Immortalised in films such as “Crocodile” Dundee and revisited in the form of TV personalities like Steve Irwin, the bushman stands as a representation of how part of Australia sees itself: Sure, Australians may inhabit a vast continent filled with landscapes that kill you slowly and animals that do it quick… but that’s no reason to be rude! Unlike the cowboy whose distance from civilisation was evident in both his traditional reserved nobility and revised psychotic edge, the bushman was expected to survive for weeks alone in the Australian outback only to wander back into town and immediately remember his manners. G’day mate! Have a beer, sorry about the kangaroo blood. While Australia has followed America in using the western genre as a means of critiquing its own national myths, revisionist Australian westerns have tended to focus upon Australia’s racial and colonial past rather than the figure of the bushman itself. However, where westerns fail, the horror genre undoubtedly succeeds.
Back in 2005, an Australian horror film named Wolf Creek featured a warm and funny bushman who turns out to be a psychopathic killer. Now largely dismissed as generic torture porn, Wolf Creek suggested that the cheerful bonhomie displayed by bushmen when in towns was so utterly at odds with the isolated savagery required to eke out an existence in the Australian outback that the only way to square the psychological circle was to suggest that the bonhomie was an act, camouflage designed to hide something terrifying and savage. At the time, this revisionist take on the traditional bushman seemed pretty striking but in truth it was simply revisiting an idea explored in one of the lost gems of Australian cinema, Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright.
Based on a novel by Kenneth Cook, Wake in Fright opens on an isolated outback town where the local teacher (Gary Bond) is counting down the minutes till the holidays set in. Employed by the state, the teacher is forced to work a number of years in an isolated location before being able to redeem a bond and move to a city. Desperate to visit Sydney in order to visit his girlfriend and reacquaint himself with the joys of civilisation, the teacher John hops the first train out of town and winds up having to spend the night in a town known as ‘The Yabba’.
Ostensibly a typical Australian working-class town, The Yabba is really little more than an enormous pub and a gambling den where people bet fortunes on games of heads and tales. Initially disgusted by what he finds around him, John finds himself being browbeaten by a local copper (played by veteran cinematic bushman Chips Rafferty) who is quite adamant that The Yabba is the greatest place on Earth. Kotcheff brilliantly captures the edge lurking beneath the copper’s bonhomie by having him glare at John whenever he fails to neck a pint or express unreserved enthusiasm for the food, the décor, the betting and the people. The Yabba is a town that runs on good humour but the good humour is ugly and absolutist, intolerant of dissent or disaffection. Drunk on the local beer as well as his well-honed sense of middle-class superiority, John decides to place a few bets but after winning an absolute fortune, he returns to bet some more and winds up losing everything he has. Now he is not only penniless, but stuck in The Yabba.
Kotcheff uses John’s journey through The Yabba as a means of exposing the violent alcoholic nihilism that lurks beneath the surface of the Australian national image. John’s reactions are obviously quite bourgeois and, presented on their own, might have resulted in a film that spends over 100 minutes sneering at working-class Australians. However, the film’s use of John as an emotional touchstone is intriguingly refracted through the impressions of two other characters, a middle-class drunk (Al Thomas) whose wit and discernment become less and less obvious the drunker be becomes and an educated nihilist (Donald Pleasence) who has chosen to embrace the Yabba-lifestyle because he sees all forms of social, moral or spiritual advancement as a sign of vanity. The result is a film that manages to walk a fine line between demonising elements of working-class Australian culture and expressing real empathy as to why these people have come to think and act the way they do. There’s a wonderful scene late in the film where John hitches a lift with a trucker who invites him in to have a drink, terrified that another drink might send him back into the Yabba’s downward spiral, John refuses the drink only to be insulted and described as mad. How could anyone avoid descending into alcoholism when refusing to have a drink with a complete stranger is treated as a mortal insult?
Like all films shot in and around the Australian outback, Wake in Fright is beautiful to look at. British actor Gary Bond is perfectly cast as the troubled teacher as Kotcheff wraps his matinee-idol physique in a pale suit that becomes increasingly grimy and unpleasant as the film progresses. When John first meets the copper, he is like a Nazi god towering over the small town bullyboy but, come the end of the film, he is reduced to the status of a shivering drunk who is more than worthy of the copper’s small town contempt.
Visceral and surreally unpleasant without ever losing its grip on social reality, Wake in Fright is a film that reminds you of just how powerful and articulate Australian film can be when it turns its attention inwards. Fortuitously recovered and painstakingly restored by the Australian National Film & Sound Library in 2009, the film is released on DVD and Blu-ray along with a fantastic suite of extras including commentaries, interviews, booklets and a wonderfully on-the-nose Australian TV documentary that asks, without a hint of irony, what is the point of art?