Overlanders (1946)

 

 

 

Director:  Harry Watt.

Starring:  Chips Rafferty (Dan McAlpine), John Nugent Hayward (Bill Parsons), Daphne Campbell (Mary Parsons), Jean Blue (Mrs. Parsons), Helen Grieve (Helen Parsons), John Fernside (Corky), Peter Pagan (Sailor, "Sinbad"), Frank Ransome (Charlie), Stan Tolhurst (Manager), Marshall Crosby (Minister), John Fegan (Police Sergeant), Clyde Combo (Aborigine Jacky), Henry Murdoch (Aborigine Nipper).

fear of Japanese invasion in Australia causes cattlemen to push their herds overland halfway across the country

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

1942.  The Japanese were driving south from Singapore and it looked like the next place to fall would be the Northern Territory of Australia, home of a million head of cattle, but occupied by only 5,000 whites.  Space and scorched earth were Australia's final weapons against the Japanese.  Vast herds of cattle were moved south and southeast.  This film is the story of just one of those cattle drives and the people who drove it.

In Wyndham in the Northern Territory, Bill Parsons hacks up his water tower and burns his house down to deny any support for the Japanese.  Bill and his family (his wife, and two daughters Mary and Helen) get into the horse-drawn wagon.  He says as he leaves:  "The Japs will get nothing from me."   A mileage sign says 2,286 miles to Perth and 1,106 miles to Darwin. 

At the Australian Meat Export facilities on the coast, Dan McAlpine is busy moving cattle.  He goes in to see the manager, Bert.  A lot of guys are in his office already.  Bert tells Dan that he has a real shock for him.  The government has ordered the closing of the company's facilities  And they will have to shoot the cattle to make sure they do not fall into the hands of the Japanese.  Dan does not like the idea of shooting cattle.  After the meeting, he suggests to Bert than he be given permission to take the cattle overland.  The easiest place to take them would be to the eastern coast of Queensland.  Bert tries to discourage Dan.  The trail would go southeast to Anthony's Lagoon and then southeast again (going northeast of Alice Springs) and finally end up in Rockhampton.  But once they cross the Ord River, which is not that far away from Wyndham, his cattle will be out of feed.  And the land that follow is "terrible country". 

Dan is not going to be discouraged.  He says he was down at Hall's Creek to join the army.  The recruiting sergeant told him that "Bullocks are more important than bullets".  He also told Dan:  "You stick to cattle and you'll be doing a better job for Australia than bashing your spine in some army camp."  Bert tells Dan that he sure can't stop him from going.  He tells Dan that when he sees his superior to the south, he will get a permission slip for him to do what he will already have been doing.  He warns Dan again that the distance of the cattle drive will be the same as going from London to Moscow. 

Dan goes out to see the guys.  He says that he wants six people to drive a mob of cattle to Queensland.  Most of the men say they are going into the army to fight.  Dan says that the cattle drive might take a year or two to accomplish.  A sailor in port off a ship says he wants to go with Dan.  He says:  "I hate the sea."  The sailor says that he has been torpedoed twice already.  So Dan will consider him, if he can get six men altogether.  Corky is going with them.  Dan's good workmate the Aboriginal Jacky will also be going.  Another man says he wants to go.  Dan says that should be enough to make the cattle drive. 

Bill Parsons comes driving up with his family in a wagon.  They want to go with Dan too.  Pretty Mary Parsons is a young woman.  Her mother puts a wedding ring on her left hand to discourage men from getting any ideas of being with her.  The sailor, named Hunter, has already noticed here.  Mom says that she will tell Hunter that Mary already has a fiancée.   Helen Parsons likes the sailor and she gives him the nickname of "Sinbad, the sailor". 

Down by the docks, Sinbad's ship is about to pull out.  The sailors start shouting to him:  "You'll be sorry!"  The ship pulls out.  Dan comments that these are the last white people they will see for four months.   They did just four miles the first day.  There were 968 cattle and 53 horses.  For each man on the drive six horses are needed.  Usually they did 8 to 10 miles per day, but sometimes did as much as 15 miles.  Mary Parsons works as a cowgirl on the drive.

It took a month to go across the coastal plain.  Then they went through 200 miles of scrub (mostly grass with scattered trees).  The area has plenty of surface water and the crew loves going for a swim. They are now in the second month.  "Wild" blacks look down on them from the mountains.  They come upon the brand new North-South Road.  It was made to bring supplies north for the fighting in the islands.  A military convoy comes.  Dan rides along with one of the trucks carrying lots of soldiers and he asks about the progress of the war.  The soldiers say they beat the Japs at Kakoda. 

The drive meets it's first big obstacle, crossing a river filled with crocodiles.  Dan crosses first with his horse.  After he checks out the opposite river bank and says it's okay, the horses are sent swimming over to the other other side.  Next comes the Parsons's wagon that has been fitted out so that it can float.  A crocodile approaches the wagon and Sinbad shoots it.  And now the cattle cross the river.  A couple of the crew are the last ones to cross the river. 

The next area they have to cross is one where the feed is very poor.  They can do only five miles a day.  And then a tragedy happens one morning.  Jacky comes riding up saying that the horses ate a poison weed and have died.  The men and Mary ride out o see the dead horses.  Now they only have the horses brought by the last two fellows who joined the group.  One of the guys informs Dan that they are taking their horses and leaving.  Dan says that would leave them virtually stranded.  The fellow doesn't care.  Dan socks him, knocking him down.  Someone else goes after the fellow's partner.  Mrs. Parsons stops the fighting.  She basically tells the two men if they want to go, then get the hell out of here. 

