Oz (1976)

oz

Director: Chris Löfvén

Stars: Joy Dunstan, Bruce Spence, Michael Carman, Gary Waddell

First viewing, via DVD

The Wizard of Oz, Victor Fleming’s 1939 film based on the first of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, is a beloved movie. It’s not just a classic children’s film, but one of that great crop of late 30s/early 40s movies – along with Gone with the Wind, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Stagecoach, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and so on – that epitomized the very best of the Hollywood machine (a machine which, as several of these troubled productions including The Wizard of Oz attest, was at times a gruelling, erratic beast). The world of Oz has had a robust afterlife and its 1970s and 80s offshoots are especially interesting. They include the African-American musical The Wiz, which became a flick directed by Sidney Lumet starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson; Walter Murch’s dark sequel Return to Oz; and the much lesser known Australian film Oz, subtitled A Rock ‘n Roll Road Movie, directed by Chris Löfvén with music by Ross Wilson, Wayne Burt, Baden Hutchins, and Gary Young.

oz-title-card

Dorothy (Joy Dunstan) is a teenage girl living in a rural area. She’s unhappy at school, forced to attend by her uncle and aunt, and yearns for greater things. Late one night following a gig by rock ‘n roll group Wally and the Falcons, Dorothy is involved in a car accident. She wanders dazed from the scene and collapses unconscious. On waking up she wanders into a desolate small town, where she’s gifted a pair of ruby slippers from a camp shopkeeper (Robin Ramsay) and urged to take the trek to the big city to see the final performance of music superstar The Wizard (Graham Matters). And so her journey begins…

In his introduction to the film on its Umbrella Entertainment DVD release, director Löfvén recalls of the movie’s origins:

I’d read a comment by some famous Hollywood producer that all the best stories had been told, and the only difference was in the telling. I wanted to make a road movie with rock music, but make it very Australian, very Oz. And then it hit me: The Wizard of Oz. How cool would it be to take that classic story and transpose it into a contemporary Australian situation?

While the Oz of Victor Fleming’s film is a brightly coloured, exquisitely art-directed fantasy land that’s visually differentiated from the dreary, sepia-coloured Kansas setting that opens the film, Löfvén and company don’t really spice up or heighten their version of Oz; it’s technically just 1970s Australia, though that’s probably sufficiently exotic for international audiences. But the plot closely follows the beats of Fleming’s film, with Dorothy travelling the asphalt highway (rather than the yellow brick road) to the big city and encountering Australian stand-ins for The Wizard of Oz’s colourful cast of characters along the way.

Dorothy’s yellow brick road equivalent is the sort of desolate outback highway we’d see Max Rockatansky’s V8 Interceptor speed down in just a few years, so it’s fitting that there’s a Road Warrior alum in the cast. Bruce Spence, authentically Scarecrow-ish most of the time, plays Oz’s Scarecrow surrogate, a dopey hippie surfer. Spence is an actor who can go broad – like, really really broad – but he’s low key and chilled here. Michael Carman as the film’s Tin Man figure (a motor mechanic thoroughly lacking in empathy) and Gary Waddell as Oz’s Cowardly Lion equivalent (a motorcyclist who talks a tough game but wouldn’t even be cannon fodder for the Grave Diggers in Stone) go broader and do the lion’s share (pun intended) of overacting. The film’s Wicked Witch-style antagonist, meanwhile, is a sleazy moustachioed truck driver in a blue singlet, and there’s a touch of Duel to his pursuit of Dorothy. The actor playing the villain is terrifically named – Ned Kelly – but is wooden and expressionless, the human equivalent of a meat pack won in an RSL raffle. Nonetheless, that stiffness invests him with a certain menace: think bogan Terminator.

The gender politics on display in Oz are fairly par the course for this era of Australian cinema, with enthusiastic feminist tidings sitting alongside ingrained, reflex patriarchal sentiments. This is exemplified in contemporary-set commercially-minded fare like Patrick and Snapshot. Here, Dorothy wants a better life for herself and sets off to find it, and the film celebrates her breaking the small town shackles. But her journey is to see a magical guy, initiated by another magical guy, and on the road she’s preyed upon by lusting men: not only the menacing truck driver, but the mechanic and motorcyclist on their initial encounters. She’s also kidnapped and requires rescuing from the truck driver, and eventually is used and discarded by The Wizard. This renders her big city adventure a major letdown, ultimately teaching her the true value of her friends and family. Whilst older films should always be considered in their original cultural context and not automatically judged or dismissed based on more enlightened modern perspectives (except if those works are particularly obnoxious or hateful: The Birth of a Nation deserves all the judgment in the world), it’s hard to ignore this thick coat of patriarchy. But like I said, progressive-in-some-respects/conservative-in-others was par the course in this era, plus Dorothy’s arc is inherently bound to its source text. Despite the character’s passivity, Joy Dunstan is an engaging as a contemporary Antipodean Dorothy.

The film makes good use of its locations and taps into that same infatuation with the open road expressed in American films of the period like Easy Rider. It also exhibits Australia’s own infatuation with car and bike culture exemplified in films of the era, though with significantly fewer vehicular collisions than Ozploitation flicks like Mad Max, Chain Reaction, Stone and their ilk. The music, like the film itself, is very much an artifact of its time, with some memorable tunes (most notably Ross Wilson’s signature “Livin’ in the Land of Oz”) and others that are more functional but well-matched to the story and tone.

In summary: A product of its time aesthetically, musically and culturally, Oz is nonetheless unique and on novelty alone is worth a watch.

Next week: Stephen Johnson’s Yonlgu Boy (2001).

Author: downunderflix

This site was created by Ben Kooyman, a teacher and writer based in Sydney, Australia hoping to shine some light on some neglected local films...

2 thoughts on “Oz (1976)”

  1. As an idea it was wonderful, but it was let down by its script, acting and direction. In better hands it could perhaps have amounted to something more. You’re right, it’s still worth seeing for its novelty value. I guess Australians aren’t really meant to make musicals. Nice review.

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