Westerns are meant to be the most American of film genres, so it’s surprising to see how many other countries make them. You’ve got Spaghetti Westerns (Italy/Spain), Charro Westerns (Mexico), Indo Westerns (India), Martial Arts Westerns (China), Red Westerns (Eastern Bloc), German Westerns, South African Westerns, and Roast Beef Westerns (Britain). And, from Australia, the Meat Pie Western.
Here are fifty of the best known of this genre. Seriously, Stephen Vagg came up with at least fifty.
1) The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906)
(Arguably) The first feature film made in the world – definitely the first bushranger feature (though not the first bushranger short – that honour belongs to Bushranging in North Queensland (1904)). While often called Westerns, I would argue bushranger films are their own, uniquely Australian genre, deriving from local history and literary tradition rather than simply copying American tropes.
The Story of the Kelly Gang, for example, was adapted from an Australian stage play, based on an Australian historical event, and featured many traditions and tropes that are grounded more in Australian than American literary traditions – miscarriage of justice, Protestant-Catholic sectarianism, class warfare, feisty “squatter’s daughters”, etc.
Still, it is a story set in the rural past with shoot outs, outlaws, horses and police, so you could argue that it’s a western. A surprisingly large amount of it can still be viewed too – https://archive.org/details/TheStoryOfTheKellyGang
2) Thunderbolt (1910)
Kelly Gang was a huge hit, prompting a raft of films about bushrangers. Most were based on true stories (Moonlite, Dan Morgan, Ben Hall, Frank Gardiner), or hit plays (Captain Midnight), although there was an original about a female bushranger, The Lady Outlaw (1911). Almost none of them survive today except for Thunderbolt, an opus from the husband and wife team of Frank and Agnes Gavin.
The footage that remains of this movie looks, to be honest, fairly terrible, but at least it was shot on location. It was popular, like most of these bushranger films – indeed they were so admired that several state governments went and banned them, worried about the impact they would have on the general population. This absurd decision wiped out the most commercially lucrative genre Australian filmmakers had.
3) A Bushranger’s Ransom (1911)
Most early Australian films were adaptations of stage plays by theatrical families. A Bushranger’s Ransom was from the Cole family, who specialised in Wild West shows – travelling open air theatrical experiences about cowboys and Indians complete with horses and fake gunfire. Occasionally, the Coles did an Australian story, like A Bushranger’s Ransom, about Ben Hall, which they filmed in 1911.
It’s possible the film was directed by Mrs Cole, his regular leading lady, Vene Linden, making this (possibly) the first Australian movie directed by a woman. No copy of the film exists unfortunately.
4) The Shadow of Lightning Ridge (1921)
Sportsman Snowy Baker was one of Australia’s first genuine box office stars, featuring in a series of action melodramas designed to show off his physical abilities. Some of these were heavily influenced by Westerns, though they were also affected by bushranger movies, war films and outdoor colonial melodramas (which I’ll discuss more in the section on The Squatter’s Daughter below).
The Shadow of Lightning Ridge is one of three films Baker made with the American writer-director team of Bess Meredyth and Wilfred Lucas. It is the most “American Western” of them, being clearly based on Zorro – Baker is a man who dresses up as “The Shadow” and raids a baddy’s property – only the one property, though! The Bulletin thought the film was too American.
Unfortunately, no copy of it is known to exist. Only one of the Baker-Lucas-Meredyth films does, The Man from Kangaroo, which is more an outlaw colonial melodrama, which you can view in its entirety below.
5) The Bushranger (1928)
One of the first (if not the first) Hollywood films set in Australia, this MGM effort is about an English gentleman unjustly sentenced to Van Diemen’s Land, who escapes and becomes a bushranger. It stars Tim McCoy who appeared in numerous Westerns in the ‘20s and ‘30s – the Australian setting probably came about solely out of a desire to vary the formula a little. I’ve never seen it and would love to know if someone has a copy. Future director Arthur Lubin is in the support cast.
