Film of the Day - Wake in Fright

Donald Pleasence and Gary Bond in Wake in Fright

Donald Pleasence and Gary Bond in Wake in Fright


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



19 April


Captain James Cook spots Australia, 1770. Wake in Fright

On this day in 1770, the British captain James Cook’s ship Endeavour became the first recorded European vessel to catch sight of Australia. Cook had been commissioned to travel to the Pacific Ocean by the Royal Society, who were collecting data on the transit of Venus across the sun, during which the planet appears as a black dot against the solar disc. It is a rare occurrence and the Royal Society hoped the measurements Cook’s ship collected would add to the sum of scientific knowledge, as well as helping to calculate longitude, which was still difficult to work out in those days before accurate marine timepieces.
Cook also had a secret mission, which he embarked on once the (not particularly successful) collecting of data on Venus was complete: to seek out and locate the rumoured land of Terra Australis Incognita (the “unknown land of the south”). Cook sailed from Tahiti westward and eventually reached New Zealand, which was already a known quantity. Having mapped the entirety of New Zealand’s coastline, Cook continued west, and eventually came across Australia, finally making landfall at a place now known as the Kurnell Peninsula, Botany Bay, New South Wales.




Wake in Fright (1971, dir: Ted Kotcheff)

Remarkable on many levels, Ted Kotcheff’s “lost” film is the story of a slightly effete schoolteacher (Gary Bond) who, instead of getting a Christmas holiday full of physical rest and cultural recuperation spends five days of booze-soaked extreme masculinity in the Australian Outback. Telling its story at speed, the film shunts us from the broiling schoolroom on the last day of term, to the flyblown local hotel, then on to a train packed with people steaming through the booze (our fastidious hero turning down the offer of a drink), then into a hick town called Bundanyabba (“the Yabba,” as the taxi driver calls it, “best place in Australia”) where Mr Grant is to spend a night before travelling on to the city. A journey he’ll never make. The Yabba is where his ordeal of trial by “aggressive hospitality” takes place, first at the hands of local copper (Chips Rafferty) who plies our guy with drink, buys him a steak dinner and shows him the sights, and finally ending up in the company of Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence) – “I’m a doctor of medicine, a tramp by temperament. And an alcoholic” the doctor (surely disbarred) tells him.
The five days are marked by drink, raucousness, rough friendship, sex, gunplay and more drink, the whole thing coming across like The Wicker Man (made two years later) with a lot more sunshine and a lot more lager.
Bond is not a great actor but he’s good enough, his big Peter O’Toole head and shock of blond hair making him the right choice to play a prissy snob who’d actually rather be a journalist and would dearly love to be anywhere else but right here right now. The rest of the cast deliver salty masculinity by the stained shirtload – Rafferty is ocker blokeishness in a cop uniform and a revelatory Pleasence hops about like an antipodean sprite.
The whole thing culminates in a bloody kangaroo hunt that was done for real, Kotcheff only able to use a few shots from the gruesome footage he shot. Strangely, the film is often lumped in with Picnic at Hanging Rock, mostly because it is a key work in the Aussie New Wave. Stylistically it has nothing in common with Peter Weir’s gauzy film, Kotcheff and cameraman Brian West going for an almost expressionist use of camera, with wild angles and odd framings, to suggest Mr Grant’s increasing distance from terra cognita. It’s a complete one-off, a total success on its own terms, doesn’t put a foot out of place, and uses the dusty locations with the anthropological eye that you see in Get Carter (shot the same year and bristling with similar skuzzy energy). So why did the film disappear? Possibly because the picture it painted of Outback maleness was out of keeping with the image that Australia wanted to project to the world – these were still the days of the cultural cringe and the  jibe about the only culture available in Australia being a in a pot of yoghurt.



Why Watch?


  • The director of Rambo: First Blood’s surprising history
  • A classic of Australian cinema
  • Great dilapidated Outback locations
  • Brian West’s remarkable cinematography


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Wake in Fright – at Amazon





imdb poster Wake in Fright
Wake in Fright (1971)
Run time: 114 min
Rating: 7.8
Genres: Drama
Director: Ted Kotcheff
Writers: Evan Jones, Kenneth Cook
Stars: Donald Pleasence, Gary Bond, Chips Rafferty
Trivia: John Grant, a bonded teacher, arrives in a rough outback mining town planning to stay overnight before starting his holiday. But one night stretches to several and with the aid of alcohol he plunges headlong toward his own destruction.
Storyline Wake in Fright is the story of John Grant, a bonded teacher who arrives in the rough outback mining town of Bundanyabba planning to stay overnight before catching the plane to Sydney. But his one night stretches to five and he plunges headlong toward his own destruction. When the alcohol-induced mist lifts, the educated John Grant is no more. Instead there is a self-loathing man in a desolate wasteland, dirty, red-eyed, sitting against a tree and looking at a rifle with one bullet left… Written by Anonymous
Plot Keywords: night, mining town, teacher, alcohol, rifle
Box Office Opening Weekend: $6,761 (USA) (5 October 2012)
Gross: $50,394 (USA) (21 December 2012)