Wake in Fright (1971)
Directed by: Ted Kotcheff.
Written by: Evan Jones based on the novel by Kenneth Cook.
Starring: Gary Bond (John Grant), Donald Pleasence (Doc Tydon), Chips Rafferty (Jock Crawford), Sylvia Kay (Janette Hynes), Jack Thompson (Dick), Peter Whittle (Joe), Al Thomas (Tim Hynes), John Meillon (Charlie), John Armstrong (Atkins), Slim DeGrey (Jarvis).
Sometimes a movie is too much of its time and place to be properly viewed upon its initial release. Such seems to be the case with Wake in Fright – a 1971 Australian film that got very good reviews at the time – and even a slot in the official selection in that year’s Cannes Film Festival – that nevertheless tanked at the box office, and spent the next 40 years in obscurity – as it was considered a lost film. The film’s editor, Anthony Buckley, started searching for a print good enough to restore in 1994 – and it took him 10 years to find one – in Pittsburgh of all places, in a box labeled “For Destruction”. The film was restored and re-released in 2012 – where it has since taken its place among the greatest Australian films ever made.
It is perhaps easy to see why Australian audiences didn’t want to see the film back in 1971. It takes the stereotype of Australian manly men – those hard drinking, fun loving guys, and looks at the darkness underneath all of that. Its story of a teacher, John Grant (Gary Bond), who has to teach at a remote, Outback school – in order to get licensed to teacher at all, you have to pay a $1,000 bond – which guarantees you’ll stick out your contract no matter what remote wasteland they assign you to. It’s the Christmas break, and John is looking forward to going to Sydney to see his girlfriend – a blonde, surfer girl bombshell, we see in his mind’s eye. But first, he has to take a train to Bundanyabba – known to the locals as The Yabba – and spend the night, waiting for his flight to Sydney. He goes to a bar, where he meets the local police chief – Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty), who like everyone else John will meet in the Yabba, encourages him to drink another beer, then another beer, then another, etc. He also introduces John to “two up” – a gambling game in the bar’s backroom – it’s a simple enough game – a flipper flips two quarters and everyone bets on whether they’ll heads or tails (one of each is a do over). In classic movie tradition John wins and wins at this game – until he loses. And when he loses, he loses everything. Now, he’s stuck in The Yabba, with no way to get anywhere. Luckily, everyone in town is so friendly. He first meets Tim Hynes (Al Thomas) in a bar – who invites him back to his place for more booze. It’s there he meets Tim’s daughter Janette (Sylvia Kay) – who beautiful, and seemingly constantly pissed off. Eventually, he fall in with a crowd led by Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence) – who will push John to become more of a man.
Wake in Fright was made in the same year as Sam Peckinpah’s much more famous film, Straw Dogs – where Dustin Hoffman plays an American physics professor, who accompanies his wife to her remote, English hometown – and has to learn how to be a man – which he does through violence. Wake in Fright does something similar – but in a more subtle way. The men in Straw Dogs – the ones who knew his wife before, and want to know her again (which, depending on your interpretation of a key scene, she either does or does not respond to)- are clearly violent thugs from the beginning. But while Doc Tydon is kind of creepy from the moment we meet him – Pleasence has that way about him as an actor, making every role he does even creepier than it otherwise would be – they seem like nice guys at first. All they’re doing, after all, is drinking and having fun. They don’t even care that John has no money – he’s one of them now, and they accept and encourage him – as John gets pushed further and further in doing things he otherwise would never do. This culminates in the sequence that has made Wake in Fright famous – and controversial – as the men drag John along with them on a kangaroo hunt. The sequence is brutal and unflinching – director Ted Kotcheff and the crew accompanied a real kangaroo hunt, and filmed it, meaning the bloody animals in pain you see in the film are real.
Director Kotcheff has defended his use of this footage – saying that he only used the mildest of footage he shot (and that most of what he did shoot was far too graphic to show). He himself is a vegetarian, and The Royal Australian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals urged him to use the footage in the film, to show the world just exactly was being done to kangaroos in these nightly hunts. The footage, then, serves two purposes. It is a brilliant depiction of just how far this mild mannered school teacher had fallen by that point – that this man who is uncomfortable with a gun at first, not only allows himself to be brought along on this hunt, but that he becomes an active participant in it, and does truly horrific things in it. It also shows just what is being done to kangaroos – which like other horrific footage (like in various films that show the inner workings of a slaughterhouse) – those of whom who eat meat (or, in the case of kangaroos, buy pet food that includes their meat), at least need to be aware of.
All of this is powerful stuff in Wake in Fright – but I think the reason why the film is truly great, comes after that kangaroo hunt – when the film makes explicit the homoerotic tension that had been running through the film for almost the entirety of its running time, with an encounter between Doc and John. There is often this tension in these “manly” movies – I mentioned it recently when talking about Captain America: Civil War – but few films actually explicitly acknowledge it. You could criticize the film as being homophobic if you wanted to – John’s reaction to what happens with Doc clearly indicates his disgust with it – but I don’t read the film that way. There’s something deeper at play here.
The end of the film is intriguing – as John returns to his normal life at that remote Outback school, and has a short conversation with the local bartender we saw briefly at the beginning. What is that look on the bartender’s face? Why is he smiling? I’m not quite sure, but I am sure, I won’t forget that look – or most of what led up to it. Wake in Fright is a film that very much of its time and place – I think it made people uncomfortable when it came out – and perhaps with some distance now, they can see it more clearly. And yet, I think you could pretty much make the same film today – and it would be just as relevant. Some things, I guess, never change.