Quigley Down Under (1990)
It may be a bit surprising these days - although it shouldn't, since Sam Elliott still manages to make young women swoon - that a forty-something actor known largely for one television role was one of the biggest sex symbols of the 1980s. That would be Tom Selleck, who came to starring roles later than most actors in Hollywood, but managed to portray a kind of gentlemanly edge that made him both a favorite for guys watching Magnum P.I. but also for housewives gazing longingly at the cover of TV Guide. The fact that he seemed to do it effortlessly, and also seemed to be a decent human being in real life unlike a number of other sex symbols of the time, helped.
Though not as much a household name Simon Wincer is an Australian director with a fascination for the Old West and, like Selleck, a lot of his fame came from television. He came up the way a lot of directors from Down Under did, making his mark originally with the Ozsploitation film Harlequin, but in 1989 directed the miniseries Lonesome Dove. It was a rarity for television at the time since even in the 1980s movie actors considered doing television to be slumming. They may have started there, but to go back was like being the biggest band in the world and then going back to playing rural bars. Still, this big-budget, four-hour miniseries boasted names such as Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones and Danny Glover, and was one of the biggest television events of the 1980s.
Magnum P.I. ended its long run in 1988, thus freeing up Selleck, who had been unable to do much movie work due to his contract to do the show, to finally make a name for himself on the big screen. He had been approached to do Quigley Down Under in the early 1980s and, as soon as he was free, started asking if it was still available. A budget was raised and Wincer was hired to direct. What resulted was one of the few classic westerns to grace the screen since the 1970s.
Matthew Quigley (Selleck) is a sharpshooter from Wyoming who is hired by land owner Elliott Marston (Alan Rickman) to put his skills to good use. Upon arrival in Fremantle Quigley finds himself protecting a woman named Crazy Cora (Laura San Giacamo) who mistakes him for her estranged husband Roy. Upon reaching Marston's station Quigley soon finds out that the rancher doesn't want to use his skills for shooting wild dogs, but instead for picking off the local aboriginal population, whom Marston has been, with the tacit support of the British government, pursuing a policy of extermination.
Quigley is not happy with his job description and makes it quite clear to Marston. For his troubles he and Cora are taken out into the middle of nowhere to be left to the elements. By luck, and with the help of a local tribe, they are able to survive. As Marston and his men continue their reign of terror against the aborigines, while also hunting the pair, Quigley begins fighting back. His local fame grows by word of mouth as the inevitable confrontation between the two men approaches.
With as many replica Sharps rifles that this movie was responsible for selling over the years one would think Quigley's gun was the star of the movie. Still, it is Selleck, who would go on to star in two more movies for Wincer (although they would be television films), that is the focus. His acting range may not be great, but he has a relaxed confidence and manner of delivering lines, and he is good at making sure we are seeing a character and not just the actor. This especially comes through once Quigley starts to realize how famous he has become and how much his actions, which he views as simply trying to survive, has meant to both the local townspeople as well as the tribes.
Alan Rickman gets to play another one of his famous villain roles and does it with his usual style, while Laura San Giacamo is given most of the heavy lifting when it comes to the acting. The "Crazy Cora" part comes more from how she is willing to violently defend herself, although she is suffering from PTSD due to the incident that led to her being sent from Texas to Australia. Happily, unless someone is dumb enough to attack her, the episodes she goes in and out of aren't shown as some sort of hysteria, but as something that heavily affects an otherwise functional person. While the resolution is a bit too pat it is good to see that not every movie has to present someone with mental problems as dangerous or raving.
Besides Selleck the other big star is Australia itself. While a lot is always said about how similar in some ways Australia and the United States are, both arising necessarily from a frontier culture, in honesty the differences are so much more. That landscape couldn't be anywhere else in the world and I'm glad they didn't just grab an American director and send them down there to film it. Simon Wincer also helped out by stripping John Hill's original script back to its core so that it returned to the western roots it had come from
I am obviously not Australian, so I'm not sure if the attitude toward the aboriginal population (I keep saying that because I have no idea what tribe they were from) is patronizing or not. I am quite sure if viewed through Australian eyes this movie would have a different impact, and maybe even a more meaningful one. As it is I just enjoy seeing the scenery, the myth building and the ultimate good guy versus bad guy showdown between the characters. Even though it takes place on another continent it doesn't in any way rewrite rules of westerns, but it does provide an entertaining spectacle.
Quigley Down Under (1990)
Time: 119 minutes
Starring: Tom Selleck, Laura San Giacamo, Alan Rickman
Director: Simon Wincer