Last of the Knucklemen, The

Reviewed By Stephen Groenewegen
Posted 08/18/03 13:51:19

"Desert force"
3 stars (Average)

Set in outback Andamooka, South Australia, The Last of the Knucklemen tracks a group of day labourers on a wildcat opal mine. Director Tim Burstall also adapted John Power’s all-male play.

Initially, Knucklmen seems like a companion piece to Sunday Too Far Away, with miners instead of shearers. But there are significant differences. Knucklemen is contemporary, set in 1978 rather than the 1950s. The labour’s non-unionised and the workers kept in line by the brute force of leader Tarzan (Gerard Kennedy). In Sunday, “top dog” was determined by shearing skill and speed, here it’s by prowess with fists. The only women in Knucklemen are, literally, whores (bizarrely, one of them is Denise Drysdale who later became known as a comic TV personality). Workers are taken on “no questions asked” and the mining camp could easily harbour fugitives from the law.

In adapting the play, Burstall was attempting anthropology - a study of these men through their work. He only partially succeeds. The men are such familiar types, echoing similar characters in Sunday, that they don’t seem realistic enough for an anthropological survey. Besides the tough but fair boss Tarzan, there’s: old-timer Methuselah (Michael Duffield), the noisy “wog” Horse (Dennis Miller), belligerent upstart challenger Pansy (Michael Preston), the keeps-to-himself Tom (Peter Hehir) with a mysterious past, nervous Monk (Michael Caton) and the crippled Mad Dog (Steve Bisley), who’s always mouthing off but is a decent, sensitive soul underneath it all.

Once you sort out who’s who, the characters neatly slot into either nice or nasty (and mostly nice). Burstall can’t disguise the staginess of the structure, with everyone retaining their one flashy speech that encapsulates their character. Nevertheless, the actors work well together and Kennedy’s over-the-top style is perfectly suited to the material. There’s not much plot to speak of, and only one really well sustained sequence - a card game where you know the outcome, but Burstall and the intensity of the actors make it compelling nonetheless.

Although the ending is well signposted, it’s an efficient crowd-pleasing finale. It also seems at odds with the grim, fairly pessimistic tone of the rest of the movie. Burstall later cryptically remarked that the film took a right wing view of the labour movement. Knucklemen is not his finest hour, but it certainly didn’t deserve to sink from sight so quickly on its release in 1979.

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