The Great Macarthy Review

Macarthy (John Jarratt) lives in the small country town of Kyneton. He works as a car mechanic, but in his spare time he’s a very promising player of Australian Rules Football. So promising that he’s kidnapped by helicopter on the orders of Colonel Ball-Miller (Barry Humphries), the president of South Melbourne football club. Macarthy is ready for the big league…but not for everything that goes with it!

On the back cover of this DVD, writer and director Bob Ellis is quoted as calling The Great Macarthy as “the best made, best acted, best written and most original and admirable Australian film in 40 years”, but that’s very much a minority opinion. Back in 1975, on its cinema release, this film was a commercial and critical bomb. Now it arrives on disc as part of Umbrella Entertainment’s “Oz Classics” line. It never had a British release and I don’t remember any TV showings. It’s not impossible that its British premiere took place in my flat. Watching it now, it’s certainly a misfire, though one not without interest. There’s also a sad side to this very broad and very Australian comedy, in that it shows how the most promising filmmaking career can be derailed by bad decisions.

David Baker was born in Tasmania in 1931 and had worked extensively on television both in Australia and England. He had also worked as an assistant on John Huston’s Moby Dick and the Jack Clayton short The Bespoke Overcoat. His cinematic debut was the short film “The Family Man”, the best of the four parts of the portmanteau feature Libido (which is also on DVD from Umbrella, and which I’ll be reviewing soon). From there he made another short, “Squeaker’s Mate”, which is included on this DVD and which I’ll discuss below among the extras. Then came The Great Macarthy, based on a novel by Barry Oakley called A Salute to the Great McCarthy. The differing spelling in the film of the central character’s name was intentional, so as to avoid any potential confusion with Senator Joe. After The Great Macarthy Baker made one more film, Niel Lynne in 1985. I haven’t seen it, but The Oxford Companion to Australian Film describes it as “a film about personal and political commitment, with an intriguing homosexual subtext”. According to the IMDB it has a British alternate title of Best Enemies, though I have been unable to trace a British release. Baker is now dead, but he had sunk so far into obscurity that I have been unable to trace a death date, not even on the IMDB.

The Great Macarthy suffers badly from shifts in tone, a rather sweet love story mixed with scatology and broad humour. At its worst it’s distinctly heavy-handed, with such devices as fast-motion football matches, “comic” captions and exaggerated and caricatured performances. The film is too often influenced by the commercial success of the “ocker” comedies such as Stork, Alvin Purple and The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, but without those films’ raunchiness. However, this approach also results in a distinct vulgarity, the worst example being a farting scene that’s contemporaneous with the one in Blazing Saddles. Macarthy is an oddly passive character, more acted upon than acting, at least until the very end – he’s a “recessive” hero, much as his cinematic predecessors Alvin Purple and Barry McKenzie were. John Jarratt (in his debut) certainly looks convincingly athletic. With seventy-eight speaking parts, there is a one-of-a-kind cast. Barry Humphries is very fruity as the Colonel, and Judy Morris, Sandra McGregor and Kate Fitzpatrick are the women in Macarthy’s life. In smaller parts can be seen Max Gillies (in two roles), Bruce Spence and Chris Haywood. Bruce Smeaton’s score is another plus.

The Great Macarthy is by no means the best product of the Australian Film Revival. It’s not a good film, but a mixture of things that work quite well and things which don’t work at all. It displays a vulgar “ocker” side to Australia that many people didn’t wish to see the country represented by then and probably wouldn’t now. However, its presentation on DVD makes it well worth a look.

The Great Macarthy is transferred to DVD in a ratio of 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced. Judging by eye, the cinema ratio would seem to be 1.75:1, which is not unusual for a lowish-budget film that would not be expected to play outside Australia. It was the first cinema film to feature the sport of Australian Rules, which has not been widely used since, considering the sport’s popularity. The DVD has been available separately for a while, but it is also available as part of an “Aussie Rules” box set with Bruce Beresford’s The Club and the documentaries Year of the Dogs and War Without Weapons. This DVD transfer runs 89 minutes, which given PAL speed-up would indicate a cinema running time of around 93 minutes. Reference sources quote running times of up to 106 minutes, but there’s no indication if this film has been re-edited. As for the transfer, it’s quite acceptable. There’s a fair amount of grain, which is par for the course for Australian films of this era, given the filmstock used, and some signs of print damage. Colours are vibrant, though blacks and shadow detail could be better. Oddly, both credit sequences are windowboxed to 4:3.

The soundtrack is the original mono. Needless to say this can’t compete with contemporary multi-channel efforts, but it’s a professional job of work, with dialogue always clear and well balanced with music and sound effects. There are fourteen chapter stops. No subtitles, which seems to be Umbrella’s policy and the only major shortfall of their DVDs. As with almost all their catalogue, this DVD is encoded for all regions.

First of the extras is an commentary, featuring executive producer and second-unit director Richard Brennan and composer Bruce Smeaton, moderated by Paul Harris, who is described as a “filmbuff” on the menu. This is a model commentary, full of anecdotes (several of which concern David Baker’s eccentric and frequently drunken behaviour) and interesting material on the making and background to the film. Brennan and Smeaton are frank about the film’s shortcomings, which they put down to the inexperience of the then-newly-revived local industry, but they are also appreciative of the parts of it which work very well.

“On the Bench with the Great Macarthy” (21:12, three chapters) is a featurette containing interviews with John Jarratt and first assistant director Hal McElroy. Given different participants, this avoids the usual trap of such featurettes, in that they repeat a lot of information from the commentary. Jarratt and McElroy give us more Baker anecdotes. Jarratt is also proud of the scene where he becomes the first male actor in the Australian industry to appear full-frontally nude. This featurette is anamorphic in a ratio of 16:9.

Squeaker’s Mate (35:10, four chapters) is the short film that Baker made between Libido and The Great Macarthy. Based on a short story by Barbara Baynton, it’s a downbeat and in places quite disturbing tale set in the bush in the 1860s. It was shot in 35mm and received some critical acclaim, but distributors found it too depressing to release. It’s transferred in a ratio of 4:3 (seemingly from a video source), though I’d suggest owners of widescreen TVs zoom it to 16:9. To say that this has seen better days would be an understatement: it’s full of scratches and speckles and is quite soft with poor shadow detail. The mono soundtrack has the dialogue mixed quite low, and it’s not always easy to make it out. But Squeaker’s Mate is definitely worth having as it’s a short that in many ways is better than the main feature.

The extras are completed by a rather lengthy theatrical trailer (3:35) and the usual “Umbrella Propaganda”, in this case trailers for The Club, Oz, Picnic at Hanging Rock and Barry McKenzie Holds His Own.

This DVD demonstrates that even an unsuccessful film like this can make a worthwhile purchase if its presentation on DVD is good. The film remains an interesting failure, but it’s accompanied by some fine extras, and anyone interested in the 70s Australian film revival would do well to check this out.

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