THE SUNDOWNERS , a wonderful slice-of-bygone-life, is one of the best films of 1960, yet one of the least talked-about. Not the biggest (Spartacus, The Alamo), not the most successful (Swiss Family Robinson), not the most acclaimed (The Apartment, La Dolce Vita), or most iconic (Psycho, The Magnificent Seven), just a Family Picture in the best sense, one of the most purely enjoyable entertainments from a year packed with memorable movies. *
The Australian Outback in the 1920s. ‘Paddy Carmody’ (Robert Mitchum), his wife ‘Ida’ (Deborah Kerr) and teenage son ‘Sean’ (Michael Anderson Jr.) have a nomadic existence, living out of a wagon, leisurely moving from place to place as sheep drovers. Footloose is fine with Paddy, but Ida and the boy want to save money and buy a farm. Hiring cultured– if somewhat rakish–English wanderer ‘Veneker’ (Peter Ustinov) to aid on a drove, the genial quartet encounter lively pub owner ‘Mrs.Smith’ (Glynis Johns), lonely rancher’s wife ‘Jean’ (Dina Merrill) and a variety of rowdy, hard-living, good-natured blokes who work the isolated stations. Some booze-ups, a brawl or two, a brush firestorm, and gambling on shearing contests and horse-races spice up the monotony, but Ida’s determined to get a place to settle.
Smoothly directed with an eye for detail and nuance by Fred Zinnemann, it was taken from Jon Cleary’s 1952 novel (one of 55 he wrote) which had sold in excess of 3,000,000 copies. Isobel Lennart’s script was reworked by the author to give it a more authentic Australian tang and Zinnemann wisely and fortunately pushed Warner’s to go for essential location filming in Australia. Jack Warner had first proposed Arizona (save money), insisting they could just purloin some kangaroos from the Phoenix Zoo. The director’s vision won out, so most of the shoot was done in New South Wales (including Cooma and Jindabyne) and South Australia (Port Augusta, Quorn, Iron Knob and Carriewerloo). Jack Hildyard did his usual sterling work manning the camera, Dimitri Tiomkin gave the doings a jaunty music score.
Kerr and Mitchum’s second teaming after doing so well in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison sees them go one better. Kerr, 38, earned the last of her six Oscar nominations for her earthy Ida, and she really should have won (Liz Taylor got it for BUtterfield 8); smart and sensual, sassy and forgiving, loyal but no pushover, Ida’s a peach, a diamond in the rough. Kerr would continue to deliver superior work—The Innocents, The Chalk Garden, The Night Of The Iguana, but none to top this. She and Mitchum did one more picture the same year, the paperweight comedy The Grass Is Greener. As for Bad Bob, 42, when he didn’t care, he coasted, but with strong material and the right director, he was so good it was invisible, and his Paddy is one of his top performances. He nails the accent and has the self-contented and decent yet recognizably real and flawed rover down pat. Latecomer Mitchum fans rave over his awesome bad guys in The Night Of The Hunter and Cape Fear, but it’s hard to beat his multi-faceted effort here; he was cheated, again, of recognition from the Oscars (though for ’60 nobody had a chance against Burt Lancaster’s Elmer Gantry).
Peter Ustinov did cop one of those little gold guys that year, for his fawning conniver in Spartacus, and he’s in fine form here as a much nicer sort of rascal. The vivacious Glynis Johns nicked her single career Oscar nomination (Supporting Actress) for her saucy pub owner: she’s delightful. 16-year-old Michael Anderson Jr. handles himself quite well in the powerhouse company. While she did okay in the role, it is kind of ironic to see Dina Merrill play at playing an Outback sheep station wife—she was the World’s Richest Actress (worth 5 billion).
A laid-back but never lazy 133 minutes, Zinnemann’s rugged working road trip is warm and funny, salted by just the right touches of poignancy and longing, none of it forced, with full-fleshed people you really like to spend time with. It doesn’t receive anything like the credit, but from this couch we deem it every bit as good as The Quiet Man.
In addition to saluting Kerr and Johns it was nominated for Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay. Grosses totaled $10,900,000, 18th place among the year’s bumper crop. With Chips Rafferty, Lola Brooks, John Meillon, Wylie Watson, Ronald Fraser, Mervyn Johns (Glynis’ father), Gerry Duggan and Ray Barrett.
While we’re about it—-you have to hand it to studio ad departments coming up with hoopla: “HERE COME “THE SUNDOWNERS”! They’re real people, fun people, fervent people. They have a tremendous urge to keep breathing. Their rousing story comes roaring across six thousand miles of excitement…” A tremendous urge to keep breathing?
* Frolic vs. furtive: one of the (many) nice aspects of the film is its non-sensationalist attitude toward sex. Contrast the easy naturalism of the married characters of Ida and Paddy, and the confident ease of Kerr and Mitchum or the sly teasing twinkle between Ustinov and Johns with how other films of the year tackled what goes on between the sheets—-Elmer Gantry, Never On Sunday, BUtterfield 8, The World Of Suzie Wong, The Apartment, Strangers When We Meet.
While sex was a preoccupation–or just plain occupation– of a good number of scripts, 1960 was also a year of Freedom Epics. The three biggest, most publicized pictures of the year—Spartacus, The Alamo and Exodus—all dealt with it, but on a slavery v. tyranny/national & martial scale, whereas the gentle lilt of The Sundowners brought the idea down to a micro, family-unit scale. No swords, cannons or hunger strikes to make the point, just a few beers, some flirting and the odd hopping kangaroo.
With few exceptions all the films mentioned above and at top rate highly, and 1960 also offered The Time Machine, North To Alaska, Pollyanna, Home From The Hill (another fine job from Mitchum), The Dark At The Top Of The Stairs, Village Of The Damned, Flaming Star, The Unforgiven, Sons And Lovers, Tunes Of Glory, Inherit The Wind, It Started In Naples, Wild River, Heller In Pink Tights, The Brides Of Dracula and Sink The Bismarck! Plus JFK got elected. Time machine, anyone?…