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

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Wake in Fright”

  1. The first time I watched this, I really didn’t know what to make of it; it was so different from any other film I had ever seen. It seemed as if it was filmed with virtually no budget, the sets and atmosphere were completely dingy, the setting and much of the language was foreign to me, and it felt like a kind of homemade independent film. However, upon a second viewing, I see it for the richly-textured masterpiece that it is, and for the awesome attention to detail that must have gone into it which I had taken for granted the first time.

    There have been other films with similar subject matter in alternate settings of cultured men reduced to a kind of forgotten primitivity, but I think the thing that sets this movie apart is the fact that director Ted Kotcheff remains completely neutral toward all of the characters – both the cultured schoolteacher as well as the locals. By the end of the film, no character remains unscathed, and yet no character is completely without sympathy, either. It must be quite difficult for a director to remain impartial, especially when most stories require audience sympathy for a protagonist versus an antagonist for story momentum. This impartiality establishes an incredible realism in the film which is difficult to shake off. Here, as in life, things just happen to the main character organically – whether there is any rhyme, reason, or moral to any of it is the complete burden of the audience to figure out.

    Another key aspect to the film is its universality. Most people would like to believe that in the modern world, and especially a modern country such as Australia or the U.S, that such ugly colloquial primitivity has been largely purged from polite society, but they would be quite wrong. I can equate some of my own personal experiences with those of the main character in this film, and so felt an uncomfortable recognition as I was watching this. Moroever, virtually every scene in the film I could envision actually occurring – something I cannot say about any other I can think of. Sam Peckinpah’s filmic explorations of perverse masculinity, some of Samuel Fuller’s work, and "Deliverance" are the only movies that achieve something close to the kind of effect this movie has, and even Peckinpah felt the need to resort to flashy cinematic stylistics to get his points across.

    This movie has not aged one bit, and probably never will. It is a tragedy that it has all but disappeared even in its own country of Australia. Director Kotcheff displayed an amazing early talent; it is too bad that his career never reached another peak like this – even in "First Blood" and "Uncommon Valor" – two of his other films with similar themes. And that the same man ended up directing "Weekend at Bernie’s" and episodes of "Zalman King’s Red Shoe Diaries"!!! The world is a crazy place, and one need only watch this film to realize this fact.

  2. I noted that Speen and some other media commentators think that ‘Wake in Fright’ was a foreign product that just happened to be made here in Oz.

    My father was approached by EMI in 1967 or there abouts. The introduction of colour TV in the US had created a demand for weekly films on the networks, and they were rapidly exhausting the supply of colour films (colour only became the norm post WWII).

    EMI was approaching media companies around the world to produce films for cinema release. The two caveats were that the films must contain at least one US marqee name (a recognisable draw card), and the rights for US TV must be given to EMI. All other matter of production were a matter for locals.

    My father – who was running a large company in OZ (which had a recording arm) and had been involved in the start of TV, signed up.

    The result were to very different films. "Squeeze a Flower" with Walter Chiari (who had starred in ‘They’re a Weird Mob’ two years earlier) with Jack Albertson as the US star, and ‘Wake in Fright’ with Donald Pleasance as the star.

    They utilised largely Oz casts, largely Oz crew and were moderately successful financially (from the Oz viewpoint, I don’t know how EMI faired). Even Dave Allen who many now think of as an English or Irish star was the host of ‘In Sydney Tonight’ at the time (the Harbourside version of Graham Kennedies ‘In Melbourne Tonight’).

    The follow on from this scheme of EMI was the beginings of TV features – specifically filmed for TV as feature films. But "Squeeze a Flower" and "Wake in Fright" were Oz films created for a TV market.

    The success of ‘Wake in Fright’and ‘Walkabout’ at the same time, along with the support of the Gorton Government for backing the new film push, started the ball rolling for Oz film’s renaissance.

    Cheers

  3. WAKE IN FRIGHT is also known Internationally as OUTBACK. Released to quite a furore in Oz in 1972, I saw it as a teenager and was not unshaken believing that it was all too true. The absolutely brutal sunbaked world of the inland ‘scrub’ is unflinchingly shown for every part of it’s harsh reality. The bozo behavior of local men lubricated with endless alcohol and cruel boredom gets a mighty serve as well. A lot of media and tourist execs of the time were suitably outraged as were the conservative older establishment, and there were opposing films made to soften the blow (SUNSTRUCK, for example). However, WAKE IN FRIGHT is a major achievement as is Roeg’s equally devastating WALKABOUT made around the same time. Recently THE TRACKER and RABBIT PROOF FENCE go into the same cinematic territory and deliver equally pungent views. WAKE IN FRIGHT will soon stand among the greats of Australian international cinema and rightfully so. A DVD release and a cinema reissue apparently is keenly awaited.

  4. "Outback" is unlike any other film ever made and quite impossible to categorize. If the movie taught me anything at all, it's that the Aussies can drink seriously hard and loads of it. They even drink till they pass out and then immediately open another can when they come to their senses again. I thought only Belgians did that. You cannot possibly count the amount of beer cans and bottles that are consumed in this film and the most repeated line of text/monologue is without a doubt: "C'mon mate, let's have a drink then". Based on the novel by Kenneth Cook, "Outback" tells the story of a young school teacher visiting the little outback community of Bundanyabba, where the local population is so hospitable and acts so familiar it becomes truly disturbing. They fill their days with drinking, gambling, getting involved in bar fights, drinking again, kangaroo hunting and drinking some more. John initially disapproves their savage habits and looks somewhat down upon the villagers, but slowly and gradually he becomes one of them as he wastes his entire year salary on booze and primitive roulette games. "Outback" is very slow-paced and moody. Sometimes you can literally taste the copious amounts of liquor and experience the heat of the Aussie summer. The noticeable heat, together with the feeling pure geographical isolation truly makes the film disturbing and uncomfortable as hell. "Outback" works effectively as psychological drama but even more as the non-fictional portrait about a society that is largely unknown and unspoken of. The footage of the kangaroo hunting trip is haunting and very, very depressing. I was really relieved when, during the end credits, a message appeared on the screen to state that no real kangaroos were harmed during the production. The film mostly benefices from astonishingly mesmerizing photography, superb music and Ted Kotcheff's solid direction. The versatile and brilliant actor Donald Pleasance is even convincing as an Aussie drunkard and the rest of the relatively unknown cast delivers great performances as well. This is one of them unique movies you only encounter a couple of times in a lifetime, but it's incredibly obscure so if you find a copy treasure it. So mate … shall we have a beer then?

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