‘ IT is full of surprises, and adventures, and incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened.’’ So wrote Mark Twain of Australian history. He would have loved Cliff Young, our most unlikely sports hero, a runner who trained in gumboots and possessed a sly farmer’s wit.
And, to paraphrase the great American writer, Young’s story is so improbable it does not read like history but like the most beautiful of lies.
If you were around in the early 1980s you might recall Young, or Cliffy as he’s called in this fine, appropriately modest feature produced for the ABC by Clock End Films. Directed by Dean Murphy ( Charlie & Boots, Strange Bedfellows) with Nigel Odell ( Strange Bedfellows, Long Weekend) as producer, Cliffy was written by Robert B. Taylor ( Muggers).
And it works a treat, the tale of a bloke his mates call ‘‘ a decrepit old bastard’’ and ‘‘ the world’s worst runner’’ who, accompanied by a ramshackle entourage, beats the world’s best while the nation watches incredulously.
Kevin Harrington, one of our enduring veteran actors, so memorable as Kevin Findlay in SeaChange and more recently as underworld heavy Lewis Moran in Underbelly, plays Young. It’s a performance of utter authenticity. Harrington practically inhabits the craggy Cliffy, carrying himself with a look of bright astonishment as the world changes around his oddly ethereal self.
In 1983 Young, a 61-year-old man in overalls and cheap running shoes — the first he had ever owned — joined the throng of young men preparing to tackle one of the world’s most gruelling ultra-marathons, the 875km endurance race from Sydney to Melbourne. It was billed as a race between Australia’s two largest cities. It was, in fact, a race between what were then Australia’s two largest shopping centres: Westfield Parramatta, in Sydney, and Westfield Doncaster, in Melbourne.
To everyone’s shock, the scruffy old bloke, an impecunious potato farmer from a strug- gling Beech Forest property outside Colac in rural Victoria, wasn’t a spectator. He picked up his race number and hesitantly joined the other runners. Somehow he had inveigled himself into the competition after being told he was crazy and there was no way he could manage the distance.
When the race started, the pros quickly left Cliffy behind. The crowds and television audience were entertained because Cliffy didn’t even run properly; he appeared to shuffle. He staggered forward awkwardly but relentlessly, his back straight, arms dangling by his side, his feet covering the ground like a metronome’s tick. Many feared for the old farmer’s safety.
All the professional athletes knew it took about a week to finish the race. Even then, they had to run about 18 hours a day and sleep the remaining six. But Cliffy kept shuffling through the night, eventually leaving the professionals behind. By the third night it was apparent that something extraordinary was about to happen. He stopped only to eat and for bathroom breaks. Leaving Sydney as a nobody, he arrived in Melbourne a celebrity. The journey took him five days, 15 hours and a few minutes, cutting almost two days off the record for any previous run between Sydney and Melbourne.
Set against the backdrop of the early 80s, Murphy’s movie, shot largely around AlburyWodonga, colourfully retraces Young’s journey, from his training in gumboots in cow paddocks,to the six-day period of the ultramarathon, until Cliffy emerges as Australia’s most improbable, if short-lived, national hero.
And Murphy wittily covers the way Young quickly becomes a target for ruthless advertising entrepreneurs when he finds himself away from his family and new sweetheart, Mary, the local girl many years younger that he is.
She’s played by Krew Boylan, a young actress with a luminous presence who somehow manages to make her attraction to the weatherbeaten, virginal, stuttering, running hero not only credible but mesmerising. She’s a fine talent with a gift for understatement. Mary is an outsider, too, in the rural community. She’s a runner herself, who gets to know Cliffy as he shuffles his way along the lonely bush tracks in the harsh Otway Ranges near Colac, to the affectionate gibes of the tradies in their utes.
Roy Billing is Wally, Young’s initially reluctant trainer, a tough nut gone to seed and a bit lost to the grog, who hasn’t trained a decent runner in years. Billing brings his hangdog lugubriousness to the role, good as a teller of tall stories, a bit of a trickster. And there’s sturdy support from Anne Tenney as Eunice, Young’s supportive salt-of-the-earth sister; Joan Sydney, as his mum; and Martin Sacks, as his brother Sid. Gyton Grantley breezes through the fictitious character of Powell, the race organiser, the least wellwritten role, playing the almost cartoon figure with maybe just a bit too much relish.
And the clever Stephen Curry has to battle a little too with the framing character of a TV journalist called Griffin, who provides a running — often in the literal sense — commentary of the race. There’s not much to work with, but the resourceful Curry edges in telling double takes and bits of eyebrow acting to lighten what in other hands might have been a rather perfunctory performance.
Harrington is brilliant. He gives
Cliffy a personal style that’s direct and laconic, seemingly so homespun and artless, but at times vivid, flexible and imaginative. ‘‘ Do you run a bit?’’ a mate asks him at the start of the film. ‘‘ Yeah,’’ he answers. ‘‘ Where do you run to?’’ Cliffy pauses, looks at him. where I’m going.’’
What this low-budget production gets right is texture, that density in the relationships between the characters, the solidness of the setting, and a topography you can feel in the soles of your feet. In fact, you watch this film with aching feet every moment Cliffy is on that road. When we are out there with him, the camera tracks ahead, possibly on the back of a truck, clinging to that lonely figure, the landscape flattened out around him, seeming to bob with him in sympathy.
Harrington’s Young is like something out of Henry Lawson and, like the Drover’s Wife Cliffy lives close to the earth, battling drought and flood, a man living out a life determined almost wholly by the bush, a battler trying to adapt himself to the demands of the land. He keeps running, he says at one point, to stop death from catching him. He has vitality, pluck and endurance, which are no help to him at all when the advertising agencies pounce and begin to exploit him.
An amusing but telling scene occurs halfway through the race when an exhausted Young, having been filmed by the news crew along the way eating a certain brand of tinned fruit, is ambushed by an executive in a suit. As the race finishes he looks up to see a large hoarding advertising the product.
Murphy and his director of photography, Roger Lanser, tell Young’s story simply with wide tableau shots, effective without calling attention to themselves, and simple tracking sequences. They give the actors space and let the performances develop organically without the need for incessant close-ups of different size, so often the way dialogue is filmed these days.
It is a likable, amusing movie; the comic touches are quietly realised and Murphy resists
‘‘ That depends
Kevin Harrington as Cliffy, above and right; far right, Cliff Young in 1983