Based from Jon Cleary’s novel, The Sundowners tells the story of a nomadic sheep droving family in the Australian outback. Paddy (Robert Mitchum) enjoys this lifestyle of always being on the move and only needing enough money to get drunk and gamble. His wife, Ida (Deborah Kerr) and teenage son, Sean (Michael Anderson Jr.), would rather settle down on a cozy farm and secretly start saving money towards a down-payment on a home.
The film portrays the outback much like the old west: flat, dusty and a haven for restless men on the move. Instead of cattle driving and coyotes to worry about, here it’s about sheep herding and protecting them from dingoes. The occasional cute koala shot, jumping kangaroo or emu running across the dirt road help remind us of the setting.
This Australian outback is a man’s world, perfect for Paddy, but Ida and Sean have to just deal with it. The men just wonder around wherever they want and don’t want to be bothered or bogged down by all the conventions and responsibilities of a home, a farm or normal family life. They just want to work for a season, get loud and drunk with their time off and ride away into the wilderness when the season is over, or sooner if they so choose.
It seems they just ignore the problems that the women deal with for them. While the family is staying with a group of sheep shearers, one young man’s wife makes the long journey out to be with him during her pregnancy. She shows up unannounced and afraid she’ll only be turned away by all the men, but Ida and the only other woman kindly ask her to stay. On the night all the men ride into town, Ida knows the baby is too near birth for her to leave and tells a disappointed Paddy to go on without her. While all the men enjoy their time in town and getting drunk, Ida and the only other woman are assisting in childbirth.
Throughout Sean’s young life, it seems he has hardly received any proper schooling. This does not seem any concern to Paddy, in fact he’s satisfied that Sean can read and write. Ida reminds him that Sean wouldn’t even be able to do that if she had not taught him herself. We assume Paddy has taught his son the basic skills men on the move need, but we also see that Sean has been greatly influenced by his mother and has a greater sense of responsibility than Paddy. When Ida asks the room full of men if any would help peel some potatoes, no one budges, but moments later they excitedly run to make a gambling game. It’s only Sean who hesitates, with a sense that he should help his mother, but she dismisses her son to happily be with the men.
In case you haven’t noticed, it was hard for me to like Paddy. I got the sense that he was just a selfish old cowboy not willing to give up his carefree lifestyle and take some responsibility for what his family really wanted. The most bonding we see him do with his son is giving him his first beer, which only infuriates Ida. She is a saint for not just taking that jar of cash and hopping on a train.
Honestly, the film is a little boring until the last third full of horse races and lost funds, but the unbalanced role of power in the family makes it interesting. Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr have a good chemistry even when their characters are pulling for different things. If you want a film about a family at the mercy of the patriarch’s unsteady whims, The Sundowners is perfect.
“I think you’re a dingo, for running out on mom and me.”