Fortress (1985)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Australian schoolchildren get kidnapped.

Sally (Rachel Ward) is a school teacher working in rural Australia where she teaches in an old-fashioned one-room school house. The ten students are made up of different ages and an even mix of boys and girls. One morning while class is beginning a group of four masked men invade the building and take the children hostage. They throw them into an underground cave and then put a large boulder over the cave opening to lock them in. Sally and the students go searching through the underground caverns and manage to find another way out, but every time they think they’ve reached freedom the kidnappers always seem to be one-step ahead of them.

The film’s main selling point are the children, which at first I didn’t think would be a good idea. It can be hard to get kids, for many of them this was their first movie project, to show the necessary emotions in an effective way and while they don’t always respond to things quite the way I think a real kid would I still found their resiliency to be uplifting. I also enjoyed seeing how the older boys grew into men during the experience and watching Sally precariously balance her obligation of the being the mature, brave one while still hiding her inner emotions of fear and panic.

The location shooting takes advantage of many different Australian locales including the Buchan Caves where the action in the first act takes place. Later on we’re given exciting view of a them running through the forest late at night in an attempted escape as well as them returning to yet another cave for the climactic finish. The story manages to be reasonably tense throughout though the killers always managing to catch-up with their victims no matter where or how far they go does ultimately test the plausibility. The film’s tone is a bit off-kilter as well. Most of the time it seems to want to be a story of victim empowerment and resourcefulness, but then intermittently throws in some jarring violence, which wasn’t necessary.

Spoiler Alert!

While it’s great seeing these kids remain stoic it also seems hard to believe. After being put in the cave they find a way out where they then spot a farmhouse, which was several miles away only to ultimately realize that the kidnappers have been there waiting for them. They then great treated to a man getting gunned down before their very eyes, but manage to escape from their to yet another cave that is many miles away and again the kidnappers find them and continue their assault of terror. Normally after all this most people, especially young children, would feel overwhelmed and defeated and eventually fall into a traumatized state instead of the warrior mentality that they do. While the good guy fighting back approach may be more of an audience pleaser I wasn’t sure if this was a realistic response when given the daunting circumstances. Also, why would the bad guys not invade the cave the kids are in right away instead of staying back and giving the group ample time to create the makeshift weapons’, stuff that would take hours if not days to make,  in order to be ultimately used against the kidnappers like they are?

The Lord of the Flies – themed twist ending comes out of nowhere and seems too forced to be effective. Watching the group surround the last of the bad guys and viscously stabbing him with their weapons’ in slow motion made enough of a statement and that’s where it should’ve ended. Adding in the denouncement where the kids are back in school and have the heart of the killer placed inside a glass jar in the middle of the room was just too heavy-handed. With what they’ve been through most kids would never want to step foot in that school again and where are the parents during all of this as they’re never shown?  Having a human heart in a jar is pretty nasty and you’d think  one of the kids would’ve talked about it to others and word would ultimately get around.

End of Spoiler Alert!

The plot is loosely based on an actual event that occurred in the small town of  Faraday, Australia on October 6, 1972 when Edwin Eastwood and Robert Boland kidnapped a young teacher and her students from a remote one-room school house similar to the one depicted in the movie. However, there are many differences between the real event and what happens in the film. For one there were only 6 students and all of them were girls. They were never taken to a cave either, but instead held in the back of a van. When the kidnappers left the next morning to retrieve the ransom money the teacher, whose name was Mary Gibbs, managed to kick out the back door panel with her leather boots and escape with the children and eventually the two men were later caught.

The irony though is that’s not where the story ends as Eastwood was able to escape from jail in 1977 where he then kidnapped another group of children and their teacher, but was again caught. He then served a 16 year sentence, but was eventually paroled in 1993 and has been a free man working as a truck driver since.

Teacher Mary Gibbs and the six students who were kidnapped during the real-life incident.

The van in which Gibbs and the students were held captive.

The school house in which Mary Gibbs and her six students were taken hostage on October 6, 1972.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: November 24, 1985 (HBO Broadcast)

Runtime: 1 Hour 28 Minutes

Rated: TV-MA

Director: Arch Nicholson

Studio: HBO Premiere Films

Available: DVD

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