by Kristin Battestella
With its chock full of awesome scenery, renegade horses, and coming of age adventure, the 1982 Australian import The Man from Snowy River continues to please viewers young and old.
After the sudden death of his father, young mountain man Jim Craig (Tom Burlinson) must find work on the low country farms in order to upkeep his inherited station and prove his rugged mettle. Unfortunately, despite his horse sense and hard work, Jim's wealthy cattle baron boss Harrison (Kirk Douglas) objects to Jim's interest in his daughter Jessica (Sigrid Thorton). Jim's friendship with Harrison's cast out, prospector brother Spur (also Douglas) adds further tension, and when Harrison's prize colt is set loose, Jim is blamed. Determined, Jim vows to prove his worth and hunt down the colt – who is now part of a dangerous and wild brumby herd.
Perhaps The Man from Snowy River starts slow with a cramped, struggling rural existence but the early tragedy, quaint mountain cabin, and family tenderness quickly anchors viewers alongside the rough and tumble bravery inspired by the famed late nineteenth century Banjo Peterson poem. Director George T. Miller (The Never Ending Story II) fleshes out the ballad with daring rescues, rugged folk clashing against polite 1888 society, beautiful but wild horses, and all the big risks in taming such feral herds. While some dialogue or slang may be unfamiliar to American audiences, the one on one conversations fit the period setting. Dialogue is allowed to play out and advance the story with personality while charming horse training montages and sunset silhouettes give viewers time to be emotionally involved in the beauty instead of numbed by action packed superficiality. That's not to say The Man from Snowy River isn't without adventure, however. Suspenseful chases, frightening cliffs, and natural spectacles are all here and then some. Today's special effects can become irrelevant fast, but The Man from Snowy River isn't dated in its straightforward portrayal thanks to sharp editing, timely zooms, and fast dollies that know when to up the intensity, fist fights, and sabotage or pull back and give the epic scope or human feeling room to play. Maybe this is a simple tale adapted from what some may consider a small source, but The Man from Snowy River does everything it sets out to do with a fresh, unapologetic Australian grit.
Newcomer Tom Burlinson (also of Phar Lap, another fine tender horse picture) may have been unfamiliar stateside in 1982, however his Jim Craig is both young enough to need some growing up and believably mature as a rugged Down Under cowboy with edge – no millennial teen hunks need apply here! Jim's mountain stock and strong morals make for plenty of titular likability, and he won't stand for pesky troublemakers or lesser bullies while he earns his keep with humble labor like mucking out stalls. He's honest about needing the work and has the skills to match but doesn't need to put up a macho facade. Jim works hard and earns respect the right way, and it's a refreshing concept to see in this contemporary era where reward is seemingly given for nothing. Of course, there is certainly some awkwardness, foolishness, and mistakes amid the adventure, too. Though often perceived as a heartwarming tale for the ladies thanks to an easy to root for hero, The Man from Snowy River has enough male appeal in its lessons on learning how to be a man through proving oneself without compromise. With Jim's merit and upstanding nature, the viewer believes that the opportunity for success, love, and heroics will present themselves if we remain true.
On the other hand, Kirk Douglas (Spartacus) mixes some wealthy nasty and lovably crusty in the dual role of brothers Harrison and Spur. The varied appearance of each is well done – severe boots, tight britches, and a riding crop for Harrison compared to bearded gold digger with a wooden leg Spur. Both men have moments of fatherly tenderness and lost love, but their sad or bitter reactions have had lifelong, torn consequences. Harrison has some wise words yet remains blinded by money and past scorn while Spur perpetually and perhaps foolishly mines his life away for a shine that may not be there. The robust country in The Man from Snowy River has hardened these brothers – made one and broke the other – but how they respond to a slight with harshness or with kindness makes the difference. Harrison treats his daughter with suspicion thanks to perceived past ills, and brief paternity questions and rumors of affairs subplots may detract from the eponymous innocence somewhat. However, this backstory and additional Peterson references add extra layers, creating truth will out revelations and well done character conflicts.
