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Crocodile Dundee (1986)

American reporter Sue Charlton (Linda Kozlowski) is about to return to New York after a successful trip to Sydney, when she decides to stay on to cover one last story. It's the miraculous tale of survival, after a near-fatal crocodile attack, of a local fisherman, Michael J. “Crocodile” Dundee. Charlton travels to Walkabout Creek, a backwater in Australia's Northern Territory, where Dundee's friend Walter Reilly (John Meillon) has agreed to introduce her to Dundee. When she finally meets him, she finds that Mick Dundee (Paul Hogan) is a local character and crocodile poacher and reports of his lost leg turn out to be a little exaggerated. He takes her on a safari in the Northern Territory where they bond and eat bush tucker, and where he saves her from attack by a hungry crocodile. As a follow-on, she decides it would be a fitting conclusion to her story to take Dundee back to New York, where he can experience the big city for the first time.

Crocodile Dundee poster

Crocodile Dundee is essentially a fish-out-of-water comedy, something not that unusual in the 1980s, but here it's played twice. The first time sees Kozlowski's journalist learning the strange ways and stranger dangers of the Australian bush. The second time sees Hogan's rough Aussie bloke learn the strange ways of a big American city, where he is introduced to bidets, street slang, escalators and transvestites. As Dundee and Charlton bond, a romance gradually develops between their two characters, and Charlton begins to find the rugged Dundee more appealing than her smarmy New York boyfriend (Mark Blum). Some of Dundee's encounters in New York are maybe a little predictable, but they are mostly funny and the film's sharp script and winning central performance from Hogan make this a highly enjoyable comedy. Of course, Dundee could have very similar experiences in a big Australian city, but that would be a harder sell to an American audience and would be a simple rural/urban contrast instead of the international one the film has in mind.

The Australian cinema came of age in the 1970s, aided by government subsidy and the creation of state film boards. But films like Walkabout (1970), Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and My Brilliant Career (1979) were art house successes rather than popular ones and, apart from Mad Max (1979) and its sequels, Australian films had rarely found big commercial success overseas. Crocodile Dundee was an attempt to change that, a deliberate and precise assault on the international, and especially American, market. It played up to Australian stereotypes of the bush, kangaroos, crocs, aborigines and tough, masculine blokes. It carefully chose New York as its second main location, and an American character as the audience identifier and our guide into Dundee's world. The film starts in New York and the first characters we see and hear are not Australians but the American journalist and her editor boyfriend. The opening scene seems designed to reassure Americans that the film they are about to see won't be too “foreign” for them. Australia doesn't appear to be the film's home territory, so much as an exotic location for the audience's delight and exploration.

Paul Hogan and Linda Kozlowski

The film contrasts the laid back appeal of the Northern Territory, albeit laced with dangers, with the hectic pace and bustle of New York, which admittedly comes with its own dangers. It's aided in this by Peter Best's strong score, which captures the lazy days of the bush and the frenetic hustle of the big city. The director, Peter Faiman, had mostly worked in Australian television and in fact only made one more film, but his work here is pretty good, and Crocodile Dundee is a polished effort that never feels like the small Australian indie film that it really is. It also hasn't really dated visually and still feels like a more or less contemporary film. The director of photography, Russell Boyd, gets some nice footage of the Australian locations in particular, most of which were in the Northern Territory's Kakadu National Park. Boyd was one of the leading Australian cinematographers at this time, and also worked on Peter Weir's films Gallipoli (1981), The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) and Master and Commander (2003). The Oscar and BAFTA-nominated screenplay was written by Hogan with Ken Shadie and John Cornell. Cornell was Hogan's agent and the film's producer (he would also direct the sequel Crocodile Dundee II). The writers, director and producer had all worked together over the previous decade on Hogan's Australian TV series The Paul Hogan Show.

What's clever about the script is its determination to both have its cake and eat it. It repeatedly trades on Australian stereotypes, only to debunk them. Aborigines are otherworldly and mystical, until one gets lost in the dark (“God, I hate the bush!”). Dundee tells tall tales, but they often turn out to be at least partly true. He's a tough bloke who's totally at home in the bush, has a preternatural ability with animals and is able to kill a giant crocodile with just a knife. But he also pretends to be able to tell the time just from the position of the sun, and switches from shaving with a safety razor to pretending to use a bush knife when Charlton is watching. Dundee is an irresistible character; heroic, but self-deprecating, a chauvinist but also sort of a gentleman, an innocent abroad but a fast learner, and someone who can make friends in the unlikeliest situations. Old school intrepid adventure heroes were in vogue in the 1980s (think Indiana Jones, Romancing the Stone, and various lesser rip-offs), so Mick Dundee is not that far removed from other 1980s film characters, even if he's more tongue-in-cheek and a little more human than most.

