The R/C cars of the film “Malcolm” (1986)
In 1986, a low-budget Australian comedy called Malcolm featured a Tamiya Sand Scorcher R/C VW buggy in what you might even say was a “Supporting Actor” role.
Little-known outside Australia, the film was a local success. And on a tiny budget, it’s portrayal of a social recluse whose love of toys and gadgets leads him to become mixed-up with a couple of aspiring bank robbers had a quintessential Aussie blend of humour, characters and pathos.
All up, you should spot two R/C cars in the film, plus lots of other cool 1980s gadgets.
Sometime back in about 1989 I was watching TV one day, when an advertisement appeared for that week’s Friday night movie. It was for a film called Malcolm.
1989 means those “ye olde” days when broadcast TV was pretty much all we had in the way of “televisual entertainment” (to quote Basil Fawlty). And the traditional Friday night (and Sunday night) movies that were shown on free-to-air TV stations, were actually something you cared about.
It seems funny to be writing about this now. I mean, it really wasn’t that long ago (was it?). Yet here I am in my thirties, already sounding like someone’s old Grandpa… “Back in my day, we all looked forward to the SUNDAY MOVIE. None of this iTwitter Facetube rubbish. Get off my lawn you kids!”
But despite the Internet only being around for about 20 years so far (or about 15 years in non-geek time), it already seems strange to think of how I used to scour the TV guide each week to find out what movies were on, in the hope they were airing something I wanted to see. Sure, we could also rent from the local video store. But if something was on TV for free, we’d usually plonk in front of the box with a bowl of Cheezels, and watch it.
And on that day, when the TV commercial for Malcolm flashed before my eyes, I immediately spotted this…
An R/C Volkswagen Beetle in a movie?
Malcolm was a low-budget Australian comedy/drama that, to this day, remains somewhat unique in the pantheon of cinema. For it is perhaps the only film made in the 1980s that both contained some memorable 1980s toys, but also made those toys a showpiece of the plot.
So much so, that the little red and white VW bug in the images above (a Tamiya Sand Scorcher of course) even featured on practically every poster released to promote the film. The film itself was even billed as a “remote control comedy”…
Malcolm tells the story of a shy, middle-aged man named Malcolm Hughes (Colin Friels), who lives alone in suburban Melbourne and is something of a mechanical genius.
Malcolm’s life pretty much revolves around hobbies. Model trains, model cars, hobby projects in his garage, and so on. Reclusive and introverted, he appears to have a degree of autism – though his exact condition and behaviour are never specifically explained. Perhaps he is just extremely shy. But his interest in hobbies appears to offer him a kind of solace that compensates for his rather lonely existence. In his own way, he is happy to live alone with his toys. Though as we learn later, only through friendship with others can he fulfill his potential and live a more complete (albeit crime-filled!) life…
Given how toy-crazy the 1980s were (just think of all the toy crazes, and multi-million-dollar toy lines that were established during that decade), I’m surprised that so few films of the era featured toys in the way Malcolm does.
Sure, there were other movies in which toys appear. Look no further than the excellent blog Branded in the 80s with it’s detailed research and breakdowns of practically every single toy in particular films like Flight of the Navigator.
But for the most part, films have always consigned toys to fleeting glimpses – things on a bed, or on a shelf in the background. Something a kid held for a few seconds. Toys had little to do with the plot of the movie. I’m sure you’ll think of some examples that contradict my point. But even the classic Tom Hanks movie Big, which was jam-packed with toys, only really used them as props rather than integrating them into the narrative.
Malcolm however, was different. It’s essentially a mismatched-buddies comedy (so popular in the 1980s), but with that uniquely laconic Australian sense of humour, and in which R/C toys and gadgets are used to help pull off various bank heists.
Let’s look at the toys…
I won’t spoil the movie for you, however. Instead, here are some images of the toys that appear in the film…
1. The Sand Scorcher
Malcolm’s red and white Tamiya Sand Scorcher makes numerous appearances, and lives under his kitchen sink. It is retro-fitted with a milk crate on the roof so that he can drive it to the local general store and fetch groceries.
Seeing this scene as a kid, I have to say I was completely in love with this car, as well as the whole idea of driving an R/C vehicle from your house (a bit like a robot) to run errands for you. It gave the thing character, and it’s no wonder they chose something as cute as the Sand Scorcher.
Later, it is fitted with other equipment, some of which apparently required the body to be cut open down the middle. And note the little trailer made of Meccano…
Ultimately Malcolm’s little R/C bug is one of the most memorable objects in the whole movie. And how often can you say that about an R/C car?
2. The Trams
Malcolm has model tram tracks running all over his house – along the walls, out the window, and more.
I don’t know about you, but I actually remember hearing about certain model train fanatics who used to do this kind of thing in their homes – running strips of train track around their walls, as if to encapsulate themselves in a world of operating toy trains that would pervade every room in the house.
As a kid, I loved this idea and would have drilled tunnels in the walls of the family home in a heartbeat, had my parents allowed me.
As an adult, I’m horrified by the thought! But not Malcolm – his tram system even runs through the kitchen, and the models are the second most prominent toys seen throughout the film…
3. The Letter Box
Even Malcolm’s green letter box is a tram – running on it’s own track. This is so he can retrieve his mail through a window, via tram, without walking 5 feet to his front gate. When I was 10, this too made perfect sense.
4. The Tamiya bag
At another point in the film, Malcolm goes out shopping for gadgets, and at one point can be seen crossing a road carrying a shopping bag. Look closely – the bag has the red and blue Tamiya logo on it…
And that is officially the geekiest observation I will ever post on this blog!
5. The Toy Shop + Hirobo Toyota HiLux 44B kits
Last but not least comes a brief scene that very few people seem to remember. But how often do you see a movie character walk into a toy store, and buy an R/C car? Let alone a vintage one…
In preparation for another bank heist, Malcolm visits a toy store. To be honest, it might not even be a real toy store – just a prop set, with a bunch of toys on shelves in the background. I’m not sure. But still – it’s a blink-and-you’ll miss it glimpse of a bunch of toys for sale, just as they were back in 1986.
And by chance, the filmmakers chose what is now a pretty obscure R/C model to feature in this scene. It’s a car by R/C helicopter specialists Hirobo, called the “Toyota HiLux 44B” – a sort of off-road, racing Toyota HiLux 1/10 scale kit, that very few kids would have actually owned in the 1980s. Yet there it is…
In the plot, Malcolm actually purchases 3 of them (you can see another on the shelf in the background too). And while we don’t see them running, they do play an (implied) role during the film’s climax, which is pretty cool.
Here’s the film’s trailer…
I wonder what ever happened to all the gadgets and R/C models that featured in the movie? If anyone knows, please feel free to drop me a line.
Final note: If you enjoyed the Aussie comedy of Malcolm, I’d also highly recommend the similar film The Big Steal from the same Director (Nadia Tass). In it, a boy buys a craptastic used Jaguar to impress a girl for a date, only to get royally ripped-off by the shonky car salesman. Later, he takes revenge in hilarious fashion. Very similar to Malcolm in it’s themes of larger-than-life Aussie characters, small time crooks, cars and capers.