Australia / 88 minutes / color / Crawford, HBO, UIP Dir: Arch Nicholson Pr: Raymond Menmuir Scr: Everett De Roche Story: Fortress (1980) by Gabrielle Lord Cine: David Connell Cast: Rachel Ward, Sean Garlick, Rebecca Rigg, Robin Mason, Marc Gray, Beth Buchanan, Asher Keddie, Bradley Meehan, Anna Crawford, Richard Terrill, Peter Hehir, David Bradshaw, Vernon Wells, Roger Stephen, Elaine Cusick, Laurie Moran, Ray Chubb, Wendy Playfair, Ed Turley, Nick Waters, Terence Donovan.
Gabrielle Lord’s novel, the source for this movie was itself loosely based on a real event, the kidnapping in 1972 by Edwin John Eastwood and (supposedly) Robert Clyde Boland of a young teacher, Mary Gibbs, and six of her pupils from the Faraday School in rural Victoria, Australia, demanding a huge ransom for their return. The affair was a cause célèbre at the time, especially after Gibbs managed to free herself and her charges from captivity. You can read all about the case—and about its bizarre aftermath, wherein Eastwood managed to escape from prison in 1976 and kidnap another rural teacher and her pupils—at Wikipedia. Wikipedia also has a useful; article about another, similar, case, this time in 1976 in Chowchilla, California. The latter crime may have drawn some inspiration from the movie DIRTY HARRY (1971).
Rachel Ward as schoolmarm Sally Jones.
In the movie adaptation of Lord’s novel (which I haven’t read and plan not to), young Sally Jones (Ward) teaches nine children of various ages and abilities in her one-classroom school in the middle of nowhere, Australia.
One morning three criminals masked as pop-culture characters—Father Christmas (Hehir) (real name Jim), Pussy Cat (Bradshaw) (real name Sonny), Dabby Duck (Wells) and Mac the Mouse (Stephen)—storm the school and drive away with Sally and the kids, eventually stowing them in an underground cave. Discovering that the cave is just part of a more extended system, the resourceful group are able to escape, but . . .
The climax of the movie sees the kids, under Sally’s direction, constructing a sort of fortress—hence the title—using natural land features and found objects such as sharpened sticks. This final battle culminates in a scene of savage ferality reminiscent of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies (1954) and its 1963 screen adaptation. Fortress‘s coda gives a deliciously chilling new perspective on this episode that’s again consonant with the earlier pieces.
It’s a great tale, for the most part excellently performed, marred only by the fact that you need not so much to suspend your disbelief as leave it at the door. I lost count of the number of strident implausibilities.
Peter Hehir as Father Christmas, temporarily without his mask.
To take just a single set of these, there’s the matter of the lamps:
(a) It turns out that, stuck in the cave and having lit schoolbooks for warmth and light, one of the kids has brought a bottle of salad oil with her to go with her packed lunch. Who gives their kid a whole bottle of . . .? But never mind that.
(b) Sally realizes that, using the oil, empty cans and (as wicks) shoelaces, they can construct primitive oil lamps.
(c) Now, I have my doubts if salad oil would work as a lamp fuel (vodka, maybe?), but I’m not going to go downstairs to the kitchen right now to incur the fury of my wife by trying to light some, so let that pass too.
(d) After they’ve been using the lamps for a while, there’s a crisis: they’ve nearly burned up all the shoelaces! But, as anyone who’s used an oil lamp knows, it’s not the wick that gets used up, at least not in the shorter term: it’s the oil.
And then there’s the oddity that everyone’s shoes stay on their feet just fine and dandy despite the removal of the laces. Later in the movie there’s plenty of running around, but still those shoes stay in place.
What did the kids use? Chewing gum?
The fact that the movie works so well despite such stuff is in part because it offers a great survival-against-the-odds tale—the underdogs turn the tables on their oppressors using ingenuity and pluck—and in part because of the performances.
Rachel Ward as Sally.
Rachel Ward’s at her plummiest, most jolly-hockey-sticks English uppercrust here, like something out of an extremely expensive girls’ private school in the Home Counties—”Language!” she tells the kids several times—but that detracts not at all: it emphasizes how little prepared by experience Sally and her charges are for their ordeal. There’s a moment of empathy between her and the oldest of the kids, Narelle (Rigg), that is, quite simply, beautifully done by Ward. (To escape, at one point they must swim. Almost too late, Sally notices her own matter-of-fact attitude toward stripping down to her underwear isn’t shared by the pubescent girl, and therefore quietly takes off less than she might.) Ward clearly put a lot of vital energy into what must have been seen as, in commercial terms at least, a minor movie.
And then there are the kids. At first I thought they’d be as one might expect, of wildly differing acting skills. But I wasn’t too far into the movie before I realized there wasn’t really a weak link in the youthful cast. By and large, the older kids have more to do, although Richard Terrill, as the youngest and wettest of the kids, Toby, has a good share of camera time. I’ve mentioned Rebecca Rigg as Narelle. Sean Garlick and Marc Gray play the older and younger brothers O’Brien, Sid and Tommy, who’re not just among Sally’s pupils but the offspring of the family with whom she lodges. If one had to pick out a single performance among the kids it’d likely be that of Robin Mason as Derek, the school bully, the overweight one who secretly smokes in the jakes—you know the type—and who, during the course of the adventure, discovers the good person inside him.
Sean Garlick as Sid.
Rebecca Rigg as Narelle.
Robin Mason as Derek.
Marc Gray as Tommy.
Richard Terrill as Toby.
Beth Buchanan as Leanne.
In sum, as I say, there’s plenty of fault you could find with Fortress, but as a piece of—sometimes surprisingly dark—entertainment it’s got a lot going for it.