This year marks the 40th anniversary of the release of perhaps the most 1980s Queensland film ever made.

Few Aussie movies have copped it more than The Coolangatta Gold. Ever since it hit cinemas in 1984, the film has been a by-word for the excesses of the 10BA era with its glitz, unabashed commercialism, pointless expenditure, box-office fizzle and leg warmers.  I would, however, argue that The Coolangatta Gold is much better than its reputation suggests.

The movie was written by Peter Schreck and directed by Igor Auzins, who had just made a successful big-screen adaption of We of the Never Never (1982) a movie every grandmother in the country went to see. The two men decided to collaborate again, this time on a contemporary sports romance set in the world of Ironman competitions which were then in the zeitgeist due to the popularity of three-times Australian Open Ironman winner, Nutri Grain spokesman and future property tycoon Grant Kenny. This was a promising idea, and Schreck had the even better notion of adapting the Biblical Cain and Abel story, making it about Joe, a father of two iron men, who prefers his eldest son, Adam, causing the younger, Steve, to stew in resentment.

Schreck’s script attracted the interest of Michael Edgley, a promoter then flying high on the success of The Man from Snowy River (1982), who liked the idea of another crowd-pleasing Aussie adventure-drama-romance. The story was relocated from its original setting, Bondi, to the Gold Coast, and a specific race was invented for the film, The Coolangatta Gold. Yep, that’s right: the iconic race was created for the movie, not the other way around.

The roles of the brothers went to relative unknowns – Colin Friels (Adam) and Joss McWilliam (Steve). The experienced-but-not-that-famous Robyn Nevin and Nick Tate played their parents, while the famous-but-not-that-experienced Grant Kenny played Grant Kenny, whose father Hayden, in the story, beat Joe back in 1960, fuelling the latter’s Mama Rose-style ambition for Adam. The female lead, ballet dancer Kerry, went to ballet dancer Josephine Smulders.

Somewhere along the way things got silly. The budget blew out north of $6 million, needlessly – the art department built an entire nightclub set (as in, the whole nightclub) and an entire house (as in, the whole house) along with ballet and karate studios, none of it that essential to story. Bill Conti (Rocky) agreed to write the score which seemed a coup at the time, but it isn’t much of a score. Tate, normally a fine actor (he was brilliant in The Devil’s Playground), was allowed, possibly encouraged to overact as Joe. Most egregiously, the script was constantly rewritten. The basic dramatic structure remained but there were too many subplots that weren’t developed (Steve managing a rock band, doing karate) and story threads with fantastic potential were barely used at all (Joe’s rivalry with Hayden Kenny). Instead, there was a surfeit of scenes with no drama (characters watching a band perform, or people dance) or repeatedly hitting the same note (Joe yells at Steve, Steve stands up to Joe).

Yet there is still, genuinely, much to admire about The Coolangatta Gold. It looks sumptuous – the big screen photography, lush colours, Leni Riefenstahl-esque depiction of athleticism – and is superbly edited. Friels is excellent as the favoured son who doesn’t want to be favoured; Joss McWilliam’s soulful sad boy eyes are used to good effect. Josephine Smulders copped a lot of criticism, and, yes, she can’t handle too much dialogue, but she seems like a nice person, moves wonderfully (Auzins keeps her moving a lot) and the scene where Kerry seduces Steve is quite hot. Schreck’s solution as to who wins the race is satisfying. There’s an appearance by Rob Brough and other locals.

Most of all, the primeval heart of the film never loses its power – the ache of a son who hates his father but also wants his respect, the uncertainty of the favoured son, the damage of toxic masculinity … these are all things ignored, mostly, by snotty southern critics, who refused (or were unable) to see what was valuable in the movie.

On a purely sociological level, The Coolangatta Gold captures a time and a place in Australia’s history – the melanoma-friendly, Anglo-centric, patriarchal, testosterone-fuelled, beach culture of the early 80s, when nippers swarmed over dunes on weekends lunging at plastic sticks, shorts were so tiny they looked like they would induce a hernia, transistor radios blared on the dunes, women were expected to sit on towels and make dinner, noxious coaches bullied their charges, and ballet companies were well funded.

Incidentally, the film made over $1 million at the local box office, which was disappointing but not dreadful. It didn’t travel overseas but sports movies rarely do, especially without stars. And The Coolangatta Gold has had a legacy – it remains well known among buffs, the race is still happening, it was immortalised on The Late Show as The Bermagui Bronze. And I maintain the principal reason for that is not anything campy, but its genuinely compelling central dramatic core. So there.

Anyway, happy 40th, The Coolangatta Gold!




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