Quigley Down Under [50 New-Old Movies for the 51st Year #2]

Recently, I turned 50 years old!  And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which cam out in each year of my life (thus the “Old-New” terminology), and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #2.  Spoilers ahead.  

Quigley Down Under

Quigley Down Under

Directed by Simon Wincer

Release Date:  October 17, 1990
My age then:  20 years old

What it is about:  In the 19th century, Matthew Quigley takes the three month boat ride from America to Australia in answer to an advertisement by Elliott Marston, who is looking for a sharpshooter to help defend his station from dingoes.  However, Quigley discovers he is really there to kill Australian Aboriginals.  Enraged, he throws Marston out of his own house, and ends up in a gunfight with his violent station hands.  Quigley is defeated and left for dead in the desert, along with Cora, an American woman he has unintentionally befriended.  They survive with the help of Aboriginals, whom he attempts to defend from Marston’s murderous employees.  Together, they rescue an orphaned Aboriginal baby, and eventually Quigley kills Marston using Marston’s own “quick-draw” style of gunfighting.

Starring Tom Selleck (Magnum PI) as Quigley, Laura San Giacomo as Cora, and Alan Rickman as Elliott Marston.  A young Ben Mendelsohn appears as one of the criminal station hands.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I think I might have been vaguely aware of the film, simply because of the presence of Tom Selleck who I watched for years on Magnum PI.  But I wouldn’t have known anything you couldn’t tell from a picture of Selleck with a cowboy hat and the words “Down Under” in the title.  I’m not the biggest fan of Westerns so I didn’t go into the film with very high expectations, though I like Tom Selleck on TV.

Reality:  Quigley Down Under is an odd film–an attempt to bring some classic Western tropes to Australia, which should in many ways be a natural fit but which in this case somehow creates a whole lot of opportunities for awkwardness and offense.

The movie is making a game attempt to represent Australian Aboriginal culture and historical suffering in a plausible and authentic way.  But as the plot goes along, Quigley moves more and more into the whole unpleasant and oft-derided “White Savior” trope.  The Aboriginals suffer mercilessly at the hands of heartless ranchers, with only the Americans Quigley and Cora ready and able to protect and help them.  It’s not too bad at first, but the whole vibe increases as it goes along, until at last Quigley’s actions set free the villain’s man-servant, who strips off the trappings of his forced colonial existence to be able to return to the desert that he came from.

This doesn’t even bring up the whole way that almost the only moral and upright characters in the whole film are the two Americans.  Quigley and Cora find themselves in conflict with a bunch of drunken, reprobate, evil, low-life Australians and another bunch of stuffy, heartless and probably evil British soldiers.  Luckily, Quigley is tougher than them all, and only can be taken down by being hit from behind.  In general, the Aussies are too stupid to not be constantly running afoul of Quigley’s tricks.  It’s only the Aboriginals that are shown to also have a sense of honor, but it’s mixed in with a strange sort of mysticism (a whole army of Aboriginals show up out of nowhere and disappear again, as if into the mist, at the movie’s end), that it’s hard to take it fully seriously.

If you look past all this and just try to see Quigley as a movie, it’s a bit hit and miss.  The film deals with some pretty serious subject matter but often does so with a sort of jaunty exuberance that it’s hard to know exactly how to feel.  One moment we’re talking showing innocent people being driven off a cliff and talking about accidentally smothering babies, the next we’re listening to rousing Western adventure music.  And all throughout we’ve got one of those one-note 80’s / 90’s adventure heroes who is nigh-unstoppable and that we’re supposed to cheer for unironically whenever he kills a bad guy.  The worst is the movie’s climax, where even half-dead he is able to defeat the villain by shooting three guys all at once–something that only happens because they are utterly incompetent and out-classed.

It’s interesting to see Alan Rickman at the height of his villain-playing (the movie comes somewhere in between Die Hard and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves).  He has a good moment near the start where he purposely tricks a couple of army deserters into making a break for it so he can shoot them.  Laura San Giacomo gives it her all trying to play someone who is a mixture of comical and tragic, and acquits herself reasonably well.  I don’t know if I can fully buy Tom Selleck in the leading role, though.  He sells the physicality of the character, but he’s perhaps too charming.  The movie might have worked better if Quigley were a colder or harsher man, like the type played by Clint Eastwood or even Steve McQueen (for whom the film was originally developed for).

By the way, the movie was written by John Hill, who also wrote or co-wrote a couple of episode of Quantum Leap that I’ve written about on this site (here and here.)

So…when you get down to it, what did I think?  It takes a while to get there, but Quigley Down Under does eventually provide some moments of adventuresome fun.  But it feels like a product of a different era, and not in a good way.  One has to squint past some of the cultural and racial depictions to appreciate whatever strengths that are there.   This movie is only two years before Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, and is exactly the sort of thing that film was deconstructing.

See here for the Master List.


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