Neglected, but flawed, masterpiece: Summerfield (1977)

06 Jan

Have you been watching How The Hell Did We Get Here? on Saturday nights on ABC-TV? Tonight “Shane Bourne guides us through the funniest, most memorable and often quotable television from Australia’s first successful sitcom, My Name’s McGooley, What’s Yours? through to those foxy ladies, Kath & Kim.” It is a watchable and very lightweight survey of various cultural phenomena that have shaped the lives of Aussie baby boomers. Subtextually — no not subtextually, as it really is on the surface — it is an example of the new “balanced” ABC, in that one of the show’s clear functions is to enhance the public image of various Liberal Party persons and government ministers. Last week we saw that Amanda Vanstone’s all-time favourite Australian movie is Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, for example; mind you, if I had to have a government member at a dinner party, I suspect Amanda would be more fun than most. (UPDATE: Tonight’s episode proved very enjoyable.)

summerfieldWhen the team of producer Pat Lovell and writer Cliff Green, fresh from the triumph of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, came together with director Ken Hannam, fresh from Sunday Too Far Away, at the height of the Australian film renaissance of the 1970s, to create moody Australian rural noir (Sea Change this ain’t!) one might have expected a critical triumph, but this was not to be. The movie never got a US release — even today Rotten Tomatoes has never heard of it. It was never nominated for an AFI award, and the critics (P P McGuinness among them) slammed it. Obvious and boring, that’s the least that was said. The director subsequently disowned it. Curiously, it was almost directed by Fred Schepisi instead. The drama behind the drama is very well covered in Secrets of Summerfield (2005), a 50 minute documentary included on the DVD of Summerfield, available from Umbrella, whose collector’s editions I have found very good.

The fact is Summerfield really is a very good movie, much better as film art than many much more popular movies of its day, but then I’m afraid I really dislike The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, and much prefer Summerfield to Stork, which were both much more successful. Looked at thirty years on, Summerfield stands up, in my opinion, much better than either of those. Bruce Smeaton’s score, too, is quite wonderful. On the other hand, it is true that Green’s script telegraphs the ending too obviously.

You will find a range of comments on the International Movie Data Base, linked in the paragraph above, some of which agree with my impression.

I saw this film while on holiday in England nearly 25 years ago and it has haunted me ever since. Trouble is, I was never able to recall the title until a recent conversation with a friend who had the same experience with this film at about the same time, but long before we knew each other.

My main point is to report that this film has stood the test of time and was just as good this time around even though I knew the ending. It may well be true that Australia wasn’t ready for a film such as this – how some critics described it as boring completely escapes me! The DVD contains some excellent interviews with those involved in the film and helps to explain the apparent lack of box office success.

This is quintessential Australian cinema which must not be missed!

Kev’s Cupboard @ EOFFTV (May 15, 2006) says:

…Anyone looking for masked serial killers, rampaging mutants or gibbering stalkers will find Summerfield a disappointment. Like Picnic at Hanging Rock, its terrors are more subtle, more disquieting – there are no traditional scares here, rather a pervading sense of menace and dread that begins with the film’s very first words [“You’ve come the wrong way”, a phrase repeated throughout the film] and never lets up. The hostility of the townspeople is in deeply worrying and their kids are even worse — on his first day at school, Robinson is the butt of a horrific joke wherein the kids stage a fake hanging.

But, as with so many Australian horror films, its haunting, eerily beautiful landscapes, the sense of isolation and of being cut off from any help that makes Summerfield so suspenseful…

One can’t help but wonder if Australians view their horror film the same way the rest of the world does, being more used to these magnificent if — to foreign eyes — slightly unnatural vistas than the rest of us. Summerfield was, by all accounts, not a great hit on native soil which may account for its relative lack of a following overseas.

The 1970s were an excellent decade for Australian cinema, kicking off with the early films of Peter Weir and culminating in the arrival of George Miller’s iconic Mad Max films. Summerfield is one of the forgotten gems of the decade, a film that really does deserve a lot more attention than it currently gets. And just watch out for that wonderfully ironic ending…

Serves us right for being led by the nose by the likes of P P McGuinness (1977) in the first place.

Do watch it.

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3 responses to “Neglected, but flawed, masterpiece: Summerfield (1977)

  1. Adrian Phoon

    January 6, 2007 at 9:48 am

    I’ve never even heard of this movie. Thanks for the headsup.

    (By the way, what ever happened to PP McGuiness? The last I heard, he was going around with K. Windschuttle giving public lectures…but I think that was a few years ago, when he was still an op. ed. columnist at the Sydney Morning Herald…)

  2. ninglun

    January 6, 2007 at 9:52 am

    P P McGuinness is editing Quadrant, John Howard’s favourite magazine.

    Hope you are enjoying WordPress.

  3. Adrian Phoon

    January 8, 2007 at 7:33 pm

    Ah, I forgot about Quadrant!

    Loving Word Press, thank you. 🙂

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