An Australian-American co-production, a work instantly feted upon its initial release, as a masterpiece in France (which is the territory in which it did most of its business at the time), but directed by a Canadian filmmaker living and working in the UK, Ted Kotcheff’s “Wake in Fright” – a striking gem of existential terror and profound emotional unease -- is the best ‘70s commercial/arthouse crossover flick you’ve probably never seen. It’s up there with the greats such as “Performance” or Walkabout”, and, much like the latter, and despite the diverse production pedigree, was instrumental in kick-starting the New Wave renaissance in Ozzie cinema of the 1970s after a group of young, independent minded directors such as Peter Weir, Fred Schepisi and George Miller, taking their inspiration from the advent of New Hollywood the previous decade, began to develop their own personal, idiosyncratic but identifiably Australian approach to the revival of the country’s then moribund film industry, using this work as their guiding light.
Although selected by Cannes to be the official Australian entry for the 1971 festival – which is where it received its premier -- poor domestic box office returns ensured this compelling but deeply unsettling portrait of one man’s sun-baked descent into a personal Hell all but disappeared from view for twenty-five years, with only the occasional TV screening and rare, dupey grey market VHS quality prints keeping the memory alive until concerted efforts, begun in the 1990s by the film’s former editor turned producer Anthony Buckley, to track down a print that might be good enough to serve as the basis for restoring the film for an eventual home release, resulted in his discovery of the original negative (and other related materials), which was found in a Pittsburgh warehouse, stored in a wooden container marked for imminent destruction. The scratched and decaying negative turned out to be far too battered and worn for photo-chemical restoration processes to be of much service, but a fan of the film working at Deluxe Sidney made the job a personal project, dedicating the next three years of his own spare time to using the latest digital techniques to restore it, frame by frame, to pristine condition, resulting in a digital version that, according to Kotcheff and Buckley, manages to derive more detail from the negative than any of the prints that were originally struck back in 1971.
The film was based on a 1961 novel by Kenneth Cook, who in turn based the story on his experiences of the outback, living among isolated working-class communities there while working as a broadcast journalist for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in a remote mining town in New South Wales called Broken Hill, which was also used as the main exterior location for ‘the Yabba’ in Kotcheff’s film version. One other attempt to adapt the novel had previously been made in the early-sixties, which would have seen Joseph Losey directing Dirk Bogarde in the main role of schoolteacher John Grant -- but the production fell through at an early stage. Ted Kotcheff started his career in Canadian television in 1952, but it was to Britain he came when looking to develop a career in the movies in the late-fifties, since the Canadian film industry was non-existent at that time. While living in the UK, Kotcheff (who went on to direct the first Rambo film “First Blood” and “Weekend at Bernie’s”), oversaw many highly regarded plays for the ITV anthology drama television series Armchair Theatre, including early work by respected playwrights such as Alun Owen.
“Wake in Fright” was his third feature film assignment, and although it took Kotcheff to a country and a community he knew little about, his outsider’s eye enabled him to capture without condescension its unique ambience and the disconcerting oddness to the newcomer of many of its defining qualities, such as, for instance, the tribalistic communal ‘mateship’ culture of ritualised beer drinking, and the unthinking exclusion of women from most areas of community life. It helped that the director fell in love with the strange dust-laden desolation of the landscape, Brian West’s cinematography in particular capturing a vivid sense of its stifling heat and its filmy sweat-inducing clamminess; the relentless, oppressive, glaring light that helps make a flat featureless desert emptiness feel so utterly claustrophobic rather than liberating.
All this helps set an appropriate evocative context for a story that, in Kotcheff’s hands, becomes not just a localised examination of one person’s desperate attempt to establish his own identity as he’s cast adrift in an alien landscape that’s devoid of all stimulus other than that of a most rudimentary kind, but a wider examination of masculinity and its discontents in general. The film’s more disturbing quality derives from its insidious ability to capture the despondent sense of hopelessness that seems to be the main result of this personal journey of self-discovery for the main protagonist -- one in which all past maintained assumptions and self-delusions about class, morality, and even sexual identity are systematically broken down to leave only a hollow chasm of existential crisis that cannot be breached. This is a horror film; but it's one in which the horror takes place entirely within a void in which the soul has been discovered to be absent.
One cannot ignore the artistic and social context in which “Wake in Fright” was made and in which it was viewed at the time: its stylistic tropes -- from the distinctive quirky music, written for its soundtrack by John Scott, mixing offbeat, folk-inflected woodwind-and-acoustic cues with strange serpentine melodies strung out on strings soaked in reverb; right down to its use of quick cutting and the kaleidoscopic pattern of flash frames incorporated into the editing scheme at key moments to disorientate the viewer – consist of elements that place it alongside challenging contemporary works of its day such as “Straw Dogs”, “A Clockwork Orange” or “Deliverance”. It belongs to that part of its milieu in which explorations of the dark side of the western male psyche were very much the theme de jour for a cinema sympathetic to the countercultural critique of establishment values in light of the horrors of the Vietnam War then being experienced by many young Americans, uprooted from their own culture and thrown into a conflict in a foreign land where acts of atrocity suddenly became possible behavioural outcomes for a generation of young people raised without previous knowledge of war, the majority of whom would have otherwise led conventional lives in the country of their birth.
