'Fangs For The Memory' - an additional review, can be read here
North Queensland Australia. 1939. Summer. Cane cutting season. Englishman Ian Hammond (Todd Boyce) arrives to seek his fortune as a cane cutter - an ad in the newspaper promises big money for those fit enough to handle the pace. What follows is a tale of human endeavour, tough times, racial tolerance and 'the little Aussie battler', a tale successful enough to spawn a second series the very next year.
Based on the novel 'Cane' by Robert Donaldson and Michael Joseph, Melissa Downes' screenplay is a fine example of good Australian drama. Director Robert Marchand leads a fine cast through the back-breaking task of cutting field after field of cane by hand, the outbreak of World War II and the relationships of small town Northern Queensland. Ross Berryman's excellent cinematography captures the oppressive heat of the Queensland sun, the tranquillity of the untouched beaches and the epic force and furious beauty of the cane fires, lit to rid the fields of vermin and snakes.
The characters in this little tale are strong, diverse, wonderfully colourful and all too human. Boyce's Hammond, soon christened 'Bluey' (because he likes a bit of a 'blue' - he gets into a fist fight on his first day in town) begins as the appealingly naïve new-chum and soon finds his feet in this closed little community. Boyce brings a sensitive charm to the role and has soon endeared the audience and his fellow cane cutters to, if nothing else, his unwillingness to give up.
His English reserve is complimented delightfully by the cane-cutting gang - Ollie Hall, John Jarrett, Ken Radley, Jack Mayers and Philip Quast - all the quintessential Aussie man-on-the-land with 'ockerisms' and beer bottles coming out their ears.
The female contingent is filled out nicely by Anna Hruby and Melissa Docker as sisters Kate and Dusty, and the irrepressible Kris McQuade as their dauntless mother, Elsie. McQuade lights up the screen with affable charm and down-to-earth, no-nonsense, maternal affection for all her 'boys' and faithfully represents the strength and spirit of those women who remain the backbone of rural Australia.
Philip Quast gives us an exuberant, if short(!) performance as the boisterous Albie, a stalwart member of the cane cutting gang, terrifically fond of snuggling Elsie at the slightest opportunity and owner of the most infectious laugh I've ever heard. Alas, Albie meets his end at the fangs of a black snake lurking in the cane, his mates watching in helpless manly silence. Albie's demise leaves an opening in the tight-knit gang and the boys decide to take on Bluey, who's been proving his usefulness as a cutter with the local ethnic minority gang.The series takes us on through World War II, a marriage for Bluey and Dusty, despite sister Kate's attempts to seduce the groom, and brings us back to the canefields for the next year's season and all the dramas at home. Even without Quast, this series is captivating, with standout performances from Boyce, Hruby, Hall and especially McQuade.
Fields of Fire touches on racism, wartime propaganda and the mateship and community discovered in a small town dependent on one industry to survive. It is a tribute to those who fight the good fight against the adversities, a fight which continues today on modern farms, albeit a battle now fought with harvesters and tractors in lieu of machetes and hoes.
My past reviews of Australian dramas have been harsh and derogatory, with good reason. Fields of Fire proves that good drama can be made here, without losing the essence of what is characterised as 'Australian' - those qualities we pride ourselves on - friendship, community, hard work, acceptance and the ability to laugh at ourselves.
Although not commercially available overseas or for purchase at home, Series One of Fields of Fire is available as a video rental in most discerning Australian outlets. So if you live in Australia and would like to hear a good yarn (and have a giggle at the obstreperous Mr Quast), do yourselves a favour. ;)