Friday night, too tired;
Saturday night, too drunk;
Sunday, too far away
Australian cinema has always been somewhat of a conundrum - and some less kind commentators would perhaps say an oxymoron. The Australian film industry has produced some hits over the years - but oh, has it had some misses as well. And when it comes to self-referential movies - films about Australians, leading very Australian lives - material has been sadly very thin on the ground over the last twenty years or so.
During the 1960's and the 1970's however, before the industry became more focused on appeasing overseas markets, movies showcasing and exposing the Australian way of life were in abundance. Admittedly, most were dogs - but among them there were a few shining examples that will go down in cinematic history. The 1966 gem, They're a Weird Mob took the tensions of post war immigration and turned it into a funny, yet poignant film lampooning racial stereotypes. Much darker - and again involving foreigners, this time in script and directorial positions - was the 1971 cult film, Wake in Fright, which detailed a metaphorical (and sometimes seemingly literal) descent into hell of a British schoolteacher stranded in the Australian outback. However, for a slice of post war, rural Australian life - however unappetizing that may appear - the 1975 film, Sunday Too Far Away has never been surpassed.
The plot itself is massively unassuming. It centres on a core of blokes that are between sheep shearing jobs, waiting at the pub for the next long journey out to a sheep station and miles away from civilization for a six-week stint. However, the simplicity of the plot is completely by design - it creates the perfect blank canvas for these motley and ultimately flawed characters to develop. Tim King, played with bottom-lip biting agitation by Max Cullen is the upstart shearer who attempts to move up by organizing a team of shearers for a "Six day job". The atmosphere is heavy and tensions are rife in the mid-1950's setting. Wool prices have fallen and there is talk of a hefty reduction of shearer's wages. There is talk of strikes.
It isn't until the men have driven hundreds of miles into the outback that they are told that this isn't a six day job at all - but six weeks. Most of the men know each other - but there are a few strangers tossed into the mix that increases the tension. Most of the newcomers are green - and hence quiet - but there is also one new shearer who is quiet for altogether different reasons, Arthur Black - or as one of the men quietly intones upon introduction - "Black Arthur" - not for his colour, but solely due to his demeanor. Once in the sheds, it quickly becomes evident that there are two dominant shearers, the old favourite Jack Foley (played with amazing depth by Jack Thompson) and the newcomer, Arthur Black. This rivalry is toyed with throughout the film, only to reach a climax towards the end.
The question arises early on in the film "Who is the most important man on a sheep station?" The gun shearer, the union rep and the "Cockie" (or station owner) are all postulated, but it soon becomes clear that a shearer works on his stomach, and hence the cook is the lynchpin of the operation. Vivid anecdotes are told of previous cooks, like the one armed fellow who made "the best rissoles you ever tasted" - until they discovered his secret method - shaping the meatballs under his hairy and sweaty arm stump to compensate for the lack of a second hand. "Oh sure - you found a hair now and then...". Their new cook, Quinn is an unmitigated disaster, and although he is 6'4" and 250lb, plans are soon hatched to depose of him. At the same time, one of the new young shearers is branded "queer" for the simple crime of spending long hours writing to his wife. This leads to one of the more revealing segments of the film when the banished cook's replacement arrives. The new cook speaks with an obvious floral lilt and has the odd habit of naming his stove - which in 1950's Australia would most certainly brand one as being "queer". Instead, the new cook is accepted and pandered to, purely because he can cook well - and is of immediate use.
Amidst all the gruff and drunken antics of the shearers there is a timid, yet quietly powerful voice - that of the station owner's teenage daughter, Sheila Dawson. Sheila represents civility amongst an almost lawless - or more correctly - a self-governing group. Scenes where she glimpses the men staggering and falling over drunk repel her - and at the same time compel her to know more about the wider world, as she imagines they represent. She desperately wants to see the inside of the shed where wooly sheep enter and shorn ones emerge. Part of the shearers' ploy to remove the cook Quinn was to surreptitiously place bottles of lemon essence in his kitchen. Lemon essence is almost pure alcohol and Quinn was an incorrigible drunk. Foley sneaks out late at night and steals the lemon essence from the station owner's kitchen, only to be discovered by Sheila. She bargains with him - the theft will go unreported if she can view the men at work. It is a tantalizing scene, pregnant with youthful defiance and loss of innocence.
Sheila is hardened by what she witnesses in the sheds. There is hard work, yes. Antics as well - yet there is a brutality in the shearing itself - cuts to the sheepskin, as well as glaring wounds to those huge merino ram's testicles - bloody and brutal. When her allotted viewing time is up, she is pale, and looking close to passing out - but as a farmers daughter she hides this and shows sterner stuff. The men are on a break, brewing billy tea and rolling cigarettes. She hops off the fence, which was her grandstand - takes 2 tentative steps towards them and loudly says "Thank you". There is shuffling of feet, there are mumbles, there are downcast glances from the men. Sheila is left in no doubt that she is a million miles away from these men - separated wildly by sex and status.
