“I remember someone in an interview saying, ‘An Australian film star? Is there such a thing? How can there be?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t know whether I am one or not. But whether or not I am, it’s important that an Australian audience believes that we can have an Australian film star. Because if we can have an Australian film industry, then we can have an Australian film star.’”
You could probably start an argument about it, but Jack Thompson was very likely the first real movie star of the modern era in Australia, lighting up the screen in the seventies with his singular brand of rough hewn masculinity, nonchalant honesty, flammable sex appeal, and engaging likeability. Though he has created seminal, unforgettable Australian characters in classics such as Petersen (1974), Caddie (1976), Breaker Morant (1980), The Club (1980) and The Man From Snowy River (1982), Thompson’s most iconic creation remains Foley, the quintessential hardman at the boiling centre of Ken Hannam’s sweat-and-spit-soaked 1975 drama, Sunday Too Far Away.
Set in 1956 amidst the harsh outback isolation of a sheep station, the film focuses on a group of shearers, of which Thompson’s Foley is the “gun”, namely the fastest, most professional cutter, and almost akin to a quick-draw gunfighter in The Old West. Foley, however, is tired of the long hours, the stinking heat, and the soul crushing isolation, which would see shearers separated from their family and friends for months at a time. He dreams of getting out, but is drawn back into one last stretch, principally because he’s broke, but also because it’s suggested that he might not be the gun that he once was. “If I was there,” Foley says in his defence. “I rung that shed.”
With his blonde hair, strong physique, and trademark blue singlet, Thompson creates an image of Australian masculinity almost impossible to measure up against. One of the film’s most famous scenes – in which a naked Thompson is seen from behind while washing his clothes in a trough, his buttocks shaking suggestively as he scrubs – helped establish the actor as a bona fide local sex symbol. On top of that, Thompson’s Foley is a true hero – he stands up for others, he doesn’t take any shit, and he’s the best he is at what he does. “That drew on my own experience in working in the bush,” Thompson told the ABC of playing Foley. “It’s set in 1956, and it’s about the shearers’ strike. And in 1956, I was working on a sheep farm out in western NSW. I was the only actor there who could shear!”
A restored print of Sunday Too Far Away will screen online for free on June 12 at 6:00pm courtesy of The National Film & Sound Archive. The screening will be followed by an exclusive Q&A with the film’s producer, Matt Carroll. For all details and to register for free the event, click here.