6) The Squatter’s Daughter (1933)
This film was based on a hugely popular play which had first been filmed in 1910. It was part of an Australian subgenre, the outdoors colonial melodrama, which also included Breaking of the Drought and Snowy Baker movies – stories set on outback stations featuring unscrupulous farmers, heroic foremen, upper class twits visiting from England, family secrets and feisty horse-rising heroines. The latter formed the “squatter’s daughter” archetype – the brave, beautiful farm girl who galloped away from bushfires – and meant female starring roles were often stronger in Australian rather than American westerns.
Director Ken G. Hall wanted to make two films which sounded more Western-y – a remake of Robbery Under Arms and a story of the Overland Telegraph – but he could not raise money for either.
7) Stingaree (1934)
A Hollywood action melodrama about a gentleman bushranger in colonial Australia, with a surprising amount of musical numbers – so many, in fact, that you’d probably classify it more as an operetta, though it still has a bit of action and Andy Devine as a sidekick. (Horse riding operettas were in fashion at the time eg The Desert Song, Rio Rita.)
This film remains very little known, even among Australian film buffs, despite coming from a major Hollywood studio (RKO), starring two big stars, Irene Dunne and Richard Dix, being directed by a major filmmaker, William Wellman, and adapted from the stories of EW Hornung who also wrote Raffles. It was out of circulation for a long time and isn’t that good as a movie – there is far too much singing, Dix is too fat to be a convincing bushranger and there’s rapey elements to the romance – but it is fascinating in its depiction of 1874 Australia, which is shown to be a complete backwater.
In 1948 John Ford announced he would make a film version of the novel with Ben Johnson – now that would have been awesome – but it never happened. I’m surprised no one had a crack at the Stingaree stories in the 1970s and 1980s.
8) Rangle River (1936)
Shot in Australia, distributed by an American studio (Columbia), based on a story by Zane Grey with an American director and star (Victor Jory). The screenwriters were Australians, Charles and Elsa Chauvel, which may explain why the piece feels as much influenced by Australian stage melodramas as American Westerns, though you can feel the Hollywood influence strongly.
Jory really shouldn’t be playing a romantic male lead but at least he looks like a cowboy; there’s too much screen time devoted to Robert Coote playing a “silly ass” visiting Englishman (this trope was far too common in early Australian cinema) but it is fast paced with action, and features a genuinely kinky duel with whips. There were plans to make a sequel and it’s a shame that never happened.
9) Captain Fury (1939)
Hal Roach, best known for comedies, occasionally made other films like this one – a Hollywood attempt at a bushranger epic. Brian Aherne, a sort of poor man’s Errol Flynn, the actor you’d cast when you couldn’t get George Brent, Pat Knowles or Ian Hunter, plays the title role, an Irish convict sent to Australia who escapes to become a good bushranger who helps the local settlers fight against a villainous land owner (George Zucco).
The Australian setting is not really emphasised, it’s just the usual immigrant settlers and evil land baron that you’d see in the old West, which is why I classify this as a meat pie Western rather than a bushranging film. The cast includes Victor McLaglen, John Carradine, Paul Lukas and Douglas Dumbrille, which is cool. It’s awkwardly directed but interesting.
10) The Overlanders (1946)
Michael Balcon, head of Britain’s Ealing Studios, sent out Harry Watt to Australia and told him to find an idea for a movie. Watt came up with a cracker, based on a true story – a cattle drive in north Australia to escape the Japanese.
This is one of the best of the meat pie Westerns – it takes a very American concept, the cattle drive, and grounds it in the local culture. Sure, there’s stampedes and romance, but no outlaws and shoot outs, and there’s a feisty “squatter’s daughter” character who is sensibly given a romance with Peter Pagan rather than Chips Rafferty. The film made Rafferty a star.
Why hasn’t it been remade?
