The Godfather: Peter Corris on The Sundowners
Films on Australian subjects in the 1960s were mostly pretty undistinguished. A case could be made for They’re a Weird Mob (1966), which captured something of our knockabout humour, and Age of Consent (1969), graced by James Mason and Helen Mirren, had some claims to sophistication and did well at the local box office, although it was treated patronisingly by overseas critics.
To my mind the best among those I’ve seen of the films in this period is The Sundowners (1960).
In a way this film prefigured the notable ‘outback’ films of the so-called ‘New Wave’ of Australian films in the 1970s – like Wake in Fright (1971), Sunday Too Far Away (1975) and The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1978). I recorded Sundowners to watch in an idle hour, of which I have many these days, albeit without great expectations.
Sleepy-eyed, quintessential tough guy Robert Mitchum – only a few years from his chilling portrait of a psychopath in Night of the Hunter (1955) – as amiable Aussie sheep herder and shearer Paddy Carmody? Deborah Kerr, wholly ladylike as Anna to Yul Brynner in The King and I (1956) as Paddy’s supportive, resourceful wife? It didn’t seem likely.
With both the screenwriter and director Americans, authenticity seemed doubtful. True, Peter Ustinov could play the refined English remittance man on his ear, but the main reason I recorded the film was that it was based on the novel of the same name by Jon Cleary. I’d read and admired the book years before and I knew Cleary slightly. I’d met him at a couple of book launches and we’d had a pleasing correspondence after I’d praised one of his detective novels in a review. Fearing the worst, dreading the accents and the distortions, I watched the film.
I was very agreeably surprised. Mitchum’s accent was neither Australian, American or Irish but a convincing blend of all three. He handled the slang expressions (mercifully few) with aplomb and combined toughness, fragility and good humour in a masterly way. Similarly, there was not a trace of Anna in Kerr’s depiction of Ida Carmody, and it was easy to believe that her hands were hardened from work and her face lined from squinting against the sun. Ustinov was perfect, parody-free.
Zimmerman’s direction was hard to fault – action scenes like a bushfire and pub punch-ups were nicely handled and there was no dwelling on cockatoos or kangaroos. The story unfolded neatly and the shearing scene was nearly as good as anything in Sunday Too Far Away.
It was interesting to see Chips Rafferty do his thing in a minor role, along with John Meillon – with still less to do, but up to the job. Leonard Teale and Dick Bentley, the latter famous from the BBC’s radio show Take It From Here, were listed, but hard to discern, as shearers.
Jon Cleary was lucky with the adaptations of his books. The High Commissioner (1968), which starred Rod Taylor, was good, as was High Road to China (1983) with Tom Selleck. The Sundowners was deservedly nominated for a bunch of Oscars. Optimistic without being sentimental, it is well worth watching.