Welcome to Missed Connections, a weekly column where Rob Hunter gets to highlight films that are little known and/or unfairly maligned. He’ll be shining a light in two directions: he hopes to introduce you to movies you’ve never seen and possibly never heard of, and he’ll attempt to defend films that history, critical consensus, and maybe even your own memories haven’t been very kind to. This week’s pick is the 1985 movie Fortress.
HBO is a big player in the world of original programming, and they have been for some time. Their greatest strength is with their various series — Game of Thrones, Togetherness — but they also create original films, which on occasion manage to be equally memorable. One of the earliest, and still one of my favorites, of these originals, is an Australian co-production from the mid-’80s called Fortress. The film was co-financed by and premiered on HBO, where I must have watched it dozens of times, and looking back this tale of survival and slaughter was probably one of my first exposures to the terror-filled land of Australia (alongside The Road Warrior and Crocodile Dundee, of course).
The film opens with dawn settling across a rural farm. There’s a beauty to the stillness, but it feels as if the early morning mist is hiding something evil. Sally (Rachel Ward) is a British schoolteacher staying with the family of one of her students, Sid (Sean Garlick). We first meet him keeping an eye out for a fox that’s been ravaging their hen-house, and it’s no mistake that we’re already inundated with animals in the cross-hairs. A dead squirrel and a song about a pig being hit by a car add to the mix, and soon the chickens will come home to roost on this particular theme. “Animals are not put on this earth expressly to be mutilated and spat on by capricious young boys,” says Sally, but there are exceptions to every rule.
Shortly after Sally and her small class gather in their remote schoolhouse for the day’s lessons a quartet of armed men appear outside. Each man wears a mask — a duck (played by ubiquitous Aussie actor Vernon Wells), a cat, a mouse, and their especially aggressive leader, Father Christmas — and they quickly gather their hostages into a van and head deeper into the Outback. Their willingness to hurt children is clear, as is the way two of them begin ogling the most fully developed of the female students, so escape becomes Sally’s priority immediately after she and the kids are locked away in a cave.
Fortress is a tale of survival against threats both human and otherwise, but its main theme is about finding the strength in yourself to do what’s necessary – and sometimes what’s necessary is brutal violence. Everett De Roche’s script, from Gabrielle Lord’s novel, finds suspense in the threat of what these men might and most likely will do to Sally and the kids. A newer film would be tempted to up their ages and allow some acts of readily visible cruelty against them, but here the insinuation against these children, some as young as six or seven, is enough to justify the ferocity of their response.
They find an underground pool of water in the cave that exits out near an opening, but reaching the other side requires a not-brief-enough swim without air holes. It’s a tense sequence, one director Arch Nicholson plays well both as a nerve-wracking experience but also as an opportunity for the previously bickering kids to work together. The older help the younger, and one even offers kindness towards the bully of the group, Derek (Robin Mason), who it turns out can’t swim. It’s one more link in the chain of violence and accomplishment currently being forged between them, but the trouble is only beginning once they escape into the sunlight.
As a young teen I appreciated the swim scene as an opportunity to do some of my own ogling — I mean, it’s Rachel Ward, come on — but repeat viewings made me more aware of the film’s subtler strengths. Chief among them is the group’s shift from occasionally obnoxious and dumb victims to proactive fighters. The kids annoy early on, and Sally’s decisions leave a lot to be desired as they typically leave them in worse-off shape. She actually breaks down at one point saying “I’ve done too many wrong things already,” but with the help of Sid and the others she finds a way to turn it around. It’s a rare acknowledgment and ownership of bad choices, and it paves the way for the redemption to come.
Instead of trying to escape their pursuers, they decide to fight back.
The fortress of the title refers equally to the defensive stance they take and the physical location where they establish their last stand. It’s a rocky high-ground allowing them a view of their surroundings, and where fight films give viewers a montage of our protagonist training for the big match here we see Sally and the kids setting deadly traps and sharpening sticks.
The film’s mostly restrained violence and bloodletting let loose here as the remaining bad guys make their moves including a haunting chase with one of the killers mocking the group’s calls for one of their own. One falls into a spike-filled pit, and the image of his body slowly descending as the spikes rise from his chest has stuck with me for decades. It’s still a great practical effect, but more than that it’s an effective demise. The crowning achievement though, and the sequence that more than any other probably kept it unavailable on DVD for so long, comes as Father Christmas comes face to face with his bloodthirsty victims-to-be. In a sequence straight out of Lord of the Flies, Sally and the kids assault the man in a slow-motion celebration of stabbing, slashing, and screaming, and it’s an earned yet animalistic display capturing what these people have become.
While technically a made-for-TV movie, one released theatrically the following year in Australia, Fortress remains an effective portrait of survival and increasing brutality. The ending returns to the ominous feeling from the beginning, but this time it’s less about fearing what’s to come and more about respecting the fears that have been conquered. We’re left with a quiet shot of a schoolhouse devoid of people but bursting with heart, and it’s a wonderfully disturbing image that leaves viewers grinning with approval.