One of the simplest elements in the film is rivalry and mindless male competition. The old hand Foley and dark newcomer Arthur Black represent this most keenly with their unspoken, yet open competition to see who can shear the most sheep. However, this plot device is not only used for highlighting the men's shortcomings, but is also used to some fine comedic effect - resulting in one of the boldest, funniest and most memorable scenes in Australian cinema. Foley and another shearer emerge from the showers and proceed to the sinks to hand-wash their trousers. Foley is naked, and the other is towel-clad. They scrub and wash with haste - at first only to get a tiresome chore done with as quickly as possible, but the washing soon develops into a race. Fast-paced bongo music takes over the score, and some deft camera editing sees the view shift from both arses - to one arse - to the other arse, then a profile - then back to both arses as the other shearer's towel falls to his ankles. Both men are now naked and totally consumed with being the first to have clean pants. The bongos reach a heightened frenzy and each man's gluteus maximus wobbles in perfect synch. It sounds ridiculous - and it deliberately is. The comedy will always come from the wobbling arses - but the poignancy came from the fact that this was Australia, and it was 1975, and this sort of thing had never been done before.
If Sheila represents innocence then the character of Old Garth represents emotional corruption. He is the oldest of the shearers, a good mate of Foley's and long since a 2-bottle-of-rum a day man. He is so drunk for most of the film that he can barely get out of bed. He is at his most animated when there is a bottle - any bottle, as long as it isn't empty - within reaching distance. A liver treated as thus will only go on for so long, and mid-way through the film, the inevitable happens;
"Finish up the one you're on, then call it a day. Old Garths dead."
Foley is visibly shaken - yet retains his macho composure. He even goes to the point of abusing the undertaker who arrives at the station with a ute to carry Garth, instead of the proper hearse. After a tense scene of implied violence, Foley carries Garth's body up to the passenger seat, sitting the corpse right next to the undertaker. Here he exhibits the classic modus operandi of an Aussie male struggling to deal with grief. He acts with impetus, rather than emotion; violence rather than acceptance. In essence - he does rather than feels.
Th single breathtaking element that sets Sunday Too Far Away way apart is what the competitive, ignorant, flawed, prejudiced; yet at the same time likeable Foley does next. It is an odd scene - and being objective, sits a little ill at ease with the rest of the picture. Foley flees. He walks to a place of barren beauty - long sweeping vistas in the background and gnarled, burned trees in the foreground. The choice of locale is laden with metaphor and is no accident. Sheila follows him. When their meet eyes, he roughly tells her stories of Old Garth, stories of shearing, stories of what he thinks it is to be a man. But it all falls apart - his deep grief takes hold, and Jack Thompson gives the best thirty seconds he ever has ever committed to film. His loud and hot tears still sting the viewer to this day, and it is a touchingly poignant moment. Only to be dashed by a last volley of bitter irony. Sheila is shaken - disgusted is not the word - but it is heading in that direction when her image of Foley (and thus men at large) is shattered by his outpouring of grief. She does not console him - instead, she herself flees. It is a scene of desolate hopelessness to be only matched by the landscape.
It may not sound like reason for hurrahs today, but when released in 1975 this film impressed, disturbed, confused and raised many an eyebrow. Historical value alone is not enough to get exited about a film - and if that is all Sunday Too Far Away was about, then I really would be wasting my words on this review - as it is nigh on impossible to find on video or DVD ¹. The ABC played this movie last night - and although I've seen it a few times before, last night was my first viewing for at least ten years. I loved it even more than the first time - or the second. It is true - even if you made a concerted effort, you will probably never find a copy of this movie, but this really is of no matter, as what I write above was not intended to get you to buy a copy - but rather to just let you know that it was. And that it was pretty damn good as well.
Foley -- Jack Thompson
Tim King -- Max Cullen
Tom -- Robert Bruning
Basher -- Jerry Thomas
Arthur Black -- Peter Cummins
Ugly -- John Ewart
Beresford -- Sean Scully
Old Garth -- Reg Lye
Station hand -- Laurie Rankin
Sheila Dawson -- Lisa Peers
Michael Simpson -- Gregory Apps
Rousie -- Doug Lihou
Quinn -- Ken Weaver
Wentworth -- Curt Jansen
Ivy -- Phyllis Ophel
Barman -- John Charman
Frankie Davis -- Ken Shorter
Undertaker -- Wayne Anthony
Director -- Ken Hannam
Writer -- John Dingwall
Producers -- Gil Brealey
-- Matt Carroll
Cinematography -- Geoff Burton
Original Music -- Patrick Flynn
Film editing -- Rod Adamson
Production Design -- David Copping
Filmed during 1975 in Port Augusta and Quorn, South Australia.
¹ Ahh, carrot and stick that is the Internet. toalight has pointed me to a website that will sell you a DVD of Sunday Too Far Away for a miserly $22AUD. Here is -