Sunday Too Far Away

“Friday night too tired,
Saturday night too drunk,
Sunday too far away.”
— The Shearer’s Wife’s Lament

The 1970s was a seminal decade for the Australian film industry. For the first time, governments were awakened to recognise the national prestige, publicity and economic value of a local film production industry, after decades of apathy and apparent obeisance to the US and British industries. In 1970 the federal government established the Australian Film Development Corporation and an Experimental Film Fund. The promise of a Film School announced by Prime Minister John Gorton lapsed after he was toppled but became a reality in 1973 with the election of Gough Whitlam’s government. The few major productions made in Australia over the preceding four years had been essentially foreign productions made on Australian locations with imported directors and leading players, and almost nothing since Fred Zinneman’s The Sundowners (1950) had managed a genuine Australian atmosphere or stirred Australian audiences to risk exposure to their own culture on the screen.

Those foreign productions included a coyly nude Helen Mirren in Michael Powell’s Age of Consent (1969) that aroused some interest, while more serious 1971 productions – Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout and Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright – found favour with critics but little resonance from general audiences. The latter’s critical probing of outback Australian culture that found mean-spirited thuggish ignorance beneath the tradition of boozy, gambling mateship was shunned by the public in its initial release and also in the well publicised recent prestige re-release of a remastered print. Not surprisingly, the same Australians had thronged to see their boozy gambling mateship presented as warm-hearted, generous and lovable in They’re a Weird Mob (Michael Powell, 1966). Bruce Beresford’s two Barry McKenzie films (1972 and 1974), made overseas, were popular with most audiences but critics generally cringed at their cheerfully caustic parodies of Australian boofheads and English stereotypes. Vigorously promoted Roadshow-funded productions out of Melbourne like Alvin Purple (1973) and Petersen (1974) took advantage of the recently relaxed censorship of sex and nudity but were never intended to be anything more than crowd pleasers.

In 1973 Don Dunstan’s government set up the South Australian Film Corporation to broaden his state’s arts base and add another industry to its limited industrial sector. The SAFC rapidly developed the state’s documentary capacity by making training and publicity films for government departments and agencies but its director, Gil Brealey, knew that the Corporation must venture into feature production to progress and that crucially, for its political survival, its first production had to be successful, both critically and commercially, and also distinctly and proudly all-Australian.

After early negotiations to co-produce a Gallipoli film fell through, John Dingwall, an experienced TV writer, submitted a film treatment called Shearers that was based partly on his brother-in-law’s rural experiences. Brealey sent the treatment to Ken Hannam, a former ABC colleague then directing for television in England, who enthusiastically agreed to return to direct the project. The script approached a shearer’s life from the viewpoints of three generations: a young rousabout Michael (Gregory Apps) who wanted to become a gun shearer like Foley (Jack Thompson), who was secretly afraid of ending up a physical wreck like old Garth. There was a sub-plot of Michael and Foley’s tentative play for the affections of the boss’s daughter and a final section on the bitter and destructive 1956 shearers’ strike. There was enough material for a 3-hour saga, but Brealey didn’t want to run the political risk of a costly epic so he decided to end the film at the beginning of the strike.

Location shooting of what was now called Sunday Too Far Away started in March 1974 at Quorn, near Port Augusta. The screenplay called for a typical Australian sun-baked summer but the shoot coincided with near continuous heavy rain that would break a local 50-year record and last for six weeks. Trips from Quorn to the Carriewaloo shearing shed location, normally a half hour drive, took 2 hours. Some vehicles were stuck in mud for days. The shooting schedule was revised from day to day but much precious shooting time was lost. After seven weeks, the unit returned to Adelaide.

The first rough cut ran over two hours. Brealey wanted to make cuts for a brisker pace and to concentrate on Thompson’s iconic performance and the shearers’ warm mateship (excepting the outsider Black Arthur) and obsessive rivalry for the top daily tally, which Hannam had captured brilliantly, and to lose most of the sub-plot around Michael, which Hannam had not been able to cover properly due mainly to the day-to-day chaos with the shooting schedule. A major scene from the sub-plot, Foley’s moving emotional breakdown as he contemplates his future, although now awkwardly integrated, was retained at the insistence of Matt Carroll, whom Brealey had promoted “on the battlefield” from production manager to co-producer in recognition of his tenacity in keeping the shoot rolling under nightmarish conditions.

Sunday Too Far Away was accepted into the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight section of the 1975 Cannes Film Festival and one month later opened the Sydney Film Festival, the first Australian film to have that honour. A smart publicity stunt on opening night saw the entire block Market Street fronting the State Theatre closed to traffic, while the gun shearer Bimbi Martin demonstrated his skill on a live ram, assisted by Jack Thompson. The all-Australian production was welcomed by many critics as the first major success of the new Australian cinema, a quintessentially Australian story told with unforced, down to earth local humour. It was a rare and realistic example of Australians at work in an unglamorous job, the rivalry that motivates them and the camaraderie that sustains them. At a total cost of $270,000, it grossed $1.35min in Australia alone, proving that Australian filmmakers did not necessarily need overseas actors, directors or writers showing them how to make it all happen.

The balance of the 1970s was to contain what many Australians believed they would never live to see – a genuine Australian film industry acclaimed both locally and internationally. Of course there were many disappointing productions, but Sunday had blazed the trail for the successes that included Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Devil’s Playground (both 1975), Don’s Party, Eliza Frazer, Storm Boy (all 1976), The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, The Getting of Wisdom, The Last Wave (all 1977), Newsfront (1978), My Brilliant Career and Mad Max (both 1979).

— Introduction to the film at the session ‘The Rebirth of Australian Film’, WEA Film Study Group, Sydney, Australia, 24 October 2010

Australia | 1975 | 91 minutes | Eastmancolor
Directed by Ken Hannam

South Australian Film Corporation. Producers, Gil Brealey, Matt Carroll; screenplay, John Dingwall; cinematography, Geoff Burton; film editing, Rod Adamson; sound recording, Barry Brown; sound editing, Greg Bell; art director, David Copping; music, Patrick Flynn, Michael Carlos; title song, Patrick Flynn, Bob Ellis, performed by Jack Thompson.

Jack Thompson (Foley), Max Cullen (Tim King), Robert Bruning (Tom), Jerry Thomas (Basher), Peter Cummins (Arthur Black), John Ewart (Ugly), Sean Scully (Beresford), Reg Lye (Old Garth), Lisa Peers (Sheila Dawson), Gregory Apps (Michael), Phyllis Ophel (Ivy), Ken Shorter (Frankie Davis), Wayne Anthony (undertaker), Hedley Cullen (mailman), Graeme Smith (Jim the learner), Ken Weaver (Quinn), Philip Ross (Mr Dawson).

Awards:

  • Australian Film Institute Awards 1975: Golden Reel in Feature Section; Best Actor (shared): Jack Thompson; Honorable Mention for Supporting Actor: Reg Lye.
  • Department of the Media Award: Ken Hannam.
  • Film Development Corporation Award.
  • 1975 Cannes Film Festival: Invited to participate in Directors’ Fortnight.

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