WARNING: I’ve tried not to give away any specific details, but some sections of this article may border on spoilers.

Even as an Australian, I can appreciate the Aussieness of kids in Australian films from the 1980s. While hearing “streuth” and “bloody oath” in films normally makes my fucking skin crawl, there’s something endearing about the occa-Aussie film and television youth of yesteryear. Every time a kid yelled “ripper” in Fortress – and it happens a lot – I couldn’t help but grin. But Fortress is more than just an enjoyable exercise in Australiana, it’s also a tightly paced and ballsy thriller.


Australia, 1985, Arch Nicholson

Fortress is pleasingly simple. Sally (Rachel Ward) is a British teacher working in a small Australian country town. She teaches a tiny class with a wide age range – some children are as young as lower primary, while others are teenagers. Sally doesn’t exactly appreciate the brutal side of country life, particularly when it comes to shooting animals and odd country children traditions such as spitting on animal corpses for good luck. But she seems to have a decent control of her class, despite their occasional giggling at her British accent. Fortress begins with a normal school day. Holidays are approaching and Sally is concerned about a school inspector who arrives in a week’s time. The daily trivialities are shattered by four masked kidnappers, led by a man in a Father Christmas mask, who are out to make a quick buck by holding the class for ransom. The teacher and students are thrown into an underground cave. As their kidnappers become more vicious, a fury begins to grow in Sally and the children that climaxes in the film’s explosive finale.

It is rare to see a film made for television with such whopping great cojones. While not a particular gory film, Fortress is unapologetically brutal. Taking children and throwing them in what is both a survivalist film and a revenge thriller is a brave move, and Fortress doesn’t pull any punches. The film’s final act is jaw-dropping as children and teacher alike morph into bloodthirsty barbarians. Without trying to give to anything away, Fortress is extremely satisfying on an animalistic level. It is a film that gives the audience what it wants and allows its protagonists to truly get their revenge in the most crassly violent way possible. The film’s epilogue is a perfect final gloat at the success of the film’s vicious heroes.

The performances in Fortress are a little stiff, not surprising considering the young age of the cast. Sally and her class often have to deliver some pretty hammy and overly scripted dialogue, especially during early playground scenes. However, the characters are likable enough to rise above any minor quibbles with the script (which was, as pointed out by Matthew Vaughan on Mondo Exploito’s Facebook page, written by Everett De Roche whose impressive credits include Aussie genre classics Patrick, Road Games, Long Weekend and Razorback to name just a few). Rachel Ward’s Sally is, thankfully, a strong and active protagonist from the beginning, rather than a dull pushover. Her believable and disturbing transformation is one of the film’s finer points. Sean Garlick is also very good as Sid, a country kid who adapts to the survivalist situation with relative ease. The rest of the youthful roles are filled by decent young actors – Asher Keddie makes an early appearance as one of the younger kids. The film’s villains spend most of their time with faces covered in masks. This only serves to make them more imposing – “Father Christmas”, played brilliantly by Peter Hehir, is exceptionally unsettling. (Oddly enough, Vernon Wells plays the duck-masked antagonist, a relative small role for an actor who in the same year would appear in Commando and Weird Science.)

Director, Arch Nicholson (Dark Age), does well in ensuring Fortress does not look like a television movie. From its long opening tracking shot, Fortress has a grim atmosphere. While it’s not dripping in style, the film is clearly in the hands of a crew that knows what their doing. Nicholson and his crew keep camerawork subtle, and he knows when to hold a shot for tension. Fortress‘s violent scenes are handled particularly well. There are several successful and suspenseful build ups to flashes of brutality – the best examples being the dispatching of the cat-masked kidnapper in an extremely tense scene and a chase that ends in a gruesome impaling.

Fortress is an extremely successful thriller… and that’s not only in the realm of television movies. It’s not surprising that in Australia, after its American television debut, this film received a local theatrical release. An incredibly unforgiving treatment of its villains combined with a fearless use of children in violent situations makes Fortress an absolute must-see for anyone remotely interested in Australian cinema.