Set in the 1920s, “The Sundowners” is a sprawling saga of one Australian family's survival in the midst of pioneers around them–how they make a living from the land, how they live, suffer, and love. The title refers to those people who roam the land and just stop when the sun sets down.
Isobel Lennart's screen adaptation of the Jon Cleary's novel was nominated for an Oscar, and so was the picture, director Fred Zinnemann, actress Deborah Kehr and supporting actress Glynis Johns.
Paddy Carmody (Robert Mitchum) travels the land with his wife Ida (Deborah Kehr) and their son Sean (Michael Anderson Jr.). With no money to live on, what drive them are love and a continuing hope for a better future,
Tired of this nomadic existence, mother and son yearn for a place they can call home, but instead of settling down, patriarch Carmody takes a job leading a thousand sheep on a long trek to Cawndilla in Western Australia. To accomplish that, he asks for the help of Venneker (a colorful Peter Ustinov), a onetime ship captain.
The journey is arduous and filled with both danger and excitement. Along the way, the quartet stops and visits another group of Sundowners, who have given up the road for a sedentary existence. Mother and son envy the life led by this family, but not Carmody, who continues on, finally delivering the sheep and collecting the fee. After that, the four take jobs on a larger station, hoping to save enough money to buy their own land.
Well-executed, this family film is notably unsentimental but ultimately dull and indulgent (running time is 133 minutes). Zinnemann stages the film with discipline but no vigor, but he's helped by Jack Hildyard's fine cinematography. Zinnemann conveys the colorful and lively outdoor scenes of Australia, the offbeat locale of his tale, with romantic realism. And he seems to believe in the beauty that this gypsy life affords its characters. The migrants are not hard-bitten or working wearily without purpose and ambition. Rather, they are sassy, boisterous, cheerful, and given to gambling, beer-drinking, singing songs
Mitchum's husband is stubborn and thoughtless, but hes salt-of-the-earth. As his wife, Kehr is a loyal, patient woman, wistfully longing for a permanent home, but resigned to the wanderlust of her husband. The son, a bright-eyed, spirited youngster, is torn between the vagabondage of the old man and his mothers desire to settle down; like the movie, he blends tenderness and spunk.
Mitchum gives a strong, stoic performance. Kehr (sans makeup) is good too as Ida, a woman who drifts from bush town to bush town, job to job, while urging her husband to save up money to buy a farm and settle down. A faithful wife, Ida is made of rugged pioneer stock on the outside and wistful femininity inside. But the films standout work comes from Peter Ustinov and Glynis Johns. Ustinov is excellent as a grand vagabond, a blond bearded bachelor they encounter and absorb into their migrant mnage. Johns gives a marvelous performance as the lusty widow innkeeper, a jolly and even exuberant bar lady.
Also in the cast is Aussie favorite actor Chip Raffery (better known for “The Overlanders”, as the sheep-shearing foreman. Ewen Solon and Dina Merrill play the owner of the sheep station and his wife