Director: Ted Kotcheff
Screenplay: Evan Jones
Based on a Novel by: Kenneth Cook
Starring: Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence, Chips Rafferty, Sylvia Kay, Jack Thompson
Producer: George Willoughby
Running Time: 109 min
BBFC Certificate: 18
Getting a prestigious Masters of Cinema re-release on the same day as White Dog seemed fitting for Wake in Fright, as it reminded me of that film in a number of ways. Both are brash indictments of states/institutions as well as humanity in general and both had a difficult history which caused them to be pretty much forgotten for a number of years. Wake in Fright got off to a better start, not only gaining critical praise, but playing at the Cannes Film Festival. Like White Dog it didn’t play so well at home though (Australia in this case) and understandably so, as it doesn’t cast the country in a good light at all. Nevertheless, the film proved a pivotal piece of Australian film history. Along with 1971’s Walkabout it helped kickstart the Australian New Wave, bringing the country’s film industry back to life after decades of despondency following its groundbreaking early years (Australia produced the world’s first ever feature film, The Story of the Kelly Gang back in 1906).
Largely due to its poor performance in its home country I imagine, Wake in Fright became a famously “lost” title though. Good quality prints of the film had pretty much disappeared, preventing any sort of home video release for decades. Thankfully, in 2004, one was found in storage somewhere, spotted just in time as it was labelled “for destruction”. The print wasn’t in great shape, but the film’s editor, Anthony Buckley, headed a restoration project, re-releasing it in 2009 to great acclaim. It was even screened at Cannes again in the Cannes Classics selection, making it only the second film (after L’Avventura) ever to play twice at the festival. After this, the film has been able to grow in stature once again and is considered a classic of Australian cinema (although it must be said the director was Canadian and the production was a collaboration between America and Australia).
Wake in Fright opens in a small village in the outback with a 360 degree shot showing just how desolate it really is. The camera settles on a school where teacher John Grant (Gary Bond) is finishing off the last day of school for the year. He grabs a train to the town of Bundanyabba (a.k.a. “the Yabba”), where he intends to spend a night before catching a plane to Sydney the next morning. Unfortunately his tour of the nightlife with the local police chief turns into a drunken mess where he loses all of his money through gambling on the pub’s popular coin toss game. The debauchery doesn’t end there though and the next few days blend into one hellish alcohol-fuelled nightmare, taking Grant to the very end of his tether as he experiences and partakes in all the dark sides of humanity, seemingly the natural way of life deep in the outback.
Director Ted Kotcheff has had a wildly eclectic (and patchy) career with this and First Blood nestling amongst the likes of Weekend at Bernie’s and the original Fun With Dick and Jane as well as numerous shoddy TV movies, but he pulled out all the stops here, proving that he’s no director for hire. It’s a tour de force in sustaining a grimly realistic terror. The colour palette and cinematography (as well as a heavy dousing of sweat) crank up the heat, causing the viewer to feel trapped in this nightmare, despite the vastly empty landscape.
And being trapped is a key theme here. Grant feels trapped in his job, forced by a bond into keeping his post in the tiny, no hope community school, and in The Yabba he becomes trapped further still through bullying masked as hospitality, forcing him to wash his worries away in a river of beer and booze. Interestingly though, Grant often seems drawn and addicted to the sex, gambling and violence he’s subjected to. As much as he’d like to think he’s above this behaviour, clearly it’s an innate characteristic and ultimately he becomes part of the culture. As Kotcheff states in an interview included on the disc, he was damning the nature of masculinity rather than Australia (although I’d argue there’s a bit of that here too). Man and nation seem inevitably trapped in this self-destructive behaviour.
The film is still very shocking too, largely in the infamous kangaroo hunting scene. On one of their many drunken benders, a group of men take Grant out in their jeep to shoot, knife and even run over dozens of defenceless kangaroos. To make it all the more shocking, the sequences of animals getting shot are completely real. Kotcheff refused to harm any creature for the film, but he took a couple of crew members to document the work of licensed hunters who were legally controlling the kangaroo population. This makes the carnage all the more gut wrenching when you know you’re not watching special effects or makeup.
Editor Anthony Buckley does a great job of controlling the rhythm of proceedings too. As the level of alcohol increases, so does the pace, and scenes such as the kangaroo massacre are cut ferociously, boosting their impact greatly. He knows when to slow things down though too and we have plenty of time to take in Kotcheff’s deceptively well composed shots, which can seem hidden behind the sweaty, filthy texture of the images. It’s a seemingly very raw film, but is actually exceptionally well controlled.
It’s not perfect though. Its viewpoint and message can be rather heavy handed and the climax was quite clumsily foreshadowed early on in the film. However, as a piece of cinema it’s bold, powerful and intoxicating despite its grim subject matter. It’s not for the faint-hearted (especially during the kangaroo hunt), but through mixing a kind of social-realism with visceral and occasionally surreal horror Wake in Fright is a unique experience which continues to thrill over 40 years on.
Wake in Fright is out on 31st March in the UK on Dual Format Blu-Ray and DVD, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema Series. I watched the Blu-Ray version and it looked great considering the limited source material the restoration team had to work with. The image seems a little soft perhaps, but colours and contrast are excellent.
There are a fair amount of special features included too to further sweeten the deal. First and foremost is a feature commentary with Kotcheff and editor Anthony Buckley. I haven’t had chance to listen to this yet, but I’m generally a fan of a good commentary. Judging by the interview with Kotcheff also included here, he should be a great speaker. In the interview he speaks honestly and intelligently about the film’s production and reception. It makes for a decent watch. On top of this there are a handful of period featurettes too, which are all short but packed with interesting tidbits of information. The latest of these, which is a news piece on the 2009 re-release, is particularly illuminating as it shows some of the restoration process.
There are the customary trailers too, but as ever with any Masters of Cinema release, one of the key additions to the package is the booklet that is included. This is a must read and is full of essays on the film from critics and crew, including Kotcheff and Buckley again.