11) Sons of Matthew (1948)
Charles and Elsa Chauvel were very comfortable with Western tropes in their films – as shown in their squatter’s daughter feature Greenhide (1926), the aborigines-attacking-the-homestead sequence in Heritage (1935) and the script for Rangle River (1936). This movie falls into the “pioneering family” subgenre of Western like Little House on the Prairie or Cimarron – stories about people hacking homes out of the wilderness, falling in and out of love, fighting disease/prejudice/Indians/whoever. Most tend to be driven by female leads but this is about a set of brothers, although there is a smurfette, Wendy Gibb, loved by Michael Pate and Ken Wayne. It is more melodrama than Western, but it feels influenced by Westerns in its pace and action. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7PgYQaOHcc)
NB: Chauvel’s final feature, Jedda (1955), would also have elements of Western – a hero torn between two cultures often popped up in movies about Indians. I would class it more as a melodrama though.
12) Bitter Springs (1950)
The first Australian movie to look directly at the land rights clash between European settlers and aboriginal Australians. It’s weird that Ealing Films thought this movie would be commercial… maybe they had visions of something like Cimarron, only there’s hardly any female characters in it. To compensate they put comic Tommy Trinder in it which does not help.
In the filmmakers’ defence, their hearts were in the right place and at least the film tries to tackle head on some of the issues of Australian settlement. And I actually think it could have found an audience had the filmmakers told the story from the point of view of female characters, like the later We of the Never Never. But Ealing, for all their progressive politics, were lousy at making films with female protagonists.
13) The Kangaroo Kid (1950)
The McCreadie brothers made two minor films after the war, Always Another Dawn and Into the Straight, whose only real mark of distinction was that they gave early leading roles to Charles Tingwell. They tried to crack the American market with this one, which had an American writer and director, and American stars, although it was shot in Australia.
This is very much a “meat pie” Western – an essentially American story transplanted to Australia. It’s okay, especially if you’re not in a particularly nationalistic mood and don’t mind films directed by prolific B-Westerner Lesley Selander. At least it has local scenery and Alec Kellaway and Guy Doleman in the support cast. Sally Field’s molesting step father, Jock Mahoney, stars.
14) Kangaroo (1952)
A much-publicised flop of its day. 20th Century Fox wanted to make a film in Australia to use frozen currency and our exotic locations. They originally announced they’d make something called The Bushranger, which sounds exciting, but instead came up with this wayward melodrama about a conman (Peter Lawford) pretending to be the long lost son of a land baron (Finlay Currie) and falling for his “sister” (Maureen O’Hara).
This film isn’t as bad as its reputation (Richard Boone is excellent as Lawford’s friend and there’s some great visuals), it’s just frustrating because it should have been better – it’s flabby and goes all over the place, Lawford is a wet fish of a leading man, and it needs more action. Like many films on this list, it would have been more entertaining if it had embraced being a Western more.
It’s in the public domain so check it out – https://free-classic-movies.com/movies-05/05-1952-Kangaroo-The-Australian-Story/index.php
15) The Phantom Stockman (1953)
Chips Rafferty and Lee Robinson devised a pretty good formula for Australian cinema going in the challenging environment of the 1950s – take a simple well-tried formula and give it a jazzy location with Rafferty in the lead. So, they deliberately aped American Western formulas by concocting a tale about a mysterious gunman, but, made the sidekick aboriginal and set it in Australia. The pacing and writing are lethargic, but Rafferty has charisma and the locations are fantastic. Albert Namatjira is in it too!
16) Captain Thunderbolt (1953)
An attempt to revive the bushranger film, this met with limited success, though in fairness the filmmakers struggled to find distribution. Director Cecil Holmes was a bit of a lefty in real life, and he fashions the story so poor old Thunderbolt is a victim of the upper classes. Holmes was conservative enough, however, to remove Thunderbolt’s aboriginal wife from the story entirely. Thunderbolt is allowed to live at the end of the film – Holmes was hoping to spin off the movie into a Robin Hood type TV series, but it never eventuated.
