In the closing credits of his 2007 exploitation homage Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino thanked a number of filmmakers who had served as inspiration. Amongst those named were some who should be immediately familiar (Sam Peckinpah, Roger Corman, Dario Argento), some who are arguably less well known (Richard Rush, Richard C. Sarafian) and a trio of Australian directors, namely George Miller, Brian Trenchard-Smith and Arch Nicholson. Miller, of course, directed the Mad Max trilogy and went on to a notable career in Hollywood, encompassing everything from Lorenzo’s Oil to Happy Feet. Trenchard-Smith, on the other hand, has remained remarkably prolific and works mainly on television features nowadays, but a number of his earlier Australian productions have earned themselves cult followings (BMX Bandits, The Man from Hong Kong, Turkey Shoot). Nicholson, however, is less of a name to conjure with, especially here in the UK.
Using Not Quite Hollywood, the 2008 documentary on ‘Ozploitation’ movies in which Tarantino served as a typically enthusiastic interviewee, and the clips it utilised as a rough guide, it is likely that Nicholson’s 1987 mutant crocodile flick Dark Age was the primary reason for the director’s nod in the Death Proof credits. His other credits are quite varied - starting out in educational documentaries on a variety of themes, making a few knockabout comedies with Colin Friels, working on episodes of The Flying Doctors prior to his death in 1990 at the young age of just 49 - although two other titles deserve a look for their cult-ish potential. The first is Deadline, a 1982 television movie starring Barry Newman which latched onto the nuclear threat subgenre doing the rounds at the time. The other is this particular release, Fortress from 1985, which was made in conjunction with HBO.
The source was Australian crime writer Gabrielle Lord’s debut novel of the same name, itself inspired by the Faraday School kidnappings of 1972. In that instance six girls, aged between five and ten, and their 20-year-old teacher were abducted by a pair of gunmen from the town’s only school. They were taken to the surrounding bushland with the intention of being held to ransom. Their ordeal wasn’t to last that long, however, and on the same day the teacher and all six children escaped to safety; shortly afterwards their kidnappers were caught by armed police, eventually being sentenced to prison. (One of the men, Edwin Eastwood, escaped four years later and would stage another school kidnapping, this time involving a teacher and nine pupils.)
Fortress takes this incident and changes it significantly. The teacher, played by Rachel Ward, is a little older (the actress would have been 28 at the time of the film’s production), the children have multiplied to nine in number as well as encompassing both males and females and a broader age range, whilst the two gunmen have been replaced by four, each wearing cartoon-ish masks to hide their identities (a cat, a mouse, a duck and, the leader of the gang, Father Christmas). As well as these surface details, Fortress also extends the duration of their ordeal to a number of days and completely changes the outcome, which of course I won’t spoil here. Needless to say, however, both Lord in her novel and Nicholson in his film are less concerned with delivering a true crime recreation than they are a tense, involving thriller.
What Nicholson brings to the table is a distinctly no-nonsense approach ensuring that Fortress is tightly structured throughout. Perhaps this is a result of his background in documentary, or maybe owing to HBO’s involvement and a need to deliver something sufficiently pacey in order to fill the schedule, but either way it undoubtedly works. As such there’s little in the way of setting up the drama, rather we are almost immediately thrown into the action as the four masked men enter the schoolyard. What follows is then split into two halves: the first which almost resembles a Children’s Film Foundation production inasmuch as it sees the kids and their teacher working together to escape from a cave their kidnappers have holed them up in; and the second which firmly dissipates any CFF associations as it takes on a much more violent tone and the occasionally shocking turn. Admittedly such shocks are occasionally offset by developments that are more than a little predictable, although Nicholson’s pacing is such that these flaws can looked upon kindly.
It’s also worth noting that Fortress is really rather well played throughout. Ward hasn’t always been the most consistent of actresses over the years, but she provides an easy rapport - and a sense of authority - with the kids, all of whom do as good as could be expected with their limited roles. (There’s a particularly nice bit of observation as one of the older boys spies on his teacher as she undresses in order to swim in an underwater lake.) As for the villains of the piece, Fortress has them retain their masks for the vast majority of the duration and thereby effectively prevents them from descending into any over-the-top psycho tics. They’re simply reduced to being scary men with guns and the film is all the more persuasive as a result - it keeps them firmly rooted in reality and arguably enhances their unpredictability seeing as we never get to ‘know’ any of them. Indeed, one is played by Vernon Wells, the chief bad guy in Schwarzenegger vehicle Commando, yet you would really need to consult the credits in order to know this; onscreen he’s just a guy with a violent disposition wearing a duck mask.
Ultimately Fortress goes some way to backing up Tarantino’s endorsement, or at least provides some promise for his other forays into genre filmmaking. In this regard its appearance on DVD is to be welcomed, especially as the film has remained an obscurity in the UK for so long. To the best of my knowledge it never received a British television screening, whilst the old CBS/Fox VHS from 1986 is understandably long out of print. (HBO did release Fortress onto DVD in the US in 2006.) In fact, it’s a situation that is replicated, or worse, with Nicholson’s other films: Dark Age has only ever appeared on a VHS, again back in the mid-eighties, through Lazer, whilst Deadline and his comedies (such as Buddies or Weekend with Kate) are similarly unavailable as I type unless you go, in only a few instances, for the Region 4 import option. As such perhaps Fortress can trigger a reinvigorated interested in its director and prompt some of these other titles to be similarly rescued from their obscure fate.
Fortress is available from Medium Rare, a company that doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to DVDs. Thankfully this disc is better than much of their output and so, whilst light in terms of extras, does at least present the film in a satisfactory manner. Here we find the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio maintained and anamorphically enhanced. The listing for Fortress on both the IMDb and the BFI’s SIFT database list it as a TV movie, which would therefore suggest a 1.33:1 framing should be the case. Yet the end credits inclusion of the “Dolby Stereo in selected theatres” logo would indicate that theatrical showings did occur and as such 1.85:1 appears to be correct. Moreover, there is no evidence of unsightly cropping or framing whilst watching the film, whilst the US DVD similarly opted for the wider ratio. Picture quality is good, if not perfect, with strong colours and pleasing level of detail. Damage is minimal on both the print and soundtrack, the latter also coming across well in DD2.0 form. There are no optional subtitles present, for the hard of hearing or otherwise. As for extras these are limited to a pair of trailers (both of which contain a few potential spoilers) and a brief gallery of production stills.