When Crocodile Dundee debuted in Australian theaters on April 24, 1986, star Paul Hogan wanted it to be his country’s pioneering blockbuster. “I’m planning for it to be Australia’s first proper movie,” he said at the time. “I don’t think we’ve had one yet — not a real, general public, successful, entertaining movie,”
He achieved his goal with an adventure film that traded in Down Under charm and cliches, mixing ’80s film trends like the stranger-in-a-strange-land trope of Beverly Hills Cop and an update of the me-Tarzan-you-Jane dynamic of Romancing the Stone.
By the mid-’80s, Australia had started its rise as a global pop culture force. Musically, AC/DC and Bee Gees had become two of the world’s biggest bands, with INXS and Midnight Oil not far behind. The Australian new wave film scene had produced a group of auteurs in directors Peter Weir, George Miller, and Fred Schepisi, all of whom went on to make blockbusters. But nothing as quintessentially and stereotypically Australian as Crocodile Dundee had gone international.
While Miller’s post-apocalyptic action films in the Mad Max franchise were hits, they felt beamed in from another galaxy — and lacked the universal appeal Hogan aimed to capture. Weir achieved A-list status by leaving Australia (with movies such as Dead Poets Society and The Truman Show), but Hogan wanted to mine his home to find gold.
The actor, who also co-wrote the screenplay for Crocodile Dundee, created his sensation out of a specific aesthetic that hit its zenith in the ’80s. The film features a blue-collar hero over a superhero, adventure over action and a relentless mocking of ridiculous excesses of the decade. It also champions a macho man while managing to add a little tenderness — the movie has a surprising tenderness to it and an unsurprising tone-deaf quality with many sexist, homophobic and transphobic scenes so common in the ’80s.
Already a huge star in his home country thanks to comedy series The Paul Hogan Show, which ran from 1973 to 1984, Hogan came up with the idea for his defining role on a trip to New York. He thought about what it would be like for a bushman to go from the Northern Territory to New York City. This was a guy built of myth, legend, boilerplate machismo and classic cowboy culture — a modern folk hero riffing on the raised-by-wolves storyline and great white hunter formulas.
The plot has Newsday feature writer Sue Charlton (Linda Kozlowski) in Australia headed to the remote town of Walkabout Creek, hoping to tell the story of Michael J. “Crocodile” Dundee — a safari guide reported to have lost half his leg to a croc, surviving the attack by crawling hundreds of miles home. But Dundee quickly turns out to be both more and less than what Charlton bargained for. He has two working legs (even if one has teeth like scars deep in it). He’s a crocodile poacher who shouldn’t have been out hunting the animals in the first place. He insists that the wilderness is no place for a woman. But damn is he charming.
Dundee retraces his steps through the wilderness with Charlton (who is both the only newspaper writer in the world who can afford outfits that look like Yves Saint Laurent originals and the only person in the world to trudge around swamps and mountains in outfits that look like Yves Saint Laurent originals). Along the way he kills poisonous snakes, puts a water buffalo to sleep with a little “mind over matter,” shoots at drunk yahoos set on gunning down kangaroos for fun, kills a croc looking to make a snack of Charlton and takes part in a tribal dance ceremony — as cowboy storytelling cliche dictates, Dundee has been raised by aboriginal Pitjantjatjara people.
After the pair’s outback adventure, Charlton convinces her editor and boyfriend Richard to bring Dundee to New York, and suddenly Charlton is the one at home and Dundee is the fish-out-of-water. The second half of the film is slow, almost tame. It’s also filled with simple, effective gags thanks to Hogan’s wonderful deadpan (he struggles to get off an escalator, says “G’day” to dozens of people he passes on the sidewalk and puzzles over the hotel room’s bidet — “For washing your backside!” he shouts triumphantly). Despite trading in the bigotries rampant during the time, most of the humor is open hearted and generous. All the regular New Yorkers — from cops and doormen to maids, cab drivers and prostitutes — love Mick Dundee. All the rich schmucks miss the man’s character (and sometimes get sucker punched for their disrespect).
Sure, for an adventure film, the second half doesn’t provide many gasps or cheers. Yes, for a comedy or romance, the jokes and kisses come at a slow pace. But even if Hogan never settled on an exact tone, audiences quickly settled on the film being a mainstream masterpiece. Much like Beverly Hills Cop‘s flawless action-comedy hybrid and Romancing the Stone’s exotic adventure filled with laughs and love, Crocodile Dundee prevails exactly because of its broad, multi-genre appeal.
Oh, also Hogan’s acting is almost impossible not to fall for. He reacts to situations with unbelievably understated nuance. When a pair of prostitutes tell him his status as headline fodder might qualify him to get “one for free,” he smiles with such bright optimism. Then he tightens his face just the littlest bit and replies with infinite naïveté: “One what?” (And yes, his gleeful and innocent grin that comes with the line, “That’s not a knife, this is a knife” is still magnificent).
In the spring and summer of 1986, Crocodile Dundee became an unprecedented success at home. Whatever stereotypes and biases it traded in, Australians ate them up. In just a few weeks, it became the highest-grossing Australian-made film domestically. Then, just a few weeks later, it became the highest-grossing film ever released in the country, beating out E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Despite decades of Australian hits including Babe, Happy Feet and Moulin Rouge!, it remains the biggest, domestically produced box office hit at home with a $48 million gross.
When Paramount Pictures released the film in the States (after cutting a few scenes full of Aussie slang Americans couldn’t make sense of) in September 1986, the movie went to No. 1. It stayed there for two months and eventually went on to dominate the box office worldwide, pulling in around $330 million (which would be close to $800 million, adjusted for inflation). It became the highest-grossing Australian film at the worldwide box office.
Not surprisingly, it made icons out of its star and title character. Hogan became the world’s most famous Australian, and Dundee appeared in two sequels (neither of which could capture the magic of the original). Three and a half decades later, Crocodile Dundee retains all the charm and problems it debuted with: a fresh twist on well-worn tropes, a fun film filled with flaws, a piece of art stamped by the decade that produced it.