Wake in Fright was the movie that really began the renaissance of the Australian film industry. Although it was an Australian-US co-production directed by a Canadian it remains the most powerful movie ever made in Australia.
Although it caused a sensation at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971 and had an enormous impact on a young American director who saw it there, a guy by the name of Matin Scorcese, and although it did extremely well overseas it was a commercial flop in Australia. Movies that shine an honest and unflinching light on the dark side of Australian society are never popular with Australian audiences. And this movie really is a journey into Australia’s heart of darkness.
Back in those days it was the practice for newly qualified teachers to be forced to lodge a bond with the Education Department. If they wanted to get their bond back they had to spend several years teaching in the bush, because no-one in their right mind would volunteer to teach in remote areas of rural Australia unless they were forced to. And young John Grant rally has drawn the short straw. He’s been assigned to a tiny one-teacher school in Tiboonda, a town that comprises a grand total of two buildings, a pub and a one-room school for the children of the local farmers. There is nothing for hundreds of miles around Tiboonda except absolute flatness and red dust.
The annual Christmas holiday gives Grant a chance to escape for six weeks to Sydney. But to get the plane to Sydney he must first catch the train to the nearest big town, Bundanyabba (a thinly disguised version of the remote real-life mining town of Broken Hill). He intends to spend one night in Bundanyabba (known affectionately to the locals as The Yabba), but it’s a night he’ll never forget. It’s not only a descent into Hell, it’s a journey into his own heart of darkness. He encounters the aggressive hospitality of the locals, and after many many beers he is drawn into a a two-up school, two-up being a bizarre peculiarly Australian gambling game. He loses all his money, but his nightmare has only just begun.
Men outnumber women three-to-one in Bundanyabba (as they do in Broken Hill) and the town does not possess a single brothel. In this unbelievably unhealthy male environment the only outlets available are booze, gambling and violence. Violence is used as a substitute for sex. John Grant’s evening culminates in an orgy of killing in a drunken night-time kangaroo hunt.
Kenneth Cook’s original novel was superb, but the movie is even better. In fact it’s considerably better than the book, adding all kinds of subtle nuances. The movie emphasises the intellectual arrogance of John Grant, a man who considers himself to be superior to these barbarians with whom he has to mix. It also highlights his colossal lack of self-awareness (nicely emphasised by the lighting which whatever the source always seem to be shining directly into Grant’s eyes). In the book he seems to be merely a victim of the barbarism of the outback, but in the film it is his own self-pity, arrogance and lack of insight that leads him on from one horror to another.
The movie was shot largely on location in Broken Hill. Director Ted Kotcheff explains that he had no difficulty understanding that kind of environment because it’s so similar to the remote parts of Canada, with a culture constructed entirely of alcohol, violence and contempt for women.
Gary Bond is extremely good as John Grant. Donald Pleasence is absolutely magnificent as Doc Tydon, Bundanyabba’s sleazy alcoholic town doctor who has committed a kind of mind suicide by embracing the life of The Yabba. Jack Thompson in his first film role is impressive as a mindlessly violent drunken roo-shooter. The standout performance though comes from Chips Rafferty in his final movie role, as the apparently kind but actually sinister police sergeant who derives enormous pleasure from seeing the destruction of the clever big-city intellectual. It’s one of the most terrifying portrayals of anti-intellectualism you’ll ever see. Rafferty had been one of the big stars in the old Australian film industry back in the 1930s and 1940s.
Kotcheff saw the violence inherent in the story as being the only form of human contact allowed in this ultra-macho environment. It’s a kind of homoerotic male bonding pushed to extraordinarily unhealthy extremes by the extent to which the inhabitants of The Yabba will go to deny its existence, and by the breath-taking alcohol consumption that accompanies it.
The kangaroo hunt makes for very disturbing view although Kotcheff emphasises that it wasn’t staged for the movie. It was simply footage of an actual kangaroo hunt, the sort of thing that happens every night in places like this.
The entire movie makes for disturbing viewing. At the time of its release Australian audiences interpreted it as a savage attack on Australian culture, but that’s a complete misunderstanding of the film. It’s a movie about any environment in any country where women are excluded and where drunkenness and violence are celebrated as evidence of masculinity. I don’t believe you need to be Australian or to know anything about Australia in order to appreciate the frightening power and horror of this extraordinary film.
The newly (and superbly) restored Region 4 DVD includes a host of extras. One can only hope that this movie gets a world-wide DVD release as well.