“It changes so suddenly. One moment it’s paradise, the next it’s trying to kill you.”
Sometimes a movie is so iconic, I just assume I’ve seen it before. When I was a kid, The Man From Snowy River seemed like the biggest Aussie movie in history. It had spawned a sequel, a TV show and the image of a dude riding a horse down a really steep hill is one of the most recognisable images in Australian movie history. But the thing is, I recently realised that I’d never actually seen the movie. I’m not sure how it passed me by, because I think watching it was compulsory in the 80s, but I somehow got away with it, until now.
It’s latish in the 19th century, and Jim (Tom Bulrinson) and his dad Henry (Terence Donavan) have a farm in the mountains somewhere in the Australian bush. One night, they see a band of wild horses lead by a black stallion. Henry wants to shoot the leader, but Jim convinces him that they should catch the horses, break them and sell them. The next day, they give it a bash, and Henry is killed in the process. While mourning his father, Jim is told by some locals that while he may have inherited his father’s land, he hasn’t earned the right to it yet. For some reason, Jim takes that to heart and heads to the low country for a bit of the ol’ coming of age.
On the way, he stops off to visit his father’s old friend, a bearded, peg legged gold prospector named Spur (Kirk Douglas). I’m sure there’s a reason for this visit, but I was already pretty bored with the movie by this point and not paying much attention. Once in town, he gets a job working on the ranch of local big shot, and Spur’s brother, Harrison (also played by Douglas). Also on the ranch is Harrison’s daughter, Jessica (Sigrid Thornton), who is more of a story convenience than a character. Then there’s, Jack Thompson as legendary horseman, Clancy of the Overflow.
The Man From Snowy River looks amazing. It’s not the brown, dry bush or outback that you usually see in Australian movies. It’s lush, rolling hills, dewy grass and snow capped mountains. It’s also the kind of romantic look at Australian history that I can understand would have been irresistible to audiences. But here’s the thing about The Man From Snowy River, it’s not very good.
The screenplay is uneven, clunky and a checklist of movie clichés. The direction is awkward, stagey and completely lacking in style or anything interesting. And even seasoned campaigners like Thompson and Douglas seem amateurish. The whole thing feels like a high school play.
I guess I never really expected to like this movie, if I had thought I might, I would have watched it long before now. So while I’m not surprised I didn’t like it, I am surprised by why I didn’t like The man From Snowy River. I was dreading faux prestige melodrama and over the top Australiana, but what I got was worse. What I got was just bad film making, bad writing and bad acting. Jeez the countryside looks nice though.