Fortress is an Australian made-for-tv movie that is probably most remembered when it made the rounds on HBO in the mid to late ’80s. Directed by Arch Nicholson and based off a novel of the same name written by Gabrielle Lord, which in turn was loosely based off the Faraday School Kidnapping. It details the adventure had by a small group of school kids from Sunny Flat, a small town in New South Wales, when they, along with their teacher (Rachel Ward), are kidnapped from their one-room schoolhouse by a group of men wearing masks and carrying guns. The motive of the armed men is ransom, but eventually the class of kids ranging from kindergarten to 10th grade, comes to the realization that in order to survive this ordeal, it will take ingenuity, bravery and the ability to work together as a team.
Sounds like the set up for an After School Special, but don’t let it fool you, the movie is a mixed one. “Fortress” is a mix between the The Magic Schoolbus type of kids film and The Lord of the Flies style of horrorthriller, sporadically switching between the two. The extremely collected Sally turns their impromptu excursion into a some type of field trip from hell. The group never falls apart or succumbs to infighting as Sally encourages each student to use their knowledge and individual skills to perform such tasks as as building a fire, navigating dark caves, traversing the Australian Outback, creating weapons and traps to maim and dismember people with…wait, what!?
Part of the reason why the film works is because of these jarring transitions between two different genres. You have clearly defined good guys and bad guys in this film. They are opposites in every way, even down to the leaders of both groups. You have the kids and their teacher, cooperating to get through a terrifying situation and being led by a quiet yet respected teacher who, for the most part, stays cool and collected throughout the entire ordeal. They truly care for each other and throughout the film they risk their lives for each other on different occasions. They make a plan and follow through each performing their duties to the best of their abilities. Even if a decision may have been a wrong one, they stick together regardless and never abandon another or turn on each other.
This is in stark contrast to the kidnappers who are a ruthless bunch of desperate men. Being led by the psychotic Father Christmas (Peter Hehir), the other three men are Dabby Duck (played by the awesome Vernon Wells, Wez from Mad Max 2 and Bennet from Commando), Pussy Cat (David Bradshaw) and Mac the Mouse (Roger Stephen). Each of them are slightly maniacal in different degrees, with none showing any sympathy or compassion for the kids, their teacher or each other. When the kidnappers plans are changed by the actions of Sally and her students, the kidnappers demonstrate just how violent they are and how far they are willing to go to follow through with their plan and what happens when anyone, even one of their own, seems to be an obstruction. In a couple scenes, the gang hold shotguns to a young boys head and at no time does the viewer think they will have any problems blowing his brains out if needed. Rape is also a constant threat throughout the film as the gang makes several comments in regards to the size of one of the young girl’s “big titties” and what they are going to do with her, and at one point even mention “gang-banging” the teacher. This comes to the fore-front later in the film when the gang starts calling specifically for the girl and taunting her with their plans for her.
Movies that are focused on a group of child actors are always hit-or-miss, the movie usually hinged on the performance by the young cast. Fortress dodges the bullet with some great direction and performances. Even with the main focus of the film being on the teacher and her nine pupils, each individual student has their own distinct personalities in the group. Each of them, regardless of their age, contribute in some form or fashion. This could come from an individual skill such as swimming or shooting, or just the ability to follow an order and work productively in a team. The child cast all handle this very well, especially the older cast members, with only a few stumbling blocks showing up later in the film that were not the fault of the actors themselves.
Rachel Ward is convincing as a the pretty yet stern teacher who demonstrates that over the course of time, she has garnered the respect of her students and never falters from the role of educator as well as guardian of the children in her care. She demonstrates a keen eye and seems to know these students as if they were her own flesh-and-blood being able to diffuse possible explosive situations and using the abilities of each of her students to the benefit of the group. Peter Hehir does a great job as the crazy Father Christmas, even though he never seems to be able to stand up straight, and is the most memorable of the kidnappers mainly because he has all the scenes involving outright violence towards the class and others. Another one of the gang should be mentioned is Pussy Cat. No real acting scenes in regards to dialog or anything, but his mannerisms in combination with the mask he wears makes him one of the other members of the gang that people recollect when trying to remember the film. He also has his own theme song of sorts that can be heard in a creepy scene involving him and the students inside a barn.
Fortress also looks great and earned award-winning cinematographer, David Connell, an ACE award. With scenes filmed in and around Victoria, Australia including The Grampians as well as the Buchan Caves, Fortress is beautifully shot from start to finish whether the scenes are in a classroom or Australian Outback, at night or day, in caves or underwater.
The movie has a couple faults that show up in the finale of the film, an implausibility that stands out a bit more because of the more realistic nature of the first 3/4. A turn-the-tables ending that stretches believability not because of the end result, but more for the execution and the time-frame it is done in. There is also a cheesy montage at this point that is punctuated by tribal music and face-painting, and a willingness of some of the younger kids to follow through with some extreme behavior that hinders the ability to suspend disbelief. But overall, the ending is satisfying and there is something to be said about a made-for-tv movie that is still remembered, even if by a few scenes only, after 20 years.
Besides, it’s no wonder a lot of people remember this film as most probably recollect it from their youth. The men wearing kids masks do seem imposing and dangerous, the hints of rape, a fair share of brief nudity in the form of Rachel Ward in her wet underwear, and some memorable (but not overtly gory) scenes of impalement, decapitation and a nasty shotgun blast to the gut – all the ingredients needed to have a film stick in the head for a bit. Even now you can watch some of the scenes and be surprised that parents allowed their kids to watch this film, or that it was made for television in the first place.
A good number of films made in the ’80s have retrospective reviews that usually include the reviewer stating something along the lines of “tame by today’s standards“, but in regards to Fortress, that’s kinda hard to do. Decent movie that is worth a watch.