Review: Quigley Down Under (1990)

Quigley Down Under is a film from 1990 starring Tom Selleck, Laura San Giacomo and Alan Rickman in the lead roles. A young Ben Mendelsohn is among the support cast.

I’ve seen Quigley Down Under maybe six or seven times. Not because it is a favorite of mine, but because it was a regular feature of the Friday or Saturday night movie on the regional channels we got at home when I was a kid.

Directed by successful Australian direct, Simon Wincer, the film follows, and American cowboy known as Matthew Quigley, played by Tom Selleck, who, while still in America, applies for a newspaper ad for a ‘sharpshooter’ in the Australian outback. Being given the job, Quigley arrives in Australia, and travels to an outback station to meet his new boss, played by Alan Rickman.

Quigley quickly refuses the job after he is told that his role includes shooting the local Aboriginal people.

While the film that was made in 1990 is much more progressive than most that depicted First Nations people in that time, it initially did not start that way.

The original script was written by John Hill in 1975 after the Louisiana, USA based writer, read about the ‘genocide of the Aborigine’s’ in a Los Angeles Times article, and was inspired.

From there, the script was optioned in 1979 and set to star Western-legend Steve McQueen, but he became ill with cancer and was unable to film. After the initial option expired the script was moved around for a few years, and eventually a bidding war between Disney, Pathe Entertainment and Warner Bros. broke out, and eventually Pathe won out, buying the script for $250,000.

Then Hollywood leading man, Kirk Douglas, who had starred in The Man from Snowy River opposite Jack Thompson in 1982, was approached for the lead role.

Douglas travelled to Australia to pitch the script to Kerry Packer and Phillip Adams in eighties, as those two had formed a film production company together.

It’s been reported that the pitch to Packer and Adams, by Douglas, was filled with the derogatory term ‘Abo’ a lot. Therefore, at the time of reporting, there was a lot of online abuse against Douglas for his use of the term.

To that point, it’s worth remembering that Douglas was not Australian. He likely had no context of the term, or Australian and First Nations history, and picked up the term from the Australians he worked with while working here previously. Not to defend his use of it, but context is always important.

To add to that point again, Douglas had been a lifelong member of the democratic party in the USA, is said to have supported inclusion in film and politics and was also reported to have said about this film, that his proposed character, Quigley would go on to lead a “revolution of Aborigines against their oppressors”.

After the excited Douglas was turned down, he is said to have been quite angry.

Douglas eventually moved on, and Tom Selleck was cast, with Australian Simon Wincer in the director’s chair.

Wincer actually recognized the script was actually quite inappropriate in many ways, in regard to both Australian and Aboriginal history, and brought on 1987’s The Lighthorseman writer Ian Jones to help correct it.

Essentially, Quigley Down Under is a ‘white savior’ film. These films generally feature a group or an individual that is non-white, and is facing some form of oppression or conflict, that cannot be resolved without the involvement, and/or heroics of a white person.

While white savior films can certainly be entertaining, inclusive and considerate, but from the perspective of the oppressed group, it is frustrating to see your people continually fail on screen, to only be saved by those that are generally the oppressor to begin with.

What’s progressive about this film, is its depiction of the horrors committed against First Nations people.

Several period films made in the last few years, such as Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale (2018), have been praised for its unrelenting depiction of violence against First Nations people, as if it is a sign that Australia is becoming more, and more ready to face that aspect of Australian history.

Quigley Down Under however, did it three decades ago.

Interestingly, when broadcast on television, those scenes are removed, it was only when watching the film years later on Netflix that I saw those scenes, much to my shock. Maybe 3 decades ago, it was too touchy a subject for Australian televisions?

Quigley Down Under used the South Australian Film Corporation Facilities for some sound post-production, which is why it gets a place amongst my discussions.