17 Quigley Down Under (1990)

An Analysis of Difference Power Discrimination in the Film Quigley Down Under


Our film opens with a quaint little tune that will serve as the theme of the film. The score, composed by Basil Poledouris, aligns itself with similar stylings to compositions by the likes of Elmer Bernstein and Aaron Copland. As this non-diegetic music saunters through the opening credits and glimpses of cowboy-clad Tom Selleck packs for his journey to the great outback. These opening shots offer a glimpse of the bygone era. The scene of the 1880s time period as the protagonist is about to set off toward an adventure, building a perfect foundation for this western classic. In this Wild West tale in the outback, I will be looking at three main DPD issues Classical Hollywood protagonists, women’s issues, and racial relations. There are Irish, British, American, and Aboriginal people featured in this film. The variety of national and ethnic backgrounds here brings us to an interesting concept known as “diaspora”.


Diaspora refers to people of groups of people dispersing from their motherlands. Diaspora therefore has a unique relation to colonialism. As nations expanded to find new worlds to claim, trade with, or allocate a labor force from people of many differing races, ethnicities, and nationalities were finding themselves encountering one another. Diversity and racism both become more facilitated with such expansive travel. In this film, there are several demographics of characters. The story features British, Irish, American, and Native Australian people.


Screen snip of panoramic scene with a downward camera angle overlooking the first time the Irish workers, the British soldiers, and Quigley
Screen snip of panoramic scene with a downward camera angle overlooking the first time the Irish workers, the British soldiers, and Quigley all in one scene together. 10:52


Tensions between Quigley (American), the Irish, and the British characters are evident throughout the film. At 10:35, after a fight between Quigley and the Irishmen in the beginning of the film, the British Royal Army appears. This new common enemy provides a brief unification of the Irish workers and Quigley as they proceed to insult the British forces. Again at 22:53 tensions are demonstrated with deserters of the British Army referring to an Irish man as “convict scum” and emphasizing Australia’s troublesome history. The British army itself is displayed as a caricature of British imperials. The Irish are advertised as undesirables good for cheap labor. And the aborigines are either killed or kept as slaves or servants around the homestead of the antagonist. The film has the main villain, Marston, comparing the Aborigines to Native Americans in a dinner conversation. Marston explains to Quigley that the Native Americans have no word for “wheel” and that the United States is similar to Australia in that European settlers both “…brought civilization to the stone age”. He continues to state that the greatest failure of the expanse into Australia is the failure thus far to “…domesticate the most backward people in the world”. All of this dialogue takes place in the presence of an Aboriginal house servant. This scene begins with mellow motivates camera movement before a shot of Quigley seated opposite Marston on a long table. The depth of field has Quigley in focus and seems to symbolize how far away the ideals of these two men are. Subsequent editing gets choppier as the shots cut between the two men. In the words of Jef Burnham in his review of the film “What’s a righteous cowboy to do in the face of such an offer? Why, punch your employer through a window and seek vigilante justice against his men on the behalf of the oppressed Aborigines, of course!” And it is, in fact, shortly after this sequence that Quigley’s disapproval with Marston’s racist views is concrete as he enters a physical altercation with Marston. With a current understanding of American history, it is interesting to note that an American character winds up battling against racism all the way on the other side of the world, where a British man is the racist villain.


Although it may seem that the film is/was attempting to be progressive, it is worth acknowledging that the anti-racist American was sent off to another country with a non-American boogie man. There are several layers of social dynamics between the characters in this film. Quigley seems to be the only one who gets off the hook as the All-American Hollywood hero. The aborigines are hunted or used as slaves, the British are the scapegoats, and the Irish are the criminal workers. These dynamics are not emphasized to a very high extent throughout the movie. However, being aware of the historical context prior to watching the film does make for a bit of a different viewing experience. In Diasporas of Australian Cinema Catherine Simpson makes a reference to Australia’s prison past and how it contributes to hostility towards outsiders. “While Hage mainly refers to Australia’s post-9/11 society in this context, it also helps to explain the unfavorable portrayal of German migrants in both World War I and World War II. Nourry adds that Australia’s perception of the ‘other’ as a threat can partly be explained via the Australian ‘fantasy of persecution’ that has its origin in the nation’s convict past in which an ‘entire class of white British people…had been denied white Western status”. Contextual knowledge puts some light on the situation of the time and place the film is set in. However, it does feel as though there was an opportunity missed to put more emphasis on realism. As opposed to a historically accurate representation, this movie seems to have had a greater focus on a good American story.


