The Last of the Knucklemen (1979)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Isolated miners living together.

A group of miners, some of them with criminal records and no other means of employment, survive together in the remotest area of the Outback as they make a living working for Tarzan (Gerard Kennedy) who leads the team and gives them their paychecks. At night they sleep via bunkbeds in a small tin shack where they also play card games, drink, and occasionally brawl. Pansy (Michael Preston) is the de facto leader, who uses his quick temper and husky build to intimidate anyone who challenges his authority. The only one he doesn’t fight is Tarzan, but only because he’s the employer. Then a new man arrives named Tom (Peter Hehir) with a mysterious past. He has karate skills that allow him to take-on Pansy’s fist-fitting ability, but Pansy has a secret weapon of his own when he brings in Carl (Steve Rackman) from a nearby town who’s a huge guy with very few teeth, who he feels can beat Tom in a fight and everyone else in the camp takes bets on who they think can win.

The film is based on the stage play of the same name written by John Powers who himself had never worked in a mining camp, but had always been intrigued with the ruggedness, wildness, and overall isolation of them after growing up hearing bawdy tales from his Uncle Harry who had been employed at one of them. 20 years after hearing his uncle’s stories he then decided to turn those rustic tales into a play while also incorporating it with the adventures of Ronald Biggs who was a train robber who managed to evade the authorities for many years. Pitting a known criminal trying to just hide-out at a remote camp with the gruff nature of the men who worked there he felt would make for an interesting dynamic and the play, which opened in 1973 in Australia and 10 years later in the U.S. where it starred Dennis Quaid, was met with rave reviews.

Director Tim Burstall was looking to do a male bonding pic and had a choice between doing this one or The Odd Angry Shotwhich was reviewed last week, and came to the determination that this was the better fit. He particularly liked the outback setting and became focused on finding the most remote town to film it in and eventually chose the itty-bitty one of Andamooka, which at the time had only 316 people living there and today has even less. While the town certainly met the rustic quality it had no police and the inhabitants, much like the characters in the story, had previous criminal records forcing the producer to sleep with a gun at his side and the production’s payroll under his pillow. It also at times caused interruptions with the filming when one day one of the locals threatened to blow up the set with a stick of dynamite, which sent the cast and crew running, until the special effects man realized the stick had no detonator.

The interior scenes were done on a soundstage in Melbourne, though it’s so impressively camouflaged you’d never know it. My only complaint with the outdoor shots is that filming took place during September and October, which is Springtime in Australia where temps aren’t as hot, and in fact they were quite chilly, so that intense hot Outback feel, which is the whole basis of the story, never really comes through.

As for the story, it’s surprisingly engaging despite the fact that there’s really not much of a plot and everything hinders on the interactions of the characters. Fortunately the characters are so well defined that you enjoy and are even intrigued at how they all relate to each other and the love-hate relationship that they share. One of the most gripping moments has nothing to do with the climactic fight, but instead on an intense poker game between Pansy and the elderly Methusela (Michael Duffield), where each tries to bluff the other while also raising the money stakes to drastic heights.

The fight itself, which you wait through the whole movie to see, wasn’t as exciting, or captured in as intense of a way, as I was expecting. The animosity between Tom and Pansy wasn’t played-up enough either and only comes to a head during the third act while I felt it should’ve been brewing from the very start. Tom as a character is quite dull and is seen a lot less than Methusela who’s the scene-stealer. The sequence between Tom and Carl’s battle is surprisingly quick while the big showdown between Tarzan and Pansy gets captured from a distance and shown over the closing credits, which I found quite disappointing. There’s no answer to who ultimately wins the fight either, which despite the film’s other good qualities, is a big letdown.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: July 11, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 29 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Tim Burstall

Studio: Hexagon Productions

Available: DVD (Import Region 0)

One response to “The Last of the Knucklemen (1979)

  1. Pingback: Weekend of Shadows (1978) | Scopophilia

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