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"That's the Australian word for people like us. A 'sundowner' is someone whose home is where the sun goes down. It's the same as saying someone who doesn't have a home."
- Michael Anderson, Jr. in The Sundowners (1960)
For this epic tribute to the virtues of home and family, director Fred Zinnemann took cast and crew halfway round the world to make one of the first Hollywood films shot on location in Australia. He got some stunning shots of the Outback, while also discovering that no silver screen diva could hold up a film shoot as effectively as a flock of camera-shy sheep.
Zinnemann first got the idea for a film set in Australia while working on Oklahoma! in 1955. Oscar Hammerstein's wife, Dorothy, was born in Tasmania, and strongly recommended the area as a film location. Zinnemann asked her to let him know if she found a good story with that setting, and three years later, she sent him Jon Cleary's novel Back of Beyond, about a family of sheep drovers in conflict over the wife's desire to settle down in a home of their own. Seeing the story's potential, Zinnemann sold it to Jack L. Warner.
Warner approved the project under the impression that the picture could be made inexpensively in Arizona. Then Zinnemann informed him that he wanted to take the production down under, which would add half a million dollars to the budget. After much persuasion, he convinced Warner that the actual location would make for a better film - and bigger box office. As a compromise, interiors were shot in London, where Zinnemann assembled a strong British cast and crew.
Zinnemann decided to take a chance on a promising writer who had just joined the Writer's Guild. But his script didn't work, so Zinnemann turned to Hollywood pro Isabel Lennart and beginning writer Aaron Spelling, who moved on to an illustrious career in television. Lennart's script was a bit sentimental for Zinnemann's tastes and - worse yet - just plain didn't sound Australian. So he hired the novel's author to do uncredited re-writes.
For leading lady, Zinnemann's first choice was Deborah Kerr, who had shot to stardom when he cast her against type as an earthy adulteress in From Here to Eternity (1953). He originally wanted William Holden or Gary Cooper to play her husband, who resists all efforts to settle down, but neither was available. Robert Mitchum got the role instead, turning in one of his best performances. Zinnemann quickly realized that the star's lackadaisical attitude was merely a mask for his dedication to acting. Particularly impressive was Mitchum's ability to capture the Australian accent.
Mitchum didn't have any problems with the remote Australian locations, where the temperatures often soared to 108 degrees. But he did have a problem with shearing sheep. The screen tough guy was so worried about hurting the sheep he needed a few beers before he could do the scene.
Nor was that the only problem the sheep would cause. The first day on location, all Zinnemann needed was a shot of 1,500 sheep walking past the camera. But when the first sheep came into range, it stopped dead and resisted all efforts to get it moving again. Meanwhile, the other 1,499 sheep simply walked in circles, waiting to follow their leader.
The next day, they put a tame sheep in the lead. And just to keep the flock under control, the entire crew wore dark clothes and hid behind hastily constructed hedges. They even played recordings of lambs bleating from the direction they wanted the flock to head. But the heat proved too much for the tame sheep, which fainted on the spot.
After several months in Australia, Zinnemann brought back a moving family drama that won critical raves. It also brought Kerr her fourth Best Actress award from the New York Film Critics Circle. Kerr also won her sixth Oscar® nomination for Best Actress in a wide-open race that could easily have netted her the coveted trophy - until fellow nominee Elizabeth Taylor almost died of pneumonia. Kerr graciously suggested that Taylor deserved the award for her acting, while canceling plans to fly to Hollywood for the ceremonies. She would never win the Oscar®, but years later accepted a special award for the body of her work.
The Sundowners grossed $3.8 million, an impressive figure for the period, but Zinnemann always felt it could have done better. He blamed the advertising campaign, which tried to play up a sex angle between Kerr and Mitchum that simply didn't exist in the film. Kerr suggested another reason the film fell short of blockbuster status - it was ahead of its time: "It was a no-story movie - an observation of life, with a marvelous cast."
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Producer: Gerry Blatner
Screenplay: Isobel Lennart, from the novel Back of Beyond by Jon Cleary
Cinematography: Jack Hildyard
Art Direction: Michael Stringer
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: Deborah Kerr (Ida Carmody), Robert Mitchum (Paddy Carmody), Peter Ustinov (Rupert Venneker), Glynis Johns (Mrs. Firth), Dina Merrill (Jean Halstead), Chips Rafferty (Quinlan), Michael Anderson, Jr. (Sean Carmody)
by Frank Miller