d. Fred Zinnemann / 1960 / Australia-UK / 133 mins
Viewed on: ITV3 (UK)
Although it might seem like I’m embarking on some kind of Australian film festival, I assure you that it’s completely unintentional. The Sundowners just happened to be on TV this weekend and is yet another in a long line of films that I probably should have seen long ago, but just hadn’t got around to.
Fred Zinnemann’s film adaptation of Jon Cleary’s classic Australian novel features a cast led by Robert Mitchum, Deborah Kerr and Peter Ustinov, and is perhaps one of the finest films produced in Australia during that rather barren period between the late 1930s and the Australian New Wave renaissance of the 1970s and ’80s. In the twenty-five years following the end of World War II, only forty or so dramatic feature films were produced in Australia and roughly half of those were wholly funded and produced by, or at the very least directed by, foreigners. Not many people seem to know, for instance, that England’s famous Ealing Studios produced five films in Australia during this period, beginning with the most successful of the bunch, The Overlanders, in 1946. Far removed from the quaint comedies with which Ealing made its name, these films have also, to an extent, disappeared from the hearts and minds of film fans and academics alike.
Unlike the Ealing films, the last of which – The Siege of Pinchgut – was produced in 1959, Fred Zinnemann’s 1960 production of The Sundowners has managed some form of longevity in Australia, perhaps remaining in the minds of audiences because of its Hollywood prestige and the fact that it was shot in colour, unlike most of Ealing’s films. As for that Hollywood prestige, The Sundowners is technically a British production, with the interiors shot at England’s Elstree Studios and the impetus coming from Warner Bros.’ UK production wing. But there’s no denying the existence of an American lead and an Austrian-born director with a long and distinguished career in Hollywood.
A key to The Sundowners‘ success as an ‘Australian’ film, as well as its continued resonance with audiences, is that it doesn’t feel the need to shove a sense of Australianness in your face. There are, of course, the obligatory shots of wildlife, but they are used sparingly, considering. And the characters and locations are drawn with a kind of matter of factness that tends to be absent for the more overtly ‘Australian’ productions of later years, such as the ocker comedies and films like Crocodile Dundee. A reason for this, perhaps, is that while the makers of these films were struggling to find a way to assert their identity as Australians, Zinnemann and his largely imported cast and crew had no such desire, or need. They were simply happy to present a sparingly accurate portrayal of Australian country life at the dawn of the 20th century.
In Fred Zinnemann, The Sundowners had a strong, intelligent, modern director who remained conscious of avoiding the usual mawkish, stereotypical representations of new environments and characters usually handed up by Hollywood in order to serve the average North American filmgoer. Zinnemann felt none of the burden heaped upon the inexperienced Australian directors, who were often expected to assert a strong sense of ‘Australian’ identity – even if no one was entirely sure what that meant. And despite this being a British production, Zinnemann was similarly unaffected by the usual British desire, exemplified by much of Ealing’s Australian output, to promote the virtues of a British Empire very much on the wane.
At the same time, The Sundowners came after the Ealing films and Zinnemann was perhaps able to identify what worked and what didn’t and adapt his film as required. And whilst many Australian film historians and academics point to The Sundowners as one of the most effective of these ‘foreign’ productions, the fact remains that its success is largely down to the fact that the narrative and characters could just have easily been the American mid-west as the mid-north of South Australia (which stands in here for rural New South Wales). The reputation, it must be said, also belies the fact that this is a very sentimental tale, full of romance for an Australia of the not too distant past which, it could be argued, never really existed. Another sizeable chink in Zinnemann’s armour is the distinct lack of indigenous characters populating his towns and farms. I only counted one indigenous actor, who appears very briefly in an interior establishing shot about forty minutes into the film. Compared to a film like Ealing’s Bitter Springs, one of the first (of very few) films to deal entirely with the issue of the indigenous ownership of farmable land, The Sundowners is a veritable insult, albeit an entertaining one.
Once again, a long post. The next one will hopefully be shorter. Maybe.