With the context of the social dynamic set, the spotlight falls on our American protagonist. Matthew Quigley is played by Tom Selleck. Quigley is just full of all the great qualities that Hollywood’s audiences have come to know and love. He is a gentleman to the meek but assertive to the troublemakers 2:30. He is protective of women 4:20. He is capable of defending himself and others and isn’t afraid of standing up to the town rabble 5:30. He is incredibly knowledgeable and skilled at his craft, which happens to be weapon related 18:10. He has a good sense of southern hospitality and his presence warrants respect as in the scene at 1:10:00 where his heroic stance is acknowledged. His presence is a cool, calm demeanor and he doesn’t seem to ever lose his self-composure. In his review of the film, Rodger Edbert writes that Selleck is “…an actor who with his height, authority and natural ease might have been a major Western star in the old days”.


Screen snip of Quigley and Cora looking out upon the desert
Screen snip of Quigley and Cora looking out upon the desert as the Aboriginal people leave. This shot it moments before Quigley’s first heroic act of defending the aborigines. The shot is dim in the shade of the cave, foreshadowing the tragic event and the upward camera angle gives a boost to Quigley’s apparent stature next to Cora. 51:16


An American to be idolized for certain. A tip of the hat is given to the glamor of America, the American dream, and the land of opportunity when a salesman overhears that Quigley is from America.  This brief shot takes place at 3:40 and makes it known that Quigley’s homeland alone makes him a desirable customer. This character fits the bill of a typical straight, white, male protagonist that Classical Hollywood is known for. There are a few moments, however, where this pattern is broken (or at least poked fun at). From the onset of their meeting, Crazy Cora attaches to Quigley. She mistakes him for, or willingly imagines him to be, her ex-husband, Roy. Occasionally she will solicit sexual encounters with Quigley, which he does not take her up on. Quigley’s first opposition to this offering is at 14:50. Later, after falling for his quirky admirer, Quigley expresses that, while he is willing to be involved with Cora, he will not do so until she has convinced him that she is aware of who he really is and let go of the notion that he is Roy. This scene takes place at 56:00 and shows that Quigley may be unwilling to involve himself with Cora if he feels as though her genuine consent is compromised. This is a nice thematic choice as it demonstrates a man controlling himself, sexually, for the sake of a woman’s wellbeing, and possibly his own if Crazy Cora is crazy enough. Another fun gesture at the typical stern, straight, male protagonist is the scene at 1:24:00 when Quigley tells Cora that he tried on a dress for her in town. This is fun in several ways. One is that there is a, albeit lighthearted, reference to crossdressing. It is not groundbreaking but little moments like these eventually make way for more substantial social progress. However, one of Quigley’s most notable traits is that when Cora speaks, he listens to her. There are several times in this film where he demonstrates that he was listening to her. One example is at 1:31:08 when Quigley turns around to look at Cora on his way out. After confiding in him her traumatic experience and how Roy left her and never looked back, Quigley remembered to turn back and look at her. This is a nice touch of emotional intelligence on Quigley’s part. These are great attributes to see in a protagonist but Quigley Down Under still has its share of clichés as well. Namely, its action sequences demonstrate Quigley’s ability to really handle a tough situation. Some scenes like this are the ones at 52:20 and 1:37:00 which show his ability to shoot and ride a horse under stress. But one of Quigley’s greatest assets is his ability to remain intact. After every fight, every beat down, every near death experience Quigley always comes out on top. Sometimes a little worse for wear but always in good enough condition to carry on and take care of the task at hand. The pinnacle of this durability is at 1:40:00. In the midst of handling Marston’s men, Quigley takes a bullet to the leg, gets kicked in the face, and is dragged behind a horse. He is covered in blood, sweat and dirt. He looks exhausted right up until the moment when he kills Marston and his two remaining men. In the last scene, finalizing the cliché tropes, Quigley finally gets the girl. She acknowledges him as Matthew Quigley instead of Roy. The film ends on their kiss and the scene fades out with the opening theme playing.


