Western, Action, Adventure | 133 mins | Released: 1960
Director: Fred Zinnerman
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Deborah Kerr, Peter Ustinov, Glynis Johns, Dina Merrill, Chips Rafferty, Michael Anderson Jr.
Our Rating: 7

Irish-Australian Paddy Carmody (Mitchum) is a sheep drover and shearer, roving the sparsely-populated back country with his wife Ida (Kerr) and son Sean (Anderson). They are sundowners, constantly moving, pitching their tent whenever the sun goes down. Ida and Sean want to settle down, but Paddy has wanderlust and never wants to stay in one place for long. While passing through the bush the family meet refined Englishman Rupert Venneker (Ustinov) and hire him to help drive a large herd of sheep to the town of Cawndilla. Along the way, they survive a dangerous brush fire.

Mrs. Firth, who runs the pub in Cawndilla, takes a liking to Rupert. He takes to spending nights with her, but, like Paddy, he has no desire to be tied down.

Ida convinces Paddy to take a job at a station shearing sheep; she serves as the cook, Rupert as a wool roller, and Sean as a tar boy. Ida enjoys the company of another woman, their employer’s lonely wife, Jean Halstead. When fellow shearer Bluey Brown’s pregnant wife Liz shows up unannounced, she sees the young woman through her first birth.

Ida is saving the money the family earns for a farm that they stayed at for a night on the sheep drive. Even though Paddy has agreed to participate in a shearing contest against someone from a rival group, he decides to leave six weeks into the shearing season. Ida persuades him to stay. He loses the contest to an old veteran.

Paddy wins a lot of money and a race horse playing Two-up. Owning such an animal has been his longstanding dream. They name him Sundowner and enter him, with Sean as his jockey, at local races on their travels after the shearing is done. Sean and Sundowner win their first race.

Ida finally convinces a still reluctant Paddy to buy the farm she and Sean have their hearts set on. However, he loses everything Ida has saved for the down payment in a single night of playing Two-up. By way of apology, he tells her that he has found a buyer for Sundowner if he wins the next race. The money would recoup their down payment. However, though Sundowner does win, he is disqualified for interference and the deal falls through. Nevertheless, Paddy’s deep remorse heals the breach with Ida, and they resolve to save enough money to buy a farm one day.


Movie Notes:

The Sundowners is a 1960 film that tells the story of an Australian outback family torn between the father’s desires to continue his nomadic sheep-herding ways and the wife’s and son’s desire to settle down in one place. The movie stars Deborah Kerr, Robert Mitchum, and Peter Ustinov, with a supporting cast including Glynis Johns, Dina Merrill, Michael Anderson, Jr., and Chips Rafferty.

The screenplay was adapted by Isobel Lennart from Jon Cleary‘s novel of the same name; it was produced and directed by Fred Zinnemann.

At the 33rd Academy Awards, The Sundowners was nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Deborah Kerr), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Glynis Johns), Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.

Fred Zinnemann decided to make the film at the suggestion of Dorothy Hammerstein, Australian-born second wife of Oscar Hammerstein II. She intended to send him a copy of the novel The Shiralee (later filmed with Peter Finch), but accidentally sent a copy of The Sundowners instead. He immediately bought the screen rights and decided to produce it himself. According to Zimmerman’s autography, Aaron Spelling was originally signed to write the screenplay, but was replaced by Isobel Lennart; another source says the screenplay was mostly written by Jon Cleary, in spite of Lennart’s screen credit.

The ending of the film was a tribute to John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Gary Cooper was hired to play Paddy Carmody, but had to leave due to poor health. He was replaced by Robert Mitchum, who agreed to work on the film for a chance to appear opposite Deborah Kerr, with whom he had become good friends while making Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison together. He also agreed to give her top billing, joking to the production team that they could “design a twenty-four foot sign of me bowing to her if you like”. Michael Anderson, Jr. was imported from England to play their son.

Zinnemann was determined to film The Sundowners on location and vetoed Jack Warner‘s plan to shoot in Arizona to save money. Interiors were shot at Associated British Pictures Corp. Elstree Studios in England; exteriors were shot in Australia at Cooma, Nimmitabel, and Jindabyne of New South Wales and in Port Augusta, Whyalla, Quorn, Iron Knob, Hawker and Carriewerloo in South Australia. The “for-sale” property in the film was actually called “Hiawatha” and was on the Snowy River just north of Old Jindabyne (now under the waters of Lake Jindabyne).

Filming began in 1959. Zinnemann spent 12 weeks filming scenery and sheep herding before the cast arrived in October. The weather made location filming difficult, fluctuating from hot and humid to cold and rainy. This delayed production by several weeks and caused some irritation among the cast and crew. Mitchum was constantly harassed by fans and eventually had to move onto a boat to avoid them. Filming eventually wrapped on 17 December 1959. A significant number of Australian actors appeared in the supporting cast.

Ray Austin was the stunt coordinator. Nicolas Roeg, who would later direct films such as Walkabout, was a second unit camera operator.

Bosley Crowther called the film an “especially appropriate entertainment for the Christmas holidays”; according to Crowther:

What is nice about these people and valid about this film, is that they have an abundance of freshness, openness and vitality. The action scenes are dynamic—the scenes of driving sheep, shearing them, racing horses at a genuine “bush country” track and simply living happily in the great sky-covered outdoors. And the scenes of human involvements—those between the husband and the wife, of a woman having a baby, of a footloose housewife looking at a stove—are deeply and poignantly revealing of how good and sensitive people can be.

The Sundowners, marketed as a “newer version” of From Here to Eternity, was a financial failure in the United States. The film reached the top ten at the UK box office and was the third highest grossing film of 1961 in Australia.

Gary Cooper was originally cast in the lead role of Paddy Carmondy, but had to back out due to poor health. Robert Mitchum stepped into the role for the chance to act with his good friend Deborah Kerr, whom he had previously co-starred with in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957). Mitchum agreed to give Kerr top billing, joking to the production team, “You can design a twenty-four foot sign of me bowing to her if you like.”

The man who offers to buy the horse at the end of the film is played by Jon Cleary, the author of the book.

Second of four movies that paired Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum.

The definition of ‘sundowner’ given in the film is not the most common one used in Australia. A ‘sundowner’ was the term used for a swagman who arrived at a homestead/ farm just on sundown, in time to ask for a meal or food but too late to be asked to do any work. The sundowner usually departed early in the morning, before anyone else was up and before being asked to do some work.

Although studio head Jack L. Warner wanted to shoot the movie in Arizona, director Fred Zinnemann insisted on shooting the exteriors on location in Australia. The shoot did not go well. Zinnemann spent 12 weeks filming scenery and sheep herding scenes in the Outback before the cast arrived. Once the cast got there, the weather began alternating daily between hot sun and cold rain, which resulted in several extra weeks of filming. ‘Robert Mitchum’ was so harassed by fans that he had to move onto a boat to get away from them.

Mervyn Johns replaced an actor who dropped out.

Peter Carver was only cast as Clint the Shearer only after the actor first cast was cast in a different part.

Gerry Duggan, who plays Turk, was also thought suitable for a minor role of a drunk. Gerry Duggan worked 30 days over 8 weeks.

First full length cinema film of Ray Barrett.

Eileen Moore was considered for a key role.

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