Wake in Fright (1971)

Another one from the Screem Magazine archives:

DVD Review

First published in Screem Magazine, USA, 2009

Now that I sit with my finger poised on computer key, my thoughts turn to why I so fervently pressed editor Darryl Mayeski to let me write a piece on Wake in Fright (or Outback as it was known to the international market outside Australia upon its original release in 1971). It’s the kind of film that holds strong appeal beyond parochial boundaries; however, the specific cultural nuances are something that can’t be communicated with broad brushstrokes. After reading a beautifully-informed 8000-word essay called ‘Home Truths’ by Kate Jennings in which she revisits the film and comments on its social significance, this fact has only been accentuated (as well as my own intellectual insecurity).

That said, in pulling up the critical bootstraps and getting on with the job, I’m going to attempt my own spin on detailing this film, which literally sits unparalleled and unrepeatable in the relatively small stable of Australian cinema. But that’s not the only reason why I chose to write about it. Despite its brilliance and general critical acknowledgement of such brilliance – Wake in Fright screened in official competition at Cannes in 1971 – the film almost disappeared into obscurity, lost forever, until original editor Anthony Buckley embarked on an odyssey to bring it back to life. His investigations starting in 1996 revealed original source materials were missing and a 35mm print uncovered in Dublin was of way too poor quality to restore. Finally, he found the original materials slated for disposal in a vault in Pittsburgh; a fluke of a discovery that enabled a digitally-reinvigorated version of Wake in Fright to be given an Australian cinematic re-release in 2009 and provide a generation of curious cinephiles (myself included) with the opportunity to see this reviled masterpiece that divided audiences and caused patriotic Australians to metaphorically call for the head of its Canadian director, Ted Kotcheff (yes – the same Ted Kotcheff who would later go on to make Weekend at Bernies).

You know the feeling when you’re sure you’re about to see something special, but you don’t want to succumb too much to the anticipation in case you’ve built up the experience beyond its capability? That was the feeling I had while forking out cash at the box office and taking a seat in a darkened cinema to see Wake in Fright. The hype and excitement among those in the know had been considerable, and that included the toughest audience – the people who’d read the novel by Kenneth Cook written in 1961 upon which the film had been based. Highly intuitive in its retelling, Wake in Fright is one of those few film adaptations that manages to stay lovingly faithful to the flavour of its source.

I recall the opening scene where British actor Gary Bond – playing an up-tight English academic called John Grant enslaved to an educational contract in the middle of nowhere (or what Aussies would refer to as ‘the back of Bourke’) – sits at an outback pub with his one suitcase and the barman, looking forward to falling into the arms of his sweetheart when he reaches Sydney for his vacation. The mood rings Texas Chainsaw Massacre-style gritty, hot, barren and threatening. It is a quiet opener, and one that sets the tone for a tumbleweed effect of tension and frustration as this man’s goal proves more and more elusive. That’s the thing about Wake in Fright – it’s not fear and/or horror that will necessarily have you on the edge of your seat (although a steady stream of bubbling malevolence is what drives the entire narrative), it’s the frustration that will have you ripping off your hang-nails and grinding your teeth down to the gums. And it’s this sheer frustration that has our protagonist literally pushed to the brink of self-combustion.

As the voice-over on the original trailer says, “In northern Australia, there are 5,000 square miles of sand, scrub and searing heat – a desolate, primitive place that can take a man and destroy him. They call it ‘The Outback.” Another trailer goes, “This is John Grant, a young, handsome, intelligent schoolteacher. This is John Grant, an ugly, sweaty, desperate animal. What happened to John Grant? The Outback happened to John Grant.”

In the process of his pilgrimage to Sydney, Grant makes a stopover at a rural backwater called Bundanyabba (or ‘The Yabba’ as the locals refer to it). Upon arrival, his taxi driver says, “It’s a friendly place. Nobody worries who you are, where you’re from. If you’re a good bloke, you’re all right. You know what I mean?” This is a prophetic statement considering Grant’s steady decline at the hands of ‘friendly’ Yabbans over the next five days.