17) Robbery Under Arms (1957)
Once upon a time, Rolfe Bolderwood’s novel was hugely popular, leading to countless stage and film adaptations – Ken G Hall badly wanted to make a movie version for over two decades. So too did J Arthur Rank, who ponied up the cash for this underwhelming version. Director Jack Lee and star Peter Finch had just made the excellent A Town Like Alice (1956) but did not bring their A game to this movie, which is lethargic and repetitive.
The basic story is about two brothers, here played by the brylcreamed Roland Lewis and David McCallum, who fall under the influence of the bushranger Captain Starlight (Finch). There’s no real theme or story uniting it all – the boys are tempted to crime pretty easily and keep falling back into it (not that they commit much – a cattle drive and a robbery is about all). There’s no interesting mystery or enigma to Starlight – he just sort of pops up and doesn’t seem too sympathetic even if he doesn’t kill anyone. All the cool things he does in the book (dance with a girl at a wedding despite being surrounded by enemies, play cards coolly under pressure, honouring an agreement with the Knightleys) are cut out except for the bit where he impersonates a gent from England. There’s no real relationship between Starlight and the boys – indeed the only real character flair is their dad who bitterly whinges about him being transported to Australia for pinching a rabbit. There are some striking visual images (all those long shots), and having the final shoot out in long shot (again!) is at least different, even if it just serves to make us more emotionally distant from the characters. A real dull mess.
18) Dust in the Sun (1958)
Having made three successful movies with their Phantom Stockman formula, Chips Rafferty and Lee Robinson tried to alter it for their next three films, starting with this one, and soon went broke. This actually isn’t a bad film, based on a decent novel by Jon Cleary – it’s a modern day Western about an outback copper (Ken Wayne in a part Rafferty or Charles Tingwell should have played) escorting an aboriginal prisoner (Robert Tudawali) to justice only to stumble into a homestead full of secrets. Things get a bit Tennessee Williams when there should have been more bang bang and locations – a kind-of Western that should have been more of a Western.
It has a whiff of the white man’s burden movie about it like Where No Vultures Fly – Wayne is a solid no nonsense public servant dealing with troublesome natives and snarly whites. It’s a little bit progressive but not exactly PC – Tudawli’s character has a chain around his neck for a lot of the film and is talked about as if he’s a dog. Still, the location filming helps and Tudawali has charisma to burn.
19) Shadow of the Boomerang (1960)
And now for something completely different – a Christian Western, of all things, inspired by the visit Billy Graham made to Australia. It’s about an American who learns to overcome his prejudice against aborigines. Truth be told, this is a melodrama set in the outback rather than a Western, but I wanted to include it on this list because it’s so random.
20) The Sundowners (1960)
Not really a Western either, although there have been American films like it set in the west – plotless peaceful character studies about drifters (eg JW Coop). This is an extremely good example of that subgenre, based on Jon Cleary’s classic novel with superb handling and performances. Robert Mitchum shines as a drifter who can’t change despite the wishes of his wife and son. He loves them, and they love him – which is the strength of this because they can’t leave, and don’t want to, but he can’t change, so it’s sad and happy and human. Fred Zinnemann was one of the few American directors who made a real effort to come to grips with Australian culture, and it shows.
21) Journey Out of Darkness (1967)
This falls into the surprisingly large sub-genre, the aboriginal fugitive movie, which includes such classics as Jedda, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Rabbit Proof Fence… and this camp effort. It has its heart in the right place, albeit in a ‘50s Hollywood liberal way (American screenwriter Howard Koch was blacklisted during the McCarthy era) but is fatally compromised by the casting of Sri Lankan Kamahl and white Ed Devereaux in blackface as aboriginals, not to mention Konrad Matthaei being simply dull in the lead. The film’s main problem is structural – there is no urgency in the trip and nothing interesting happens on the way. Once you stop laughing at Devereaux, it’s just boring. There are some pretty shots of the outback.
