(Dir. Ken Hannam) (1975)
The life of the shearer is brilliantly romanticised here (like Shane romanticised the lone gunslinger) but such a life is a freaking hard one, nevertheless. This film celebrates, starkly and poetically, an almost lost aspect of Australia.
Shearing was largely non-unionised, or rather, disorganised, more a matter of individual contract, where sheer (pardon the pun) talent got you the dough. Shearers were romantic as cowboys, individual as anchorites and hard as contract killers. The most number of sheep shorn (with standard shears) made you the Ringer. The Ringer was the King of the Sheds. Trying too hard hurt the sheep, by cutting them up. Cutting corners meant (in an early nod to animal rights) that you were regarded by other shearers as a fraud, weird as the chap who wrote home to his wife.
The movie encapsulates the life magnificently. It is full of good scenes – e.g., Jack Thompson and John Ewart struggle at the laundry trough, as the spirit of competition takes its useless hold; The shearers insist that their dead comrade ride in the front of the makeshift hearse; Some pub back-chat about who won a certain shed gets the wagerers going; A green kid, all at sea, takes double the usual time (2-3 minutes) to shear a sheep and leaves it looking like an underdone roast. And there’s a glorious episode when Foley confronts the horrendous cook, leading to a splendid fight (no cook, even an alcoholic, enjoys being told his cuisine “tastes like fried turd”). The charming daughter of the cockie assists Foley with his tactics for the battle – first, fill the bastard with lemon essence (but then, even heroes of classical antiquity looked for an edge).
The story revolves around one sheep farm during a strike. Peter Cummins is formidable playing the laissez faire gun-for-hire villain. Jack Thompson, never better, is the old fashioned ringer who harks back to the old age of protectionism. The minor players are authentic. You don’t have to take sides in this film. It’s a very human piece, where human values and dignity predominate. The finale, a pub brawl with shearers vs scabs, is a defiant classic, classical in the sense that nobody wins. But what a classic.
[Note: I spent a couple of glorious summers as a young kid on my uncle’s farm at Pinnaroo, hauling crutchings and bringing the tea, and I can recall impressions of the shearer as a true maverick. These were independent, hard and proud men who didn’t mean to live off the government. But even in the 1970s, the writing was on the wall. New technologies, such as the wide comb, were being introduced despite the efforts of the AWU, watering down working conditions and trimming off marginal workers.
I still recall, as a kid, staying with Uncle Jack and Aunty Betty on their station, when, one dinner time, the doorbell rang. A shearer, down on his luck, was calling. Jack said there was nothing doing work-wise, but invited him in to dinner. The man joined us at table, and cleaned his plate with polite but greedy gratitude. My cousin, Richard, couldn’t resist saying “there’s no need to clean that plate!”. I laughed. After the man had gone, in search of greener pastures, my very proper Aunt slapped Richard hard and said “Don’t you ever make fun of a man down on his luck again.” We were properly chastened, ousted from our complacency, and remained so.]