REVIEW: “The Sundowners”

SUNDOWNERS poster

What is a sundowner you may ask? In this film from 1960 one character defines a sundowner as “someone whose home is where the sun goes down.” It was an Australian term used for roamers who traveled across the countryside taking one job at a time. They would pitch their tent wherever they were at the end of the day and that was their home for the night. Richard Zinnemann’s film follows a family of sundowners who move from place to place taking sheep herding jobs. The film bombed in the United States but did well overseas and would go on to earn five Oscar nominations including one for Best Film.

Robert Mitchum plays Paddy Carmody, a nomad at heart who has no desire to settle down in 1920s Australia. He is perfectly content with being constantly on the move and working small jobs here and there. But over time Paddy’s insatiable wanderlust begins to clash with the desires of his wife Ida (Deborah Kerr) and his teenaged son Sean (Michael Anderson). They believe the time is come to consider settling down. They’ve grown tired of constantly being on the go and Sean is at an age where he wants to experience life and set out on his own path. Paddy’s stubbornness and his family’s patience provide the film its central contention.

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Some critics pointed out that there isn’t a lot of plot in “The Sundowners”. That’s essentially true although the film’s intent is to be a sprawling tale of the family’s lives, love, and rugged endurance. We follow them along the Australian backcountry as they drive a large herd of sheep, contend with a sweeping wildfire, and live off what the land provides. This allows for some truly beautiful, sweeping scenes that vividly capture the Australian countryside. The film was originally set to be shot in Arizona, but Zinnemann petitioned hard to spend the extra money and shoot it on location. It was a good decision. The landscapes are anaccurate setting and the story feels perfectly in place. And some scenes, like the aforementioned wildfire are shot with such tenacity and skill. Simply put, the movie looks great.

The family encounters several interesting people along the way. They hire and befriend an Englishman and fellow roamer named Rupert. Peter Ustinov would receive an Oscar nomination for the role. There are also several other interesting faces that pop up when Ida convinces Paddy to take on a stint at a sheep shearing station. She hopes the time in one place will soften him to the idea of settling down here. It’s at this remote station that their family dynamic takes some dramatic turns which sets up the rest of the film.

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As for the performances, Mitchum is rock-solid as always. His Paddy is a tough, salt-of-the-earth fellow, but one whose stubbornness threatens to alienate the family the holds most dear. Mitchum fits right into the character although his Aussie accent is a bit erratic. Kerr is as brilliant as always. Her Isa puts off tough and rugged pioneer vibes but also maintains a distinct femininity. Kerr would earn one of the six Oscar nominations of her career for this role. Amazingly she never won an acting Oscar but the Academy did give her the honorary “Whoops, We Screwed Up” award in 1994. The supporting work was uniformly strong and it too gained critical praise.

“The Sundowners” does run a tad too long and there is an occasional lull or two. The absence of a more defined plot may be an issue for some as well. But the movie does a great job of selling its characters and drawing us to them. I really liked the family and I wanted to see how their story plays out. I also appreciated how grounded the story feels. The film never embraces the sentimentality that many family dramas are consumed by. It just wants us to get to know these people and to experience the life they live. Personally that was enough for me.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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15 thoughts on “REVIEW: “The Sundowners”

  1. I’ve certainly heard of this one, just never got around to watching it. I will now as it’s another of those great Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr pairings (The Grass is Greener and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, the others). Fine review, Keith.

    • Thanks or reading and commenting. This was one of those reviews that I didn’t think many would read. Older movie and definitely one of the most well known. Still a really good movie that I was glad I checked out.

  2. As I was reading, I thought about what I might post as a comment. When I got to the comments I find that le0pard13 has said almost exactly what I had planned to write. I will add that I will now be looking for it on TCM, it definitely sounds interesting. How did you happen to post on it, was it on recently or is it an old friend you wanted to introduce to us?

    • Honestly it’s a review I’ve had written for a few months. I just like tossing in reviews of films from the past – films many may not be aware of. This was one of those. It’s funny, these reviews usually get the fewest number of comments of any that I do, but I still love giving them a little press.

      Thanks so much for reading and please tell me what you think after you see it.

  3. I watched this TCM about a month or so ago. Glad to see you give it such a strong review, Keith. Kerr is wonderful in this. She is soft, loving, frustrated, compassionate, scolding and pretty to look at. Mitchum is as you say, and the Australian backdrop made for lovely setting and wide shots that gave the landscape justice. 🙂

    • So glad to hear from someone else who has seen this. Kerr is simply fantastic. Such a brilliant actress who had a great career full of rich and varied roles. It’s a good movie that I’m glad I caught up with.

      BTW, would you mind passing along your email address?

  4. I really like Deborah Kerr in An Affair To Remember Keith, so I’m curious about this one. Nice to see Mitchum play a good guy, he seems to play lots of antiheroes/villains in his hey day.

    • Mitchum was a good anti-hero and he was also a really good ‘bad guy’. I’ve always liked him although he seems to have been a pretty surly guy in reality.

      • Y’know Keith, I meant to respond to you on this one. Yeah I read Gregory Peck’s biography and there are stories about Mitchum misbehaving on the set of Cape Fear (the original one), he doesn’t strike me as a nice guy. Peck on the other hand is a consummate professional all the way!

      • Robert Osbourne from TCM has had some interesting interviews with Mitchum where he showed this side. He was nothing like the Pecks or the Stewarts off camera.

  5. Pingback: » The Ferncast – Episode 3: American Sniper + iiNet vs Dallas Buyers Club clarification Fernby Films

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