Sydney, 1942. Rebel (Matt Dillon) is a US GI on R & R after fighting in Guadalcanal. He meets Kathy McLeod (Debbie Byrne), a singer whose husband is away fighting. They become lovers. Sickened by what he saw in conflict, Rebel decides to desert and hides in Kathy's apartment while Tiger Kelly (Bryan Brown) tries to arrange to smuggle him out of the country...
Rebel is a film so undermined by bad decisions made during its making that it is stillborn from the outset. It began life as a stage play, No Names, No Packdrill by Bob Herbert, which starred Mel Gibson and Noni Hazlehurst in its original Sydney production. Herbert and Michael Jenkins cowrote the screenplay.
From quite early on in the Australian Film Revival of the Seventies, films have cast overseas actors in an effort to appeal internationally, particularly in the potentially lucrative American market. Sometimes this works, such as Richard Chamberlain in The Last Wave and Meryl Streep in Evil Angels (A Cry in the Dark outside Australia). Just as often, it doesn't: case in point, Harlequin, which takes place somewhere that's part Oz, part USA and neither one thing nor the other. But in the case, at least Matt Dillon is playing an American. And in the mid 80s, at age twenty, he was hot – not just in a box office sense (he'd just come off The Outsiders and Rumble Fish) but also in the sense of appealing to young cinemagoers, especially female ones. Kathy was a postal sorter in the play, but she's turned into a singer, and the film hence into a musical, in an effort to attract Olivia Newton-John to the role. But she said no, so Kathy was played by Debbie Byrne (as she is billed here – she's more often been credited as Debra Byrne in a career, though the DVD case incorrectly calls her Deborah Byrne). She's seven years older than Dillon and, not to be ungallant, it shows. Dillon's sub-Brando Methodisms don't help matters. There's a distinct lack of chemistry between them, which is not good news in a story with significant romantic content.
Michael Jenkins had directed for television previously, but he was best known in the cinema as the scriptwriter of Careful, He Might Hear You, which had won him an Australian Film Institute Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. However, he doesn't seem to be in control. His DP, Peter James, and production designer Brian Thomson (whose credits include The Rocky Horror Picture Show) run riot, splashing gaudy reds all over the screen. Add the fact that none of the song-and-dance numbers, while capably staged, bear any resemblance to anything likely to have been produced in the time where this is set, and you have a film that is stylised past the point where any semblance of reality disappears. None of it sticks and none of it touches the heart.
Apart from a short, Caravan Holiday, that she made in 1972 at age fifteen, this is Debbie (Debra) Byrne's only cinema film. She has worked extensively on stage (including the original Australian productions of Cats, Les Misérables and Sunset Boulevard and on television, but she has never been back to the big screen since. That's a pity, as she does what she could with this role. Bryan Brown, Ray Barrett and Bill Hunter have their moments in supporting roles.
Rebel had a brief UK cinema release and has previously been released on VHS. It was nominated for eight AFI awards, but its four wins were all for technical categories – cinematography, costume design (Roger Kirk), production design and sound.
Rebel is released by Transition Digital Media on a single-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only. One source claims that the film was trimmed from 106 to 93 minutes overseas, but that may have been due to pre-release cutting. The Australian DVD, Region 4 only from Roadshow, runs the same length as this does (89:28 with PAL speed-up)
One of the earliest DVDs released in the UK was a panned-and-scanned transfer of a Scope film (The Usual Suspects) which immediately attracted criticism and comments that the distributor had misjudged its audience. And a decade and a half later, it's still happening. Rebel begins in 2.40:1 for its opening credits sequence. It's non-anamorphic, but at least it's in the original ratio. Then it switches to 4:3 and stays that way until the end credits, which are again letterboxed into 2.40:1.. Rebel isn't a Super 35 production that could be opened up to a narrower ratio without losing any picture width; it was shot with anamorphic lenses. While it's certainly the case that many Hollywood anamorphically-shot Scope productions of the time were more or less blatantly designed so that they could be cropped to 4:3 without losing vital picture information, Rebel is not one of them. In addition to that dealbreaker, the transfer is soft and interlaced and those vibrant colours are distinctly dull. If you want to own this film, I suggest buying the Region 4 release mentioned above, which may be completely barebones but at least is in the correct ratio and anamorphically enhanced and also has hard-of-hearing subtitles if you need them, So this present disc gets a rarely-awarded zero video rating. Posting a screengrab comparison is possibly rather like flogging a dead horse, but here we go, TDM disc first, Roadshow disc second.
Rebel was released in cinemas with a Dolby Stereo soundtrack, which is the basis of this DVD's Dolby Surround (2.0) soundtrack. The surrounds particularly kick in during the musical numbers and are used for ambience, but otherwise there's not much use of directional sound. There are no subtitles for the hard of hearing. No extras of any kind either.
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