Strewth! Here comes something truly special.
Based on Kenneth Cook’s novel, Ted Kotcheff’s Wake In Fright is widely regarded as a particularly sweaty gem of the Australian New Wave. It was released in 1971, the same year as another New Wave masterwork, Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout. Whereas that film enjoyed a heady reputation from the start, Wake In Fright seemed to disappear for many years after its initial run, despite critical acclaim from its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, and successful theatrical runs across Europe. A 2009 restoration and re-release saw it brought back to sweaty life, and its returns once more to stake its claim as the finest film to come out of Australia.
Notably, on original release the film did not enjoy much success in Australia, almost definitely due to its unflattering portrayal of the Outback and the people therein. Our representative in this drier-than-dry morass is John Grant (Gary Bond), a young teacher trapped in a remote Outback township, tied to a teaching post to repay college debts. With Christmas holidays approaching, Grant prepares to leave for Sydney to visit his girlfriend. First, though, he must overnight in the city of Bundanyabba before catching his flight on to the coast. Unlike the ‘burbs of American Southern Gothic, where locals are defined by little more than distrust, the denizens of ‘the Yabba’ are surprisingly friendly. Grant encounters a local police sergeant (Chips Rafferty), who introduces Grant to prevailing pastimes of the Yabba: booze and ‘two-up’, essentially a giant game of Heads or Tails played for money. As soon as Grant arrives in Bundanyabba, the viewer is plunged into the sunburnt hedonism of outback living, where civilisation’s mask slips at the urge of the encroaching desert and heat. This witless abandon causes Grant to gamble what money he has on ‘two-up’, and thus he traps himself in the Yabba, unable to afford safe passage.
At first, Grant can’t leave due to lack of funds, but soon the aggressive hospitality of the locals becomes the force that keeps him in situ. It sounds like Buñuel on a bigger scale, but then you daren’t argue with a character like Donald Pleasence’s Doc Tydon. Doc leads the group of men who take Grant under their testosterone-bloated wing. Their prime interests are beer, hunting, beer, gambling and beer. Their exploits are rowdy and drenched in sweat, and that sticky atmos drips into every frame. Everywhere the clean-cut Grant turns he is uncomfortably pinned by their grizzly manliness. The most uncomfortable and infamous exemplar of this is when the group go on a kangaroo hunt. The hunt is unstaged, and the suffering of Skippy and co. is just as horrid as the day the film was first released. Any queasiness suffered by the audience is surpassed by that of Grant. The role was the only leading film role Bond had in his career, a surprise considering his cut-glass accent and uncanny resemblance to Peter O’Toole. His charming prettiness makes him ideal prey for Doc and his crew, and Pleasence’s performance switches queasily between rowdy warmth and knowing menace, a long way from (and a suitable patient for) Halloween’s Dr. Loomis.
From its relative dearth of female characters to its sickening violence towards animals, Wake In Fright is an intense plunge into the depths of the male psyche. Grant is relatively young compared to his new compatriots, whose violent ways stem from the pain of hangovers and desert living. The whole film feels sticky; shirts cling to backs and hair is matted by perspiration. Canadian director Kotcheff, who would go on to make First Blood, renders Australia a dichotomy: full of natural beauty, yet conducive to anger and violence. The tracks were laid for Ozploitation here, but none of the films that followed could match Wake In Fright for emotional intelligence. Despite the bloodshed and copious amounts of beer on show, it’s a fascinating pastiche of manliness and male bonding. The pretty boy and the rugged outdoors men seem absolutely aberrant to each other. Doc observes Grant’s manner and concludes it is “a vanity spawned by fear.” That perceived vanity is soon washed away on a wave of beer and kangaroo carcasses. Wake In Fright makes no concessions to audience expectations or good taste. It’s a cinematic fever dream, full of sights and events that don’t wash off easily. Wake In Fright is a riveting watch, sometimes in spite of itself, and the passage of time has only added to its ferocity and fear. Drink up, mate.