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.
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.
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.