Carry Me Back

New Zealand | 1982 | Directed by John Reid

Logline: An old farmer dies whilst on a visit to the city and his two sons decide to smuggle his body back to the property in order to claim their inheritance.

Overshadowed by the roaring success of Geoff Murphy’s anarchic road trip, Goodbye Pork Pie, John Reid’s gentler comedy of errors, released a year later, is almost a forgotten Kiwi gem. It’s an altogether more affectionate tale of camaraderie, mishaps, and the search for acceptance, and though it shares with Murphy’s movie a taste for the absurd, it’s less obvious, less rambunctious, a comedy that doesn’t try so hard.

It’s set in a time “Back in the days when blokes were blokes and sheilas were their mums.” And although the old bugger, T.K. (Derek Hardwick) and his sons, Arthur (Grant Tilly) and Jimmy (Kelly Johnson) appear to be floating in a 1950s Marlborough, South Island, farm homestead, its very much a late 70s/early 80s time period once the three men catch the Picton ferry to Wellington to attend the Ranfurly Shield rugby match.

Athough there are two key female characters, both of them wonderfully portrayed by Dorothy McKegg (Aunty Bird) and Joanne Mildenhall (girl – her name never given), Carry Me Back is more male-centric, and has a great time poking fun at blokey tradition and bravado. The script is based on a story by Graeme Cowley, the movie’s cinematography and producer, and the screenplay is by Reid, actor Keith Aberdein, and Derek Morton. It crackles along with some terrific dialogue, and, in the movie’s most unexpected scene provides Tilly with a moving monologue to his dead father seated beside him in the car as they make the home stretch to the farm.

The city of Wellington hadn’t been captured with such character and charm in a feature before (much of it doesn’t exist anymore!), and a who’s who of the then local stage and screen edge their way into the story; Frank Edwards, Michael Haigh, Brian Sergent, John Bach, Fiona Samuel, Peter Tait, Alex Trousdel, Ian Watkin, Katy Platt, Kate Harcourt, Tony Hiles, Marshall Napier, Joe Mustapha, and Bruno Lawrence as a motorway traffic cop. Director Reid makes a cameo as a country coffee trap, and Lee Tamahori was boom operator!

Carry Me Back is a classic old-style comedy, and as such the movie’s title carries a play on words. It’s a caper flick, quirky moments rear up, but the real charm is less intentional, as the movie is very much a date-stamp, and in many ways is more interesting, even fascinating, now than it was at the time of its release. The fact that so many reputable stage actors (several of them no longer with us) are in the cast is a rarity now as we living in an age where actors train specifically for screen.

I grew up with the movie’s poster gracing our dining room; the risqué image of the sexy topless stripper (Angelique Meyer)’s nipples covered by rugby boot studs an adolescent distraction. The scene where Arthur pulls her g-string off, only to be denied the flash of the merchandise as the lights go out, is one of the movie’s comedy highlights. Carry Me Back is just that, a cheeky, mischievous tease, but one that ultimately satisfies without trying too hard.

NB: In the last couple of years of my father’s life I tried unsuccessfully to get a DVD release to include an audio commentary from him (Tilly) and director John Reid reflecting back on the making with their usual entertaining repartee.