Since it's partly about Australian-American relations, it's appropriate that Crocodile Dundee is a film that's very interested in the question of Australian national identity and of what Australia might offer the world. Not only in terms of its attractions as a destination, but in its national culture and character. Dundee represents that worthy Australian archetype, the good bloke, a mate you can rely on. But the film also wants to present a more inclusive version of Australian identity. It carefully navigates the question of Australian Aborigines, with Dundee revealed to be a member of the local tribe, who raised him from boyhood. Dundee is a figure who straddles the line between white Australian (at home in the local bar, drinking pints and joshing with his mates) and Aborigine. When he slips out of the camp at night and Charlton follows him to an Aboriginal meeting, we see Dundee mixing at ease with the tribesmen and wearing tribal face paint. Dundee is portrayed as at least as much an Aborigine as the film's main actual Aborigine, “city boy” and reluctant tribesman Neville (David Gulpilil).

Paul Hogan and Linda Kozlowski in the knife scene

The film's most famous scene is probably when Dundee and Charlton are confronted by a gang of New York muggers. One pulls out his flick knife and tells Dundee to hand over his wallet. A frightened Charlton tells him to comply. “Why?” he asks. “Because he's got a knife.” Dundee laughs, “That's not a knife...” and pulls out his own much bigger hunting knife, “ this is a knife”, at which the muggers take flight. This type of scene, where the hero puts some street punks in their place, is one you occasionally see in 1980s films, there's even a variation on it, played for laughs, in Star Trek IV. In this case, the scene is more significant than just being a “my one's bigger than your one” gag, because it shows that Dundee's brand of masculinity can be just as valuable in the big city as in the bush. Can anyone doubt that Charlton's pampered boyfriend would have instantly handed over his wallet to the muggers (and probably her purse and his Rolex too)?

Paul Hogan totally owns and inhabits the character of Mick Dundee and was rewarded with a Golden Globe award and a BAFTA nomination. Linda Kozlowski cops some flak for her performance, but she's believable as the big city girl and her rapport with Hogan is obvious (Hogan divorced his wife and married Kozlowksi in 1990). The supporting characters are well cast, including John Meillon as Dundee's more subdued business partner Walter, and Mark Blum as Charlton's editor and would-be fiancé.

It shouldn't be a surprise that Crocodile Dundee was a hit in the US, as well as in the UK and other major markets. It was deliberately designed to appeal to overseas tastes by packaging and trading on its Australianness in a way that would appeal to international audiences. The surprise was just how phenomenally successful the film was, especially in the US, where it became a runaway hit, making more money than any other film that year except Top Gun. For its American release, quotation marks were put into the title to turn it into 'Crocodile' Dundee, intended to suggest that the name was a nickname and that this wasn't a film about crocodiles. About 6 minutes of footage was cut from the early part of the film to speed up the pacing, and many other markets kept the US changes. There were also over-dubs of some of the swearing in order to get a PG-13 certificate. Crocodile Dundee has continued to suffer in TV and video release versions over the years, with whole jokes and lines removed from the film.

Hogan wisely decided to make a quick sequel, Crocodile Dundee II in 1988, which was less popular but still a substantial hit. But he was never able to repeat Crocodile Dundee's success with his follow up films, Almost an Angel (1990) and Lightning Jack (1994). A second, very belated sequel, Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles, crept out in 2001, but it was so long after the original that hardly anyone noticed.

Despite its enormous international success, Australian audiences seem mixed now in their reactions to Crocodile Dundee, unsure if it genuinely exports Australian culture and humour or if it packages up a fantasy version of Australia for international consumption. But I think Australians should embrace it. Yes, it trades outrageously on Australian clichés and stereotypes, but it does it with a wink and a knowing grin and it's always ready to debunk a stereotype it just exploited. It dates from that time in the 1980s and early '90s when Australian films could occasionally make it very big overseas, and none were bigger than Crocodile Dundee. The film is estimated to have earned over $300 million at the international box office. That's no mean feat for a relatively small indie film, and the Australian film industry probably wishes it could remember just how it was done.

Crocodile Dundee

Year: 1986
Genre: Comedy, Adventure, Romance
Country: Australia
Director: Peter Faiman

Cast  Paul Hogan (Michael J. 'Crocodile' Dundee), Linda Kozlowski (Sue Charlton), John Meillon (Walter Reilly), David Gulpilil (Neville Bell), Mark Blum (Richard Mason), Michael Lombard (Sam Charlton), Irving Metzman (Irving), Reginald VelJohnson (Gus), Ritchie Singer (Con), Maggie Blinco (Ida), Steve Rackman (Donk), Gerry Skilton (Nugget), Terry Gill (Duffy), Peter Turnbull (Trevor), Christine Totos (Rosita), Graham 'Grace' Walker (Angelo), Rik Colitti (Danny), David Bracks (Burt), Brett Hogan (Peter), John Snyder (Pimp), J. J. Cole (Buzzy)

Screenplay Paul Hogan, Ken Shadie, John Cornell, story Paul Hogan  Producer John Cornell  Cinematography Russell Boyd  Production design Graham 'Grace' Walker  Editor David Stiven  Music Peter Best

Running time 102 mins / 96 mins  Widescreen Panavision
Production company  Rimfire Films  Distributor Hoyts Distribution (Australia), Paramount (US)


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