You can't say "The Australian Story," a.k.a. "Kangaroo," a 1952 release originally from 20th Century Fox and here presented on DVD by VCI Entertainment, isn't a truly international film. Its stars are English, Irish, Scottish, American, and Australian; its director and its writer were born in Russia; and the filmmakers shot it entirely on location in Australia. But that's OK because during the time of the story's setting, the early twentieth century, Australia was, after all, still a melting pot. The movie's major asset, however, is its cinematography. If it were in widescreen and the print in better condition, it would look spectacular. As it is, the photography can't help an average story line and characterizations from being, well, average.
Nor is the movie wanting for filmmaking talent. I'm sure fans don't exactly think about its director, Lewis Milestone, for his rugged, outdoor Westerns, but he had already done several of the best war movies of all time--"All Quiet on the Western Front," "Halls of Montezuma," and "A Walk in the Sun"--several John Steinbeck screen adaptations--"Of Mice and Men" and "The Red Pony"--and a couple of other classics--"The Front Page" and "The General Died at Dawn." After "The Australian Story" he would go on to do "Pork Chop Hill" and "Ocean's Eleven," so the guy knew what he was doing, and, in fact, he does his best with the slim script the studio handed him. What's more, the studio gave the job of cinematographer to Charles G. Clarke, who had been around doing this sort of work since the earliest silent days and comes through with a brilliant tapestry of Australian vistas for the movie.
Then there are the stars, five of them: Peter Lawford has the major role, that of a tall, dark-haired, mysterious stranger named Richard Connor, an Englishman come to Australia to make his fortune, only to find that it's harder than it looks. Now, he just wants to get back to England, and he'll do anything he can, including petty theft and robbery to do it. Lawford is handsome and smooth, but does little to impress the viewer because his character is rather vacuous, a nice guy turned bad by circumstance. His co-star is Maureen O'Hara as Dell McGuire, the beautiful daughter of a local rancher. She made "The Australian Story" the same year she did "The Quiet Man" for John Ford, and there is little doubt which film has stood the test of time and become a classic. Still, she gives this one her best shot, too, which, unfortunately, is not saying a lot since she doesn't have much of a character to work with and doesn't get much screen time.
In the main supporting roles we find Finlay Currie as Michael McGuire, Dell's father, a cattle rancher with a big spread, and a man lamenting having abandoned his son to an orphanage many years before; and Chips Rafferty as Trooper Len Leonard, a law enforcer in the outback. But it's really Richard Boone who steals the show as the charmingly snakelike villain, John W. Gamble. While Boone would go on to lasting fame as the gunslinger Paladin in "Have Gun - Will Travel" a few years later, here he shows us why he could be an audience favorite. His character is an outright crook and cold-blooded killer, yet there is something about him, about his smile, that makes us like him.
No, the cast and crew aren't the problem. It's the script, which simply doesn't develop its central idea very far nor give any of the actors much to do. Here's the setup: Connor is looking for enough money to get back to England. He attempts to rob Gamble outside a card house in Sidney, but in the process actually becomes Gamble's colleague in crime. The two decide to form a partnership, first to rob the card house and later to swindle the old rancher, McGuire, out of his land by convincing him that Connor is the old fellow's long-lost son. In the meantime, Connor and McGuire's daughter fall in love. And that's about it.
By the look of it, "The Australian Story" is a traditional Western, except that it's set in the Australian outback rather than the American West. But since it doesn't involve a lot of gunplay, it's not quite a Western, either. It's more of an abbreviated tale of larceny and redemption, with a romantic subplot and a drought thrown in. Oh, I didn't mention the drought? As if the crime and the romance weren't enough (and they aren't, the way the script handles them), the writers throw in a three-year drought, complete with withering landscapes, dying animals, and aboriginal rituals.
I'm not usually one to complain about a film being too short. Indeed, most films these days are way too long and in need of serious editing. But "The Australian Story" at eighty-four minutes is just too brief to cram as much as it wants to into the story. About the only thing the movie can do is skim over what might have been, potentially, some fascinating story angles. (Like how Connor should pose as the long-lost son when that would make him the brother of the girl he's falling in love with.) As it is, the movie has a good look and at least a good villain. It might be enough for some viewers, but it wasn't for me.
"The Australian Story" just missed the dawn of the widescreen era by a year or so, much to its detriment since the photography is so good and the scenery so vast and eye-catching, it's a shame the filmmakers couldn't give it more scope. In any case, the standard 1.37:1 screen ratio of the day does what it can with Charles G. Clarke's beautiful camera work. And VCI do what they can to digitally restore the film to something of its original grandeur. However, the print they had to work with must not have been in the greatest shape because the best they can do is bring it up to no more than average standards.
The image is soft and somewhat blurred compared to today's best efforts. In spite of the cleaning VCI did, one can see there are still multiple instances of minor specks, flecks, ticks, and lines present. Colors vary from fairly natural to a tad dark and garish, and there is the occasional fade here and there as well. None of this is apt to bother the fan of old movies, however, who may be used to a lot worse.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural sound of the day comes up as one might expect: a little bright and forward in the midrange, sometimes a tad edgy, with little support from the bass or treble in the extremes, and a limited dynamic range. The audio is relatively quiet, though, so the listener does pick up everything that needs to come through.
Just as we have come to expect a limited audio response from older films, we have to expect a limited number of extras on a film this old and obscure. VCI provide an attractive menu screen; twelve scene selections; several trailers for other, related VCI releases; English as the only spoken language; and no subtitles.
Even though "The Australian Story" features some dazzling shots of the wide-open Australian outback, good cinematography can't make up for a movie that hasn't a lot to say. Nevertheless, despite its brief running time and simplistic plot, the film packs a moderate amount of action into the story, and Richard Boone makes a compelling villain. So all is not lost.