Cora’s relation to Quigley is an interesting one. Cora is a very fun character. She is emotional, crazy, tough, smart, sexually comfortable, and she is loyal. Some of her characteristics are ones commonly seen in female characters like her motherly nurturing. Others deviate from standard female roles as we, in society, expect them. One example of this is when she picks up the guns and fires on the wild dogs attacking her and the baby at 1:14:04. A wonderful thing about Cora is that her character is a very multifaceted one. Blogger and author Jennifer Ellis summarizes the typical female archetypes into 9 categories. The Amazon, the father’s daughter, the nurturer, the matriarch, the plucky girl, the seductress, the free spirit, the troubled teen, and the survivor. The Amazon is the powerful feminine warrior. The father’s daughter is more of an introverted intellectual. The nurturer is defined as the one who cares for others. The matriarch is a staunch leader. The plucky girl is a positive minded team player. The seductress is, obviously a sexual character, and has the connotation of being an obstacle more than anything else. The troubled teen is often juvenile, not in control but usually in danger. And, last but not lease, the survivor. The survivor is the one who will do whatever it takes to “make it”. These archetypes that Jennifer Ellis lays out are fascinating to look at and compare to Crazy Cora. Cora does not fall into any of these categories neatly. At 3:52 Cora is first seen being accosted by a group of men and fighting back. Could she be the troubled teen here? At 14:50 Cora is openly trying to have sex with Quigley in the camp. Is she a seductress? 1:13:00 has her facing off against wild dingos, reliving and overcoming past trauma. Is she a survivor? The beauty of Cora is that she is a well-rounded character that was never meant to be stifled by a box. Her character is not limited by any one particular descriptor. She is a fighter, a lover, and a nurturer all wrapped up in one, and the transitions are so humanized that they are seamless. In her fight against the men in town at 3:53 she is screaming and fighting. She bites, scratches, and delivers an emasculating low blow to her attackers. While at 53:00 she is the emotional outlet of the scene where the mourning for the dead may occur. At 1:05:00 she takes on an orphaned baby and acts as the caregiver before returning the child to another group of Aboriginal people. At 36:10 as she and Quigley are wandering through the desert, she stops him and takes some of the burden to carry. She really is a team player and always ready to help out when someone needs a hand. In the article The Taming of the Shrew, Manus discusses how “…no matter what type of archetype you might be writing, that women aren’t that ONE type at all times. It’s by blending the archetypes in interesting ways that you create new types of characters. Show range in your characters, and in your writing, as long as the blend connects well with your plot”.


The writing for Cora does this extremely well.  Manus also discusses the main 4 archetypes that are overused when writing a female character. These being the rape victim; which seems to be condescending in its frequency, the clumsy sweetheart; if one were to put Cora into one box then this would be it. She is accident prone but likable although her character seems to have a myriad of other traits that offset this. The remaining 2 are Obsessed with Success; this archetype is usually overdone and gives the character a man hating feel and subconsciously makes a woman’s worth only relevant in comparison to men’s, and finally Desperate; the hopeless romantic who behaves in a brainless manner in order to find true love. Cora also sits very close to this archetype but her attention to “Roy” is not at the expense of logic and her ability to evaluate situations. She also seems to be in pursuit of forgiveness and validation just as much as love and that draws her to “Roy”. Upon seeing Quigley for the first time, Cora rushes to him. As she embraces him, the level of framing shows their comparative heights. This implies the gender roles that these two will adopt for one another later in the film. Clichés aside, the two do have a chemistry about them. In a cave, hiding from the sun, Cora and Quigley are talking about how to get supplies for themselves and the baby when Quigley asks her what her opinion of the situation is. She cannot help but laugh before saying “You’re the only man on this continent that would ask me what I think”. This takes place at 1:07:00 and suggests that Cora is used to being looked and talked down to by the men she encounters. This matches the dehumanizing comment about being able to just abduct women for pleasure at 4:50. Even the noble and “progressive” Quigley makes a remark at 7:05 that he is stuck “riding in the back of the wagon with the women”. Although there is not as much of a spectacle made of the classism between men and women, the characters all seem aware that they exist. But, as previously mentioned, Cora is a strong character. She has trauma in her past and is in a dangerous and wild situation. In spite of this and of the men around that see little to no value in her, Crazy Cora just keeps on trucking.


