Set in 1956, Ken Hannam’s first feature is a landmark depiction of the lives of a close-knit crew of sheep shearers in outback Australia. Ostensibly the story of Foley (Jack Thompson), the film encompasses a series of rich characterisations of the men who are requisitioned by the cordial Tim King (Max Cullen), a local businessman who has long had an ambition to be a shearing contractor and take out a shed of his own. When his old friend Foley unexpectedly turns up after an ill-fated relocation to Brisbane, he decides to win him over, hoping for a snowball effect to claim more of the town’s best shearers in the process, despite most of them having upcoming contracts to fulfill.
Loading up Tim’s car, they head out to the remote Timberoo shed where the bulk of the film takes place. Here Foley and an odd assortment of mostly toughened veterans undertake the daily grind of their trade for six weeks whilst the property’s owner, the “Cocky,” Mr. Dawson (Philip Ross) oversees all, his greatest fear being that one of these brash outlaws will experience a slip in concentration and lop off the testicles of one of his prize-winning rams. Dawson is contemptuous of the men, regardless of their necessity, admitting to his teenage daughter Sheila (Lisa Peers) after the first day that “I’d forgotten what scum they are.”
The men alongside Foley include grizzled old warrior and unrepentant alcoholic, Garth (Reg Lye), comic relief Ugly (John Ewart) and a suspicious outsider from NSW, Arthur Black (Peter Cummins), who seems the only man capable of going toe-to-toe with Foley in the race for the shed’s top dog. Together, through days of sweltering heat and weekends of inevitably hard drinking that flatten out the hours of boredom into manageable lengths of time, the men somehow survive. Colourful references abound to the wretched cooking of their hired gun chef, the ogre-like Quinn (Ken Weaver) who Foley is finally called to act upon on behalf of the mens collective aching stomachs. His plan involves getting the big fella drunk on his beloved Essence of Lemon, bottles of which he ‘borrows’ from Mr. Dawson’s home, before pouncing on the weakened giant at his time of greatest vulnerability and delivering a withering blow.
The single most distinctive feature of Sunday Too Far Away (1975) is its remarkable authenticity. Filmed in remote South Australia at Cariewerloo shearing station once used in Fred Zinnemann’s The Sundowners (1960), it manages to immerse us in the sweaty, oppressive confines of this place with its constant, rowdy atmospheric clang. For these men, this is a vocation they’ve reluctantly entrusted their livelihoods to and though times are tough they’re duty bound to keep pushing through the pain barrier. With the lens of cinematographer Geoff Burton smothering the men in the heat of battle, there’s no risk of them being unduly glamourised or cariacaturised, the monotony and abrasive physical labour of torrid days spent staving off heat and an endless tide of reluctant ovine adversaries palpable in virtually every scene. The film is as much about male bonding as anything else and it captures the enduring capacity of these men to form a cohesive working unit even under the most trying circumstances.
Thompson has a plethora of memorable roles buried in his back-catalogue but Foley is undoubtedly one of his finest characterisations. Despite his air of invincibility and laconic attitude, a bittersweet aura lingers about him. On one hand his legendary deeds in the shearing sheds have earned him respect, his reputation having spread far and wide, but there’s a subtly-defined emptiness inside him too, rearing its head in moments of silent contemplation. It’s like a yearning for some intangible quality that has escaped him; a direction that might have provided his life with greater meaning. You sense that his imposing physical presence and dominance in the sheds have been a dangerous drawback preventing him from seeking another escape route. His return from Brisbane in the opening scene infers a capitulation; a man who surveyed the horizon for fresh adventures and came to the conclusion that there’s really only one place he can ever call home. He re-enters the fray with his tail between his legs, but quickly picks up his downed tools with the kind of tenaciousness and bravado that exemplifies the outback Australian spirit. As good as Thompson is, he’s more than matched by the rest of the cast who are each afforded indelible moments that, although small, effectively create an assembly of depth out of John Dingwall’s first-class screenplay.
The film finally touches on the shearer’s strike of 1956 as the price of wool forced their wages down; this in turn brought an influx of ‘scab’ labour to town where the frustration and despair of Foley and the men manifests itself in rage that eventually leads to an all-in pub brawl. It concludes this magnificent film with a telling statement on the unity and integrity of ‘average’ Australians who’ll fight like rabid dogs to uphold their dignity, to protect their home ground and maintain their quality of life. The only thing that spoils the effect? Thompson’s god-awful singing of the theme song – penned by Bob Ellis – over the front and end credits. Talk about pained screeching! Jack’s vocal work sounds like the emissions of a sheep or five ensnared in a barbed wire fence, baa-ing for swift mercy. Luckily everything in between these two grating outbursts more than makes up for Jack’s crimes against good musical taste.