The cattle drive is saved when they find some wild horses (known as brumbies).  At night the horses come to drink water, so the crew decides to build a fence across the narrowest gap of the gorge.  Young Helen has the job of making sure the gates close after the men scare the horses into the make-shift corral.  On the first attempt the wild horses turn back from the gate, but the men drive them forward and they go through the gate.  Helen closes the gate on them. 

Corky is looking forward to getting to Anthony's Lagoon where he can drink beer.  Dan informs him that he has decided not to go to Anthony's Lagoon.  Corky is really disappointed.  Dan proceeds to break in the wild horses.  He is a good bronco buster as they say in the USA.  Sinbad sits close to Mary on a rock as they watch the break in of the horses.  Helen ends up with a pony that she has named Wild Goose. 

Corky really wants his beer, so he starts telling others in the crew to tell Dan that they think they should go to Anthony's Lagoon.  They do so and Dan gives in to the pressure.  The place turns out to be a small settlement.  They stop at the Post Office to see if any mail has arrived for them.  Dan picks up the permission to go on a cattle drive and Mary gets a letter.  Sinbad is a bit jealous figuring that it's her fiancée that has written her. The guys go to the tavern in the hotel and get drunk. 

Nearing the Queensland border they are in an area of no feed and no surface water.  Some of the cattle walk into some bog holes and nearly get permanently stuck in the mud.  Dan comments that bog holes are a real danger for cattle.  They move into the border hills of Queensland and the situation improves.     

An airplane lands near the herd.  Out steps the fellow responsible for vaccinating the cattle.  So they spend a couple of days getting the cattle inoculated. 

Now the crew has been on the drive for six months.  Corky shows Dan his company's mission statement.  It mentions "exploiting" the natural resources of the Northern Territory.  Dan gets angry because he doesn't want any "exploitation" of the Northern Territory.  He crumples up the paper and throws it into the fire. 

Sinbad and Mary talk for awhile.  They switch horses so Mary, who has night duty, can have the better horse.  Sinbad kisses Mary.  Then they sit and kiss.  Sinbad asks if Mary still loves this fellow Jeff May.  She says:  "I think so."  Some birds are spooked by animal noises and they in turn frighten the cattle and they start running.  The crew goes after them to try to stop them.  Sinbad is in the thick of it and is thrown from his horse.  He tries go get over to a tree for some shelter from the cattle.  The crew don't even know he's missing, until the crisis is over and the horse Sinbad was riding returns to the herd.

The crew goes out to find Sinbad.  They find him and check him out.  It looks like he has a broken arm and leg.  They need to get him to the hospital.  Then someone remembers the airplane.  They could get Sinbad to a hospital.  Mary rides out trying to reach the plane before it takes off.  She is able to ride alongside the airplane and tries to signal them to stop, but they think she is only waving goodbye to them.  The plane gets into the air and heads on its way.  So the decision is made for Bill Parsons to drive him to Meracoda (?) Station where they can call the flying doctor. 

The cattle are heading to the next watering place.  But Jacky investigates and finds the water hole is dry.  Cattle can't go more than three days without water, so Dan says they will have to go up and over some rough hills to find water.  He knows where there is a watering hole.  Mary leads the way up the hill and the cattle follow.   The cowgirl runs into a downed tree blocking the path.  Jacky has to climb up the side of the hill to throw a rope around the tree.  Mary takes the other end of the rope.  She has her horse pull the tree loose from its position.  But when the tree is loose it starts falling over the side of the cliff.  The horse has to struggle not to be pulled over the cliff with the tree.  Some of the cattle fall off the side of the cliff to their death.  Jacky cuts the rope and the tree falls the rest of the way down the cliff. 

Sinbad and the wagon arrive at the station.  The station master puts in a call for the flying doctor. 

Dan and Jacky find the billabong, but it is surrounded by lost of mud making it dangerous.  They cannot let all the cattle up here all at once or many of them will sink into the mud and not be able to get out.  Instead, they decide to lead smaller batches of cattle up to the billabong at nigh.  They also decide to rest the cattle until night arrives to start the watering process. Nature, however, does not cooperate.  The wind blows hard in the direction of the cattle and they catch the smell of water.  The cattle get up from their rest and start heading to the source of the smell, the water.

The crew jumps into action trying to turn the cattle away from the water, but they are not having much success.  So Dan takes Corky and another man with him to make a stand.  They get off their horses and only with their whips they stand before the oncoming rush of cattle.  The cattle do stop before they reach the men.  The wind picks up again and the cattle get another whiff and start moving toward the water.  The men change their positions a bit, but they do get the cattle to stop.  And now, all of a sudden, Dan shouts to drive them back.  They snap their whips and yell and the cattle turn and run. 

Dan comments that this was the end of their troubles.  In eight months they drove 1,000 cattle 1,6000 miles while losing only 53 of the cattle.  After the cattle are delivered the crew goes to Brisbane.  They go to the hospital to see the sailor.  Dan says that most of the crew didn't care for city life and wanted to get back to the countryside.  Sinbad goes to see the crew off on the airplane headed back to the Northern Territory.   As the plane takes off, Mary's eyes well up.  Flying over the land on the way back, Dan notices quite a few cattle drives.  Dan turns to Bill Parsons and says:  "We started something, eh, Bill?" 

 

Good movie.  I have seen films about American cattle drives and I find that this Australian film tells us a lot more about the nature of cattle and the problems facing a cattle drive.  The love story in the film falls flat.  So the main star of the film is either Dan or the cattle, depending on how you view the film.  The film is one mainly of action and adventure revolving around the cattle drive itself.  That is the main part of the film and I found it enjoyable and interesting.  Chips Rafferty (as Dan McAlpine) was very good in his role of the cattle drive boss. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 

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