The Sundowners was nominated for Best Picture in 1960 and is a film about the Carmody’s, a family of Australian sheep drovers. They roam the Outback and never settle in any one place for too long. They herd sheep to any given destination, get odd jobs at that place and then after a few months, move on. The Carmody’s consist of a father, named Paddy (Robert Mitchum), the mother, Ida (Deborah Kerr) and Sean. Ida and Sean want to settle down and build a home, but Paddy, the “grizzled” Australian father, wants to keep moving on. What little money they make is usually spent gambling and/or drinking by Paddy. What was meant to be an epic film about the struggles of a nomadic family traveling through the Outback of Australia turns out to be a long and grueling borefest. It is riddled with random close-up shots of animals unique to the Outback doing things that are probably meant to make the audience laugh. However, a shot of a cute animal, like a Koala Bear, immediately following the near-death experience of the Carmody’s in a wild-fire is completely out of place. Plus, Koala Bears will tear your face off. I also got the impression that these animal scenes exist to show off the Australian wildlife. Despite the fact that this might be the 1960 audience’s only chance to get to see the Outback, I still think this was pretty lame.
The Sundowners was directed by Fred Zinneman, who made many great films like Oklahoma!, From Here to Eternity, Nigh Noon & A Man For All Seasons. However, he managed to churn out a dud the size of Wolf Creek Crater. The only good thing I could say about this film is the cinematography, which is half-way decent at best but botches many opportunities for great shots and instead goes for those animal close-ups in their habitat.
Newton’s laws of motion do not apply to the flow of things in this film. Things seem to happen for no reason. Effects occur despite the fact that there may have been no cause. Reactions take place without there being neither an equal nor an opposite action to put it into motion. Actors laugh at sad things and the audience doesn’t laugh at all. All of this must be chalked up to bad writing, even though it got an Adapted Screenplay nomination. Not only that, but the story has no flow. The film never goes anywhere but the characters are constantly on the road. It’s editing is choppy.
This nomadic family finds a temporary place where they all get jobs and finally seem content. Then the family starts gambling with other workers. They bet on timed sheep shedding contests, coin tosses, and finally horse racing. They win a horse through coin toss betting and somehow, their son Sean becomes an overnight expert jockey and, fully clothed in jockey apparel, races their new horse and wins lots of money.
The Carmody’s pick up a British drifter named Rupert (Peter Ustinov). He’s fat and gives antidotal bits of advice here and there that are meant to be funny, but are not. He drinks tea when the others drink coffee and he smokes his cigarette through a holder. His British habits mixed with the family’s Australian way of doing things show a difference in them, but a difference that is not in the least bit funny nor interesting.
At over two hours in length, the film attempts to capture that “epic-ness”, but it does not. It’s epic in length, but certainly not epic in the ways that we think of when we speak of epic films like, Gone With The Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Ben-Hur, and There Will Be Blood. Not to compare The Sundowners to these other masterpieces, but these films at least have substance. The Sundowners is empty; a long, empty movie that hopes the elements it lacks will somehow find their way to the surface.
Being “epic” and set in Australia, one would think that the film would find a way to grab nominations for Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Editing and Original Music, but The Sundowners received no such nominations. Movies on as grand a scale as The Sundowners attempts to be, must grab some of these nominations, especially given that the film was a Best Picture nominee. Deborah Kerr and Glynis Johns managed to take nominations for Actress and Supporting Actress, respectively. Isobel Lennart was nominated for Adapted Screenplay for her efforts in turning the book into a movie, which seems a regrettable effort now. Fred Zinneman, who won four Oscars in his career, managed to find himself nominated for director.
So I have watched this film in 2010 and did not like it, but I have to ask myself, “How was the film relevant in 1960?” Was it the fondness of the actors by the public that earned the film its nomination? Was it Zinnemann’s track record of making so many great films that it came to the point where he just had to throw something together in order get nominated? Was it the fact that it showcased the Outback, which gave the audience a rare glance at this foreign land? Perhaps, but this film does not stand the test of time.
The Sundowners…Australian for suck.
*1/2 out of ****
The Sundowners can be found on Netflix or any of the Nashville Public Libraries.