Few would have predicted that a low-budget Australian comedy whose star was best-known from tourism commercials would become one of the biggest hits of 1986, alongside Top Gun and Star Trek IV. In fact, several major studios passed on the opportunity to distribute Peter Faiman’s “Crocodile” Dundee, an $8.8 million vehicle for laid-back TV actor and pitchman Paul Hogan. It was Paramount Pictures that eventually took the risk on this oddball film, and the gambit paid off to the tune of $328 million, spawning two sequels and making a catchphrase out of “That’s not a knife.” Three decades later, it may be difficult to understand why America and the world embraced Dundee so fondly. A recent BuzzFeed video shows young, present-day Australians cringing at the embarrassing cultural stereotypes in the film. But critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel gave some insight into the movie’s popularity when they devoted a segment of their syndicated movie review show to the Dundee craze as it was unfolding. At the time, Ebert remarked, “I can only imagine what lousy Australian actors we’re gonna see now, visiting Chicago and Los Angeles right about next spring.”
For Ebert, the appeal of the “escapist” film lay with star and co-writer Hogan, “an immensely appealing actor with a sort of Jimmy Stewart combination of authority and modesty.” He also thought that Americans appreciated the film’s critique of their own culture, as the title character visits New York City and sees it from an outsider’s perspective. In Siskel’s view, the film’s popularity was due to an older audience that wanted “clean” and “wholesome” motion pictures. “This film was built by word of mouth and advanced screenings,” Siskel points out, “not by critics.”
Another aspect of the film’s popularity is dissected by writer Jessica Plautz in a piece for Travel + Leisure entitled “‘Crocodile’ Dundee Turns 30: How Paul Hogan Changed Tourism In Australia.” The article points out that the movie’s outback scenes were filmed in regions of Australia rarely visited by the country’s own citizens, let alone visitors. Fans were amazed by the breathtaking vistas seen in both the first and second Dundee films, and tourism boomed. Hogan’s movie happened to come along at a time when America’s interest in Australia was peaking. John O’Sullivan, the managing director of Touring Australia, says that Hogan and his movie “certainly introduced the indigenous Australian culture into the U.S.” That’s quite a feat for such a modest film.