Film Review: Sons of Matthew (1949)
Published on: January 6, 1998
Leading Players: Michael Pate (Shane O'Riordan), Wendy Gibb (Cathy McAllister), John O'Malley (Matthew O'Riordan), Thelma Scott (Jane O'Riordan), Ken Wayne (Barney O'Riordan), John Unicombe (Terry O'Riordan), John Ewart (Mickey O'Riordan), Tommy Burns (Luke O'Riordan), Jimmy White (Young Mickey O'Riordan), Nature (Itself).
Main Crew: prod, Charles Chauvel; dir, Charles Chauvel; writ, Charles Chauvel, Elsa Chauvel, Maxwell Dunn; dop, Bert Nicholas, Carl Kayser; ed, Terry Banks; mus, Henry Cripps.
Reflecting the pioneering spirit that has characterised the Australian image for the past two centuries, Charles Chauvel's Sons of Matthew is the resultant product of sheer determination and discovery on behalf of the film's cast and crew. In order to effectively capture the rugged beauty of the Lamington Plateau, Chauvel and his crew became explorers of sorts portraying some of the most unforgiving wilderness on the planet. In doing so, they epitomised the Australian will to tame the wilderness while, at the same time, glorified it, and discovered the truly awesome power of nature; playing unwilling witnesses to the reality of the story that they were attempting to convey.
Sons Of Matthew, much like Chauvel's earlier work, Heritage (1935), is one man's expression of the primordial Australian caricature - that of the 'Aussie battler'. Both in its narrative and in the events that occurred behind the scenes during the film's shooting, the grand Australian underdog is celebrated. During the shooting, Chauvel and his crew were forced to battle with the unrelenting and unpredictable forces of nature and, to some extent, showed little respect to the figures of authority that would have liked to shut down the film's production after it ran overtime and overbudget. Their dogged determination undoubtedly added a certain sense of realism to the events captured on-screen as well as inspiring Chauvel and Bert Nicholas' masterful glorification of the majestic and ruthless mountain wilderness.
The O'Riordan family, based on the real-life O'Reilly family, a group of close-knit Irish settlers, were simple folk who, out of desperation, embraced the seemingly impossible task of taming some of Australia's toughest land. In attempting such, the five O'Riordan sons were both united and pushed apart as their emotions took on a heightened sensitivity. Subject to a number of environmental catastrophies, their entrepreneurial quest was testing the relationships within the group - a matter not helped by the presence of Cathy McAllister, a simple young woman from Deep Creek, the former homeland of the O'Riordans. Shane, the oldest of the brothers, and Barney, Shane's successor to the title, both held strong feelings for Cathy and, in many ways, the high-spirited, virginal Cathy is symbolic of the wild, untrodden wilderness that both men wanted to tame. The Chauvels clarified this link early in the film when Shane, entranced by the thought of owning 600 acres of wilderness, said, "There's something good about cutting into a place where no man's been before".
It is this metaphor that materialises the conflict between the two eldest brothers. Shane, in many ways, is symbolic of civilisation and society. Barney, on the other hand, symbolises the unpredictable, the wild, and is thus seen as relative to the ruthless wilderness. It is Shane's duty, as guide and leader of the brothers, to control both Barney and the plateau wilderness in order to work towards a prosperous and independent future for the family.
Cathy, too, represents the wild and free elements of nature to which Shane wishes to lay claim. Shane even goes so far as to directly compare women to nature in saying that the earth is "…like a beautiful woman - lovely to look at but tough to handle." and later, "You and the earth, Cathy, that's all I want,". Cathy both recognises the connection and encourages Shane's ambition when she replies to Shane's, "Great land Cathy, if only we could tame it," with "I think that's what you like most about it - the taming.". Again, this establishes the link between Shane's hopes, Cathy's desires and the 'Great Australian dream' of placing one's mark on unexplored territory.
Like most Australian film, Sons Of Matthew is in itself marking unexplored territory to a certain extent. While it does adhere to the conventions of classical Hollywood cinema, the film is shot with an incomparible romantic vision. The Chauvel/Nicholas partnership led to the absolute cinematic glorification of Australia's heartland. The footage of the Lamington Plateau strikes equally as deeply as the emotional turmoil being played out by the film's main characters. After the O'Riordans succeed in maintaining their resilience against nature's onslaught and the two older brothers work out their differences we, as witnesses to the relentless fury of the natural and human adversities that engulfed the family, feel a sense of closure and humility towards the group. The triumph of the O'Riordans in the face of such adversity, achieved ultimately through unity and 'Aussie mateship' is homage to the unbeatable spirit of the pioneers and diggers of the past (exemplified just years prior through Australia's involvement in World War II).
Sons Of Matthew is both a technical milestone is Australian film, Chauvel's virtuosity rivaling that of the great Hollywood directors of the time, and stands as a physical representation of the spirit of Australia's founders. Indeed, the bravado antics and romantic conflicts that engulf this family are similar to those that characterised the American Western, but Sons Of Matthew could never be described as a carbon copy of Hollywood's formula dramas. Instead, it is a forerunner in the development of the modern Australian pioneering film that, through its exemplification of the bush myth, represents the virtues for which urban Australians yearn. The raw energy, pace and vitality, coupled with the film's awe-inspiring footage and the tour-de-force performances of Michael Pate, Wendy Gibb and Ken Wayne have earned Sons Of Matthew a place in Australian cinematic history and in the hearts of millions worldwide.