The Last of the Knucklemen Review

Andamooka, a remote mining town in the Outback. For a group of day labourers led by foreman Tarzan (Gerard Kennedy) it’s brutally hard work, and they wind down in the evenings in the pub and the local brothel. Pansy (Mike Preston) has a big mouth and hefty fists, and he’s openly only interested in number one. Everyone can see that a confrontation is not very far away.

Tim Burstall’s films are always better with men than with women (Eliza Fraser notwithstanding) and The Last of the Knucklemen is nothing if not testosterone-fuelled. Based on a play by John Powers, it’s a study of how men interrelate, bond, fight, make up again. This is a working man’s world, where women are marginalised – the only ones which appear in the film are the local postmistress and two prostitutes. Burstall’s direction is as lean and free of fancy flourishes as you’d expect from this material, bringing in the film in a tight running time under 90 minutes. One sequence, a card game where Methuselah (Michael Duffield), the oldest mine worker, is provoked into gambling his life’s savings against Pansy, is one of the best-sustained sequences he ever filmed.

The acting is very powerful. Gerard Kennedy easily holds the screen as the fair but tough Tarzan, the “last of the knucklemen” of the title, ready to settle confrontations with his fists if necessary. British actor Mike Preston is a convincing villain, and a solid supporting cast includes a very young Steve Bisley (whose next role was as the hapless Goose in Mad Max) and Michael Caton, in his first film and almost unrecognisable as the star of The Castle eighteen years later. Dan Burstall’s camerawork and Bruce Smeaton’s music score are also impressive.

The Last of the Knucklemen remains one of Tim Burstall’s best films. Eliza Fraser had been a box office success but had not turned a profit due to its high budget, while High Rolling had not worked out, which caused a two year gap before Knucklemen was made. It was the last Hexagon production.

Burstall’s next assignment was to replace Phillip Noyce at the helm of Attack Force Z. His later films include Duet for Four, The Naked Country and his long-planned film of D.H. Lawrence’s novel Kangaroo. He spent the last year of his life working with Robin Copping on the production of this eight-film Hexagon Tribute box set. He died during its production, on 19 April 2004, the day before his 77th birthday, and the box set is dedicated to him.

Let’s hope that one day his first film, Two Thousand Weeks will see the light of day on DVD. Likewise the four-part film Libido, to which he contributed, and his post 1980 films. It’s a pity he won’t be able to contribute to them.

As with all the other discs in Roadshow’s 70s Australian Cinema Classics: Hexagon Tribute Collection box set, The Last of the Knucklemen (not currently available separately) is encoded for Region 4 only. It has an anamorphic transfer in a ratio of 1.78:1. By eye, it looks as if 1.85:1 is the intended aspect ratio. Once again, colours are strong and solid, though reds and greens are a little too vivid at times. Flesh tones are on the red side, though that may be down to a combination of suntans and the film stock used. Shadow detail is generally fine, but there is some print damage now and again.

The soundtrack is once again available in the original mono (over two channels) and a remix in 5.1. Much of this film is dialogue driven and even the ambient sounds (such as the drill) come through the centre channel. There are fourteen chapter stops. Subtitles are available on the feature only.

The interviews this time run 20:38 and feature John Powers, author of the original play, Gerard Kennedy, Dan and Tom Burstall and Michael Caton. The latter tells a couple of funny stories, such as the one about the drinks on the plane to the Andamooka location, the chemical toilet packing up an hour before landing, the mayor greeting them at the airstrip and the solitary tree… Steve Bisley is announced on the packaging and on the menu, but he’s a no-show. Another omission from the packaging details is the short film that Tim Burstall had previously made from a John Powers play, The Hot Centre of the World and its own making-of. Sadly this is nowhere to be found.

The theatrical trailer is more like a TV Spot, being in 4:3 and running only 28 seconds. The photo gallery is once again self-navigating and accompanied by the film score. It runs 2:09.

As with four other DVDs in this box set, Roadshow have included a short film made by the Australian Film Radio and TV School. Bound (nothing to do with the Wachowski Brothers, fortunately) is a chase thriller directed by Serhat Carradee in 2000. Running only 7:18, it’s commendably terse. It’s non-anamorphic in a ratio of 1.85:1 (not 1.22:1 as the menu says, nor 1.33:1 as the packaging has it).

So there it is. Hexagon was a pioneering joint venture between Australian filmmakers and a major distributor intended to encourage film production Down Under. Most of their films were commercial successes, even if the critics at the time were sometimes sniffy: certainly most of these films stand up well today. This box set has some shortcomings, which I’ve addressed over the last few days, but on the whole it’s a fitting tribute to a company and to the late Tim Burstall, the man who led it.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 10:24:38

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