Wake in Fright (1971): A terrifying detour from civilisation

I adore films that examine the tribulations of naive city-bred folk thrust into a Hobbesian state-of-nature. Whether it’s the tragic journey of four white-collar types down the Cahulawassee River in Deliverance, the controversial treatise on masculinity seen in Peckinpah’s classic Straw Dogs or the land itself fighting back in underrated Ozploitation piece Long Weekend, there is a palpable mix of extreme discomfort and even a little schadenfreude in witnessing the uselessness of arrogance, propriety and idealism in an atavistic milieu with a totally different set of rules.

One of the most valuable offerings of this kind of tale, and one that was nearly lost forever, is Ted Kotcheff’s rediscovered 1971 magnum opus Wake in Fright. A visual and sonic feast that disturbs on a most primal level, the film’s original print was lost for decades and one week away from irrevocable destruction before luck intervened, the negatives being discovered in a Pittsburgh archive facility by editor Anthony Buckley. An event we should all be eternally thankful for, as it introduced new generations to a timeless masterclass of psychological terror.

John Grant (Gary Bond) is an upper-middle-class English schoolteacher posted in the tiny Australian outback town of Tiboonda. A haughty sort who feels the barren, working-class expanse to be beneath his standing, Grant has an air of petulance that is exacerbated by the contractual obligations of his teaching assignment. Kept in place by a $1,000 bond to the education authorities, Grant is quietly resentful and eager to escape to Sydney for the Christmas holidays, hoping to temporarily forget his professional dissatisfaction in the arms of his girlfriend Robyn. To do so, he’s going to have to catch a train to Bundanyabba, a mining town that serves as the nearest location for flights to major cities.

Bundanyabba, affectionately referred to as ”The Yabba” by its denizens, is a place that embraces masculinity with considerable enthusiasm, to put it in diplomatic terms. A rough-and-ready set-up of pubs and gambling dens, the local population is mostly comprised of uncomplicated, down-to-earth men who perform punishing work down the mines and spend their downtime consuming inhuman quantities of alcohol, pissing their money away on the traditional Australian game of Two-up and lecherously pursuing The Yabba’s womenfolk. An ”aggressively hospitable” area, to quote Grant, in that the locals are friendly in the pushiest and most mercurial kind of way. Naturally, Grant is immediately ill-at-ease and can’t wait to get out.

Popping into one of the town’s many public houses for a time-killing pint, Grant makes the acquaintance of Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty), the local police chief who coaxes our hero into being his drinking buddy for the evening. After buying innumerable rounds, Jock extols the virtues of Bundanyabba and eventually takes Grant to an illegal Two-up house so he can balance the booze with a nourishing steak. Desperate to pay off his bond and escape life as an outback educator, an intoxicated Grant blows every last penny on a game, leaving him stranded in The Yabba. Waking up severely hungover and with no means of leaving, the despondent teacher sidles into a pub to deliberate on his predicament and once again falls prey to the town’s extremely rambunctious flavour of gregariousness in the form of Tim Hynes (Al Thomas). A popular local boozehound, Hynes endeavours to keep Grant’s spirits up by introducing him to intimidating brick-shithouse miners Dick & Joe (Jack Thompson and Peter Whittle) and his quietly lascivious daughter Janette (Sylvia Kay). He also meets his intellectual match in another of Hynes’ pals, Clarence ”Doc” Tydon (Donald Pleasance), a sinister alcoholic vagrant whose addiction cost him his job as a physician.

This motley crew cajoles Grant into joining them on a weekend of binge-drinking, brawling, vandalism and a particularly horrendous kangaroo hunt. Feeling pressured to fit in and increasingly uninhibited due to the insane amounts of beer being funnelled down his neck, our man slowly descends into an abyss of dangerous and unseemly recreation that is antithetical to his assumed status and worldview, essentially forced to engage in anarchic degeneracy by these unpleasantly self-assertive pissheads. As if this wasn’t overwhelming enough, he must also contend with the ambiguous intentions and subtle emotional torments of Tydon, a man who sees right through Grant’s stuffy pretensions and insists on his own De Sadean philosophy of base individualism and sexual freedom. Will Grant ever make it out of The Yabba alive? And, if so, what kind of person will he be on the other side?

