Schoolteacher Sally Jones (Rachel Ward) manages a classroom of seven children in the remote Australian outback. One morning she and her students are kidnapped at gunpoint by a band of ruthless criminals who hide their faces beneath a Santa Claus mask and other childish disguises. Imprisoned in an underground cave while the crooks wait for the ransom money, Sally and the kids must rely on their own ingenuity to escape this nightmare.
Fortress, not to be confused with the 1992 Stuart Gordon directed Christopher Lambert science fiction action movie of the same name, is an unjustly forgotten Australian thriller based on a novel by Gabrielle Lord. The story was loosely based on a real-life incident in 1972 when criminals Edwin John Eastwood and Robert Clyde Boland abducted a class full of kids and their teacher from the Faraday School. Eastwood later escaped from prison and repeated the crime with another teacher and her class in 1977, making it all the more ironic he drew inspiration from a sequence in the iconic cop thriller Dirty Harry (1971) where the kidnapping was foiled by his namesake, Clint Eastwood.
Scripted by Everett de Roche, who seems to have written virtually every genre movie to emerge from Australia, the film like many of its type expertly evokes the unsettling eeriness of the outback. The cinematography by David Connell establishes an ominous mood right from the outset and remains a crucial asset throughout suspenseful sequences like Sally’s nightmarish struggle underwater or the children’s frightening trek through the dark, foggy woods. However, Danny Beckermann’s cheesy synth score undermines some of the drama and renders a few, would be shocking scenes somewhat laughable - including our first glimpse of the kidnappers in their party masks - while a few of the gory gags seem crass and unnecessary.
Nevertheless, the film is firmly in the tradition of Australian survivalist cinema. Only by learning how to endure and negotiate the tricky landscape can the kids hope to outwit their captors. Sally fashions a lamp using a tin can, a piece of string and some salad dressing, while each of the kids possess some survival skills that prove useful. Coming off the hit miniseries The Thorn Birds, Rachel Ward was arguably the biggest star in Australia at the time. She delivers a curiously uneven performance, exceptional at times while at others bizarrely stiff. Miss Jones is a calm, level headed, relentlessly practical heroine. She treats their ordeal like an unorthodox school trip, complete with sing-a-longs, although director Arch Nicholson includes the odd moment where her nerve snaps while the payoff does offer an intriguing insight to her and her young charges state of mind.
The children are realistically drawn, if occasionally exasperating. Mouthy Tommy (Marc Aden), big bully Derek, whiny Leanne (Beth Buchanan), and tiny tots Toby (Richard Terrill), Sue (Asher Keddie) and Richard (Bradley Meehan) squabble, cry and make dumb mistakes, while the older Narelle (Rebecca Rigg) is sensitive about her developing body and understandably unnerved when the crooks take lascivious interest. Even the resourceful Sid (Sean Garlick) can’t help but gawk at the naked, wet Sally while they explore an underground stream. However, the little horrors jump at the chance to finally fight back during a tense mountaintop finale where they improvise some nasty mantraps. It’s not quite Lord of the Flies, but Arch Nicholson implies these young outbackers are only a step away from feral monsters, something underlined in the nicely handled coda, which is equal parts triumphant and unnerving.