The comment at 4:50 that erased Cora’s value as a human being due to her unique value as a woman was also an attack on the Aboriginal women. The men in town report that they want white women as they are “sick of black ladies”. The sequence at 26:04 is a nauseatingly well written dialogue between Marston and Quigley. Marston probes Quigley by relating Aborigines to Native Americans. His attempt is operating under the assumption that Quigley (or any American) has as much distain for Native Americans as he does for the natives in the land he lives in. As long as Quigley hates Native Americans and he can liken them to Aborigines, then the rest should be easy. This is a hideous display of the assumption of white unity as a gesture of oppression against any race of color in the world. It is this very expanse of violent white settlers into foreign lands that sparked protests in Australia in 1988.


Screen snip of the tribe taking Quigley and Cora to a camp, saving them from the desert.
Screen snip of the tribe taking Quigley and Cora to a camp, saving them from the desert. Ambient classical and tribal sounds make a subtle and eerie sound bridge into this sequence, emphasizing a primitive culture and romanticizing the mysticism around Aboriginal culture. 41:00


The article “Racism and the Dominant Ideology Aborigines, Television News and the Bicentenary” talks about the protest on the anniversary of the landing in Australia. Systemic racism and oppression in Australia echo topics that have been talked about in the United States for a long time as well. The protests were seeking to raise awareness on dispossession, oppression, sensationalism, and the negative images of Aborigines on television. In a further exploration of these protests Pose, M. (2009) talks about the adverse effects of white patriarchal society on native people in discussing the “…poor conditions of Aboriginal health, education and welfare, of the high imprisonment rates and the number of deaths in custody suffered by Indigenous Australians”. An estimated 40,000 people showed up in support of the protests. Busses of Aboriginal people came from great distances to participate. It was at these protests that multiple Aboriginal leaders were said to have given speeches. Among them was Gary Foley, a prominent activist who spoke at the protests who is quoted as saying ‘Let’s hope Bob Hawke and his Government gets this message loud and clear from all these people here today. It’s so magnificent to see black and white Australians together in harmony. This is what Australia could and should be like’. It is important to note these actions of gathering, protesting, writing and delivering speeches. These are important because in the film Quigley Down Under, there is no open dialogue given between the Aboriginal actors and any non-Aboriginal actors. There is implied dialogue between a small tribe and a man named Grimmelman at 1:26:22 as he has mentioned that he talks to the Aborigines earlier on. However, in the film, the Aboriginal actors rarely make any sound at all. If they do have dialogue it is only amongst themselves. In spite of the established language barrier, Quigley manages to gain enough of a good reputation with the Aboriginal people to befriend them. This helps to establish the concept of the white savior. Quigley, the good All-American man coming to save the Aborigines from imperial British racists. It is a comedic and interesting plot that dances around trying to be progressive for its time.


Simpson, Catherine, et al. Diasporas of Australian Cinema. Intellect, 2009.


Michael Meadows, Cheyenne Oldham. “Racism and the Dominant Ideology Aborigines, Television News and the Bicentenary – Michael Meadows, Cheyenne Oldham, 1991.” SAGE Journals, journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1329878X9106000108.


Wincer, Directed by Simon. “Quigley Down Under: Film Review: Spirituality & Practice.” Quigley Down Under | Film Review, www.spiritualityandpractice.com/films/reviews/view/9090.


Ebert, Roger. “Quigley Down Under Movie Review (1990): Roger Ebert.” Movie Review (1990) | Roger Ebert, Stanley O’Toole, www.rogerebert.com/reviews/quigley-down-under-1990.


Ellis, Jennifer. “Female Character Archetypes and Strong Female Characters.” Jennifer Ellis – Writing, Jennifer Ellis – Writing, 3 Apr. 2015, www.jenniferellis.ca/blog/2015/4/1/female-character-archetypes-and-strong-female-characters.


Manus, Danny. “The Taming of the Shrew: Writing Female Characters & Archetypes.” Script Magazine, Script Magazine, 7 Feb. 2014, scriptmag.com/features/taming-shrew-writing-female-characters-archetypes.


Pose, M. (2009) Indigenous Protest, Australian Bicentenary, 1988 in Museums Victoria Collections https://collections.museumsvictoria.com.au/articles/2835


Burnham, Jef. “Quigley Down Under.” Film Monthly.com – Quigley Down Under (1990), www.filmmonthly.com/video_and_dvd/quigley_down_under.html.


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Difference, Power, and Discrimination in Film and Media: Student Essays Copyright © by Students at Linn-Benton Community College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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