I’ve never made a list of my 50 favorite films, but if I ever do, “The Sundowners” (1960) would certainly make the final cut.
This is one of the best family films of all time, a warm and absolutely wonderful film set in Australia in the 1920s. It concerns a family of “sundowners”, those people that don’t have a home and travel by wagon from place to place, wherever the sun goes down. There’s the father Paddy Carmody (Robert Mitchum, sporting a dead-on Australian accent), wife Ida (Deborah Kerr) and teenage son Sean (Michael Anderson, Jr., later the youngest of the Sons of Katie Elder). Ida and Sean are eager put an end to their nomad existence and settle down, but Paddy doesn’t want to, not wanting to be tied down to any one place and the responsibilities that entails.
The movie doesn’t really tell a story in the traditional sense, but instead shows the trials, joys and heartbreaks of living on the road. Paddy and Ida have been together for almost 15 years and remain deeply in love, though they have very different ideas about what they want out of life. The brusque and macho Mitchum and sensitive Kerr were great friends in real life, and had the greatest respect for each other’s talents. They play beautifully together.
Along the way to drive a herd of sheep to market, they pick up a drover, played by Peter Ustinov, who decides to stick with them ever after the sheep are delivered. They have adventures while on the road, including a dangerous brush fire, and the accidental purchase of a race horse. They stop at a shearing station for several months, where the highlight of the film occurs, a shearing contest between Paddy and an elderly gentleman from a rival shearing station.
The film was exquisitely shot in location in the Australian Outback. Director Fred Zinneman doesn’t overdo it with fancy camera angles or obtrusive editing. He lets the story breathe, and lets the actors inhabit their roles. I’ve seen this movie several times, and never get tired of it. It reminds me in some ways of another classic family film, “I Remember Mama” (1948). After about 10 minutes, I forget I’m watching a movie, and feel like I’m actually there, watching events in real time unfold before my eyes.
I’m not sure why the film isn’t better remembered today. It was certainly well regarded at the time, earning Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actress (Glynis Johns) and Adapted Screenplay. Maybe it’s because most people would blanch at the idea of watching a family of sheepherders set in 1920s Australia. Maybe it’s because the words “Robert Mitchum” and “family movie” don’t normally go together.
Whatever the reason, “The Sundowners” is an absolute gem, and one of the finest movies ever made. They don’t get better than this.
Rating for “The Sundowners”: Four stars.