Based on the poem of the same name by Banjo Paterson, George T. Miller’s The Man from Snowy River is a remarkably compelling bid for an epic Australian cinema. More specifically, it’s one of the most convincing efforts to reinvent the heroic horizon of the American western in Australian terms, not least because Kirk Douglas plays not one but two roles. Screenwriter John Dixon ingeniously expands Paterson’s ballad into a feature-length narrative that revolves around the romance between Jim Craig, a young horse trainer played by Tom Burlinson, and Jessica Harrison, the daughter of the ranch owner who he ends up working for. While Douglas was top-billed, along with Jack Thompson as Clancy, another horse trainer, and a nod to one of Paterson’s other creations, the young stars shine just as bright here. In fact, they often seem to represent a new generation of Australian actors, a passing of the baton, which perhaps explains why their preoccupations and mannerisms seem curiously modern for the late nineteenth-century setting – especially Jessica’s feminism, inherited from her aunt Rosemary, played by Lorraine Bayly, which is closer in spirit to ideas proposed a century later.
Still, the film revolves, conceptually and aesthetically, around Douglas’ two roles, as twin brothers, each of whom personifies a different part of the film’s spatial scheme. On the one hand we have Harrison, a successful landowner, who has translated the lexicon of the west to the lowlands at the base of the Snowy Mountains. By contrast, his brother Spur has retreated to the mountains, where he spends his days fossicking for gold in a ramshackle mining shaft. Both men represent the last stage in American westward expansion, but Spur has delved even deeper into this new west, since the Snowy Mountains are the last frontier in the film’s world. Paradoxically, this makes him more attuned to the earliest days of expansion, and inclined to reminisce about a more tenuous frontier that the more established Harrison would prefer to forget. Holed up deep in the mountains, far from any creature comforts, Spur is still inhabiting that model of the frontier, albeit as an anachronism, an artefact of the past. Although he’s yet to strike gold, he insists that the signs are “much better than anything I saw in ’49,” and regularly comments on the improbability of ending up here: “Go west, young man, go west,” they said – so I did, 10 000 miles further than they expected!”
Between Harrison and Spur, then, we have two visions of the Australian frontier – one in which the landscape is neatly contained and compartmentalised through agriculture and settlement, and one in which the anarchic spirit of the old American west still reigns supreme, if only as a period effect. Douglas encapsulates these two poles in his dual performances as well, opting for a classical naturalism in his depiction of Harrison, and a more rambunctious “actorly” turn as Spur, whose extroversion seems more proportionate to the big screen adventure films of the 1940s and early 1950s. These two performances, and moments in the cinematic west, drive the narrative of the film, converging and diverging around the horse of the title. For despite drawing on the iconography of the American west, The Man From Snowy River is more accurately described as a southern than a western. Since our desert landscapes largely lack the epic landforms of the American frontier, Miller, like Paterson, shifts his attention to our most dramatic mountain chain, which he supplements by presenting the wild stallion as a piece of topography in and of itself, a way of communing with and taming the wild. In lieu of indigenous people, which personify this wildness in American westerns, we are presented with a black stallion, and the white “mountain men,” like Spur, who live beside it.
The film opens by emphasising the potency of this horse at the very moment it introduces us to Jim, who we meet felling trees in the alpine forest with his father, Henry. Seemingly out of nowhere, their logging is disturbed by a sudden eruption of wild horses, who thunder through the landscape like a torrent, like the Snowy River itself, emerging so fast that Henry is powerless to avoid being trampled by their flow. This pack of horses is led by the black brumby of the title, who recurs throughout the narrative, challenging Jim to tame it, and so resolve the trauma of his father’s death, in the same way that the Snowy Mountains incite Europeans to master their heights and depths: “You’ve got to treat the mountains like a high-spirited horse, never take them for granted.” Miller frames this primal flow of horses with silhouettes of individual horses framed against the evening sky, taking us out of the diegesis of the film to suggest that the film’s own existence as epic cinema is bound up with taming them as well.
So potent is this opening flood of horses that it quickly moves beyond a mere natural sublime to a more mechanical or industrial sublime. The heroic arrival of a train is immediately eclipsed by a horse being led out, raring on its hind legs, and almost plunging into the crowd. Similarly, the architectural ingenuity of the old west is now translated from fortifications to horse infrastructure, with Jim noting that it “looks like we’re building a fort, not a holding yard.” Horses here already contain the volatility and vitality of the Snowy Mountains Scheme, one of the cornerstones of the Australian technological sublime. Just as the scheme involved harnessing the cascading flows of the Snowy to generate hydroelectric power, the flows of these wild horses quiver with an electromagnetic pulse that equally repels and entrances us.
