This Sporting Life: Dawn! (1979), The Club (1980), and The Coolangatta Gold (1984)

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Sport has long occupied a key place in Australian culture. As noted by Daryl Adair in his essay ‘Making sense of Australian sport history’, the earliest British migrants used sport to maintain links with their country of origin, while subsequent generations helped forge a national identity on the world stage via their sporting prowess. Adair also notes that Australia’s coasts and surf culture have facilitated an array of water-based sports, and in recent years the AFL, among others, has contributed to the reconciliation agenda as a prominent employer of Indigenous athletes. In light of this national pastime, this week Down Under Flix spotlights three sports-centric films from the late 1970s and early 80s.

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Director: Ken Hannam

Stars: Bronwyn Mackay-Payne, Ron Haddrick, Bunney Brooke, Tom Richards, John Diedrich

First viewing, via DVD

Dawn! is a biopic of Dawn Fraser, the celebrated Australian swimmer and Olympian. The film’s opening credits are accompanied by a montage chronicling Fraser’s achievements in the pool, before cutting to Fraser in the late 1960s making ends meet delivering groceries. From here, Dawn! shifts back in time and traces Fraser’s journey from rags to riches to quasi-rags: her freestyle victories at the 1956, 1960, and 1964 Olympics in Melbourne, Rome, and Tokyo; her rebellious behaviour that eventually gets her banned from competing professionally; and her romances and other trials and tragedies along the way.

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Ken Hannam’s film of Fraser’s life isn’t the first biopic covered on Down Under Flix (see Paradise Found), nor the first sports biopic (see The Cup), nor the first water sports biopic (see Swimming Upstream). While it shares those films’ formulaic narrativizing of real life events and occasional tendency towards hagiography, Dawn! has more in common with other films of its vintage (the Australian New Wave era) depicting the not-too-distant past, i.e. flicks like Caddie and Newsfront and The Picture Show Man that were period-set, working-class, somewhat nostalgic, and chirpily downbeat. Hannam directed one of these very films, Sunday Too Far Away, a few years before Dawn!, but after the biopic’s disappointing reception would subsequently specialise in television, including  a first-rate TV adaptation of Rolf Boldrewood’s Robbery Under Arms featuring Sam Neill, Steven Vidler, Beyond Innocence’s Keith Smith and recent Down Under Flix interviewee Graham Caldwell. Writer and producer Joy Cavill, meanwhile, previously helmed a documentary about Fraser and wrote and produced episodes of Skippy, starring that other Australian icon.

At the film’s centre is Bronwyn Mackay-Payne as Fraser. Dawn! was both Mackay-Payne’s film debut and swansong, and though her performance was somewhat maligned critically I quite liked her work here. Mackay-Payne’s performance is at times mannered, betraying her status as a novice actor, but there are shades of Jodie Foster and Claudia Karvan in her performance—neither of whom are slouches—and she anchors Fraser’s journey from surly teenager to self-possessed young woman and larrikin icon to vulnerable former champion and embodies her often contradictory qualities. In light of recent media surrounding the challenges faced by former Olympians and swimming champions—such as Ian Thorpe hiding his homosexuality until just a few years ago, or Grant Hackett’s recent and widely publicised personal struggles—Dawn!’s thoughtful look at the human being behind the icon still carries resonance…

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Director: Bruce Beresford

Stars: Jack Thompson, Graham Kennedy, John Howard, Frank Wilson, Alan Cassell

Fourth viewing, via DVD

While I generally try to program films I’m not familiar with on Down Under Flix, so I can experience the pleasure (or its opposite) of discovery alongside many readers, I knew I wanted to cover The Club this week, and not just because of my professed fascination with Bruce Beresford’s work (as noted here and here). The Club, simply put, is a lot of fun.

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Adapted from a play by David Williamson, Beresford’s film is set in the milieu of the Victorian Football League (VFL) of the early 1980s (though somewhat ironically, The Club is produced by the South Australian and New South Wales Film Corporations). Geoff Hayward (John Howard) is Collingwood Football Club’s latest recruit, at considerable cost to the club and some personal expense to new club president Ted Parker (Graham Kennedy). Hayward’s hefty payday and air of superiority stirs discontent among other players, including struggling star player Danny Rowe (Harold Hopkins), and coach Laurie Holden (Jack Thompson). The film charts the fallout of this latest hire along with ongoing managerial conflicts between Holden, Parker, and club higher echelon Jock Riley (Frank Wilson) and Gerry Cooper (Alan Cassell).

