The Hungry Miles

Australian Workers Film Guide


Produced by the Waterside Workers Film Unit in 1955, and set against the backdrop of proposed Government changes to laws governing the employment of labour on Australian waterfronts, The Hungry Miles is an emotive call to arms that documents the struggles of Australian waterside workers since the Great Depression.

Shot in Sydney, the film presents the harsh reality of work on Australia’s waterfronts in the 1950s, while also depicting the brutal nature of work and life on the waterfront during the 1930s Great Depression, through dramatised re-enactments. According to Milner, the filmmakers recruited many volunteers on the waterfront who had direct experience of the hardships of the Depression, which undoubtedly heightened the authenticity of the recreations. [1]

Opening with iconic images of shipping, industry and agriculture, the film underscores the importance of waterside workers to Australian prosperity, emphasizing their hard work and efficiency. The film highlights the difficult and unhealthy conditions as vast amounts of goods are loaded and unloaded from dirty and dusty ships, on a waterfront suffering from a lack of investment and modern mechanisation – while the owners raked in the profits. Newspaper headlines accuse workers of being strike prone, lazy and ‘drinkers’, a slander endorsed by the government of the day. 

The film revisits the past to highlight the union’s hard won gains, now threatened by legislative change, depicting scenes of brutal working and living conditions. These include dramatised scenes of poverty stricken workers hauling burdensome loads without the aid of mechanisation, workplace accidents, unemployment, dole queues, poverty stricken families, hunger as well as street protests involving clashes with police. The images of struggling workers are contrasted with images of a rapacious ruling elite, clothed expensively and travelling in large cars to extravagant dining rooms.

The film continues with imagery and commentary highlighting the union’s gains since the dark days of the Depression, such as the abolition of the 24 hour shift and workplace victimisation, the establishment of rostered employment, the rise of Jim Healy and the importance of the rank and file, as well as union supported cultural and sporting activities. Overlaid with images of protesting and voting workers, the film concludes with a call to improve conditions, withstand attacks and win further gains. The film ends with a shot of a flying Southern Cross flag, evoking the Eureka Stockade and representing a call to arms for workers to continue the working class struggle against exploitative establishment forces.

The Hungry Miles is perhaps the Waterside Workers Federation Film Unit’s most recognised and celebrated film, the footage of which has appeared in numerous subsequent films as authentic representations of the hardships of the Great Depression and the extreme deprivations suffered by Australian workers during this period. For many in the trade union movement, this film is a powerful reminder of what has been gained and why the fight to protect working conditions is so important – there must be no return to those dark days.

[1] Milner L. (2003), Fighting Films: A History of the Waterside Workers’ Federation Film Unit, pp 86, Pluto Press; North Melbourne.

Special Notes/Achievements

The Hungry Miles premiered to 5,000 waterside workers at the Leichhardt Stadium in Sydney in February 1955. It also screened at the Sydney Film Festival in 1955 and won a gold medal at the 1957 Warsaw Youth Festival. [2]

Featured on Fighting Films DVD. [3]

[2] Milner L. (2003), Fighting Films: A History of the Waterside Workers’ Federation Film Unit, pp 88-89, Pluto Press; North Melbourne.

[3] Fighting Films DVD (2006), Produced by Lisa Milner. [DVD] Sydney; Maritime Union of Australia.

Author: J Bird, 2023

Duration: 26 mins

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Film Director: Jerome Levy, Keith Gow, Norma Disher,

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Film Writer: Jerome Levy, Keith Gow, Norma Disher,

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Film Editor: Jerome Levy, Keith Gow, Norma Disher,

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