the story is double pronged. Not only do we follow Erskine and Haber’s exploits deep in the New Guinea jungle, we also follow Lt. French (Katy Wild) who is sent to observe Reilley’s estranged social climbing wife. Let’s just say ‘loose lips – sink ships!’
Spyforce is actually a pretty good show and I’d love to catch a few more episodes. Most Australian productions from this time were done on the cheap and have not survived very well. It’s biggest asset, of course, is that it has two charismatic leads in Thompson and Sumner. Thompson’s career is still going strong – I think I last saw him in The Good German. If I had to pick one spy show to represent my nation on the international stage, I say that Spyforce isn’t a bad representative.