Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright turns fifty this year. Based on the 1961 novel of the same name by Australian author Kenneth Cook, it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on May 12, 1971 and was released in cinemas in Australia on October 9. Despite being five decades old, it is hard to think of comparable piece of cinema that has come out of this country. Wake In Fright is not only a stunning rural noir, it is a blistering take on three of the central features of white Anglo Saxon male culture in 1960s Australia (although much of it is still highly relevant to today): mateship, the romance of the outback, and drinking. Especially drinking.
The central character, John Grant, is a mild-mannered teacher working in a tiny speck of a town called Tiboonda. Its isolation and distance from the coast has obliterated nearly all aspects of civilization, except the ability of the local pub to keep the beer cold. Grant is leaving for his Christmas holidays. He has his holiday pay in his pocket and fantasies of meeting up with his girlfriend in Sydney. All that stands in his way is an overnight train stop in Bundanyabba or ‘the Yabba’ as the locals call it.
Grant passes his night in the Yabba sinking a few beers in one of the town’s many pubs. He meets Jock Crawford, the town’s police chief, who tells him it’s a peaceful place with a low crime rate. “Of course,” he adds, “we do have a few suicides.” Crawford takes Grant to another pub for dinner. In a room adjoining the restaurant, a crowd of men is playing a traditional Australian betting game called two-up. Grant can’t resist having a go and ends up losing all his holiday pay. Thus starts a lengthy, booze soaked couple of days in which Grant will lose his pride and his sanity, and suicide won’t seem such a bad option.
Grant is nursing a beer, bought with his last remain funds, plotting his escape the Yabba, when he is befriended by a local mine manager called Hynes. Hynes insists on taking him home for a roast dinner and what turns into an all night drinking session with other men he works with at the mine. Grant wakes up next morning on the outskirts of town in a shack owned by local identity Doc Tydon. “I’m a doctor of medicine and a tramp by temperament,” Tydon tells Grant. “I’m also an alcoholic.” While his drinking is a major impediment to practicing medicine in most cities, according to Tydon, “here it’s scarcely noticeable”.
The men from the previous evening arrive to take Tydon and Grant kangaroo shooting. The ensuring drug and alcohol-fuelled carnage comprised over 40 pages of the book and is given significant treatment in the film. The visceral images are so disturbing due to the fact that much of the killing was real. Canadian Director Ted Kotcheff hired professional shooters for the hunting scenes, to ensure the kangaroos were killed quickly and painlessly. The shooters drank whisky to keep warm during the lengthy night shoot, got drunk and started wounding the animals instead of killing them. The following morning, Grant makes another effort to escape the Yabba, by hitching a lift with a passing truck driver, but this, too, ends badly.
When I first wrote the piece on which this blog post is based for a US site in 2014, it felt like the film version of Wake in Fright was much less known than it is now. Whatever the case, its power comes still comes from the way the story taps into the fear that metropolitan dwellers like me have of being trapped in the outback. For overseas readers, this is the local term for the vast expanse of harsh terrain that makes up the majority of Australia. This fear, which is still semi hard-wired into the psyche of most city-dwelling Australians, must have been even more terrifying back in the early seventies, when our interior was so much more remote and alien.
Cook infused his book with his experiences working for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in the remote mining town of Broken Hill, a thousand kilometers inland from Sydney. Broken Hill also stands in for the Yabba in the film. It was by all accounts a tough film shoot that lasted nearly three months. Not content with Broken Hill’s already hardscrabble look, Kotcheff got his crew to catch blowflies to release on set and dust was sprayed on to furniture and props to make them look older.
English actor Gary Bond does a wonderful job of portraying Grant’s slow descent into the nightmare landscape of the Yabba. The tension is heightened by solid performances by the supporting players. Australian screen veteran Chips Rafferty, in his last movie role, is particularly good as the police chief, whose outwardly gregarious and friendly demeanour hides a more malevolent character. Donald Pleasance almost steals the show as the debauched outback libertine, Doc Tydon, complete with a near perfect Australian accent.
The film had a major critical impact in Australia, and is often credited as being responsible for the rejuvenation of our local film industry. It was also a hit in the US and Europe (where it was retitled Outback), and was shown at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival. Local audiences gave the film a cooler reception. Many were shocked by its portrayal of the outback, particularly the savagery of the kangaroo hunt. Watching the film now, it is also interesting to speculate on how the film’s initial reception was mediated by what is now a very obvious queer subtext running through much of the story. Not only the hyper male only atmosphere of the majority of the film and the profusion of male semi-nudity, but the depiction of Tydon as a pan sexual who at one point initiates a homosexual encounter with Grant. I think there are also significant questions about Grant’s sexuality, which come to the surface at a number of points in the film, most obviously during a failed coupling with Hynes’s daughter, Sylvia (English actor Janette Haynes), who it is inferred has also been Tydon’s lover.
Wake In Fright sank into obscurity and was unavailable on VHS and DVD until 2009. It wouldn’t have been re-released at all were it not for the efforts of the film’s editor and a number of others, who scoured international film libraries for nearly six years to find the original print. They eventually found it in, of all places, in a shipping container in Pittsburgh in 2003, along with a pile of other films labeled ‘For Destruction’. We can only be thankful they persevered in their efforts to find and restore this truly exceptional piece of Australian cinema for generations to see.