Why the Fuck Is Crocodile Dundee Still Australia's Highest-Grossing Film?
Given it’s the 30th anniversary of what remains Australia’s biggest ever box office hit ever, I took a look at it with fresh eyes.
Crocodile Dundee. Erase it from history and what cultural touchstone does the rest of the world have left to describe Australia with? Even "shrimp on the barbie" doesn't make sense without Paul Hogan, and Paul Hogan doesn't make sense without Crocodile Dundee.
Given it's the 30th anniversary of what remains Australia's biggest ever box office hit ever, it might be time to take a look at it with fresh eyes. And the most unfair way to look at it, of course, would be to judge it through a modern filter. So let's get started with that.
Twenty seconds in and it becomes clear that the film is not made for Australians. It's made for Americans. It's deliberately engineered to be a breakout hit. All the Australiana is broad and garish, and the lingo carefully explained. All American references however are routine and audience familiarity is assumed. (Which, sadly, is just as applicable in Australia as it is in America. Thanks to cultural saturation, coastal audiences are probably more familiar with New York than with the outback.)
That scene. Screenshot via YouTube
Crocodile Dundee's structure is disjointed and sketch-like, which is appropriate given Paul Hogan, director Peter Fairman, and writers Ken Shadie and John Cornell were all alumni of the sketch-heavy Paul Hogan Show. The famous "That's no knife!" scene that's been pop-cultured to death comes out of nowhere and has no real consequence to anything before or after it. "Hey, let's go to New York!" is the clever plot twist that gets them to New York. It really is just a bunch of disparate scenes laid end-to-end.
The film plays heavily on the fish-out-of-water premise, but over-eggs it somewhat by turning Mick (Paul Hogan) into a fucking vegetable the moment he steps off the plane. Check it out, he can't even use an escalator! Geez, what do you do, do you stand on it? Oh no, we're about to get the floor, I'd better start walking back up it for some reason!
All forms of vertical transport prove too much for Mick, and he struggles with the hotel elevator. He marvels at a television, because he's only seen one once before. He tries walking through the streets of New York, but he keeps bumping into people because there's so many of them. Apparently this master bushman can't seem to navigate his way around tangible objects now because, I don't know, city.
We reach the apotheosis of his idiocy when Sue (Hogan's love interest) discovers Mick has been sleeping on the floor next to his bed. I'm going to take this as a sign the bed was too soft, as opposed to Mick being such a moron he doesn't know what a fucking bed is. (As an aside, Rod Ansell, the crocodile-fighting bushman Hogan and company insist the character is NOT based upon, was put up in a fancy hotel by the BBC and slept on the floor. So it gets a pass for accuracy, but loses several points for nicking someone else's life story.)
Sue (Linda Kozlowski) is subjected to a fair amount of sexism, both intentional and unintentional. Her character is a professional journalist, so we get to assume she has a degree of agency and skill until the revelation that her editor is also her boyfriend, and her publisher is her father. It's not clear why these details were included, other than to dissuade us of the notion that she might have reached her position on merit.
Mick discovers sexual assault. Screenshot via YouTube
But the sexism extends beyond the storytellers and into the characters themselves. At a bar, Mick nearly goes home with a woman who, he soon finds out, is actually a man. We're already skirting the bounds of propriety before we get to the moment where Mick tests this thesis by grabbing her crotch. A few months ago I would have been outraged, but the election of Donald Trump has basically legitimised this behavior, so I think we're all good. Mick does it again to a woman at an art gallery because she has slightly masculine features, and everyone laughs off his assault as an Australian eccentricity. Maybe we can list Crocodile Dundee alongside 1984 and The Man In the High Tower as texts that predicted 2016.
Mick's stupidity, the film's underlying sexism, and fantasy all collide when Mick encounters a prostitute who is apparently so charmed by him, she offers to "give [him] one for free". "One what?" asks the gormless Mick. At this point in the film, his chronic stupidity has lost whatever draw it once had. Apparently New York invented sex and the most transparent euphemisms that go along with it.
We can generally accept that any film made more than five years ago will have an attitude to race that we find uncomfortable now, and Dundee is no exception. There is a weird sort of meta-racism going on in one moment in particular.
Mick himself embodies the old trope of a white man raised by an Aboriginal tribe. This is a favorite device of Western storytellers because it allows the writer to imbue its lead with all the traits of a noble savage without the bother of actually making him black. Mick may display the mannerisms of a boorish white man, but still gets to benefit from Aborigine wisdom. It's a win-win unless you're not an awful person.
The real problem comes when we discover that Mick has magical powers. When he extends his thumb and pinky finger out in a shaka sign (presumably taught to him by that little-known Aboriginal tribe, the Hawaiians), and makes a sort-of cat-strangling sound, he can make animals go to sleep. This is skirting awfully close to the odious Magic Negro trope, and I'm not sure Mick being white subverts it in any meaningful way. It more sort-of magnifies it. And it really serves no story function other than to create a mystique around Mick.
What's bothering me about the film is not so much that we're being caricatured, but that we're being fetishised. Worse, that we're the ones doing it. We're making fun of ourselves to please the popular kids, and it's kind of unpleasant to watch.
But that's what made it a hit. The film was successfully calculated to appeal to American audiences, and given how rare that was in the 1980s let alone now, this achievement is worth noting. The elements that rubbed me the wrong way—farcical cultural stereotypes, the moveable type structure, really every single line of dialogue—are what made it work.
It's quotable, not too demanding, and it's got a happy ending, unless you have questions about whether a New York corporate type accustomed to workplace nepotism and a cartoonish bushman who can't operate a bed can make it work together, in which case the ending could be considered a Graduate-type downer.
I went into this film expecting to contrast the Australia of the 1980s with the Australia of now, but I saw very little of Australia in this film. Just a distorted stereotype of how we think others see us. Which is fine if you want to make All The Money In The World, but as a cultural artifact it's just baffling.
Lee Zachariah is journalist, TV writer, and author of Double Dissolution: Heartbreak and Chaos on the Campaign Trail, out now from Echo Publishing. You can also follow him on Twitter.