One of the first things Quigley does, before he's even off the ship that brought him to Australia, is, on the behalf of an old woman, hit another guy between the legs with his gun. We've got basic masculine cowboy imagery, and then a nice hit to the balls to drive home the idea that... well, either we've got a serious man on our hands here, or we've got something very much else. Next thing he does is save Cora and set up their dynamic for the rest of of the film. He's a cowboy but he isn't dirty, isn't a scoundrel like Marston's men. He's more a gentleman, more like an old-school cinematic cowboy than one from the 80s. (Keep in mind, this movie was supposed to come in the early 80s originally.) He's clean. He takes care of what's his. But also, he rolls his own cigarettes and smokes them.
But, about that fight... Quigley of course, puts little effort into it. He uses his leather-wrapped rifle as a club and he does so almost elegantly. More a chivalrous knight than some dusty cowboy. And we could read into his initial chivalry in interesting ways, if we look to Lee Clark Mitchell's Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film:
Even the Western's classical moment of unleashed violence is descriptively coded as a moment of displaced sexuality; when the prose perspective or camera angle turns to focus on a hand hovering over a gun. This splitting of the body into parts with typical "gear" offers more than a fetishizing displacement of inadmissible homoeroticism desires... The "oscillation" (of aimlessly gazing/not gazing) upon which costuming is based marks a potential for disrupting the body into costumed parts and anticipates the ways that manhood will be emblematic ally stretched, distorted, and slowly rehabilitated.And, of course Roger calls that shootout at the end of the film as "some kind of dumb test of manhood." But, that is the point, isn't it? The villain--especially Marston, owner of land, owner of people, and he wants to be an American cowboy because he idolizes them--is always going to bring everything around to a challenge of who is the bigger man. It is how he values himself. A real man owns things. A real man tells people what to do. And they do it. Matthew Quigley, on the other hand, has a specific skill set and he uses it to get by. He came to Australia for a job, that job turns out to be murdering natives, he turns it down. This makes him, in the eyes of someone like Marston, not a real man. A real man would get done what needs to be done, which includes conquering the wild land and wild people.
And the wild woman. But I will get to her soon.
This image is after the camera is rising for Quigley to finally shoot. He has been framed larger than the other men, and also shot from below. He is being offered visually as something grand and special. Right as he is about to make three remarkable shots in a row with his specially-made rifle. His phallic symbol, with which he acts patiently, deliberately.
And, what does Marston do right after? He sets up his chance to gun down the two deserters his men have found on his land, because now it is a dick-measuring contest as it were, and while Quigley might have the longer rifle, Marston takes two lives while Quigley just ruined a bucket. At dinner thereafter, Marston interrogates Quigley about his familiarity with the Colt pistols that Marston wears. He is testing Quigley still and is about to be defied.
Mitchell suggests, regarding "the cowboy as an object of desire":
...the cowboy's job, consisting of moments of excitement embedded in hours of waiting and riding, reflected larger assumptions about masculinity, in terms of constrained violence; during an era of increasing anxiety over constructions of family life, he was conspicuously without family; in openly displaying guns, he appeared radically individual...The cowboy, especially in cinema, is a vision of idealized American manliness. Quigley is explicitly something else. He defies Marston, sure, he kicks Marston out of his own house, but then he gets his ass handed to him by Marston's men and gets left in the outback to die. In that earlier fight in town, he seems to be beating the three men handily until Cora gets involved and knocks him down. Then, he gets beaten. He gets beaten, but also, he is resilient enough to keep going. He is at once a deconstructionist cowboy figure and a reconstructionist cowboy figure. Mitchell suggests:
...the Western can be reduced to oppositions between those who stand and those who fall down--between upright men on horseback and those whose supposedly "natural" position is prone. The prone are always revealed in the end to be non-men...But, Quigley is knocked down repeatedly before he stands up. Of course, Mitchell, citing "Film critics... as if in choir", suggests an interpretation of
the Western's concentration on the male body as disguised, displaced, inadmissible homosexual pleasure, and that the beatings so often sustained by the hero are to be understood in these term as punishment of the audience for what it cannot allow itself openly to enjoy... In other words, the erotic potential of the male physique can only be embellished when suppressed--a suppression regularly achieved through the open administration of pain.Marston is knocked down once by Quigley early on, but remains standing until the end.
So then we turn to Will Wright's Sixguns & Society, and see that Quigley Down Under fits the "classical" Western plot--
--except only if "the society" is the Aborigines, which again, upends what the Western is usually telling us.
- The hero enters a social group.
- The hero is unknown to the society.
- The hero is revealed to have an exceptional ability.
- The society recognizes a difference between themselves and the hero; the hero is given a special status.
- The society does not completely accept the hero.
- There is a conflict of interests between the villains and the society.
- The villains are stronger than the society; the society is weak.
- There is a strong friendship or respect between the hero and a villain.
- The villains threaten the society.
- The hero avoids involvement in the conflict.
- The villains endanger a friend of the hero.
- The hero fights the villains.
- The hero defeats the villains.
- The society is safe.
- The society accepts the hero.
- The hero loses or gives up his special status. (48-9)
Meanwhile, we have our wild woman, Crazy Cora. She obviously suffers from PTSD and is frequently delusional, but go back to her introductory scene again and what do we have? A troubled woman, on her own far from home, is being claimed as a prostitute. Maybe she has been working as one; we don't know. But, she does not want to go, and then she is pronounced Crazy Cora. And, her madness is framed throughout the film as a defense mechanism above all else. She lost her child, her husband rejected her and sent her away. Now, she vacillates between seeing this new man in her life as an embodiment of the husband she once had and some brand new potential suitor.
Magda Romanska describes the "romantic trope of a madwoman" in Boston Lyric Opera's blog, 30 April 2014. She writes (citing Hamana 1995):
The obligatory mad scene had its origins in a Renaissance theatrical convention of representing "mad women as erotomaniacs. This is based on masculine assumption that women are more inclined to go mad since they are closer to the irrational by nature, and that young women's madness is, more often than not, caused by sexual frustration of unrequited love.But, counter that with more modern ideas, and this pronouncement of madness is more like calling out the woman who says "no" as a slut. Cora rejects Marston's men. Thus, she is crazy. She must be crazy. They work for Marston, who is a real man. By extension, they must be real men, or close to it. Quigley makes no such assumptions about her, only looks to her immediate safety, and thus frames himself as, again, not a real man in the usual, western (and Western) sense.
But, it's 1990, and we've come through a decade of muscle-bound, manly men fighting lesser men, foreigners mostly. We are in need of a man who is not a real man, as it were. We want someone capable, but he does not need to be particularly dominant. He must win in the end. But, by his wits, by learned skill, not simply by being physically strong. Consider the transition just through 80s action stars from Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone to Mel Gibson and Bruce Willis and Jean Claude Van Damme. There is still notable, noticeable musculature, but we expect something more than just brute force. We want more balletic action, we want demonstrations of intelligence, of refined taste, of charm even. Matthew Quigley is the deconstruction of the Western (and western) hero, but also, ultimately, a reconstruction. The film ends, as many a Western might, with our male hero connecting with the female lead, reifying heteronormative behavior even as deliberately, explicitly redefining and recontextualizing the maleness of our hero and the femaleness of his love interest.