Quigley Down Under(1990), directed by Simon Wincer and starring Tom Selleck, Alan Rickman, and Laura San Giacomo in lead roles, is an old-fashioned Western set in the Australian outback.
One of the greatest ‘What-ifs’ in the history of American films is “What if Tom Selleck had played Indiana Jones instead of Harrison Ford?.” Selleck was George Lucas’ and Steven Spielberg’s first choice for playing Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Selleck was cast for the role too, but then by a twist of fate, a TV series (for which he had already contracted to) was immediately greenlit by CBS- forcing Selleck to drop out of “Raiders” just weeks before shooting was to commence. Though that TV series, “Magnum P I,” would make Selleck a huge TV star, he missed out on that big break out role in movies, and would forever be relegated to being mainly a TV actor, with occasional appearances in movies. That’s a pity really, because Selleck was a star\actor in the mold of golden age Hollywood stars like Gary Cooper and Randolph Scott, who had the build, authority and an effortless style that helped them embody the big, strong, morally-upright American hero to perfection. Selleck, along with Burt Reynolds and Sam Elliot, was one of the few mustachioed macho heroes of the screen, capable of projecting an uncomplicated masculine strength underscored by a wry sense of humor. This is very evident from the countless Western heroes Selleck got to play on Television: from “The Shadow Riders” to “Crossfire Trail.” All these films were pure, unpretentious, well-made traditional Westerns with Selleck playing the pure Western hero- sometimes even more pure and idealistic than even John Wayne; Duke (sometimes) had the habit of playing angry social outcasts Though as good as Ford was, Selleck would have really killed it as Indy. Throughout his career, Selleck repeatedly tried to strike it big in movies, but he never achieved the success he deserved- even though he attempted movies in every genre and had great success with a family comedy like “Three Men and a Baby.”
The 1990 Western film, “Quigley Down Under,” is perhaps the best film Selleck ever made; at least the one that gave him star treatment as a pure, macho traditional hero in an action-packed Western\adventure. The film was in development since the 1970s, and it was originally designed as a star-vehicle for (first) Steve McQueen , and then (after McQueen’s death) Clint Eastwood and Harrison Ford (yep! that man again, and just to give a better idea as to how much Selleck and Ford’s destinies are intertwined, Selleck was also (first) offered the lead role in “Witness,” for which Harrison Ford would get an Oscar nomination). Finally, “Quigley” landed in Selleck’s lap. It seemed destined, because the character of ‘Mathew Quigley’ is the definitive Tom Selleck role in a lot of ways. Quigley is a masculine, straight arrow, who is extremely proficient in long range shooting using his trademark Shiloh Sharps 1874 Long Range rifle (though it’s not specifically stated in the film, some sources state that the the film is set in the 1860s, which would have made this gun anachronistic for the period. We have to imagine that the story takes place in the 1880s). The rifle, with a 34″ barrel, is converted to fire a .45-110 metallic cartridge with a 540 grain paper-patch bullet. It has double set triggers, and is fitted with a ladder-elevated Vernier peep sight and a Globe front sight. This innovative & sizeable rifle gets as much star treatment as Selleck himself; and throughout the film the rifle is treated almost like Indiana Jones’ ‘whip & hat’- Quigley never loses possession of the rifle under any circumstance, except for the all important climax, where he proves that he’s bigger than the ‘weapon.’
Quigley is accurate to up to almost 900 yards with the rifle, and it’s for this long-range shooting skill that wealthy British rancher, Elliot Marston (Alan Rickman) hires him out to Australia. Australia, at the time, was under British rule, and the British were in the process of conquering the continent by violently pacifying the native aboriginal tribes. Quigley is a cowboy & buffalo hunter from Wyoming, and he’s carrying the guilt of being part of the apparatus that drove out the native American tribes from their homeland. So, when he answered Marston’s advertisement he was under the impression that Marston was hiring him to kill wild dogs, but when (upon reaching Marston’s ‘station’) he realizes that Marston wants him to kill the aborigines, he’s outraged; so outraged that he throws Marston out of his own house. But to Quigley’s surprise, Marston’s aboriginal manservant knocks him out. Marston’s thugs brutally beats up Quigley and dumps him in the Outback to die. Dumped alongside Quigley (in the desert wilderness) is a mad American woman named Crazy Cora(Laura San Giacomo), whom Quigley had earlier saved from Marston’s thugs. Quigley and Cora are saved from the desert by the aborigines who nurses them back to life; and Quigley repay their debt by killing many of Marston’s men when they come to kill the tribesmen. Leaving Cora with the tribe, Quigley sets out to track down Marston. From then on, the film follows the typical Revenge-Western template, with Quigley getting closer and closer to Marston, cutting down every one of the henchmen that Marston sends against him. The film ends with a typical Western shootout, where Quigley takes down Marston and two of his men with just the Colt .45 revolver, and without the help of his trademark Sharps rifle, proving once and for all that it was his skill rather than the rifle that made him invincible.