The subject matter of the film, which concerns the realisation by a supposedly self-assured but naïve educated white male, that a disturbing underbelly of corruption can be dredged up fairly easily from his own brittle psyche and can be uncovered lurking not very far beneath the civilised veneer of his conformist middle-class aspirations, takes the particular cultural specifics of a remote region of the Australian outback and its brash inhabitants as the background for the provision of a representation of a particular community that feels authentic and true whilst also simultaneously being highly symbolic of the above mentioned themes: Kotcheff eschewed extras and used people who really lived in the region to populate Cook’s fiction, filming in the real-life bars and gambling dens they frequented to capture the true character of the place. Occasionally, locals are also used briefly as performers who appear alongside the professional cast of actors. This working-class population of primarily white males (women are outnumbered three to one) exists inside its own exclusive heat-haze bubble of dust and sand, sealed off from the rest of Australian civilisation by endless miles of desert outback emptiness. But despite the film’s affinity with the contemporary works mentioned above, “Wake in Fright” marks out the way in which the community it portrays eventually become the agents of the isolated protagonist’s undoing in a much more complex and subtle way than do, say, the adversarial situations which develop during the course of John Boorman’s “Deliverance” or in Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs”, where, in each case, an outsider’s encounter with a closed off insular culture results in hostility and violence that uncovers the vestigial core of brutality in the soul of the sophisticated, modern urban-dwelling man. Mild-mannered schoolteacher John Grant’s unexpected collision with the men who live and work in the deadbeat town of Bundanyabba (or ‘the Yabba’ for short) is not one that appears to be of a sinister nature in any conventional sense at first, but the menace which the film evokes is of a much more profound and disturbing kind because it goes right to the root of the central character’s being and the nature of masculinity itself.
In fact, the only form of stridency and aggressiveness Grant generally encounters at the hands of his hosts comes in the form of their almost comically insistent hospitality, which requires that any visitor acquiesce in the constant flow of offers to ‘buy you a beer, mate?’ or else risk mortally offending whoever’s doing the offering, which tends to be every other person one meets and leads to an befuddled state of inebriation being quickly attained soon after arrival in the town. John Grant’s odyssey begins when he leaves his isolated schoolroom in the outback, where he is teacher to a small class of sullen children who live in the surrounding mining towns, to catch a flight back to Sidney for the Christmas holiday season. He works all year round, literally out of a single room -- or rather a small shack in the middle of nowhere – that is set along the route of the one rail track that runs through this part of the desert, situated next to a drowsy, flyblown beer bar in which Grant is invariably the only client after work. Seconded to this remote part of the country by the State Education Department after paying a thousand pounds to guarantee himself the job, Grant dreams only of seeing his girlfriend in Sidney again (his beach reunion fantasies look like bad sexist 70s beer adverts shot through a gauzy haze) and he can hardly wait to escape the dull monotony, drudgery and low aspirations of this purgatorial outpost, which can only be escaped by paying back his thousand pound deposit in order to void the original contract.
Played by English actor Gary Bond, Grant comes across as an affable but terminally bored young man, slightly vain and smug in his secret contemptuousness of the uncouth manners of the uneducated local menfolk who surround him in the train out of Tiboonda, and who populate the stopover town of Bundanyabba when he’s forced to spend a night there whilst killing time before his morning flight to Sidney. One of the running jokes in the film concerns how all the inhabitants of this place consider ‘the Yabba’ to be the best, most sophisticated fun-time tourist spot one could ever possibly hope to visit, when in fact it’s just a collection of shabby hotels and warehouse-like bars and the only recreational activity available seems to be the backroom game of ‘two-up’ – which is basically just common or garden heads-or-tails coin-flipping, but made into a raucous spectator sport on which all the males bet their wages after work each week. Yet whenever Grant expresses any kind of pejorative opinion about the place, he is met by genuinely baffled incomprehension … ‘ya don’t like the Yabba?’… This town actually defines the very limits of its inhabitants’ outlook on the world and caters to their only concerns: idle gambling, the occasional good-natured rough n’ tumble fight, and constant drinking.
What becomes apparent throughout the remainder of the film, as Grant becomes trapped in the town after being drunkenly drawn into gambling away all his money in an effort to win the thousand pounds he needs to get him out of his posting in the outback for good, is that, although their horizons may indeed be extremely limited, these people at least to some degree know who they are, even if that knowledge is of a fairly unpalatable nature. John Grant on the other hand comes to realise that he’s nothing but an empty void on the inside, easily drawn into behaving in ways he could never have imagined before he made this fateful trip, because he’s had no real life experience in which to ground a solid sense of identity. Each character he meets during the episodic course of the subsequent narrative contributes to a further uncovering of the emptiness at the core of his sense of self, the stripping away of layers and vanities and of any idea or hope of raising himself above the herd.
