by Anthony King
I was a summer camp kid. More specifically, I was a ranch camp kid. Camp Calvin Crest was a Presbyterian church camp that had your typical cabins and A-frames in which kids of all ages lived for a week at a time. Meals were taken in the mess hall; blazing hot afternoons were spent in the swimming (diving board and water slide included); nights were spent around the campfire singing songs and telling stories. It was magical, and I look back on those days fondly. But that was normal camp. In 7th grade I started attending a second week every summer. Ranch camp was horse camp. Early mornings were for chores (scooping shit, filling troughs, and throwing hay). Meals were taken in a glorified lean-to where a different group of kids were on KP duty every day. Showers were taken in unlit, spider-infested, cinderblock bathhouses where the (only ice cold) water was high in sulfur content giving it a rotten egg smell. Nights were spent around the campfire before retiring to – I kid you not – covered wagons where bugs of the dark would buzz your ears all night, and one of the four people crammed inside the wagon was on coyote detail because those little rascals would sneak into the wagons and steal our stuff. And, of course, there was lots of riding. Sound horrible? It does to me now. But back then I had the time of my life.
As kid, of course, I don't think I realized this was an Australian film (maybe I just forgot), and when I realized this was directed by George Miller I was excited to dive back in. Upon a quick IMdB search, though, my excitement drooped a little. This isn't Mad Max George Miller but Andre George Miller. You know the movie: Tina Majorino befriends a seal. Imagine my disappointment. But that sadness was quickly squashed as Snowy River went along. The other thing I never would've picked up on as a boy of six was that 1.) Kirk Douglas co-stars and, 2.) Kirk Douglas co-stars playing twin brothers.
The film follows a young man named Jim whose father dies in an accident. Jim is then forced out of his home by the landowner and turns to his father's peg-legged mining partner, Spur (Douglas role #1), for help who in turn gives Jim a horse and sends him on his way. An abrupt cut and a little confusion later Jim gets a job on a ranch owned by Harrison (Douglas role #2). He's tough but fair, runs a motley crew of ranch hands, and has a pretty daughter. What we're treated to, essentially, is Jim's coming of age as a young adult and his training to become a “manly man.” While I hate that phrase, there's no denying many movies of years past carried that theme and I still quite enjoy them.
While Douglas, Burlinson, and a cast of rowdy Australian character actors fill the story with enough male pride to last a lifetime, the real star of the film is the beautiful Australian landscape. Filmed at the foothills of the Victorian Alps (about 100 miles NE of Melbourne), the sweeping aerials and tracking shots during riveting horseback chases show exactly how breathtakingly beautiful this section of the country is. Every background is lined with acacia and numerous types of gum trees while the foreground shows the gorgeous detail of the sprawling ranch owned by Douglas #2. Truly a dreamland.Letterboxd list for examples). It's a story about a boy becoming a man combined with a fairytale of two brothers falling in love with the same girl all encased in a Western. There's no clear villain we're meant to hate, and a mob goes in search of a pack of wild stallions treated like a band of outlaws. What more could you ask for?