Right off the bat, Wake in Fright‘s tone is exquisitely set by the incredible cinematography of Brian West. Shot in and around the New South Wales outback area of Broken Hill (the film’s source novel was inspired by author Kenneth Cook’s experiences working as a journalist in this very town), The introductory image is an overhead shot of the punishing desolation of Grant’s school property, the infernal aridness seemingly extending into eternity. John Scott supplements this with an excellently, folksy score that has an elusively threatening undercurrent, masterfully encapsulating the ying-yang of The Yabba’s eccentric mateyness with its far darker elements. Everything that we observe, visually and aurally, denotes a sensation of purgatory, a forever-scorching limbo where the people exist in a stasis of inebriation, wantonness and occasional violence. The well-deserved digital remastering presents this in a gratifyingly crisp fashion, easily immersing the viewer in this virtually otherworldly hell-hole of nihilistic debauchery.

In contrast to most works that chart civilised man’s descent into barbarism, none of The Yabba’s citizens that Grant encounters try to actively do him harm (although Doc Tydon’s overfamiliarity teases at danger often). Unlike the murderous, bullying predators of Deliverance, Straw Dogs or Walter Hill’s cult classic Southern Comfort, the men of The Yabba welcome Grant as they would anyone else albeit suspiciously, bewildered by his reluctance to get shitfaced and questioning his masculinity among themselves when they observe him pouring his heart out to Janette. They are dipsomaniacal and completely mad in general, but their attitude is consistent with the town’s singular self-image of being ‘one of the friendliest places around’, merely wishing to make a fellow traveller out of Grant as opposed to victimising him. It is this distinction that makes Wake in Fright such a unique experience, Grant’s turmoil being caused by his own extraordinarily pompous overestimation of his ability to ‘handle’ these mindless oiks. For my money, this makes it the greatest cautionary tale against being a fish out of water and thinking you hold all of the cards.

It is only courteous to give a fair word of warning to the uninitiated: this film gets brutal. The deftly nightmarish atmosphere achieved by the soundscape and editing techniques ensures an unsettling enough experience already, but many film fans find themselves unable to persevere once they’re confronted by the notorious hunting sequence. Using footage of an actual kangaroo hunt that were nightly occurrences in the outback when Wake in Fright was filmed, it’s a moment that Kotcheff uses to present the sheer, undiluted horror of this cruel and pointless practice. Many will find this completely unjustifiable and I can definitely sympathise but, as a counterpoint, Kotcheff was in consultation with representatives from the Royal Australian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and was strongly encouraged by them to make the utilised footage as disturbing as possible.

In conjunction with the fact that the film crew surreptitiously sabotaged the hunt, I trust Kotcheff’s sincerity in stating that the purpose was to showcase both how low Grant had sunk and the raw, unsimulated evil of animal cruelty. The Australian RSPCA were purportedly satisfied with how Kotcheff displayed the hunt and hoped that it would inspire Australians to figuratively take up arms against hunting. Deeply contentious, yes, but without any legal framework to help their cause and faced with armed, hard-drinking poachers, it was the only way they could hope to make a dent. Just be prepared, because it’s horrible.

In summary, Wake in Fright is an original, bold and intelligent picture wielding a power that is never likely to be replicated in any comparable works. Strongly acted and aesthetically wondrous, it’s a film that captures mental-emotional degradation with a nuance that completely outcompetes more lurid and on-the-nose movies of its type, offering a dryly amusing, confrontational and harrowing experience that you won’t forget in a hurry. ”Have a drink, mate? Have a fight, mate? Have some dust and sweat, mate? There’s nothing else out here.” Oh, but there is, there is Wake in Fright, and you need to watch it right now.

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