© Jim Low
In 1957 the film The Shiralee was released in Australia. It was made by the English film production company Ealing Films. This black and white film was based on D’Arcy Niland’s book of the same name which was published in 1955. It starred Peter Finch in the lead role of itinerant worker Jim Macauley, known to his friends as “Mac”.
The film follows Macauley as he searches for work in rural New South Wales, accompanied by his daughter Buster. “Mac” carries his rolled up sleeping gear on his back. This swag is also known as a shiralee. In the film’s introductory narration the inference is made that the shiralee is like a cross or burden for Macauley and that he has an extra one, his daughter Buster.
In 1957 or 1958 my mother took my brother and me to see The Shiralee. Having seen the more child friendly, film Smiley the previous year, it was a little disappointing in its content. The protagonist was not really a very appealing character, especially the way in which he often treated his daughter. Smiley had also been in colour. But despite all this, going to the movies back then was such a treat that the film The Shiralee remains a happy memory for me.
In one scene set in a country town, Macauley is taunted by a couple of suspicious characters in a hotel bar. This leads to a rather violent, no-holds-barred fight which begins on the pavement outside the hotel. The fight continues into the street where Finch’s character knocks his opponent, who has armed himself during the affray with a large piece of wood, to the ground. During the fight we are afforded clear views of the town’s main street and buildings. Prior to the fight, while Macauley waited outside the stock and station agent’s premises opposite the hotel and openly ogled a girl who crossed the street, we saw plenty of the streetscape. Little did I know that within a dozen or so years after watching this film, I would drive into this very same town to begin my teaching career.
The town was Binnaway and I arrived there at the start of 1970, after about seven or so hours of constant driving from Sydney. Situated in the central west of New South Wales on the Castlereagh River, Binnaway is not far from the Warrumbungle Ranges.
I discovered that The Shiralee was still a popular topic of conversation for many locals. Some had their own unique memories, such as Peter Finch’s use of their bicycle or hat while in the town. To this day, the inclusion of Binnaway in a film made over fifty years ago is still acknowledged in the tourist literature.
I visited Binnaway last year and learnt that the Royal Hotel, in front of which the fight was staged, is now called The Shiralee. Promotional photographs around the walls of the hotel bar also remind the drinker of the film. Visitors are encouraged in the tourist brochures to come and see the hotel’s Shiralee photographic memorabilia. One of the photos shows Peter Finch and Charles “Bud” Tingwell in fleecy lined leather jackets. Another photo shows three young women “admirers” getting Finch’s autograph. 1957 was a busy year for Finch. He played bushranger Captain Starlight in the film adaptation of Rolf Boldrewood’s novel Robbery Under Arms. That film was in colour.
One of the new managers of the hotel told me that Dana Wilson, the actress who played Buster, had recently visited the town and come in for a drink. I find it interesting to consider in what ways this film, made so many years ago and which many would not have seen, may have influenced people’s sense of Binnaway as a place. The film is obviously considered a very legitimate part of the town’s history.
I was invited to sing at an ABC Australia All Over concert in 1997. One of the songs I sang was Towns on the Castlereagh, a song I wrote about Binnaway and Coonabarabran. While introducing this song, I mentioned that some of The Shiralee which starred Peter Finch was filmed in Binnaway. I referred to the fight scene and what a great view it captured of the town back in 1957. I continued by saying that Binnaway looks pretty much the same today, except that it is now in colour, not black and white. I was pleasantly surprised when this spontaneous remark received such a good reponse from the audience. I thought one day I might use it again. And indeed I have, in a song I have recently written about The Shiralee.
© Jim Low