Foley has been defeated as gun shearer – the reference to 'I hear you got done’ – but he still holds the senior place amongst these men. The scene is partly about his attempt to hold onto his prestige, in the face of events he can’t control.
On an outback station in 1956, hard-drinking shearers battle the clock, the sheep and each other for the position of 'gun shearer’, the one with the highest tally. Foley (Jack Thompson) has not been beaten in ten years, but he knows the day will come. A disastrous strike looms as he considers his future.
Title Curator's Notes
Sunday Too Far Away had many of the elements that defined a great Australian film in the 1970s, both for local and international audiences – enormous, empty, confronting landscapes, beautifully photographed, a cast of funny, laconic, rough-hewn Aussie blokes who worked hard and drank harder, a sense of fun and physical prowess, but also a sense of 'the great Australian loneliness’. The film is about work, endorsing the hard-won benefits of unionism versus capital, but it foreshadows threats to that system. It also implies a larger criticism of the pioneer mythology, with a bleak vision of the human cost of an industry that made Australia rich. Emotionally, it’s a powerful film about men without women, and codes of masculine behaviour. It was the first production of the South Australian Film Corporation, set up in 1972, and it was a great popular success. Geoff Burton’s superb cinematography was heavily influenced by Australian painting – notably the outback landscapes of Russell Drysdale and 'Shearing the Rams’ by Tom Roberts.
Notes by Paul Byrnes
This clip shows a group of shearers waiting at a train station. They are on strike and are waiting for a trainload of 'scabs’, or strike-breakers, to arrive. A notice pasted to the railway store’s window advises that shearers will only be contracted at the new lower rate of £6.18.6 (six pounds, eighteen shillings and sixpence) per hundred sheep. Foley (Jack Thompson) and his comrades gather together and confront the newcomers as they disembark the train. Foley becomes increasingly heated as the newcomers walk away, protected by the police, and he is left standing and shouting insults to their backs, but a humorous comment made by a mate breaks the tension.
Educational value points
- The clip is from Sunday Too Far Away, a film about the shearing industry in Australia. Filmed on location at Carriewerloo Station near Port Augusta in rural South Australia in 1974 (but set in 1955–56) the film is based on an industry that helped shape Australia’s national identity, both culturally and economically. It is often said that Australia 'rode on the sheep’s back’ and because of the availability of large areas of grazing land and the great demand for wool from overseas markets, Australia enjoyed a long period of economic prosperity. Although still the world’s largest producer of wool, Australia no longer derives the same level of export income from the wool industry.
- The scene in the clip is set in the 1956 shearers’ strike, a strike that followed a push by pastoralists to reduce shearing rates by 5 per cent because of declining wool prices. After 10 months on strike the shearers were successful in maintaining the rate. Two other significant shearing strikes occurred in 1891, a time of economic depression, and 1983, both of which also saw the pastoralists employing non-union labourers at lower wages.
- A notice stuck to the railway store’s window lists the reduced rate of pay for shearers as £6.18.6 per hundred sheep. In 2005 shearers typically earned $203.28 per hundred sheep under the stipulated award, but this was subject to change under the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Act of 2005.
- The clip presents an image of the Australian male through strong characterisation, particularly laconic humour, a colloquial turn of phrase and body language. The strikers, and in particular Foley, display many qualities considered inherent in the stereotypical Australian masculine identity, including a sense of male mateship and solidarity in numbers. A dry sense of humour is used to help the characters deal with the serious nature of the strike, especially when Foley delivers a passionate oration and yet afterwards sees the funny side of the situation when the intensity of the moment is punctured by his mate.
- The solidarity and comradeship between the men on strike and their strength in numbers enabled the unions to win fair pay in the 1956 strike. The scene where one of the strike-breakers greets Foley familiarly, only to be ignored, illustrates the solidarity code and unity between strikers, and shows that to break the code of solidarity was to break ranks with your comrades. Foley describes the strike-breakers as 'scabs’, a term still used to describe non-union workers who work during a union strike.
- The long shot of the train as it comes into the station shows a surrounding wide open space, a scene typical of rural Australian environments, and reveals the skill of Australian director of photography Geoff Burton. Burton captures the sense of isolation inherent in the landscape, which reflects the sombre mood of the striking shearers at the beginning of the clip. Burton has filmed more than 40 feature films in Australia and in the USA, winning awards in Australia and internationally. He is also a successful writer and director.
- Sunday Too Far Away is an iconic Australian film, the first feature film to be supported by the South Australian Film Corporation (established in 1972). Directed by Ken Hannam, the film was a popular and critical success, winning Best Film, Best Actor in a Lead Role and Best Actor in a Supporting Role at the 1974–75 Australian Film Institute (AFI) Awards and was the first Australian film to be selected for the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes (1975). 30 minutes of the original film were cut by producers, and some critics suggest the removal of important subplots might have diminished the story. The 'director’s cut’ has never been made available to the public.