22) The Drifting Avenger (1968)
Japan occasionally made its own Westerns and this one was shot in Australia. It’s about a Japanese in the California gold rush who seeks revenge against some outlaws. It stars Ken Takakura who popped up in Hollywood films like Black Rain and Mr Baseball.
23) Adam’s Woman (1970)
A convict Western, financed by an American studio (Warners), with American writers and stars. It’s about a convict (Beau Bridges!) unjustly convicted of a crime and sent to Australia, where he deals with bushrangers and a forced marriage to a girl who he comes to love.
24) Ned Kelly (1970)
After The Story of the Kelly Gang, there were a string of terrible movies about the famous bushranger including When the Kellys Rode (1934) and The Glenrowan Affair (1951). In the 1960s, Karel Reisz was going to make a film about Ned Kelly with Albert Finney which would have been better (one assumes – you never really know) than this version. Tony Richardson was a very good director, but Mick Jagger wasn’t up to the demands of the title role. There’s a lot of dodgy acting, flimsy drama and too much Waylon Jennings on the soundtrack. Still, the making of this was cool, with Australian press going nuts, Marianne Faithful trying to kill herself, Richardson hating Australia, etc etc. It’s a more interesting story than what wound up on screen.
25) Stone (1974)
The biker movie was the modern day Western of choice in the 1960s. Australian cinema has been bewilderingly slow to embrace it as a story option, particularly considering the popularity of this movie, which is about a lawman who joins a gang of outlaws who are being killed off one by one. You could imagine James Stewart playing this in the ‘50s on horseback – here it’s Ken Shorter on a bike. A hit with a massive cult… yet it would be decades before Australian filmmakers put bikers front and center again.
26) The True Story of Eskimo Nell (1975)
An early work from Richard Franklin who went on to become one of Australia’s leading directors (Road Games, Psycho II), this was an adaptation of a bawdy ballad and stars Max Gillies and Serge Lazareff as two drifters in nineteenth century Australia who go looking for the legendary Eskimo Nell. Franklin’s first draft was set in the American west but then he relocated it to Australia.
It’s based on a poem that was apparently famous, but no one seems to know anymore (maybe it was bigger in 1975). The adventures aren’t very interesting – hooking up with some prostitutes, Lazareff screws Abigail (cue nude sequences), they run into Graham Bond (random cameo), then some nasty people make fun of Nell (like those who made fun of Lily Langtry in The Westerner), there are flashbacks to how Gillies lost his eye, they run into Nell who is (gasp shock horror) not as hot as we’ve been led to believe.
It’s weird to think why this film was made or how it got funded. It’s not really a Western or even a meat pie Western; there’s some nudity (full frontal from Abigail) but not much (certainly not as much as Alvin Purple); it’s not very sexy or raunchy; it’s not that funny; it’s not that poignant; there’s not a lot of action. We don’t really care about Gillies or Lazareff – why should we? They’re not particularly funny or engaging or exciting or attractive; they don’t even seem to like each other that much, which is crucial since this is a male love story. Lazareff’s role was originally meant for Jack Thompson, who would have been much better, but I don’t think he would have saved it.
(An aside: the Brits made their own version of the Eskimo Nell poem the same year!)
27) Inn of the Damned (1975)
Weird sort of colonial Western horror movie from auteur Terry Bourke. It’s about an old couple, traumatised by the loss of their children, who kill visitors to a deserted inn – a perfectly acceptable concept for a horror movie, with one main location, opportunities for decent shocks etc. Though as developed here, really there’s 30 to 60 minutes of plot – like Bourke’s earlier featurette, Night of Fear.
The filmmakers pad out the running time with subplots – bounty hunter Alex Cord is looking for a killer, a woman guest is having a lesbian relationship with her step daughter. This pushes the film towards the two hour mark and was a mistake. The Cord subplot lacks tension and the lesbian subplot, which could have been good ‘70s exploitation erotica, isn’t fun or hot because the step daughter isn’t into it – she’s forced into it, which isn’t very sexy. The cast is strong – Alex Cord, Michael Craig, Judith Anderson – and it has oddity appeal. Perhaps Australia’s first “horror western”.
