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Boiling Sand
Proto-AUSTRALIA: Twentieth Century-Fox’s KANGAROO (1952)

If you love Baz Lurhmann’s AUSTRALIA and want to see an earlier, similar film — OR — if you hate AUSTRALIA and want to see a calmer, more naturalistic version of the movie, Lewis Milestone’s 1952 Technicolor action/romance/drama KANGAROO can satisfy both desires.

KANGAROO (which has nothing to do with the D. H. Lawrence novel of the same name) wasn’t conceived as an international co-production; it was an example of Hollywood making a movie in breathtaking color at an exotic locale — a marketing hook used a lot in the 1950s to lure viewers away from their TV sets.   Yet, as with most mid-century films shot on location, there was very little input from local talent.   The script was developed and written by natives of Brooklyn and the Georgian city of Tblisi.   It was produced by a guy from D.C. — even the major creatives (D.P., editor, art director, etc.) were all Hollywood-based.   Despite this cultural tourism, there is very little that is condescending in the procedures, or (at least to this non-native) anything that seems grossly inaccurate in the ‘Australian Imaginary’ of the filmmakers.  

During the studio era, the economic and artistic by-laws of Hollywood productions dictated a style of homogeneity and a narrative arc that never got overly stylistic or dramatic.   However, KANGAROO was a Hollywood action/romance film filmed in a dusty expanse of South Australia, so it had a reckless and daring energy.   If Baz Luhrmann’s movie was too much, this one may wrap itself around you like melted butter around popcorn in a bowl.  

The tempestuous and perky-titted Maureen O'Hara is mistress of a cattle station.

Like Nicole Kidman, Maureen O'Hara is the tempestuous redhead mistress of a cattle station.

There are many similarities between the two films.   There’s a fiery redhead who oversees a cattle station (or cattle ranch as we say in the U.S.), a cattle drive, a rugged love interest (a surprisingly butch and swarthy Peter Lawford), a stampede, and so on.  

Russian-born director Lewis Milestone (né Lev Milstein) whose work spanned from 1918 into the ‘sixties [his penultimate film was the original OCEANS ELEVEN] brought solid texture, composition, movement, lens choice and cutting-options to the film.   The crafts and tropes aren’t obvious, as in Luhrmann’s movie, but Milestone gives the audience the layers of attention and detail that — if missing — would prevent the audience from falling into the film frame.

Instead of Hugh Jackman, it's Peter Lawford who give out the Money Shot.

Instead of Hugh Jackman's, it's Peter Lawford's chest that gives out the Money Shot.

As I’ve frequently said when defending it, Luhrmann’s AUSTRALIA was an ecstatic ritual, big brushstrokes and gestures to convey encompassing layers of the human condition.   Milestone’s film is concise, contained, a lovingly enshrined experience.  

AUSTRALIA is an epic.   KANGAROO is a movie.   Therein lies the difference.

Doug / PoMo Joan

KANGAROO can be viewed or downloaded at the Internet Archive site.   CLICK HERE TO ACCESS THE MOVIE.

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