Iconic images spring to mind at the mention of George Miller’s most lauded film: the two romantic leads on horseback locked in a first meaningful embrace as the scenic backdrop brings them into stark relief. The two figures were actors soon to become far more familiar in the years to follow: a young Tom Burlinson as Jim Craig, the noble-intentioned mountain lad any mother would be glad to see on the arm of their daughter, and Sigrid Thornton as Jessica, the fiery-tempered daughter of a wealthy-by-good-fortune American, Harrison (Kirk Douglas). A second image, recalled most vividly by the film’s most ardent fans, and just as vividly burned into our consciousness is the spectacular sight of Jim powering his noble stead down a breathtakingly steep mountain face in pursuit of the pack of renegade wild brumbies as part of the thrilling set-piece that brings the film to a rousing close. But just how kind has the passing of years been to this audience-friendly adaptation of ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s most famous poem?
In the desolate Victorian countryside, Jim works alongside his father Henry (Terence Donovan) on their modest mountain property. But when tragedy strikes and Henry is killed in an accident, setting one of their best horses free, Jim must learn to survive on his own. Into the nearby township he heads searching for honest labour, though he’s immediately scrutinised with suspicion due to his humble origins. His earnestness and work ethic win favours with Harrison however who offers him a position as a stablehand where he diligently takes to his lowly tasks despite the mean-spirited ribbing of his co-workers, especially the spiteful Curly (Chris Haywood). In his spare time he works equally hard at impressing Harrison’s lovely but feisty daughter Jessica.
Left behind with the men called away on an arduous ride, Jim decides to try and win some brownie points by breaking in Harrison’s expensive colt, the last offspring of Old Regret. It backfires however when the pack of wild horses passes by, distracting the colt who roughly dispatches Jim and escapes. Upon his return, a furious Harrison assembles every handler in the surrounding districts, including the legendary Clancy (Jack Thompson), convinced the potential loss of his colt is Jim’s doing. Can the young mountain lad make amends and win the heart of Jessica in the process? The outcome is hardly a surprise, but the journey is undoubtedly an adventurous, spirited one relayed with a uniquely Australian voice but with enough universality to ensure broad appeal.
Burlinson’s screen debut set him on the road to stardom and rightly so for he embodies the fresh-faced Jim with the combined vigour and exuberance of youthful impulsivity. It’s true, he doesn’t exactly set the world on fire with his acting range but he has the appealing good looks and requisite physical presence to dissuade any notion of him being unable to cut it once a bit of equine mastery is called for.
Douglas laps up his duel roles with a strange kind of relish, especially in the case of Harrison’s brother, the colourful, one-legged Spur. Early on he’s designated as the comic relief, the hoary loner devoting much of life to panning for fool’s gold whilst Harrison, who unjustly disowned him, willingly clasped at circumstances engineered by fate. Jack Thompson seems underutilised as Clancy, spoken of in glowing terms as the greatest horseman in the land, and who Harrison pleads to lead the charge to retrieve his prized colt. But Clancy falls back into the ruck when push comes to shove, deferring to Jim whose show of strength not only proves to Jessica his worth as a man, but also to the wider community - spotted as it is with vocal detractors - of his credentials as a horseman ready to assume a man’s responsibility before his time.
Who doesn’t recall the film’s score? For this we can thank the talents of composer Bruce Rowland whose lyrical main themes have become as bound to the film as anything else, musically representing the film’s purest spirit with its wide open spaces and simplified evocation of freedom.
Perhaps the name of Paterson’s poem conjures an image of grace and perfection that can’t be matched by the reality of the film. Yet nearly 30 years on, The Man From Snowy River remains a thrilling ride; part tentative first romance, part rites-of-passage for its young hero. Though it’s not without shortcomings, we’re probably all guilty of appraising the film, in hindsight, with a nostalgic fondness that conveniently consigns its slightly dated elements into the background. And I’m no different, for those iconic images we most readily associate with it are undeniably memorable and testament to the film’s enduring appeal.