(by Kenneth Cook) (1961)
(Directed by Ted Kotcheff) (1971)
(TV mini-series directed by Kriv Stenders) (2017)
“May you dream of the Devil and wake in fright.” Kenneth Cook began his terrific debut novel with this ancient curse, and then set his Dantesque tour in hell in a one-horse town where innocent, city-boy teacher John Grant, learns all about the dark underbelly of the Australian bush. Experience can be a brutal teacher and in the book, the hospitality of the locals from “The ‘Yabba” is far worse than anything a gang of criminals or terrorists could serve up: it’s a never-ending free-for-all of beer, guns, gals, roo-shoots and idiotic conversation, which Grant is unable to resist because he has gambled away all of his money. At the end of his nightmare, the teacher reflects that:
“I can see quite clearly the ingenuity whereby a man may be made mean or great by exactly the same circumstances…what I can’t altogether see is why I should be permitted to be alive, and to know these things…”
It took a Canadian, director Ted Kotcheff, (who has a great cameo in Shattered Glass) to make the seminal 1971 film version, which is a cracker and remains TVC‘s choice for one of the best Australian films of the 1970s. Not that it was particularly appreciated at the time by the locals, given its staggeringly bleak portrait of outback life. Beautifully shot in and around Broken Hill, the set pieces – the isolated Tiboonda schoolhouse (one classroom, filled with kids aged from 5 to 17) and nearby hotel, ‘run’ by an insouciant, sly John Mellion – the bar in the ‘big smoke,’ Bundanyabba, overseen with a sinister, proprietorial air by local copper Chips Rafferty – the endless beer-swilling and chaos of the two-up ring – and the horror brought by a morning full of glare, heat, dust and indifference to those who have chased their losses and run out of money.
In the 1971 film, Gary Bond (last seen by us as a young soldier in Zulu), looking unnervingly like Peter O’Toole, plays very well the innocent rube who looks at the locals with condescension before coming off second-best, to put it mildly. Everyone is terrific, including a young Jack Thompson before stardom beckoned, but we have to single out for particular mention the pungent playing of Donald Pleasance as ‘Doc,’ an evil, slimy, opportunistic pervert who soon sends Grant spiraling-off into a haze of drunken depravity, not seen so vividly on film since The Servant.
At the end of it all, you almost want to join Grant as he heads off into the dry, orange distance, presumably to blow his brains out.
We have to add that the kangaroo shooting sequences in the book are appallingly real, and in Kotcheff’s film, they almost stray into decadence. The kangaroo shooting scenes are truly revolting, and this is said by a writer, who, to his shame, has been roo shooting.
It’s as if the director caught Hitchcock’s disease and fell in love with the idea of toying with his actors as if they were marionettes.
Cut to this well-made two part TV version by accomplished TV director Kriv Stenders, which plays about with aspects of the plot a little, sometimes to effect. Once again, we see the amiable, clean-cut young man, John Grant (Sean Keenan), heading for the coast after a tour of duty in Tiboonda (which seems to give him a certain status in Bundanyabba, his stop en route – after all, who’d choose to teach a one-age-fits-all class on the back end of the moon?). He decides to have a few beers with the local cop (a very ominous David Wenham) and enjoy a little illegal two-up. I mean, what could go wrong?
Unfortunately, John forgets to gamble responsibly, such that he wins big, and then decides to go for broke, so he can squire his Sydney cutie off to Marrakesh for holidays instead of Dee Why.
As we said, the new production spruces up the original story – Grant has essentially quit his job at Tiboonda, so the quest for gambling riches is no longer in quest of paying off an Education Department bond – Grant gets in trouble with local loan sharks / drug dealers – and so on. ‘Doc’ is played here by Alex Dimitriades, who is a long way away from Pleasance’s performance, but still compelling, adding to his impressive and burgeoning gallery of louche predators (vide Ruben Guthrie). Based on Part One of the re-make, we are still in love more with the book and the film, but we are still definitely engaged, and will report back after part 2.