Wednesday 28 September 2016

The Shiralee (1957)

Director: Leslie Norman
Writers: Neil Paterson and Leslie Norman, from the novel by D’Arcy Niland
Stars: Peter Finch, Elizabeth Sellars and Dana Wilson
I’m a sucker for Ealing films, so this was an easy pick for me to celebrate what would have been the hundredth birthday of Peter Finch. It was made halfway through his career, a long time after his early Australian films for director Ken G. Hall, such as Dad and Dave Come to Town or Mr. Chedworth Steps Out, but just as long before his Academy Award win for playing Howard Beale in Network. Until Heath Ledger won over thirty years later for The Dark Knight, Finch was the only posthumous Oscar-winner in a performing role. He was also the first Australian actor to win an Oscar, though that depends on how you look at nationality. Technically, Finch was British, born in London to an Australian father and a British mother. However, in his forties, he learned that his father wasn’t really his father; he was the result of his mother’s affair with an Indian Army officer who, with a name like Jock Campbell, surely hailed from Scotland. He grew up first with his grandmother in France and then his great-uncle in Sydney, Australia.

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.
This is unmistakeably an Australian film, the vast spaces of that country depicted in beautiful black and white by cinematographer Paul Beeson, very early in his career and long before his Primetime Emmy nomination in 1974 for the mini-series QB VII. The local vernacular is put to good use, without ever seeming like someone from another country had simply borrowed words to make it all appear authentic, even if screenwriters Neil Paterson and Leslie Norman were Scottish and English respectively; the latter was the father of Barry Norman, the UK’s best-known film critic. They were adapting an Australian novel though, written by D’Arcy Niland from Glen Innes, New South Wales, and many of the cast were Aussies too, including the film’s only Aborigine, Gordon Glenwright, whose character is treated just like any other. Yes, people call each other ‘mate’ and ‘sport’ and the ‘real bonzer kid’ is ‘a bit crook’, but the line that spoke to me most was, ‘I wouldn’t touch them with a maggoty cat,’ an interesting phrase to google.

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.
More than anything, it’s an eye-opening portal into another era and I don’t merely mean that of the swagman, an Aussie word that we know from the unofficial Australian national anthem, Waltzing Matilda. Swagmen like Jim Macauley, the character Finch plays, were gentlemen of the road, like hobos and tramps. The opening narration explains that, while some are bludgers or scroungers, others are honest working men who prefer the freedom of living under the ‘friendly sky’, as Mac later puts it. I get the impression that Aussies have more romantic respect for swagmen than Brits do for tramps and perhaps Americans do for hobos, as walkabout is a quintessentially Australian concept, but it’s hard to find sympathy for Mac when we realise that his marriage has broken down because he’s only spent six months with his wife and daughter in Sydney in the five years since the wedding. When he finds a man with his wife, he beats him up, bundles his daughter under his arm and walks out, not saying a single word, and we’re in motion.

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.
Of course, the story is going to find a way for Buster to humanise her father at least to a degree, but I’m not going to spoil just how that happens. Let’s just say that it unfolds in a very believable fashion that avoids both Hollywood sentimentality and a Hollywood ending. Early on, we wonder why he even took her, given that he neither needs nor wants a child on the road. Certainly, he walks ahead of her as much as beside her and he isn’t exactly a beacon of conversation. ‘I like it when you talk to me,’ Buster says late on but that’s surely as much for the rarity of his speech as the content of it. These characterisations are deep, so there’s much debate possible about motivations but I presume that Mac took Buster as much out of spite as any of his wife’s notably spiteful and bitchy actions. Discussion about who creates this situation and who reacts to it, not to mention who has the right to act and react in such ways, renders The Shiralee perfect for anthropological studies as much as cinematic ones!

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.
A friend of mine talks about how America has changed over the last few decades because men nowadays aren’t brought up by men any more. He doesn’t say that to be macho or sexist; he’s just making an intellectual point that makes a lot of sense, especially with any political subtext removed. It used to be that boys were brought up outdoors, taught by their fathers how to do everything that we see boys doing in old movies: hunting, fishing and camping for a start but also, on a far deeper level, learning how to do things that aren’t safe. Buster is thrown right into this sort of upbringing and, with only a touch of sentimentality, enjoys the heck out of all the freedom that it involves. However, it’s glaringly obvious that this sort of thing would be difficult to put on the screen today. I’m not even talking about the naked butt of an eight year old girl in a shower scene or the lead rubbing eucalyptus oil on her chest when she’s feverish, things that would spark a debate nowadays because someone would interpret them sexually.

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.
There are subplots to both keep things moving on and deepen the plot but I won’t spoil them. Suffice it to say that each character, each location and each scene has resonance that gradually and collectively builds into the force to change him just a little. It’s fair to say that, while Mac is the most masculine, stubborn and uncompromising male character, those properties are active in each of the others too. We’re really shown a scale of masculine behaviour and asked to figure out where the marker should be set. Mac is too masculine, apparently unable to truly love, so it should be shifted well away from him. However, it shouldn’t be moved as far as the opposite end of the spectrum, which is Donny, the successful coward who’s been having an affair with Marge while Mac is away. Should it be set to the helpful Jim Muldoon, the loyal Beauty Kelly or the charismatic Luke Sweeney? Perhaps it should be set to the honourable W. G. Parker, a successful working man who can lay down the law but also admit when he was wrong.

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.
I really wonder how modern audiences would see this film because there are so many things that they’re not going to be used to seeing. The morality isn’t clear but not because the filmmakers wanted to go dark and moody but because it’s a slice of time and a starting point for discussion about topics like masculinity and femininity or freedom and responsibility. With our modern mindset, we often wonder who we should sympathise with, when the answer is everyone, just not all the time. Surely the most sympathetic character isn’t Mac, especially during the first half of the film; I’d suggest that it’s Buster, the title character, who is thrown into a tough situation at an extremely impressionable age but comes through it all with a smile. The biggest problem may be in just how free range she’s forced to be. Everyone watching today would rail at Mac’s choice to leave Buster fishing in a billabong with a poet while he goes looking for work in town. Things like this impact our ability to empathise, especially given what happens next.

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.

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