Grant’s encounters with various local eccentrics or wastrels help to make the film’s eventual drift into troubled waters a smooth-flowing one, oiled by a rich black vein of comedy that is of the darkest pitch. Veteran to Australian cinema Chips Rafferty (here in his very last screen role before his death a few months after filming), heads up the cast of jovial hard-drinking locals who unravel Grant’s world just by being themselves: Rafferty plays the local lawman, Jock Crawford, the only authority in the entire town who, although back-slappingly cordial and superficially friendly, appears to run the place as his own personal fiefdom, and silently takes great pleasure in seeing Grant’s aspirational pretentions laid low. Having lost everything, the schoolteacher falls in with a shorts-&-sandal-wearing middle-aged drinker called Tim Hynes (Al Thomas) and gets invited back to his home out in the bush for an extended drinking session, where he meets Hynes’ boisterous younger pals Dick (Jack Thomson, in his first screen role) and Joe (Peter Whittle). The subsequent weekend of inebriation he spends with the group becomes a dark night of the soul indeed for Grant, which ends in the destruction of every assumption he’d previously held concerning both his moral and even his sexual identity.
The film briefly becomes the most violent of animal snuff movies during one controversial sequence that graphically illustrates Grant’s drunken fall from grace as a result of trying too hard to fit in with the macho culture of hard drinking and fighting that now surrounds him, when he gets taken on a reckless (and, of course, drink sodden) kangaroo hunt in the outback in the middle of the night. The footage was mostly captured during a real, professionally organised hunt and is pretty graphic and upsetting in its unsparing depiction of sundry trusting marsupials being brutally splattered all over the dusty scrubland, although Kotcheff (who is himself a vegan) claims that only the least bloody twenty-five per cent of the footage the crew captured that night was used in the film since the rest of it was far too hideous for public consumption.
The method by which the animals are hypnotised into freezing in the gun-sights of their executioners involves shining an arc light into their eyes from the roofs of the trucks carrying the riflemen; and this image of being blinded by dazzling light also becomes the central recurrent visual motif of the film, used to illustrate Grant’s blindness to what is gradually happening to him – the blurring and dissolving, in endless pints of alcohol, of every last barrier defining whoever he thought he was when he began this journey. This all-male world of dust and heat suspended in shimmering, clammy air, where women are outnumbered, marginalised and largely ignored (‘what’s wrong with him,’ mutters one of Grant’s new drinking buddies at one point. ‘He’d rather talk to a woman than drink?’) develops its own kind of submerged homoerotic culture of aggressive matiness, in which man-on-man play fighting replaces sex by providing the men with their only form of physical contact, engendering a closeness otherwise absent from the lives of those who live in such a closed-off macho environment. The relationship between Hynes’ bored, isolated and disillusioned grown-up daughter Janet (played by Kotcheff’s then wife Sylvia Kay) and another expatriate Brit who has made the region his home, the enigmatic “Doc” Tydon (a riveting performance by Donald Pleasence), uncovers an even weirder undercurrent of sexual licentiousness that soon entraps Grant in its lazy web as well. His own sexual confusion is brought increasingly into focus through drunken encounters with both Janet and Tydon, each of them ending very differently and each one contributing to Grant being pushed to the edge of sanity through what they threaten to uncover about his true nature. The film’s powerful combination of arthouse experimentation and character led drama, featuring actors who are clearly enjoying the chance to cut loose with material that has been skilfully adapted from its novel source in Evan Jones’s screenplay, culminates in a circular sense of kafkaesque entrapment from which there appears to be no escape -- no matter how drastic the solutions one may be prepared to consider.
This journey to the heart of the Yabba is one that any cinema fan, though, should be especially eager to take; and following the film’s theatrical re-release earlier in the year, the Blu-ray from Eureka Video, featuring a superb rendering of the film’s 2009 restoration, is an essential purchase for any fan of 1970s cinema. The transfer is excellent and really brings out the detail in the original negative while allowing the movie to retain a contemporary ‘70s feel. A lively audio commentary by Kotcheff and editor Anthony Buckley provides plenty of background and anecdotes about the making of the film as well as a consideration of the visual ideas at play and the intent behind them; and there is even more detail provided in a 23 minute video interview with the director that has also been shot for the disc. A selection of film clips from documentary programmes of the past and more recent times brings context to the film’s positioning in the world of Australian cinema, with a clip from a 1970s black and white arts documentary capturing on-location behind-the-scenes footage, and a more recent news item covering the movie’s recent rediscovery and restoration. An Australian TV obituary piece on Chips Rafferty, made soon after his death, is also included, along with a US TV spot for the film (under its US title “Outback”) and a theatrical trailer made for the rerelease to round off the disc extras. But a bumper booklet full of insightful essays comes with the package too, featuring in-depth appreciation and background pieces by Adrian Martin, Peter Gavin and Meg Labrum; as well as a piece on the digital restoration processes used to bring the movie back from the dead, written by Graham Shirley. Also, Ted Kotcheff writes on the difficulties of shooting the kangaroo hunt sequence and Anthony Buckley discusses his own nine year hunt, to find and recover the original vault materials.
“Wake in Fright” is the sort of film that goes straight to the top of anyone’s list of film favourites and it fully deserves its place in Eureka’s Masters of Cinema catalogue. A must-see classic.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!