The film’s main antagonist, Marston, is played by Alan Rickman. This film came between two of his most iconic and colorful performances: the terrorist, Hans Gruber in “Die Hard” and Sheriff of Nottingham in “Robin hood: Prince of Thieves.” Marston lies somewhere in between these two villains: polished, hypocritical and evil, but not that funny and cartoonish. As Marston, Rickman chews scenery with gusto , but he’s not as hyperbolic and theatrical as his Sheriff of Nottingham. But the general idea inherent in his casting (and the characterization of the bad guy) is the same as the other two films: to have an upper-class, privileged, egomaniacal antagonist for the earthy, roughhewn, working-class hero to take down. Rickman’s colorful take on his character forms a perfect foil to Selleck’s straight-forward, old-fashioned hero. Marston is not only a man driven by his race and class privileges, but also a man who appreciates the art of killing. He admires Quigley’s skill with the gun and disdain his own men, who are no match for Quigley. Throughout the film Marston and Quigley argue about guns. Quigley prefers rifles while Marston fancies himself as a Western gunslinger. But some of the roughness of his villainy is blunted by, what Roger Ebert described as, “the Fallacy of the Talking Killer.” Every time Marston has Quigley under his grip, instead of just killing him and be done with it, Marston continues to lecture him, have him beaten and thrown in the desert, and in the climax, indulges in some juvenile test of manhood with him- agreed, it’s the continuation of the ‘gun-argument’ they were having throughout the film, and it portrays the extend of Marston’s delusions, but in its execution it just comes across as preposterous. It also doesn’t help Marston’s characterization that the film has a very thin storyline: once Quigley is beaten and left to die, there’s nothing more for Marston to do than to wait for Quigley to return (to take revenge); he’s also absent for long stretches in the second half, as the film follows Quigley and Cora’s journey through the outback.
But the reason why the film works so well is thanks to the casting of Tom Selleck. Right from the moment he’s seen getting off the boat, with his saddlebags on his shoulder and Sharps rifle in hand, he commands our attention. Selleck looks every bit the frontiersman, with his ‘Buffalo Bill’ facial hair and dressed in ‘Tom Horn’ style chaps, suspenders, and a ten-gallon Stetson. The fistfight that erupts on the docks between Quigley and Marston’s henchmen over Cora – with its mixture of brutality and comedy – perfectly sets up the larger-than-life, heroic nature of Quigley and the gritty yet fun mood of the film. In his walk, talk and behavior, Selleck gives the character a real sense of nobility that help us easily identify with this simple, down-to-earth yet flawless mythical hero. In real life, Selleck was a man of great integrity and moral fiber: he refused to heed people’s advise that he should crash his car, get injured, and get himself out of the “Magnum P I” contract to do “Raiders”; that was what Steve McQueen had done to get himself out of “Wanted: Dead or Alive” and get into “The Magnificent Seven.” Selleck’s reasoning was that if he ever did something unethical like that to bag a plum movie role he could never look his mother and father in the eye; imagine a Hollywood film actor ever reasoning like that. Yep! this is a very old-fashioned gentleman of integrity, and you could see why he was perfect for playing someone like Quigley who possessed the same old-world values. Apart from that Selleck was also on the board of directors of the NRA (National Rifle Association); and after Charlton Heston stepped down from his role as an NRA spokesman in 2003, Selleck succeeded him (He ultimately resigned from the board in 2018). That would sit perfectly with Quigley’s proficiency with innovative rifles & guns. Selleck donated the Sharps rifle he used in the film (along with six other firearms from his other films) to the NRA. The firearms are now part of the NRA’s exhibit.
The director of the film is Simon Wincer, an Australian, who’s most famous for the Western TV series, “Lonesome Dove.” His notable films include the 1996 film adaptation of “The Phantom” and the 1987 Australian World War I film, “The Lighthorsemen,” which i like a lot. Wincer is really good at shooting landscapes and choreographing great action sequences (particularly involving horses), and both these skills (which is very necessary for making a Western) are very visible in this film. This is an extremely good looking film, with (Mad Max) cinematographer David Eggby capturing the rugged wilderness of the outback in all its majestic, ominous beauty. The color schemes are all orange\brown\red, very earthy, and we feel both the beauty of the landscape as well as its harshness. Wincer has concentrated on making a very traditional Western in a very traditional way; there are no psychological issues being probed here, nor is there an attempt to create an allegory for contemporary socio-political situation , as is the case with many Post-Vietnam Westerns. This is genre filmmaking at its purest, and it should be appreciated as what it is; the overall predictably of the narrative and the archetypal nature of the events and characters depicted in the film is on account of that; Instead of the American Southwest, we get Western Australia; Instead of the U.S. Cavalry, we have the British redcoats; instead of the belligerent Native red Indian tribes, we get the (largely peaceful) Aborigines.
Other Western genre ingredients are also present in abundance. There are at least half-a-dozen gunfights, and they are all superbly choreographed, especially the ones involving Quigley and Marston’s henchmen in the outback; where Quigley presents a good exhibition of the capabilities of the Sharps rifle. Another thrilling scene that looks straight out of a horror film is where Cora and an aboriginal child are attacked by wild dogs in the desert. We also get the necessary punchlines – “I said, I never had much use for one, never said I didn’t know how to use it.” delivered by Quigley after gunning down Marston in the climax being the most famous. We also get the marginalized woman character, but here Cora is pushed more to the front and center of the film’s narrative; forming a sort of ‘buddy’ relationship with Quigley, always referring to him (mistakenly) as “Roy.”; their portions resemble more of a ‘buddy-comedy.’ Wincer does try to delve deeper into the more darker aspects of the story, especially the genocide of the aborigines- in a truly shocking scene where we find white men riding horses pushing a bunch of native kids off a steep cliff- but those moments are rather brief, and these serious issues more or less remain in the background. The emphasis here is to make a fun, brisk, action-packed, handsome-looking genre piece, and except for some of the portions in the second half where the narration seems to drag, and a rather underwhelming climax, Wincer succeeds in delivering what he set out to do. Wincer would go on to make two more Westerns with Selleck: “Crossfire Trail” and “Monte Walsh.”
2 thoughts on “Quigley Down Under: Tom Selleck is perfectly cast as the sturdy, morally-upright cowboy-hero opposite Alan Rickman’s colorful villain in this terrific Outback Western”
Perfectly described ! Everything I ever thought of this film, you put to type. You are an excellent descriptor. I will add that this film is staggeringly underrated.
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Thanks Anthony. Yeah, it’s an extremely well made film