Writers: Neil Paterson and Leslie Norman, from the novel by D’Arcy Niland
Stars: Peter Finch, Elizabeth Sellars and Dana Wilson
He arrived in Sydney in 1926, when he was ten years old; by the time he moved back to England in 1948, he had surely become an Australian in heart and mind. He toured the country as a stage actor and became a major name on radio, the first to portray Ruth Park’s Muddle-Headed Wombat. The Second World War interrupted his nascent film career, as he enlisted in the Australian Army, serving as an anti-aircraft gunner as well as an actor and director touring army bases and hospitals in 1945. He was also allowed to keep making films while serving in the army, many of them propaganda shorts, and he continued his screen career after the war, but he was sent to Britain by Laurence Olivier, who put him under contract; he built a name for himself in movies as varied as The Miniver Story (the sequel to Mrs. Miniver), Othello (opposite Orson Welles) and Father Brown (as the villain). His contract completed, he shot a number of films down under for Rank: parts of A Town Like Alice in 1956, then Robbery Under Arms and The Shiralee in 1957.
However, it’s really a British film which merely happened to be shot in Australia and that’s not difficult to see either. It feels like a British drama, even before we get to the well-enunciated Rosemary Harris, who was born in Suffolk and sounds like it. This is early for her too, only her second feature three decades before her most famous role as Aunt May in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man pictures. It plays consistently with the other Ealing dramas I’ve seen from this period, which comes close to the end of Michael Balcon’s era at the studio. Surely the most recognisable actor on screen is Sidney James, a British institution, the star of nineteen Carry On films and the top billed name in seventeen. Coincidentally, I introduced my better half to Carry On Dick, James’s last film, this week, as it had borrowed so freely from Doctor Syn, which I reviewed earlier this month for Margaret Lockwood’s centennial. I had no idea he would be in The Shiralee or that cinematographer Beeson also handled the camera for Disney’s version, Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow.
Buster is the difference between Macauley and other swagmen, an eight year old girl slowing him down and getting in his way. It’s not difficult to see her as a penance for his dereliction of marital duty, his ‘special cross’, his ‘burden’, his ‘shiralee’. The title really refers to the swagman’s bundle or pack, which we also know from the song as his matilda, but something that weighs him down is apt as a metaphor, especially early on when Mac has to carry Buster often. She’s a scene-stealing young actress called Dana Wilson and she debuted here in a powerful way. She would only go on to two more pictures, 1958’s A Cry from the Streets and Summer of the Seventeenth Doll in 1959, before retiring at the ripe old age of ten. As great as Finch is in this picture, and the liner notes of my DVD suggest he later described it as his favourite role, I’m going to remember it as much for Dana Wilson as for him. She sells her part magnificently, bringing it to life through both little moments and the grand sweep of her performance.
You see, Mac is very much a man’s man. He thinks of himself as a decent soul, someone who’s willing and able to work for a living; he often says that he ‘won’t scrounge off anybody’ and he lives up to his words. He’s no muscleman but he’ll stand up to anyone to further what’s right and scupper what’s wrong and, some pretty terrible choreography aside, can use his fists to good effect. He’s loyal and has a set of strong friendships that survive the infrequency of visits. Finch sells the physical side of this picture capably, believably a man who shrugs off the uncomfortable and walks on. He also sells how much Mac has excised the sentimental side of his character, to the degree that we wonder why he ever got married. Even things that could be read as sentimental really aren’t. When his daughter goes down with a fever and he spends an uncomfortable night breaking it, it’s because it’s a job that has to be done rather than because it’s his daughter. He doesn’t seem to know what love is, though the story shows how he learns.
Talking about the film, my better half suggested that men would appreciate The Shiralee much more than women. I can see exactly what she means, because women watching today aren’t going to care about walkabout and swagmen and the romanticised road of freedom, they’re going to see Marge as a neglected woman and anything she can do to Mac as justified. However, the point of the story is to show this quintessential man’s man that there’s more to life than working and moving on, that emotions are important and that relationships aren’t just for buddies. Have we moved so far away in sixty years from this rough world of masculinity that the lessons Mac learns just aren’t enough any more? I haven’t seen the 1987 mini-series based on the same source novel, starring Bryan Brown as Mac, but it seems to reprise the same territory without any updates to cater to modern sensibilities and it was the most popular show of that year. Maybe in traditionally masculine Australia, this conversation is still active.
If we’re following that train of thought, we can ask the same question about the women. Marge may be a wronged wife but she’s a bitch with no apparent redeeming features beyond Scots actress Elizabeth Sellars looking rather pleasing to the eye. The opposite end to her may be Lily Parker, who is very much a woman though one who often acts like a man, making decisions and riding the range on horseback to herd sheep on her father’s ranch. There aren’t too many female characters in between, but one is certainly Bella Sweeney, who runs a bed and breakfast with her husband and rules the roost with her cheeky grin. As politically incorrect as their conversations often are, the Parkers are good people: loyal, caring and willing to speak their minds. ‘Two Ton’ Tessie O’Shea is a delight here as Bella and she was a discovery for me here, even if untold millions saw her as the other guest on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1963 that introduced America to the Beatles, the most watched show ever on American television at that point in time.
Australia, of course, looks great here and the bush sounds just as enticing as it looks, even outside of any attraction of the simple if tough life that the swagman leads. I’ve long been a fan of the cinema of Australia and New Zealand, but little of what I’ve seen goes back to this era. I know the seventies and the eighties pretty well, especially in genre film, but should look further back, especially as Australia produced the first feature film ever made, The Story of the Kelly Gang in 1906, and was a prominent player in the 1910s, before falling prey to cheap American imports in the 1920s, a cycle of over-production and under-production that continued for a long time. One of its most enduring problems is that whenever it generates new stars, they’re easily drawn away by Hollywood. It happened recently with Mel Gibson, Hugh Jackman and Geoffrey Rush, Cate Blanchette, Nicole Kidman and Toni Collette, but that isn’t a new thing. Go back through the decades and it happened with Errol Flynn, Rod Taylor and Peter Finch.