It starts with a visit to a typically rough-and-ready pub where he makes his first acquaintance through the routine invitation to share in a beer – ‘have a drink with me, mate’ is the obligatory greeting (more of a statement than a question) and the barometer by which every man is judged as ‘friendly’ or not. When Grant makes an easy win as part of a ‘two-up’ tournament (a now illegal form of gambling previously popular among Australian servicemen during World War I), he sees an opportunity to acquire cash that could free him from the shackles of his contract. Instead, he loses everything and, stranded with no money, he’s forced to rely on the ‘friendliness’ of locals to set him back on his course.

Grant becomes waylaid by the distractions around him: the endless stream of ale that turns him into a blubbering, runny-eyed mess, the rampant mysogyny, the incessant and superfluous trials of manhood that include a particularly distressing roo shoot (the film crew used an actual controlled kangaroo hunt for this scene; Australia being one of the few countries in the world – if the only – to eat its national emblem). He makes ‘friends’ with a doctor whose stint in ‘The Yabba’ has transformed him into an alcoholic sociopath. Played with needlepoint precision by Donald Pleasance, who takes a decent stab at the Aussie nasal drawl, this loopy physician is the lynchpin of the film, both the villain and the voice of reason. The only female character – appropriately dour-faced – is almost rendered mute, nothing but a sexual plaything for the boys, communicating by opening her legs.

Within the fabric of Wake in Fright comes a seering commentary on the Anglo-Saxon cultural heritage of Australia, in particular, the rather abstract – and, for some, alien – concept of ‘mateship’. For the unsuspecting, mateship may appear synonymous with friendship, but this is incorrect. As the Australian Government’s cultural portal states, “In Australia, a ‘mate’ is more than just a friend. It’s a term that implies a sense of shared experience, mutual respect and unconditional assistance.” As a stranger in ‘The Yabba’, John Grant’s means of ingratiation with the local folk is to form a bond of mateship – a sense of inclusion that is most easily established by the sharing of a beer and mutual inebriation. When he breaks this bond – even chatting with a woman is enough to sever the deal, one of the many indicators of a subtle homoeroticism to this kind of mateship between men folk – he finds himself the target of intense suspicion.

If anyone wishes to doubt the importance of mateship in Australian society, the same Australian Government portal under the heading ‘Manhood and Nationhood’ says, “A study of ANZAC soldiers by Bill Gammage in The Broken Years (1974), concludes ‘mateship was a particular Australian virtue, a creed, almost a religion’. When Gammage asked 237 soldiers of the Australian Imperial Forces that served in the First World War, one in three said the experience of mateship was incomparable.” This statement gives some credence to the drive for mateship that sends the characters in Wake in Fright to extremism.

Most Screem readers may not be aware that I’m Australian, therefore, my interest in writing this piece comes from a fascination in Wake in Fright’s depiction of a place that I call home. But, it’s imperative to point out, the Australia that I’m familiar with is a chardonnay-sipping, café-latte-drinking urban society, which differs only very slightly to the large cities of Northern America. I hardly ever come across a kangaroo, and I’m just as delighted to see a koala as any Japanese tourist, so the ‘Australia’ as introduced through Wake in Fright is something that I have seen, but rarely experience.

Also – and I must make this clear – a roadtrip to the rural hamlets of Australia will not necessarily see you staring down the barrel of a gun. In the spirit of Deliverance and other hicksvillian fare, Wake in Fright relies on stereotypes and creative licence to tell a compelling story. Why it is likely Australians took offence to the film is because there’s not enough accurate information about Australia disseminated in the wider world for non-Australians to identify stereotype from reality. Hence, Australian audiences attacked the film with a wave of uproar rather than reverence. Needless to say, as an outsider, director Ted Kotcheff bore the brunt of the Aussie anger, although, in speaking to Kate Jennings for her article, he says his function as a filmmaker was to observe and not judge.

