The fourth in Ealing's five Australian films, after The Overlanders (1946), Eureka Stockade (1949) and Bitter Springs (1950) - and the first produced by Ealing Films, with financial backing from MGM - this is an episodic film that struggles to effectively dramatise the life of 'swagman' Jim Macauley (Peter Finch), the woman and friends he has made (and lost) in his years on the road, and - centrally - how he copes when his independent, free life is challenged by the addition of his young daughter, Buster (Dana Wilson), his 'shiralee' (burden).
The film, like most of Ealing's output, is never bad, features solid direction from Leslie Norman, and contains moments of strong performance from Finch: yet it is continually uncertain if it is celebrating the free spirit of the swagman and the rural communities and people it depicts, or if this is a criticism of that breed of man through the treatment and experience of this child. It seems important that Buster spends most of the film as an annoyance for Macauley, but at dramatically useful moments suffers from fever, or is unconscious after being knocked down by a truck. The film has been praised for not being mawkish or saccharine (although it actually drifts close to both), but that could largely be because Finch's brash, base performance as Macauley dominates so much of the film there is little room for Wilson.
Macauley is curiously unmotivated throughout - again, a trait which can be read as criticism or valorisation - his aimless life moves him from farm to farm, itinerant job to itinerant job, fight to fight, town to town; his decision to take Buster on the road (after discovering his wife, Marge - Elizabeth Sellars, wasted in a thin role - having an affair) is a spur of the moment thing, but seems motivated by spite, and plot necessity. As the film progresses, we learn that Macauley has slept his way around Australia, and that Buster might not be the only product of that lifestyle - and the women he leaves behind, notably Marge and Lily (Rosemary Harris), are scarred by the encounter. The film's moral perspective on this remains opaque: Macauley gets to keep custody of Buster through blackmail, not parental excellence; indeed, Buster ends up in hospital because Macauley was chatting up a shopgirl, having left his daughter in the company of a swagman they'd met five minutes before, despite his uncertain mental status; equally, Lily accepts Macauley back into her life, seemingly because Buster reminds her of the baby (Macauley's) she lost, years ago. Macauley 'wins' in all of these encounters, coming out on top largely through inaction or the charitable actions of others - yet what are we supposed to make of him, or his life?
The only woman Macauley doesn't seem to have tarnished is Bella Sweeney (Tessie O'Shea), but she is a traditional matronly/maternal figure, married to Luke (Sid James), and the only positive sign of heterosexual pairings throughout: yet these characters have only a slim role in the film, largely as comic relief, or as a sense of what 'proper' parenting might look like. Like the film itself, they seem to accept Macauley as he is, without comment or challenge.
Marge isn't so lucky, as she becomes the film's main representative of the city, the urban, as a contrast to Macauley's rural freedom. Rural trumps urban every time here: it is violent (Macauley beats up Marge's new man, Donny (George Rose), and later is beaten up by Donny's friends), sexual (Marge sleeps with Donny because he knows how to treat a woman, Marge is pictured in form-fitting lingerie in the bulk of her screen appearances), deceitful (Marge's infidelity, Donny's desire to maintain proper public appearance), and complex (lawyers, child custody, and divorce proceedings). The association of Marge and the city is particularly problematic, as she - like the other women in Macauley's life - is depicted as weak, needing men to control and guide her, a bitter shrew who shares many characteristics with Lily, but does not get the suggestive redemption of Lily's, standing with Macauley in the hospital in the final scene, agreeing to help look after Buster.
These issues don't stop the film being entertaining and suitably dramatic in places, Finch and Wilson are solid performers (although Sid James' lighter touch is welcome, if brief), while (as in Ealing's other Australian films) the landscapes sell the scope and scale of the country that Macauley and Buster meander through. But that episodic nature, and the lack of characterisation around why Macauley does what he does, means the film feels incomplete and unsure what it is trying to say about this man, and his life.
[The Shiralee is not currently available on commercial DVD. My thanks to Studio Canal, www.studiocanal.co.uk, for providing me with a screening copy for the purposes of this blog]
Next time, we head back to the war years, with For Those in Peril (1944)...
Follow Dr Keith M. Johnston on Twitter: www.twitter.com/keithmjohnston