“There was movement at the station, for the word had passed around
That the colt from old Regret had got away,
And had joined the wild bush horses - he was worth a thousand pound.”
from “The Man from Snowy River” by A.B. (Banjo) Paterson
Andrew Barton Paterson (1864-1941) was Australia's best-known “bush poets”, for whom the country's rural life and traditions were his subject matter. He features on the Australian ten-dollar note and his poem set to music, “Waltzing Matilda” can claim to be the unofficial national anthem. His narrative poem “The Man from Snowy River” (1890), the beginning of which is above, comprises thirteen eight-line stanzas and tells the story of the attempts to recapture the colt of prizewinning racehorse (old Regret). Jim Craig's father is killed in a hunt for wild horses, and Jim (Tom Burlinson) is helped by Spur (Kirk Douglas), a mysterious mountain man. Meanwhile, Jim goes to work for Harrison (Kirk Douglas again) but the cattlemen look down on him because he is not one of them. Jim falls in love with Harrison's daughter Jessica (Sigrid Thornton)...
While it's a distinctly old-fashioned movie, which could have been made at any time in the preceding thirty years, and while it draws heavily on the iconography of the classic American Western, there is something very Australian about The Man from Snowy River. Is it a great movie? No, nor is it an especially good one. But significant in the history of Australian cinema it certainly is. With its roots in a well-loved Australian poem (so well known that the Australian trailer – included on this DVD – begins with the poem's opening line, rightly assuming that the intended audience would recognise it), its widescreen shots of the landscape and an undeniably stirring finale, it cleaned up. On its release in 1982 it became the highest-grossing Australian film of all time at the local box office (and, as I write this in January 2014, is still in the top ten) and would have been the all-time highest-grossing film of all time in Australia if E.T. hadn't come along in the same year. The critics were sniffy (and I wouldn't disagree with them) but the public turned out in droves.
To get any possible confusion out of the way, there are two Australian directors called George Miller, and it is no doubt far too late to ask either of them to use a middle initial to distinguish himself from the other. The director of the film at hand is not the Brisbane-born (from Greek parentage, real surname Miliotis) man who directed the Mad Max trilogy, The Witches of Eastwick, Lorenzo's Oil and the Babe and Happy Feet films. Snowy is the work of the Scottish-born and two-years-older George Miller, whose by far biggest hit this was. (His other films include The Aviator and Les Patterson Saves the World.) Miller began his career in television in the 1960s, and the idea to make the poem into a film arose at a dinner party and Miller and producer Geoff Burrowes got to work on a treatment. The screenplay was written by John Dixon and Fred Cul Cullen. The film was shot in the Victorian High Country. Burrowes and Miller were television people with no track record in the cinema, but executive producer Simon Wincer (who had previously directed Sigrid Thornton in the 1979 thriller Snapshot) helped raise the A$3 million budget.
This George Miller is a lesser talent than his namesake, and the film survives the blandness of his direction and an uninspired script – the real plus points are Keith Wagstaff's Scope photography and the music score by Bruce Rowland, which won the film its only Australian Film Institute Award. Much has been said of the practice of importing foreign stars into Australian productions, which began in the 1970s. Sometimes this worked (such as Richard Chamberlain in The Last Wave) more often it didn't and Kirk Douglas, cast after Burt Lancaster and Robert Mitchum both declined, is unimpressive in his dual role (Spur has a beard and a wooden leg, Harrison doesn't). Burlinson and Thornton embody the good looking hero and heroine but can't do more than that, and Jack Thompson doesn't have a lot to do as Clancy, a minor character in the poem and the subject of Paterson's earlier poem “Clancy of the Overflow”. The very dangerous-looking finale, with Jim riding a horse down an extremely steep slope, was done for real by Burlinson. He and Thornton returned in a sequel, The Man from Snowy River II (Return to Snowy River in the USA), which was directed by Burrowes. There was also a TV series, Snowy River: The McGregor Saga, which ran for four seasons between 1993 and 1996.
Roadshow's DVD (encoded for Region 4 only) was pretty close to state of the art on its release in 2004, but things have moved on in the ten years since. It's a surprise that this film, at the time of writing, does not have a Blu-ray release.
The DVD transfer is in the ratio of 2.35:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. As Burrowes says elsewhere on the disc, this is the first time the film could be seen in its original aspect ratio since its cinema release, given that the VHS release was panned and scanned. It has also been restored, via a HD scan, and colour corrected. Blacks are solid if not as dark as they could be, which may be intentional (I've not seen the film in a cinema) but skin tones look accurate.
The Man from Snowy River was one of the earliest Australian films with a Dolby Stereo soundtrack (after Mad Max 2 the previous year) and that would be the source of the Dolby Surround track on this DVD. But along with the picture the sound has been restored and remixed into both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1. The use of surround sound is quite noticeable from the opening shot: a long-held silent shot of grass and sky, suddenly disrupted by horses charging from left to right. Rowland's score particularly benefits from the remix and the horse-chase finale makes use of all speakers and the subwoofer. English subtitles are available for the hard of hearing.
Given the popular status this film has in Australia, it's a little surprising that there are not as many extras as you might expect: no commentary and/or making-of featurette. However, we do have a reading of the entire poem by Frankie J. Holden (9:56) which is accompanied by Rowland's score and the appropriate scenes from the film.
Geoff Burrowes is our host for “The Making of the DVD – Restoring the Man” (14:58). This is a detailed account of how the film was restored for its DVD release. The original negatives had to be tracked down (in the case of one reel of the soundtrack, it was found in Burrowes's shed) and were scanned at 2K resolution. Much of this will be more familiar nowadays, when 2K (and higher) scans are more commonplace. Demonstrations of aspect ratios and what is lost when panning and scanning a Scope film will be familiar to many as well. Burrowes also talks about the restoration and remixing of the soundtrack – with relevant scenes from the film having their sound cranked up for effect. He ends with a montage of scenes designed, he says, to give your home cinema system a workout. He's not kidding.
The extras are completed by a self-navigating stills gallery (3:25) and trailers for both The Man from Snowy River (1:41) and The Man from Snowy River II (2:26).