More recently, Aussie filmmaker Greg McLean propagated the lineage spawned through Wake in Fright with the character of Mick Taylor in Wolf Creek (2005). Taking the stereotype to more homicidal heights, Taylor (chillingly conceived by John Jarratt) presents a ‘she’ll be right, mate’, what-you-see-is-what-you-get Aussie exterior that is the mask to the maniac – Wake in Fright to a tee. Just as Taylor’s mask crumbles, the characters of Wake in Fright flip-flop in mood and volatility with the toss of a coin. Considering the Australian bush and desert outback is undeniably one of the most hostile environments known to modern man, it works perfectly into story-telling convention to have this callous landscape act as the fuel from which fragile minds can turn, twist and crack.

It was a few years ago that I was enjoying a chat with the director of Ghost Rider who’d just flown into Melbourne, Australia, to shoot his Marvel comic blockbuster. He excitedly regaled me with stories of a fantastic location he’d just found – this really arid, dusty and dirty place with flies everywhere (he couldn’t stop talking about the flies). “It was like a horror movie,” he said. That place was Broken Hill, the mining town in New South Wales – home to the largest mining company in the world, BHP Billiton – where Wake in Fright was filmed in 1970. Even 40 years on, the atmosphere of the Australian outback packs a formidable punch in terms of the cinematic experience and, for just that one reason alone, we must be thankful that Wake in Fright has been dug up from its celluloid grave. But this film is so much more than a one-trick pony – it’s perfection.

The remastered version of Wake in Fright has been released on DVD and Blu-Ray (region free) in Australia. International customers may purchase by visiting the distributor website – www.madman.com.au

2 thoughts on “Wake in Fright (1971)

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  1. Director Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright honored at MOMA
    A surprise private screening celebration in honor of Canadian Director Ted Kotcheff’s 80th Birthday.

    (New York, NY, March 28,2011)— The restored 1971 Australian classic Wake in Fright was screened The Sunday on March 20th at The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in The Lewis B. & Dorothy Cullman Education & Research Building (The Celeste Bartos Theater) as part of a surprise private screening celebration given by his wife Laifun in honor of his 80th Birthday. 

    The event was co-hosted by Chris Meloni (Law & Order SVU) and Antonio Saillant (Angel Light Pictures).  Mariska Hargitay (Law & Order: SVU), Brian Dennehy and Michael Talbott (First Blood) and many other close friends of the honoree attended this historical event and a special reception dinner followed immediately after the screening at the restaurant Bice NY.

    Wake In Fright, released in 1971, is a sharply observed drama about a schoolteacher stranded in a hostile country town. Based on a novel by Kenneth Cook, it stars Gary Bond alongside Chips Rafferty, Donald Pleasence, Jack Thompson and Sylvia Kay. Directed by Canadian Ted Kotcheff, produced by George Willoughby and written by Evan Jones.

    At the time of production, Kotcheff had directed two films, the Tiara Tahiti (1962) and Two Men Sharing (1969). After Wake In Fright, Kotcheff would continue to have a successful career as a director. His later films included The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1973), as well as the football comedy “North Dallas Forty” (1979), which he also co-wrote, Fun with Dick and Jane (1977), First Blood (1982), and Weekend at Bernie’s (1988). In the 1990s, he returned to directing for TV and the executive producer of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

    38 years after its 1971 debut, ‘in competition,’ at the Cannes Film Festival, this film was declared a Cannes Classic in 2009 and was screened again as part of the 2009 Cannes Classics retrospective program, Kotcheff holds the honor of having one of only 2 films to have ever been screened twice at Cannes.

    A landmark film in the renaissance of Australian cinema in the 70s, Wake in Fright was lost for many years and has been restored by Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive and re-issued and is now considered one of the greatest Australian films of all time. The film is distributed via Madman Entertainment.

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