Following closely on the heels of Breaker Morant, The Club is another male-dominated, masculine drama from Beresford. Fittingly for both the subject matter and the VFL milieu, the tone of the film is muscular—established effectively in early exercise and training scenes—and the staging of the football games is some of the best committed to film: clearly photographed by Donald McAlpine (a regular collaborator with Beresford), spatially and geographically sound, and with excellent use of slow motion to highlight key moments and, in turn, mine character and narrative beats from the gameplay.

These scenes mark The Club as a more ambitious undertaking, production-wise, than Beresford’s previous film adaptation of a David Williamson play, Don’s Party (set largely in one location at a house party on election night in 1969), and the film feels much less stagey than that 1976 adaptation. Even so, like its predecessor, the film’s core and real fireworks reside in those theatrical, dialogue-propelled scenes where comedy and interpersonal drama and politics (whether national or strictly VFL) collide. Williamson is Australia’s most famous playwright, and found a fan in two-time adapter Beresford: in his published journals the director writes “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a play of his I didn’t think was extremely good. I am continually astonished at the range of subject matter—friendships, love affairs, business, law, sports, politics—and the insight, humour and depth with which every topic is handled” (Josh Hartnett definitely wants to do this… True stories from a life in the screen trade, p. 113). Beresford expresses admiration for Williamson’s breadth of subject matter, but much the same could be said of his own diverse, at times eclectic filmography.

Moreover, where Williamson frequently gives actors some of their best dialogue, Beresford frequently directs some of their best work, and The Club is no exception. Jack Thompson is in commanding form with a mighty moustache that would make latter-day Kurt Russell blush; TV icon Graham Kennedy—a Williamson veteran from Don’s Party and later to appear in another film of his plays, Travelling North—gives a fine tragicomic performance; a young and trim John Howard plays defiance well; and Alan Cassell makes for a slippery, velvety Machiavel. But the standout is Frank Wilson as the blowhard Jock Riley, a jovial bully who deserves every inch of his comeuppance.

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Director: Igor Auzins

Stars: Joss McWilliam, Colin Friels, Nick Tate, Robyn Nevin, Josephine Smulders

First viewing, via DVD

If Dawn! is symptomatic of the nostalgic leanings of one faction of the Australian New Wave, and The Club symptomatic of another in its grappling with the tenets of national identity, 1984’s The Coolangatta Gold is more emblematic of Australian films of the 1980s such as The Man Snowy River and Crocodile Dundee: brazenly commercial, one part Hollywood, one part local tourism advert. Much the same could be said of the Gold Coast, Queensland, which serves threefold as the film’s backdrop, muse, and featured player.

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The film’s plot echoes that of Swimming Upstream, pitting brothers against each other for a troubled father’s affections. Joe Lucas (Nick Tate) is a retired athlete grooming his son Adam (Colin Friels) to follow in his footsteps and succeed where he failed. Meanwhile, he neglects his other son Steve (Joss McWilliam), using him as a training partner for Adam but ultimately indifferent to his needs and goals. Steve retaliates by entering himself into the Coolangatta Gold Ironman surf lifesaving competition, pitting himself against Adam in the contest.

The Coolangatta Gold was the biggest-budgeted Australian production of its era. The film was partly conceived as a showcase for the Gold Coast and built around the novel concept of staging a real-life quadrathlon, which features in the film and would go on to become a recurring calendar event. The event proved more popular with audiences than the film itself, which underperformed critically and financially, despite its extremely commercial aesthetics: the film shares DNA with the likes of The Karate Kid (released the same year), Flashdance and the Rocky films, and folds sports movie, bildungsroman, family melodrama, romance, and pop music video (several numbers are performed by Steve’s band Shark Attack, with Skyhooks’ and Hey Hey It’s Saturday’s Wilbur Wilde on the mic) into one glossy if not quite coherent package.

