This has been a long time coming. Ted Kotcheff‘s 1970 film Wake in Fright has often been acknowledged as being a major milestone in the development of Australian cinema. Even though the film was made with a mostly English cast, American money, a Canadian director, and Jamaican screenwriter, Evan Jones (based on a novel by Kenneth Cook), it manages to be a time capsule for the state of Outback life at the time. However, between a borderline hostile reception in its own country, and a very poor distribution in America (in a cut form called Outback), it was almost forgotten for many years, with it feared that the original negatives were gone for good. Fortunately, a long search by National Film and Sound Archive has lead to the materials being found and restored for this new re-release by Eureka Entertainment. Hopefully this will help to give the film the reputation it has long been overdue.
John Grant (Gary Bond) is a school teacher posted in the Outback hamlet of Tiboonda. He has to work there until he can pay off the $1000 bond issued for his employment. While on his way back to Sydney for the Christmas holidays, he has what was going to be a one night stop off in the city of Bundayabba (“The Yabba” to the locals). There he notices a game the locals play, ‘two-up’, where a lot of money is gambled and won. Seeing this, spurred on by a lot of beer, he has a very bad idea… the thing is, even after that, his time in The Yabba has barely begun to suck.
Now this movie could have gone down the route of just portraying the people of the Outback as essentially barbarians: uncouth, drunken and violent. Yes there is an element of that in here, and yes The Yabba is shown in far from the best light. In fact, in many ways it’s a deconstruction of the cosy Australian ‘G’Day Mate’ image of the country. It takes a very canny kind of filmmaking to make being very friendly seem threatening and dangerous, in this case the nature of Australians as social drinkers (“c’mon Mate, have one more on me!”). As well as the people though, the film has a very dirty, grimy aesthetic that could only be captured by having a very low budget and shooting on real locations, as they did. As for the landscapes, at the start the film shows how much nothing there is in the Outback, it’s enough to make one agoraphobic.
However, there’s more to the drama beyond its portrayal of a very squalid Outback, notably in the nature of Grant as a character. All the way through he is shown as having more than a bit of a condescending attitude to the area and its people; he’s middle class and proud. Thus it’s natural to have a story about the clash of cultures. But the crucial fact is that almost all Grant’s woes are his own fault (admittedly resulting more than once from decisions influenced by the locals’ XXXX lager). It’s his distain of this environment that leads to his fateful mistake, one that he has more than one opportunity to simply walk away from. In fact, the most interesting local is Doc, not just because he’s played by Donald Pleasance but because he’s a mirror for Grant. Doc is a character who’s educated, originally from the city but who has come to the Yabba because his faults would be tolerated there, whereas Grant’s faults condemn him there against his will. It’s the interactions between these two that drive the story, especially in one very shocking scene towards the end where the real meat of the film’s subject matter can be found.
This movie has been a controversial title for many years for one sequence in particular. During the film, Grant ends up joining a kangaroo hunt; for this scene, Kotcheff and his crew actually did some guerrilla filming of an actual cull. It’s distressing to watch. Even the more obviously staged parts, with no real cruelty, are by far some of the most overtly horrific scenes in the film. Acts of actual animal cruelty are a matter the BBFC have been stern on for many years, which is probably another reason for the film’s obscurity here. As shocking as these parts are though, it is used appropriately to get across a serious point about conservation. While having actual animal harm on film is hard to sit through, the way it was done without direct participation and the message at its heart help to justify the scene.
Wake in Fright really deserves to have been better known before this re-release. It’s a hard film to watch at points, since it goes into some very grim areas, but it works as a powerful battle of the classes that ends up being fairly even handed, judging both sides the same. It also manages to highlight some pretty major social issues from the time too, often in ways as simple as showing one shot of an Aboriginal Australian sitting on a train. It has powerful performances, including an amazing turn by Pleasance, and direction that feels far more modern than one would think of a film of this vintage, particularly in several dream/hallucination scenes later on. Catching this on the big screen is highly recommended, though definitely not by the Australian Tourist Board any time soon.