The Sundowners (1960)

If you have a quick look through the rest of my posts, you’ll notice I have a particular style when I review a film. I typically begin with an introduction—what made this film special for me, why I wanted to see it, and so on—and then I go on to a brief synopsis of the plot. Not a blow-by-blow account, and not giving away the climax, but enough to present a broad enough picture of what the story’s all about.

Not so with The Sundowners.

And the reason for that is that there’s really not much of a story to the film. Yes, there is a tale of sorts, but it’s so thin that I could write two sentences and take one screen cap, and that’ll be it. And this amazing movie deserves much better than that. So there’s going to be a change of format here.

As Sean Carmody (Michael Anderson Jr.) says in the course of the film, sundowner is “the Australian word for people like us. A sundowner is someone whose home is where the sun goes down,” and that’s exactly what the protagonists of this story are. They’re a small family of sundowners—`tough guy with a soft heart’ Paddy Carmody (Robert Mitchum), his wife Ida (Deborah Kerr), and their teenaged son Sean, not counting their carthorse Sam and their sheepdog Ollie. They wander from one place to another, with Paddy taking on whatever jobs he can find: sheep drover, sheep shearer—as long as it doesn’t mean staying in one place longer than a few weeks.

Paddy, Ida and Sean

But Sean and Ida do want to settle down, and the bulk of the film is about the slow, sweet tussle between the two sides of the argument. No, there isn’t great action here, no major twists of the plot and no sudden revelations that will mean a return to nomadic life (or, conversely, settling down for life). The story meanders its way, showing in small and tantalising glimpses the deep love of the Carmody family for each other, and for their friends: the ex-sailor Rupe Venneker (Peter Ustinov, brilliant as always)….

Rupe Venneker

the feisty inn-keeper Mrs Firth (Glynis Johns, an old favourite of mine)…

Mrs Firth

the porcelain doll wrapped in cottonwool against her wishes, Mrs Halstead (Dina Merrill)…

Mrs Halstead

and the young mother-to-be who’s ventured deep into the Outback just so she can be with her sheep-shearer husband.

Bluey's wife, Liz

And all of it against the backdrop of one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever been to: Australia. There are kangaroos and koalas, even an emu galloping its ungainly way across the road. And glory be, kookaburras laughing their heads off. The earth’s rich red, the sky a vivid blue, and the gum trees soar high, grey-green and gorgeous. It’s a lovely land, and this film, slow-paced and gentle, complements it perfectly.

The Australian countryside

One can, of course, pick holes in the film. There are those who’ve accused it of being too slow. Of Mitchum’s and Kerr’s accents being not quite there (yes, well: I agree they aren’t true-blue Aussie, but they’re believable enough for me). And there are those who’ve said it’s sexist; women in this film either work themselves to the bone cooking and cleaning and rubbing their husband’s backs after a hard day’s work, or sit around and look pretty. Well, all I have to say to that is: that’s how it was. That’s how it still is in places. End of discussion.

Hard at work

And the reasons for seeing it are legion. The landscapes; the quiet humour (Paddy Carmody getting thrashed in a sheep-shearing contest by a decrepit octogenarian!); and yes—the amazing chemistry between Kerr and Mitchum. It doesn’t have the suppressed passion of the inimitable Heaven Knows, Mr Allison, but there’s a deep affection here that is very heartwarming. I read somewhere that Robert Mitchum once said of Deborah Kerr, “The best, my favourite… life would be kind if I could live it with Deborah around.” You can almost hear his sentiments in The Sundowners—and Deborah seems to echo them.

Mitchum and Kerr in The Sundowners

Lovely movie, not to be missed. And really, till the last minute you can’t tell who’s going to get their way: Paddy? Or Ida and Sean? And anyway, by this time, I’m not even quite sure if Paddy does want to still go wandering any more, or if Ida and Sean are so very keen on staying in one place…

And yes, this would’ve been the perfect sequel to Heaven Knows, Mr Allison. Sigh.

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