The Shiralee (Aus/UK 1957)

Director: Leslie Norman

Starring: Peter Finch, Dana Wilson, Elizabeth Sellars

Cinematography: Pail Beeson

Original Music: John Addison

Script:  Leslie Norman/ Neil Paterson

Novel: D'Arcy Niland

Bit Parts: Tessie O'Shea, Sid James, Ed Deveraux

FACT: There are a number of possible derivations of the word 'Shiralee. One idea is that it is an Irish slang word adopted by Australians - it denotes a 'burden' or something unwanted.

In one line:  Itinerant worker learns how to be a good parent


Jim Macauley (Finch) returns home to find his wife being in the arms of another man. Macauley beats up his wife's lover and takes his own daughter (the bizarrely named 'Buster') with him on his travels to spite his wife. Macauley travels the outback looking for work. Although he has no real parenting skills and is an old-fashioned, no-nonsense kind of man, Macauley learns to be a loving, caring parent when illness and a near-fatal accident come close to taking away his daughter.


A solid if somewhat sentimental and occasionally ideologically dodgy version of Darcy Niland's excellent novel. Finch is great as Macauley - an old-school stereotyped Australian man with little regard for anything but his 'man's world'.  Macauley learns the error of his ways and the stupidity of his ghastly male culture (well, to some degree, anyway) in his long  literal and metaphysical Outback journey.

Niland's novel is filled with all sorts of salty language that director Norman (Barry's dad) had to expunge for public sensibilities, so 'bastard', 'fucker' and and the like are replaced by lame efforts like 'dog' and 'dingo', but you still get a sense of the adult nature of the book by the fairly direct references to sex in some of the early scenes. We also witness the revelation that Macauley has been rutting his way round the outback when he is refused help by a garage owner because he impregnated the man's daughter at some stage in the past.

After a claustrophobic series of opening scenes, The Shiralee opens up as Jim and Buster take to the road. There are some nice shots of the Outback and there are shades of Walkabout as man and child traverse a giant country.

The heart of the film is the relationship between Macauley and Finch. Eight year old Dana Wilson gives an excellent, naturalistic performance and there's obviously a genuine bond between the little girl and her surrogate actor father.

Most of the women depicted in the film are fairly awful and the frequent misogynistic gender representation is the film's ultimate downfall. One of the more tedious aspects of the traditional representation of Australian male culture was its glorification/celebration of its masculine and 'macho' traits. This Paul Hogan-styled 'ocker' persona permeated many aspects of the media from the forties to the nineties. We were often led to believe that all Australian males are tough, independently minded, iconoclastic wanderers, and The Shiralee does little to discourage this stereotype. Macauley is anti-women, rejects any form of intellectualism or culture, and at times we're led to admire his blinkered, boorish utilitarianism.

But Buster's persistence and love for her father start to strip away most of the tenets of Macauley's selfish beliefs and often oafish attitudes, although  it's a long and dawn-out process. The gender and age divide of the two main protagonists provides fertile ground for a number of funny, touching and believable scenes and you might find that there is dust in your eyes from time to time as you follow the travails of Buster and her dad.

When I was growing up, it used to be a running joke that there were only about six actors in the Australian 'pool' of 'talent'. Jack Thompson (a decent enough actor it has to be said - apart from his 'British Colonel' in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence) generally played every role going - including women and animals - and when he wasn't available Ed Deveraux (most famously 'the dad' in 'Skippy') was your man. Ed has a small role in The Shiralee, as does Sid James's Australian mate, Bill Kerr. The Shiralee was re-made as a mini-series in 1987 with the often-excellent Bryan Brown as Macauley, but it wasn't affecting as Barry's dad's little film.

The 1957 version of The Shiralee hadn't surfaced in years, but turned up recently on Talking Pictures TV. It didn't really live up to my fond memories, but like every film on this website, it's up to both of us to cherry pick the 'good bits', and to call out or tut in an very English manner at the (very) bad bits.

And if you want to see the apogee/Stygian depths of Aussie male culture, watch 1971's Wake in Fright.

Or rather, don't.


A little clip from the film courtesy of Australian Screen: