The Oxford reference book Australian Film 1978-1994 bluntly informs us that there are "no real reasons" for the success of the Paul Hogan vehicle Crocodile Dundee back in 1986 – it "simply got lucky".
How true is this? From the box-offices of Australia and America to the pages of Art & Text and the proclamations of political historian Donald Horne, the film was celebrated on its release as a milestone, a breakthrough, a testament to our national spirit. How does it stand up twelve years on?
In 1986 – coming at the end of our cinema's veritable Dark Years of the10BA era – Crocodile Dundee seemed like a spectacularly colourful, funny, bustling entertainment. Retrospectively it looks rather less grand, more homely and fumbling.
As heretical as it may sound, the film's American distributor showed good sense in shortening its outback section, with its insipid musical score, telemovie-style visual flatness and occasionally lame jokes.
As soon as Mick Dundee (Hogan) reaches the urban jungle of New York, however, the film begins to shine. Mick is the archetypal Innocent Abroad, and the movie gets great mileage from the cultural crossed-wires created by his manners, assumptions and responses. Knives, toilets, greetings, table etiquette – all become the targets of a rich, supple, infectious humour.
Hogan and his collaborators showed exceptional canniness in blending high-key, feel-good elements of American mainstream cinema – romance, intrigue, travel, heroic optimism – with the laconic wryness of a venerable Australian sensibility.
One of the film's constant delights – particularly for a local crowd – is its sarcastic undermining of great Aussie mythologies: Dundee plays up his bushman image for the tourists, while his Aboriginal mate (David Gulpilil) effortlessly blends tribal ritual with urban, technological sophistication.
One reason that Crocodile Dundee's success can seem like a lucky fluke today is that its winning formula proved all too fragile. Hogan's screen persona progressively withered in its appeal over such movies as Almost an Angel (1990), Lightning Jack (1994) and Flipper (1996). Crocodile Dundee II (1988) was an uninspired, mechanical sequel. And Yahoo Serious's shot at creating another Dundee-type and sending him Stateside in Reckless Kelly (1993) was just plain weird.
Nonetheless, the original Crocodile Dundee gives indelible life to a rousing fantasy of Australia taking over the world – on our own terms. This is borne out not only by its international success, but also by an unforgettable image in its final scene: Mick walking nonchalantly on the heads of a multicultural bunch of New Yorkers in a crowded subway as he makes his way over to Sue (Linda Kozlowski), his American beloved.
second sequel: Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles
MORE Faiman: Driving Me Crazy
© Adrian Martin January 1998