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Synopsis: Paddy and Ida Carmody (Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr) roam the Australian outback with their young son Sean (Michael Anderson Jr.), picking up work as they go. English jack-of-all-trades Rupert Venneker (Peter Ustinov) attaches himself to the group and helps out when a brush fire threatens the flock. The Carmodys own nothing and have saved little money. Paddy likes to spend it all on weekends and not think about the future but Ida and Sean are intent on finding a way to settle down. Ida manages to keep them all working at a shearing station, and their savings grow. Rupert is even tempted to marry a local barmaid, Mrs. Firth (Glynis Johns). Although Paddy wants to please his wife, he has no intention on settling in one place, a mindset that threatens to split the marriage.
The Sundowners is an episodic tale told at a relaxed pace. Character driven stories can go slack or become repetitious, but Isobel Lennart's script keeps our interest high by reinforcing our identification with the Carmodys, Fifteen years into their marriage, Ida and Paddy have a solid relationship that includes a late night lovemaking scene. They communicate well on most matters except their basic lifestyle: Weary of cooking over campfires, Ida desperately wants a roof over her head. Paddy would prefer never to sleep in the same place twice, and would be happy if his rootless life could go on forever.
The easygoing pace allows Zinnemann to build his characters and examine the odd outback lifestyle, where most men are single and life is hard on women. Melodramatic intrigues are avoided and there are no murders or illicit romances. Someone picking up a gun does not mean that it will be used. The carousing sheep wranglers are a colorful bunch that brawls without holding grudges. The only real foe is nature. Robert Mitchum's Paddy chases off predators that threaten the flock and almost loses his life to a brush fire. He's an experienced yet emotionally immature man, prone to squandering his savings in drinking binges. The real story arc is his slow realization that he needs to respect Ida's need to put down roots.
A standard Hollywood treatment would sentimentalize this story into a family-safe domestic comedy. A feisty Colleen -- Maureen O'Sullivan? -- would throw tantrums before succumbing to John Wayne's embrace; there might be a rustic preacher around to offer spiritual comment. The Sundowners instead reflects upon the hard problems of real life. Ida is not getting any younger and has no intention of remaining homeless; the sight of a real kitchen elicits pangs of need. Ida is envious of every dowdy housewife she meets and is no longer reassured when Paddy says, "But Darlin', the whole world is our home." Ida loves Paddy's honest, sweet disposition, but their relationship has worked to this point because she defers to his wishes. Ida's the kind of woman who can join her husband in a good laugh, but she's beginning to lose her sense of humor, especially when Paddy gets irresponsibly drunk. Deborah Kerr's re-teaming with Robert Mitchum (Heaven Knows, Mr.Allison) is one of her best performances.
Mitchum once again proves his versatility by playing against type. Paddy is a good but willfully humble man determined to stay as he is. If he wins money gambling he'll more likely than not squander it away, if only to discourage Ida's ideas about down payments for a farm. He's also no superman. The other drovers enter him in a sheep-shearing contest, only to see him beaten by a little old man with a faster set of shears. Young Michael Anderson Jr. makes a strong impact as Paddy's cheerful son, sporting the smile that surely won him a role opposite Hayley Mills in Disney's In Search of the Castaways.
Providing color is Peter Ustinov's womanizing Rupert, a cashiered soldier and ex-sea captain. Rupert is also a gentleman, as is evident when he compliments Ida's marriage over the breakfast table. The other women are an interesting mix. Jean Halstead (Dina Merrill) is a city girl afraid that she's too frail and useless for outback life. Lola Brooks is a drover's bride who shows up pregnant and frightened, desperate to have her baby with her husband in attendance. And Glynis John's funny Mrs. Firth is a colorful tease with several aging bachelors on her string; she'll land one of them sooner or later.
The occasional kangaroo, wombat and koala bear prove that the show was filmed on location, and cameraman Jack Hildyard does a beautiful job of blending Australian footage with interiors filmed back in England. The Carmodys' dreams are postponed indefinitely but The Sundowners is an optimistic experience. It's reassuring to see a film family that hangs together like this one.
Warners' The Sundowners looks great in an enhanced transfer, with bold colors. The beautiful outback landscapes are a good fit for Dimitri Tiomkin's relatively restrained music score. An extra featurette On Location with The Sundowners has plenty of B&W material filmed behind the scenes in Australia.
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by Glenn Erickson