Discounting the film Blackfellas, in which he plays a minor role as a racist policeman, I’m surprised it’s taken this long to cover any John Hargreaves films on Down Under Flix. A six time AFI Award nominee (including for Hoodwink) and triple winner, Hargreaves is one of the best leading men to emerge from the Australian New Wave, and I have particular regard for his work in Don’s Party, Long Weekend, and The Odd Angry Shot. Hargreaves was a natural performer: gifted and charismatic, but not unnecessarily flashy; handsome, but not movie star handsome, and slightly crumpled like a creased jacket. He was a quintessential Australian everyman ala Jack Thompson and Bryan Brown, though he’s less familiar to young filmgoers today, partly due to his untimely passing in 1996 at age 50. This article looks at one of Hargreaves’ best films… and one of his other films…
Director: Claude Whatham
Starring: John Hargreaves, Judy Davis, Wendy Hughes, Kim Deacon, Dennis Miller, Max Cullen, Michael Caton, Geoffrey Rush, Wendy Strehlow, Colin Friels
1981’s Hoodwink sports one of the grooviest title logos of all time (see below) and casts Hargreaves as career criminal and Casanova Martin Stang. After a series of amusing close encounters of the law kind, Stang is finally arrested and imprisoned. He pretends to go blind, persuading the authorities to go easy on him and place him in a minimum security facility, where he romances Sarah (Judy Davis), the wife of a sympathetic pastor.
The plot of Hoodwink is based on real events in the life of Carl Synnerdahl, a convict who conned with remarkable conviction to get out of prison. The inspiration for the film, however, was not impressed with the finished product, reflecting that “It was a shit movie … The guy who played me [Hargreaves] was six foot two for a start … Claude Whatham, the director, was bought out from England with no knowledge of the Australian way of life or the idiom. All he wanted to do, I found out later, was have naked women in front of the camera! I didn’t even want any sex in the movie, it’s not what it was about”. While I disagree with Synnerdahl’s assessment of the film and Hargreaves’ performance, actress Kim Deacon concurs in a documentary on the film’s DVD release that director Whatham had some pervy inclinations, and that’s substantiated onscreen in nude scenes featuring Deacon and elsewhere Wendy Hughes, though these moments are consistent with the liberal, earthy spirit of the 1970s Australian sex comedies.
Hoodwink is another entry in the canon of counter-culture-minded Australian films featuring battler anti-heroes going against and getting the better of the authorities. Ned Kelly (reviewed here) and Mr Reliable (reviewed here) also feature in this sub-genre and are similarly derived from true events. However, the charming Stang isn’t quite as sympathetic an anti-hero as Kelly or Mr Reliable’s Wally Mellish, and there are pointed references to the collateral damage left in Stang’s wake: his broken relationships with Sarah, Lucy (Hughes), and Marion (Deacon); his parents assaulted at the hands of the police; his pastor interrogated and suspected of being an accomplice, and so on. While Hargreaves may have been the wrong height, he delivers a terrific star performance as the rascally, roguish, and ultimately morally ambivalent Stang, and he’s supported ably by Davis, Hughes, Deacon and a sturdy supporting cast, including early turns from Geoffrey Rush and Michael Caton. Praise is also due to cinematographer Dean Semler. His photography here is crisp and clean, and over the next decade he’d do exemplary work on the second and third Mad Max films, Razorback, The Lighthorsemen, Dead Calm, and kick off the 1990s with an Oscar for Dances with Wolves (before proceeding to build one of the most perplexing and workmanlike IMDb CVs in Hollywood).
