|THE SUNDOWNERS (1960)|
Mike Anderson Jr.
|Time: 133 mins.|
Rating: Not Rated
Academy Award nominations for Best Actress (Kerr), Director, Supporting Actress (Johns), Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture.
It's hard to imagine that even in 1960 movie-goers would be interested in a film about a sheep herding family from Australia. When I sat down to watch this picture all I knew about it was who starred in it Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum and who it's director was Fred Zinnemann. The obvious talent of this trio was enough to make me give THE SUNDOWNERS a chance, especially after recently watching Zinnemann's western classic HIGH NOON for the first time. Though this movie is enjoyable enough, I don't understand why it was nominated for Best Picture. Of course, I don't usually agree with the Academy, but though expansive with good performances by the leads, it doesn't really impress me as something overly memorable. Maybe because it was one of the first movies to actually show what life was like Down Under that entranced initial audiences. It's not that it's a bad story, it's just not a new one. Kerr and Mitchum have good chemistry as a husband and wife with different ideas about their future. They also both manage to keep their Australian accents throughout the film, which is a plus. I think it made Mitchum even more attractive...but that's just me.
The film opens with the Carmody family arriving on the outskirts of a small Australian town much like any other. They set up camp in anticipation of their latest sheep-herding job. Sean (Anderson) remarks on a farm up for sale right across the river. He wonders to his mother Ida (Kerr) if they'll ever settle down and have a real home. She empathizes with this desire, but tells him to forget this idea. His father Paddy (Mitchum) is a man who will never consider settling in one place. The outback is his home. Besides, they barely have enough money to live on. They could never afford to buy a ranch of their own. Paddy, oblivious to this conversation, goes into town, manages to get the gig, proceeds to get drunk and hires Rupert Venneker (Ustinov) to help them drive the herd. Of course, he doesn't remember offering Rupert the job and isn't too happy about it. However, both Sean and Ida like Rupert, so Paddy is outnumbered. Rupert may not look like a drover, but they need his horses and his help. They have six weeks to get the sheep from one place to the other and they make pretty good time despite various troubles, like a raging brush fire that almost overcomes Paddy.
After they deliver the herd in Cawndilla, Paddy treats them to a night in the local hotel with the full intention of leaving in the morning. Ida and Sean have other plans. If they can all get jobs with the sheep shearers, they'll be able to earn enough money for a down payment on that sweet little farm they saw where they started. Paddy is loathe to stop anywhere for 6 weeks, but agrees to stay on for awhile to give everyone a rest from the road. Of course, they begin to form relationships with the other shearers, something Sean and Ida have really missed. Paddy begins to resent all the time his family is spending with others and his new found responsibilities to his boss and co-workers. A sheep-shearing contest brings the trio's emotions to a head with Paddy initially backing out and deciding to leave with or without Ida and Sean. As much as Ida wants to stay, her life is with Paddy, whether she wants to live out of a tent for the rest of her life or not.
The shearing contest turns out to be a bust for their crew, but the celebration the next day brings fortune to the Carmody's financial future. A simple game of two-up rewards Paddy with $200 pounds and a fine race horse. This win pushes them over the brink, giving them enough for the farm down payment. To help earn additional cash on their way back to the farm, they decide to let Sean race Sundowner in local events along the way. It turns out that Sundowner is incredibly fast and lucky. They are in high spirits when they arrive at the farm. That is until Paddy learns about their scheme. It's nice of them to include him in their plan for his future. The joy on their faces seems to soften his anger and he agrees to look into the matter in the morning. He's just going to go into town for a beer. Needless to say, when he finally arrives home in the wee hours of the morning, things are no longer looking so rosy. In the end, with their entire future on the line, both Ida and Paddy learn how much they mean to each other and when to stop being so stubborn. The matter is settled, as are the Carmodys, once and for all.
Despite the fact that this sometimes feels more like a documentary than a drama, THE SUNDOWNERS is for the most part an entrancing film on a certain level. The acting is wonderful with powerful performances by each of the four leads. Kerr is heartbreaking as a woman who wants a place to call her own and is tired of looking like something the cat dragged in. Mitchum manages to be both sexy and sensitive, a feat most actors these days can't pull off without looking wimpy. He wants his own way, but clearly loves his family and despite his sometimes gruff demeanor cannot live without them. Ustinov is around for comic relief, a job he handles admirably. Mike Anderson Jr. is incredibly endearing as the teen age Sean, a kid who desperately wants a home and who's fast becoming a man. He holds his own against his elder counterparts, giving Sean just the right amount of innocence and strength. The rest of the supporting cast each has their moment to shine, especially Glynis Johns as the hotel owner who tries to steal Rupert's heart.
The cinematography is stunning, giving the audience a first-class look at some of the strange creatures that inhabit that part of the world. Unfortunately, the film also contains a great number of scenes with the sheep, which isn't all that interesting to a city girl like me. They could have cut some of those out and eliminated some of the subplots, which would have picked up the pace and kept the film's focus where it should be on the Carmodys. The ending is also a bit abrupt, but I was glad to see the end of this saga, so I can't complain too much. I was getting a little tired of these Aussies. Kerr and Mitchum are wonderful together and give this married couple quite a sexy spark, but I just couldn't take one more argument about staying or going, when I knew what the final outcome was going to be. The characters are well-drawn and likable and the location vastly interesting, however, the film never really managed to grab my heart. THE SUNDOWNERS is a good way to pass the time if you like family dramas about the trials and tribulations of working the land. Otherwise, I would only see this if you're a fan of Kerr or Mitchum.