Review: The Last of the Knucklemen

Harsh, rowdy Aussie film centring on a group of macho miners in the remote town of Andamooka. Michael Preston is Pansy, who despite his name is a hot-tempered thug who only ever looks out for himself, and is constantly at odds with the others, and with the boss of the group, Tarzan (strapping Gerard Kennedy). Tarzan for his part tries to keep the men from killing each other, acting as a sort of gruff peace-maker. Into this group comes Peter Hehir, a quiet-natured fellow with a mysterious past, who is a new recruit. Michael Caton is the meek former trainee priest nicknamed ‘Monk’. Steve Bisley plays loudmouth Mad Dog, who unlike Pansy, at least knows when to give it a rest. Michael Duffield is the old-timer of the gang, Methuselah, who is in pretty poor health, and is constantly picked on by Pansy. Steve Rackman turns up as Carl, a hulking German thug who takes on burly Kennedy.

This rugged 1979 adaptation of the John Power play by writer-director Tim Burstall (“Alvin Purple”, “Stork”) would make a fine double bill with either “Sunday Too Far Away” or “Wake in Fright”, as it is a similarly vivid, brawling, unglamorous, uber-macho look at Australian males in outback parts of the country. It’s not as dark and scathing as “Wake in Fright” and has never gained the critical recognition of “Sunday Too Far Away”, but it’s a memorable film nonetheless.

In a pretty decent cast (including the ubiquitous Steve Bisley and a shockingly young Michael Caton), Kennedy towers over all (physically and otherwise) as the intimidating and most manly of men, Tarzan. Preston, despite given the ridiculously effeminate name of Pansy, is good too. Hehir, as the film’s karate-kicking mystery man, is a bit vanilla and his character’s lack of depth is the film’s one big weakness, as it seems a bit tacked on as presented in the film. Apparently Power based the character on famed robber Ronald Biggs, though obviously the karate is an invention.

The final pair of knockdown, drag-out fights shouldn’t be missed, with a memorable appearance by actor/wrestler Rackman (best known for playing Donk in the “Crocodile Dundee” flicks) as the German-accented antagonist. BTW, what’s with all the British accents? Both Preston and Duffield (who is affecting, but a teeny bit theatrical, revealing the film’s stage origins with his speeches) are clearly British actors playing Aussies. I know Aussies used to sound a bit British back then and Duffield appeared a few times on the Aussie prison soap “Prisoner”, so maybe he’s truly an Aussie, but it just took me out of things for a bit. Look for veteran Aussie entertainer and beloved TV personality Denise ‘Ding Dong’ Drysdale in the very important role of ‘Whore’. Oh, and can someone explain to me what the deal is with the bizarro opening song which sounds like a guy badly trying to imitate the sound of a didgeridoo? It’s really irritating and very strange.

Aside from some of the flowery speeches of Duffield, writer-director Burstall does a good job of hiding the theatrical origins, mostly by opening it up and showing off the harsh, rugged landscape. That said, when it does bunker down in the camp scenes, it’s necessary to give a claustrophobic feel, as these men are pretty much stuck with each other.

A good film worth seeking out if you’re into these sorts of uber-masculine, beer-swilling, slightly thuggish Aussie films from the 70s.

Rating: B


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