Compared to the perfect starlets of today, Sigrid Thorton (Paradise, SeaChange) may seem slightly unrefined as The Man from Snowy River's young Victorian ingenue Jessica Harrison. Fortunately, this natural, fuller, warm look fits the period and the character – and Thorton's light eyes and dark hair remain a visually striking look. Granted, Jessica's in disguise introduction is somewhat typical, but her charm, sassy, and humor make up any difference along with the well matched Jim and Jessica pairing. There are a few progressive and slightly anachronistic conversations with modern feminism wording, but understandably, Jessica doesn't want to be bred or controlled under a man's thumb like women of the era. She's likable and smart, but has some growing up to do as well. Her reckless behavior and horsemanship mistakes in rebellion against her father's intention to see her a well married lady lead to some wonderful scenes and relatable angst. Aunt Rosemary Lorraine Bayly (Carson's Law) likewise adds a firm, elder society hand for Jessica, but she also recognizing her niece is worth more than “domestic dullness” and isn't afraid to say it. Rosemary has most of the family history exposition, but Bayly keeps the recounting compelling. Naturally, Terence Donovan (Neighbors) appears briefly in The Man from Snowy River as Jim's father Henry Craig, but his raising Jim right catalyst is felt throughout the picture while Jack Thompson's (Breaker Morant) “part bloodhound” Clancy rounds out the ensemble as a sarcastic but respected mountain man whose tall tales precede him.
Early town scenery and a brief train can make The Man from Snowy River seem small scale now. Though dark at times, the oil lamps and candlelit dining are appropriately sparse with rustic necessities or tea cups and minimal china to represent the frontier civilization. The tone isn't upscale and the costumes are probably plain, but these designs are more than serviceable in evoking that western feeling. Besides, the highlight of The Man from Snowy River is not the interiors but the stunning mountains, exceptional vistas, and more outdoor photography all done without our contemporary computer generated ease. The split screen scenes are seamless, and beautiful farmlands, rocky cliffs, and snow caps need no color alteration or visual saturation. The complex horse work and riding stunts in The Man from Snowy River, however, were surely not easy to film. Props to the cavalry picture In Pursuit of Honor, but up until the Ride of the Rohirrim in Return of the King, The Man from Snowy River's lengthy horseback finale was the most impressive horse sequence I'd seen on film. It's worth seeing this movie alone just for the dangerous descents, multi action pursuits, wagons, wild herds, and perilous terrain. In fact, knowing these scenes were done without special effects or massive crowd software perhaps makes it all the more awesome. The pulsing score, whip cracks, and hoof beats know when to be parallel the heart beating action or be silent. Tender themes and epic, sweeping arrangements build characters and scope while simmering notes accent subversion or scares. Subtle onscreen fumbling over playing “Fur Elise” on the piano also creates familiarity, smiles, and charm.
Yes, I still have my VHS copy of The Man from Snowy River, and it is pretty worn out after some daily viewings when I was a kid. My favorite part was always the whimsical slow motion snowscapes with such elevations and equine majesty amid the intensity! Although the affordable DVD can be found in stores or on Amazon, Netflix waits and save onlys make the film appear somewhat elusive along with the mostly unrelated but dang near impossible to find stateside Snowy River: The McGregor Saga television series starring Guy Pearce. It's a pity also that the Region 1 blu-ray edition of The Man from Snowy River is featureless – it would be nice to hear cast retrospectives or have some crew clarifications on a few of the stunts and rumored horse injuries, which may taint a viewing for animal lovers. Otherwise, there's little to deter one from enjoying The Man from Snowy River. Onscreen deaths could be upsetting to younger audiences, but most of the PG romantic subtleties will go over children's heads. From the dashing coming of age drama to captivating regions and poetry inside and out; horse lovers, period piece fans, and western enthusiasts young and old can find everything they need in The Man from Snowy River.