Dramatically speaking, the film is somewhat hobbled by its ending, which tries to be all things to all people. Joe Lucas is such an unsympathetic character, and his investment in Adam and exclusion of Steve so unlikable, that it renders the film’s denouement, which contrives happy endings for the film’s quintet of core characters, dramatically unsatisfying precisely because it rewards his repellent behaviour. Actor Nick Tate fights hard against this perplexing characterisation, but at times it’s a losing battle. Joss McWilliam also works his butt off as Steve and satisfies the physical demands of the role, but struggles to make some of the soapier material land. The best performances in the film come from Colin Friels, who’s typically rock solid and brings nuance and shading to his favoured son role, and Josephine Smulders as Steve’s romantic interest, whose dance troupe neighbours Steve’s karate class (yes, there’s also dance and karate in this film). Like Dawn!’s Mackay-Payne, this was both screen debut and swansong for Smulders, and it’s a shame as she has an easygoing, charismatic screen presence.

Whatever The Coolangatta Gold’s dramatic shortcomings, the execution and onscreen presentation of the Ironman competitions is very impressive: with its brightly lit, crisply shot images of boats and bodies scaling massive, curling waves in slow motion, with the Gold Coast’s golden sands and sleek modern architecture peppering the distant shore, there’s a scale and thunder here that’s only occasionally summoned in Australian films. Befitting the subject matter, there’s also something Leni Riefenstahl/Triumph of the Will-esque about seeing these sculpted, tanned Aryan specimens in peak physical condition in action: even Rocky III-era Sylvester Stallone might blush and think it’s a bit much. Speaking of Rocky, the competition and training scenes are bolstered by the score from Bill Conti of Rocky and The Karate Kid fame. While Conti’s melody here isn’t as memorable as his scores for those films (and nor is the film’s protagonist quite the same innately warm underdog), the score ties The Coolangatta Gold to their sports corn lineage and helps manufactures some swagger. In some respects, that sums up the film: it’s proficiently manufactured. Director Igor Auzins (previously responsible for the very different We of the Never Never) did not make another film after The Coolangatta Gold, but based on the evidence could have gone on to helm slick product on a moderate budget for the likes of Simpson and Bruckheimer.

Next time: Gregor Jordan’s reverential take on the Ned Kelly legend, Ned Kelly (2003)

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...

10 thoughts on “This Sporting Life: Dawn! (1979), The Club (1980), and The Coolangatta Gold (1984)”

  1. Hilarious review of Coolangatta Cold, a film that the DVD cover always put me off. Your review confirms my fears.

    It is interesting how few sports films Australia has produced for a nation so preoccupied with all kinds of sports. Perhaps sports fans and film fans (or film-makers) occupy non-intersecting Venn Diagram circles? It can’t be that simple. The Club is about the only successful Oz film I can think of which concentrates on our sporting culture (sic).

    I haven’t come across Dawn, but I did watch (on DVD) The Great McCarthy which is like a bad version of The Club. TV has done better with Bodyline and Howzat, but I think a hit sports film is waiting to someday burst upon us, Crocodile Dundee-style. Good idea Ben. Cheers.

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    1. Thank you. Yeah, agreed, I find the lack of sports films relative to Australia’s investment in sports curious. Haven’t seen The Great McCarthy or Howzat, but really fond of Bodyline. Australian Rules is a good film, though there the sport is mainly backdrop to the central drama. You could probably make a case that sport tropes are also pretty strong in Gallipoli…

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  2. Yes, Australian Rules is good, but sport is not really the main story. Our big team sports – cricket, the footballs and netball – suffer the worst, I think. There have been a bunch of small films, often on amateur football and cricket (Save Your Legs, Backyard Ashes, Blinder, The Final Winter, Footy Legends and to a minor extent, Valentine’s Day (where the main character coaches the town team to victory, but where romance is the key theme) but they haven’t done well, or been very good. Then there’s the individual sports – swimming and athletics (like Dawn and Coolangatta Gold), and horse-racing (if that can be called a sport, with Phar Lap and The Cup) but even there, there’s not much. Gallipoli does manage to incorporate our interest in sport very naturally, but it’s not really the main focus of the film. I think The Club stands alone for me, though there must be some more sports-focused films I don’t know about.

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