Director: Colin Eggleston
Starring: John Hargreaves, Meredith Phillips, Max Phipps, Bill Hunter
Aside from a supporting role in Cry Freedom, Richard Attenborough’s 1987 film about activist Steve Biko and journalist Donald Woods in apartheid-era South Africa, Hargreaves never really appeared in a major international film. On paper, Sky Pirates could have made Hargreaves an overseas commodity. On celluloid, it’s an embarrassment, but not of riches. Subsequently dubbed by producer and writer John D. Lamond as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Shit, Sky Pirates was one of many internationally-minded genre films produced in the 1980s under 10BA tax incentives. Its kin includes the likes of Harlequin, Race for the Yankee Zephyr, and The Return of Captain Invincible (review coming soon), all films which rejected Australian settings and stories in favour of transatlantic accents, non-descript geography, and that most universal of movie languages: action. You can read here to find out more about this era, but suffice to say this phase of Australian cinema isn’t thought of too favourably: David Stratton, looking back over the 10BA era, laments “I think we just made too many bad films and we lost that audience [built during the 1970s]”. Of course, bad films were not unique to Australia in that period, and nor were bad Indiana Jones rip-offs. These were quite commonplace in the 1980s, and for every ripper yarn like Romancing the Stone there was a High Road to China starring almost-Indy Tom Selleck, or King Solomon’s Mines courtesy of Canon Films. Sky Pirates is of interest as Australia’s own spin on this pulp adventure formula, but not for much else.
Sky Pirates’ prologue establishes that aliens visited Earth as far back as prehistoric times and left behind monuments of their presence (e.g. the Pyramids, the Easter Island statues). The film kicks off proper during World War II, with ace pilot Lieutenant Harris (Hargreaves) crashing his plane in a Bermuda Triangle-esque area near Easter Island. Harris is found but his cargo – a theologian and ancient artefact – go missing, so Harris teams with the reverend’s daughter (Meredith Phillips) to locate his passenger and the artefact before it’s appropriated for ill purposes. While it blatantly rips off Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s worth noting that Sky Pirates predates Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and its pairing of aliens and their archaeological mementos by over 20 years, not to mention predating the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its presentation of mystical McGuffins in disparate places with the power to wreak havoc once combined.
Producer and writer John D. Lamond is a wonderfully droll, skeezy character as evidenced in his interview segments from Mark Hartley’s Ozploitation documentary Not Quite Hollywood. As the mastermind behind Australia After Dark and other smutty features capitalising on the relaxed Australian censorship of the 1970s, he and Hoodwink’s Claude Whatham would probably have gotten along well. As it stands, directing duties for Lamond’s Sky Pirates script fell to Colin Eggleston, who previously directed Hargreaves in survival thriller Long Weekend. Sky Pirates is a marked downgrade from that exceptional film for both star and director, hampered considerably by its generic style and chintzy production value. Aping Raiders of the Lost Ark is innately a fool’s errand, but aping the best of the Hollywood machine without all the bells and whistles and affordances of said machine only adds to the uphill battle. To the filmmakers’ credit, Sky Pirates works admirably and valiantly within its constraints, using lighting and shadows and close-ups to mask the limitations of its sets and its air, land, and sea action. But there’s a definite ceiling on propulsion: in a car chase midway through the film, there are maybe a couple of shots showing the two cars moving along the same road at the same time.
Hargreaves is good and walks away mostly unscathed, but is perhaps a smidgen too old for the role at 41. Yes, I’m aware that Harrison Ford was 42 when Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom came out, and that only a year before Sky Pirates a 58-year-old Roger Moore enjoyed his last, leisurely adventure as James Bond in A View to a Kill. But the leaner, hungrier Hargreaves of a decade earlier would have been a better fit. Others in the slumming cast include Bill Hunter and Max Phipps, best known for The Road Warrior and responsible for essaying a very fine performance as Gough Whitlam in television’s The Dismissal. Another veteran of The Road Warrior, composer Brian May (not Queen’s Brian May, but an accomplished composer nonetheless with some terrific Ozploitation scores to his credit), apes John Williams’ Indy theme and likewise wages a losing battle. Sky Pirates is one of the weakest films covered on Down Under Flix in recent memory. For Hargreaves newbies, stick to Hoodwink or some of the other key films and performances singled out at the start of this article.
Next time: A return to Aussiewood with director Russell Mulcahy…