28) Mad Dog Morgan (1976)
Dan Morgan had a reputation as one of our worst bushrangers (he is heavily criticised in a 1911 biopic ) – but his treatment here is quite sympathetic: in the first 15 minutes Morgan witnesses the massacre of some Chinese, takes to petty crime, is given a very harsh sentence, is raped and tortured in prison. So, you hardly blame him for turning bushranger. Having a nutty central figure does serve to distance Morgan slightly from the viewer (from me, at any rate) – he kind of goes loopy communing with the aboriginals in the bush.
But it’s an interesting, exciting movie full of bold images and interesting set pieces, such as the massacre and Frank Thring’s evil policeman. There is some decent action and period detail, and an excellent support casting including Jack Thompson, John Hargreaves and Bill Hunter. This was one of the first Australian Westerns to show the impact that Sam Peckinpah had on the genre.
29) Barney (1976)
Little remembered, sweet kids film about a kid who is shipwrecked with a convict. This is an Australian version of the “young kid hero worshipping older man” template, quite common in Westerns. Normally, he also has a mother hot for the guy (eg Hondo, Shane) and maybe this film would have done better with that element. It was financed by an American studio, Columbia, and you can feel the Hollywood influence in its storytelling, though much of the talent was local.
30) Raw Deal (1977)
TV in 1970s Australia loved to explore the bushranging era – there was Rush, Cash and Company, Tandarra, Seven Little Australians, Against the Wind, Ben Hall, Luke’s Kingdom. This movie was from the team that made Cash and Company and Tandarra, and is an attempt to do a Magnificent Seven style action flick.
The film uses Western tropes, but it makes some attempt to adapt to Australia – the plot revolves around the sectarianism of the time, which was a much bigger issue here than in the USA. There’s references to Guy Fawkes, and cricket. The handling is TV rather than cinema, although production values are decent. And the TV stars in it – Gerard Kennedy, Gus Mecurio and Rod Mullinar – are craggy types we don’t have any more, and are missed.
31) The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978)
Reportedly Hollywood regarded this film as a western, and it led to Fred Schepisi being offered a job directing a western (Barbarosa). You can see why because this is basically about someone in the rural past being pushed to the point where they turn outlaw and go on a rampage. Of course, there’s more to it than that – this is an excellent movie, commercially suicidal, and Tom Lewis should have been one of our major stars.
32) Last of the Knucklemen (1978)
The final film from Hexagon Productions, the company set up by Tim Burstall and co. following the success of Stork. This movie, about tough miners out in the Aussie desert, may have been better received by the public if it hadn’t followed after Sunday Too Far Away (1975), which it resembles at times (though John Power’s original play debuted in 1973) and with which it suffers in comparison. A top-notch cast of Aussie actors, including Steve Bisley and Gerard Kennedy, do some really good work. I never would have thought of it as a Western but the superb Ozmovies website classifies it as such and I guess there are Western elements which weren’t in Sunday – it’s about tough blokes in the outback punching each other out, a mysterious stranger comes to town, there’s a climactic fight.
33) Mad Max (1979)
A lawman takes on a group of outlaws, who retaliate by killing the lawman’s wife and kid… so the law man puts aside his badge and goes looking for revenge. George Miller and company raided many genres for their classic film – sci-fi, horror – but most of all this was a “car Western”, perhaps the most brilliant Australian reimagining of the Western – rivalled only by its sequel Mad Max 2 (1982) (homesteaders under siege from outlaws, mysterious stranger helps them to safety). A masterpiece – it’s hard to think of what else to say other than “the rest of the world ripped this off endlessly? Why didn’t more Australian filmmakers?”