This dynamism quickly infuses Jim’s romance with Jessica, who is aligned with horses from their very first meeting, when she chastises him for trying to “save” her from an unruly stallion. In their next scene together, she’s the first to converse directly with a horse, while she only comes around to Jim after he shows her how to put together a trick knot for a horse lead. Their love blooms into the most lyrical sequence in the opening act of the field – taming a wild horse while they get to know the tics and beats of each other’s bodies as well, against a melancholy and plaintive 80s montage. From here, Miller distils his bid for an Aussie western (or southern) lexicon to three key beats. First, the narrative is periodically interrupted with frozen shots of horses raring up, as if trying to shock the audience with the visceral intensity of the western in its heyday. Second, we have widescreen vistas of Jim, Jessica and their horses silhouetted against the evening sky. These scenes are just as stylised, and rupture the narrative diegesis as much as the frozen shots, pulling back to unusual and abstracted vistas.
Finally, these two visual innovations crystallise around the film’s main signature – extraordinary aerial shots of Jim, Jessica and their horse as they traverse the Snowy Mountains proper. This coincides with the second act, which sees Jim head to a remote bluff where cattle tend to gather in the winter, and Jessica flee her restrictive father on horseback, before tumbling onto a remote outcrop on the mountain face. Only Jim is close enough and smart enough to save her, and this cements their relationship, turns them into true mountain people, as Miller pulls back to a series of incredible aerial shots, culminating with two of the most iconic images in the film. In the first, they kiss on one of the mountain summits, as a helicopter-borne camera pulls back to show the surrounding landscape; in the second, they ride the cusp of a precarious ridge as more aerial footage draws out the undulations of the landscape, which mirror the up-and-down movement of the horse. At these moments, the muscles of the horse become truly topographical, part of the mountains’ perennial rhythms.
The fusion of horse and mountains add a new intensity to the passage of horses through the mountains as well. The black stallion’s charges become akin to a natural disaster, as damaging as an avalanche, landslide or flash flood, and just as mercurial, appearing and receding in the blink of an eye. Having dissolved into the topography, these horses now fuse with the weather, turn into spirits of the air, which “changes so suddenly – one minute it’s like paradise, the next minute it’s trying to kill you.” That same volatility finally unrattles the gold in Spur’s cave, brings Spur and Harrison’s conflict to a head, and does the same for the conflict between Jim, Jessica and Harrison, who has forbidden his daughter to marry a mere trainer.
Without giving away too much of that plot detail here, it’s enough to say that Miller and Dixon beautifully gather all the film’s tensions – wildness and agriculture, mountains and lowlands, men and women, rich and poor, trainers and landowners – around this horse, which becomes the horizon and frontier of our epic Australian self-image. To resolve those tensions, the film has to summon a spectacular mass riding scene, made up of a team of mountain horsemen and crack riders, that rivals anything that the height of the American western has to offer. This is one of the great action scenes in Aussie cinema, as the black stallion turns his troupe into pure liquid, slowing down the chase by careening across a river that shows how far the human-mounted horses are from achieving this same fluidity of passage. These liquid-horses eventually careen down a series of near-vertical surfaces, exacerbated by dramatic low shots, before hitting the snow line briefly, and pummelling its icy surface to liquid as they proceed.
Yet while this movement in and out of the snow line leads to the final, primal gaze between Jim and the stallion, The Man From Snowy River is not really a snow western at heart. The brilliant white sheen of the mountain peak is ultimately too alien for a film whose main goal is to throw the more familiar syntax of the Aussie landscape into heroic relief, while building a lineage that stretches back to the great desert vistas of the American western as well. Accordingly, Miller ends with a very Australian nod to The Searchers, as Jessica stands, at the cusp of her father’s property, and affirms her love for Jim precisely by watching him as he walks out the gate and continues his wandering through the mountains. Rather than the heroic-fascist rescue operation of John Ford’s film, sublimity here lies in a picaresque rambling that, in this one shot, demands a sequel, demands another refrain, as Bruce Rowland’s instantly iconic score finally resolves into the tune of Waltzing Matilda, our unofficial anthem.