SUNDAY TOO FAR AWAY (1975)
Jack Thompson as Foley the ‘gun shearer’
I have watched a lot of Australian films in my life and this extraordinary picture about a shearing team in the Australian outback in 1955, on the eve of the great Shearers’ Strike of 1956, is, in my opinion, light years ahead of any other feature made in this country. Not only because of its great direction by Ken Hannam and its exquisite screenplay by John Dingwall, but because the acting performances from the entire cast (and in particular Jack Thompson), are as good as anything ever put on the screen by an Australian company. The movie is quite simply a masterpiece, a delightful time capsule of that era in Australia when men worked hard, drank hard, swore hard, fought hard – and stood by their mates. John Ewart is memorable (as usual) as ‘Ugly’.
John Ewart as ‘Ugly’
The title of the picture refers to ‘The Shearer’s Wife’s Lament’: ‘Friday night…too tired. Saturday night…too drunk. Sunday…too far away.’ The cinema release runs for 94 minutes but, as both Hannam and Thompson said several times, the longer (two-hour) version was far superior. However, it has never been shown publicly so we must take their word for it. There was also a two and a half hour print that, sadly, has since been destroyed. In 1976, Thompson described Sunday Too Far Away as one of the finest achievements, if not the finest achievement of the Australian cinema. That was over forty years ago and, as far as this writer is concerned, his assessment has stood the test of time.
This became the first Australian film to be selected for the Director’s Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975. It made the final three shortlist for top honours in the event, and also won the Australian Film Institute Award for Best Film of 1975, beating, among others, Picnic at Hanging Rock. Remarkably, this was Hannam’s first theatrical feature release. Until then he had been a television director only, helming episodes of Z Cars, The Onedin Line, Colditz and Spy Trap, to name but a few. Most of the cast of this picture had to learn how to shear sheep, although Thompson had previously worked on a sheep station. He plays Foley, a ‘gun shearer’ or ‘ringer’, a man who can shear over two hundred animals in a day, roughly twice what the average shearer handles. A ‘gun’ can remove the fleece from a sheep in under two minutes. The film’s closing epilogue states: ‘The Strike lasted nine months. The Shearers won. It wasn’t the money so much. It was the bloody insult.’ Very impressive writing and a very ‘Australian’ sentiment.
BEND OF THE RIVER (1952)
Between 1950 and 1955, Jimmy Stewart made eight movies, six of which were westerns, under the direction of Anthony Mann. This is the second one of the six and, despite its lukewarm reception by both public and critics alike, is a pretty good picture that maintains one’s interest throughout. It also marks the moment when Stewart opted for more hard-bitten, cynical characters to portray in his films. He was getting on a little and, perhaps, he was feeling a tad ‘elderly’ to be playing the love interest of younger women. Six years later and approaching his fiftieth birthday, he was cast by Hitchcock opposite the 33 year-old beauty Kim Novak and clearly looked his age. In 1962, in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, he romances and marries 32 year-old beauty Vera Miles, although almost fifty-five by then.
Rock Hudson as Trey Wilson
One thing seems very clear, however, and that is his dislike for one of his supporting players in Bend of the River. Up and coming young screen heart-throb Rock Hudson was still a couple of years away from stardom with his leading performance as Bob Merrick in Magnificent Obsession (1954), but his flashy role as gambler Trey Wilson in Bend of the River brought forth cheering and applause at the premiere whenever he appeared on-screen. Stewart was not impressed, vowing never to speak to or work with Hudson again. And he never did.
Julia Adams & Arthur Kennedy
I have always been a huge fan of Arthur Kennedy. He was one of those superb supporting players who almost always enhanced whatever film he was in, regardless of the quality of the story or script. Often, he portrayed flawed characters who were neither completely good nor completely evil. In Bend of the River and in The Man from Laramie (1955) he portrayed two such characters; seemingly honest and likeable on the outside, but with clay feet that are ultimately revealed. I thought he was terrific in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) as journalist/reporter Jackson Bentley, (a thinly disguised real-life journalist Lowell Thomas, the man who brought Lawrence to the attention of the world). Kennedy was five times Oscar-nominated, recognition of the strong body of work produced in his career, yet he never did receive the Oscar he so richly deserved.
Julia Adams landed Jimmy Stewart’s love interest role in Bend of the River, her first lead opposite a major star. She was pretty and a decent actress but she lacked that ‘star quality’ that separates the ‘biggies’ from the run-of-the-mill actors and actresses. She started out in films as Betty Adams, changed to Julia Adams before changing yet again, in 1955, to Julie Adams. Despite having several chances in quality films (mostly westerns, however), it was not until she made Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) that she became known worldwide. The film was shot in 3-D and, although only a small-budget B-Feature, it struck a chord with cinema-goers and is now considered to be a classic in the genre. Julie lived until 2019, dying at the age of ninety-two.
Stepin Fetchit & Chubby Johnson
The most disappointing feature in this film was the use of African-American actor Stepin Fetchit. His humbling, ingratiating style of acting had become a stereotype for black actors in the early years of the cinema and an embarrassment for many black Americans. In Bend of the River he delivered more of the same. Having said that, it is worth mentioning that he became the first black actor to achieve millionaire status. At the height of his career he owned twelve automobiles and employed sixteen servants. By 1947, however, he had squandered everything and had been forced into bankruptcy. He was a major attraction in the cinema (especially in the 1930s), but his lazy, slow-witted characterizations offended most African-Americans and still do so to this day.