34) We of the Never Never (1982)
An Australian version of the “female homesteader” Western, like Cimarron – the tale of a pioneer who overcomes obstacles, is nice to the natives, walks around some impressive scenery, etc, etc. It’s based on a true story like the most successful movies in this genre (Out of Africa is a Kenyan example). We should make more of them – for instance, why hasn’t Sarah Henderson’s book From Strength to Strength been filmed? The boomers would lap it up.
35) The Man from Snowy River (1982)
Producer Geoff Burrowes once told me (#namedrop) the big challenge he had with Snowy was keeping guns out of it – he succeeded magnificently, in what remains a highly entertaining film. Truth be told, this is influenced by colonial melodramas like The Squatter’s Daughter as much as Westerns – Banjo Patterson’s poem had already been filmed in 1920 – but it has the action, romance and sense of adventure of the best family-orientated Westerns, as well as imported star Kirk Douglas. The film never got much critical love but these sort of movies are damned hard to do – even Burrowes could never repeat his success, despite trying again at the genre with Cool Change (1985) (a modern day take), The Man from Snowy River 2 (1988) and Outback (1989).
36) Bullseye (1986)
Highly obscure comic take on the famous stolen cattle drive by Harry Redford, which inspired a sequence in Robbery Under Arms. This was originally meant to be a serious story, but director Carl Schultz decided to send it up. Maybe that was a mistake – Australia’s fond of cattle drive stories if played straight, as The Overlanders and Australia would prove – but no one turned up for this. The film had a budget of $4.5 million and has been barely seen since – that’s the 10BA era for you.
37) Shame (1987)
A modern day Western with many of the tropes – a mysterious stranger rides into an isolated town, kicks a lot of arse, stops several rapes and uncovers a secret. Rapes aren’t new for Westerns (‘70s Westerns are rape crazy) but the female hero was (and remains) new. The script was published in full in Cinema Papers – I think it was the first script I ever read – and deservedly so because it’s a very good piece of work, depressingly still relevant. It was remade by the Americans in 1992 and could be remade today.
38) Quigley Down Under (1991)
The script for this film was kicking around Hollywood since the 1970s – a white American gunslinger comes to Australia, discovers he’s been hired to kill aboriginals, and takes down his former employer. Various stars such as Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen were mooted as stars, Kirk Douglas had a run at making it after The Man from Snowy River, before it was eventually financed with Tom Selleck and an Australian director, Simon Wincer. It’s a gorgeous looking movie which tries, but doesn’t quite work. It’s hard to make a broad appeal entertainment with a backdrop of genocide.
39) Lightning Jack (1994)
Simon Wincer directed one of the all-time great TV westerns in Lonesome Dove (1987), then did one of the all-time comedy shockers with this Paul Hogan vehicle. It’s not easy to make bank robbers sympathetic but it can be done – it’s been done a lot – but this film sucks at it. Hogan is a great star – he’s still one of our best – who is hopelessly at sea. There’s a terrible love plot too. I remember vividly what a painful experience this was to see in the cinema. Crocodile Dundee had a good heart – this one doesn’t.
40) The Tracker (2002)
This film led the revival of Australian westerns in the 2000s, an aboriginal fugitive film which proved very popular on the art house circuit. It’s got Western tropes – the outlaw, the posse, the tracker – though it is still very Australian. It is set in 1922.
41) Ned Kelly (2003)
A fair few punters turned up to see this reunion of Heath Ledger and Gregor Jordan following Two Hands (1999), but the general sense is that it was a disappointment, despite some solid moments. For some reason when this movie came out every second critic turned into a Ned Kelly scholar. The problem with this film wasn’t creating a fictitious love interest (Naomi Watts). It was a climax where Ned goes to his gang at Glenrowan “we’ve got to save the hostages”. Um… Ned, you took the hostages in the first place. Such contradictions are I think why so many films about Ned Kelly fail; it’s hard to make a broad popular entertainment about a terrorist unless you do some major fudging.
42) Ned (2003)
Very much the effort of a very young filmmaker, this comic take on the famous outlaw was nonetheless pretty funny. It has a genuine sense of anarchy, several laugh-out-loud moments, and is far better than Reckless Kelly (1993), a film where far too much time is spent having characters comment on how hot Yahoo Serious is.
