"That boy has a quality about him," observes a sage wrangler in the rousing Australian movie "The Man from Snowy River."
He is referring to the exemplary hero, an orphaned ranch hand named Jim Craig. Indeed, this boy is so precociously capable and attractive, especially as embodied by a loose, slim, straightforward young actor named Tom Burlinson, that a good portion of the film's enormous clean-cut appeal derives from a gratifying sort of joke: Jim Craig is so ready to assume his rightful inheritance as a man among men in a rugged frontier that a coming-of-age fable is transformed into an account of how innate superiority is gradually and somewhat grudgingly acknowledged by the folks exposed to its youthful radiance.
"The Man from Snowy River," opening today at several area theaters, is likely to be welcomed as a refreshing, nostalgic example of a supposedly outmoded genre, the Western.
Inspired by a narrative poem that evidently enjoys a Golden Chestnut status in Australia comparable to the enduring schoolbook eminence of certain Robert W. Service and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sagas in this country, "Snowy River" shows how young Jim promptly proves himself as ranch hand and wild-horse tamer after the accidental death of his father, who owned a spread in the high country of Victoria's central mountain range. Not the least of the rewards awaiting his heroic merit is the love of Jessica Harrison (Sigrid Thornton), a spunky beauty whose father owns the biggest ranch in the territory.
A number of cinematic virtues conspire to prevent the movie from degenerating into insufferable, cliche'd wholesomeness. For one thing, Burlinson and Thornton look sensational together and generate a chemistry that's fundamentally much sexier than a good deal of what passes for overt sexuality on the contemporary screen.
The sexual attraction is expressed implicitly. There's almost no touching but a wealth of looking, and it reminds you of how intense and satisfying the romance of sheer eye contact and compatability can be when you've got leads who seem to share an unstated understanding. Strictly speaking, "The Man from Snowy River" belongs to a branch of juvenile fiction, and it never endangers its status as a movie eminently suited for family patronage.
Scenically blessed, "Snowy River" plays out the courtship of two gorgeous young people against gorgeous landscapes, where hard-riding cowboys pursue a herd of splendid, almost spectral wild horses across breathtaking mountain panoramas and prairie horizons.
The screenwriters, John Dixon and Fred Cul Cullen, have contrived a satisfying, full-circle melodramatic plot out of what would appear to be very sketchy source material. Jim's ultimate success and vindication depend on the capture of the wild horse that inadvertently caused his father's death. As the plot thickens, the same beautiful outlaw animal is linked to an earlier tragedy in Jessica's family, so its capture promises the resolution of more than one conflict.
Kirk Douglas is very entertaining in a dual role that embodies one of the conflicts. Jumping to the conclusion that his double duty is merely a stunt, you're pleasantly surprised to discover that it's a stunt with dramatic justifications.
The director, George Miller, should not be confused with the compatriot of the same name, roughly the same age and rather more formidable talent who did "Mad Max" and "The Road Warrior." However, he certainly can be welcomed as a new filmmaker with exceptional vitality and lyric promise.
"Snowy River" doesn't take a serenely picturesque approach to the traditions of the Western. Miller frequently tries inventive, impulsive pictorial effects, and when they work, the romantic feeling that suffuses the movie gets an unexpected, surging excitement.
Unfortunately, Miller also shows a tendency to finesse the suspense and kinetic excitement right out of certain episodes by cutting abruptly or overorchestrating the imagery.
Among other useful services to the medium, the Australians seem to be keeping the Western alive until such time as American directors work up the incentive to reclaim and reinterpret this abandoned mythic birthright.
Although based on a home grown poetic chestnut, "Snowy River" is likely to impress Americans as another gratifying example of the Australian flair for pulling Hollywood's chestnuts out of the fire