Here at 18 Cinema Lane, I try to go out of my way to watch, and review, as many film recommendations as possible. In fact, I have a board on Pinterest dedicated to these recommendations. Two years ago, when I reviewed Marriage on the Rocks, Maddy, from Maddy Loves Her Classic Films, suggested I check out the 1960 picture, The Sundowners. Shortly after Debbie, from Moon in Gemini, invited me to her Foreign Western Blogathon, I finally found an opportunity to write about the movie! The Sundowners fits two of the four blogathon categories: ‘directed by foreign directors’ and ‘shot in a foreign country’. According to IMDB, the film’s director, Fred Zinnemann, is from Austria-Hungary. The movie was also filmed in Australia, where the story takes place. Foreign westerns are not a new concept on 18 Cinema Lane. Neither are Australian films. Within the four years of my movie blogging journey, I reviewed Another Man, Another Chance, Interrupted Melody, and Hallmark Hall of Fame’s Durango. If you’re interested, I’ll provide the links to these reviews toward the beginning of this article.
Things I liked about the film:
The cinematography: Like I said in the introduction, The Sundowners was filmed in Australia. The movie’s creative team took advantage of the country’s natural surroundings through cinematography! One long shot showcased Australia’s farmlands. What made this shot beautiful were the rays of sunlight showering over the green landscape, offering a light only nature could provide. The cinematography also did a good job putting things into perspective. During a forest fire, Ida is driving her family’s wagon away from the forest. While this maneuver is taking place, the camera is situated inside the back of the wagon. It looks out toward the road, giving the audience the illusion they are riding in the wagon with Ida.
Higher stakes: When I reviewed Hallmark Hall of Fame’s Durango last year, I talked about low stakes being one of the film’s biggest flaws. In The Sundowners, higher stakes were featured in a few scenes! A notable example is the forest fire I previously mentioned. While the Carmody family is herding sheep, a nearby forest fire breaks out. This leads all the characters to be in danger. The scene chronicled the entire process of the fire, starting from the detection of smoke and ending in the fire’s aftermath. Cut-away shots of scared wildlife are spliced into the story, emphasizing the other lives in harm’s way. Dramatic music can be heard in the background, elevating the sense of urgency. With all these elements combined, this scene was the perfect example of the higher stakes I expect from a western film!
The historical accuracy: With any “period film”, the historical accuracy can make or break that production. In the case of The Sundowners, the story takes place in the 1920s. From the looks of it, the 1960 project appears historical accurate! The forms of transportation are one indicator. While the Carmody family is working on the sheep farm, the employees sometimes rode in antique trucks with open beds. At least one motorcycle is featured in the story, revealing exposed gears and a model very different from the motorcycles of today. A covered wagon is the preferred vehicle of the Carmody family, with Paddy and Sean riding horses on a few occasions. This aspect of the film’s historical accuracy reminded me of a production like The Grapes of Wrath.
What I didn’t like about the film:
A “slice of life” story: Westerns, like any genre, contain a wide range of narratives. If given the choice, I’d rather watch a western with, at least, one conflict instead of a story that’s more “slice of life”. Unfortunately, the majority of The Sundowners is a “slice of life” story. The script primarily focuses on the daily operations of sheep farming. At first, this topic was interesting. But as the film carried on, the elements of sheep farming became repetitive. Had this movie contained one or two major conflicts, I might have found this story more intriguing.
Lack of Irish accents: According to Wikipedia, the Carmody family is Irish, a fact Sean tells Rupert early in the film. Michael Anderson Jr., Robert Mitchum, and Deborah Kerr must have missed that detail in the script, as none of them could successfully carry an Irish accent. Throughout The Sundowners, Deborah sounded like she was speaking in a British accent. Meanwhile, Robert and Michael sounded Australian. I don’t think Robert, Deborah, and Michael are bad actors. In fact, pulling off any accent can be a difficult skill to master. However, their lack of Irish accents was, for me, jarring.
The run-time: The Sundowners contains a straight-forward story about a family searching for employment in order to afford a place of their own. With that said, I found it unnecessary for the film’s run-time to be two hours and thirteen minutes. Some scenes felt drawn out in an attempt to satisfy this run-time, the shearing contest Paddy enters being one example. That scene lasts about five minutes, even though it could have only featured the most exciting parts of the contest. If scenes like that one had been cut shorter, the movie could have had a run-time of about an hour and thirty minutes.
A “bait and switch” ending: In my review of 1961’s The Pit and the Pendulum, I incorporated spoilers to explain my thoughts on a specific portion of the movie. Similarly, I will be including spoilers in this part of my review. If you haven’t seen The Sundowners, please skip this part and continue reading where it states “My overall impression”.
As I stated earlier in this review, The Sundowners contains a straight-forward story. I also stated how the movie is two hours and thirteen minutes. Within that run-time, the Carmody family receives the funds to afford a farm that was featured toward the beginning of the film. All seems to be going well until the last ten minutes in the story. While in a drunken state, Paddy makes several I-O-Us, losing the family’s finances in the process. In an attempt to earn back some of those funds, the family enters their race-horse, Sundowner, in an upcoming horse race. Not only does Sundowner and Sean win the race, Paddy also wins a bet. Even though they have enough money to make a down payment on the aforementioned farm, Ida changes her mind, saying Paddy can keep the race horse instead. This statement contradicts Ida’s goal throughout the movie; getting a place to put down roots. Moments later, an announcement declares Sundowner is disqualified from the race due to a pass interference. This means the Carmody family lost all the money they just won. The movie ends exactly how it begins; with the family on the road looking for employment and a place to stay. If I had known the story would end this way, I wouldn’t have become invested in the Carmody family’s ordeal.
My overall impression:
When it comes to film-making, one of the worst things you can do is waste the audience’s time. The way I feel about The Sundowners is similar to how I felt about The Birds; like I truly wasted two hours and thirteen minutes. I understand circumstances in western films aren’t always fair. Heck, life itself is sometimes unfair. But what is also not fair is giving your characters and audience hope for two hours, then taking that hope away in the film’s last ten minutes. With the way The Sundowners turned out for me, it almost seemed like history repeated itself. As I mentioned in this review, I wrote about Hallmark Hall of Fame’s Durango last year. That 1999 presentation was a foreign western I didn’t like. Both Durango and The Sundowners have one thing in common. Even though there were things about each film I liked, they contained a weak script. A script is the foundation of any cinematic production. If it isn’t strong, there’s only so much you can do to remedy the issue. Before I end this review, I want to make it clear that I have nothing against foreign westerns or Australian cinema. I’m confident there are stellar Australian and foreign western pictures I haven’t seen yet. Unfortunately, The Sundowners isn’t one of them.
Overall score: 4.7 out of 10
Have you watched any foreign westerns? If so, which ones would you recommend? Let me know in the comment section!
Have fun at the movies!