43) The Proposition (2005)
This involves bushrangers but I’d argue it’s more a meat pie Western than bushranger film because it wasn’t based on history or a beloved novel but rather feels as though the filmmakers watched a tonne of ultra-violent, nihilistic, rape-happy late ‘60s and ‘70s Westerns. It’s a bold, uncompromising movie which established Nick Cave as a first-rate screenwriting talent. Not a massive hit on release – it’s hard to imagine this ever being a big crowd pleaser – it has, deservedly, an ever-growing cult and is one of the best Australian films of this century.
44) Australia (2008)
Baz Lurhmann’s redo of The Overlanders has its problems – subplots mysteriously come and go, they would have been better off focusing it on the cattle drive, characters use the word “creamy” to an irritating degree – but it is a sprawling, highly entertaining modern-ish era Western which embraces its tropes with gusto. Its historical accuracy was criticised by Peter Costello of all people, presumably touchy about the whole “apology to stolen generations” thing. However, Sky news watchers curious on checking it out will be relieved to know that Costello thinks “a love story, the film Australia is pretty good.”
45) Dark Frontier (2009) aka Lucky Country
Kind of a western with an unusual time period – 1902 – that probably would have been better off as a movie had it embraced being a Western more.
46) Red Hill (2010)
Famously the best performing Australian film financially out of a cross section of 94 films… It’s a solid modern day Western full of reliable tropes (the incoming railway line, a corrupt cop, a break out from prison, shoot outs at high noon) where the ostensible hero is Ryan Kwanten as a local sheriff but the real protagonist is Tommy Lewis, a great bad ass anti-hero looking for revenge.
47) Mystery Road (2013)
A neo-Western? A neo-noir? This is really its own genre, but it does have Western tropes – the outback setting, the hero torn between two cultures. Not a big hit on release, it’s spawned its own franchise including a sequel and a TV series.
48) Bullets for the Dead (2015)
Something a bit way-out – shot in Australia with local talent, this is set in America and is a Western-zombie-action flick. Very few westerns shot in Australia pretend to be set in America – this is one. And it has zombies.
49) Sweet Country (2018)
An example of the neo Westerns that are popular in the 21st century – it uses familiar Western tropes (brave loner hero, harsh environment, shoot outs, gallows, pursuing posse) but is in a less familiar time and place (in this case 1929 Northern Territory). It’s based on a true story and is very grounded in Australian time and place. Extremely well done and depressing, which is presumably why not many people went to see it despite superb reviews.
50) True Story of the Kelly Gang (2019)
There have been countless films about Ned Kelly since 1906… but not many of them have actually been that popular. Will this effort break the curse? Certainly, you couldn’t find a better actor to play a bushranger than Russell Crowe, so we’ll see.
What conclusions can be drawn from this list, if any? I would put forward the following propositions:
- Filmmakers looking to make a splash could do worse than try a modern-day neo-Western – look at Red Hill, Mystery Road. They don’t need a lot of characters, they usually look good, and they can say Something About Australia which still appeals internationally.
- Filmmakers looking for a big fat commercial hit set in the past would probably be better off looking towards colonial melodrama models (Australia, Man from Snowy River, The Overlanders) than bushranger films (Ned Kelly stories, Robbery Under Arms). Audiences haven’t gotten that excited by bushrangers since the 1910s… but Australia showed there’s still a hunger for stories set in our past involving romance, cattle, horses and women. I’m surprised no one’s tried to remake The Man from Snowy River or The Overlanders. Anyone looking for texts to adapt, the plays Breaking the Drought and The Squatter’s Daughter would be in public domain by now.
- If you’re going to make something that’s a little bit of a Western, you’re better off committing and going full throttle rather than pussy footing around.
- We don’t make enough modern day Westerns that fetishize cars and bikes (eg Stone, Mad Max).