John Grant (Gary Bond, "Zulu") is a bonded teacher at a one room schoolhouse in Tiboonda, a desolate outpost in the Australian Outback. He can't wait to get back to Sydney for his 6 week Christmas holiday. But, when spending one overnight in the mining town of Bundanyabba, he sees the local gambling scene as his ticket back to civilization. It proves anything but in "Wake in Fright."
Canadian director Ted Kotcheff's ("First Blood," "Weekend at Bernie's") third feature is considered one of the progenitors to Australia's film renaissance of the 70's and 80's despite its initial hostile reception on that continent. The film suggests that, at that time in Australia, a white man was either civilized, which meant rich or enslaved to the Government, or barbaric, a state this film suggests is Aussie's natural, at least in the sun-ravaged Outback. This is all neatly symbolized in the big gambling game which consists of betting on the results of a two-penny toss. It's a 50/50 proposition where 'one of each' doesn't count.
The film's history on the way back to its 40th anniversary restoration theatrical rerelease is almost as interesting as the movie itself. Adapted from Australian Kenneth Cook's 1961 novel of the same name (the title is derived from a line in the book which reads 'may you dream of the devil and wake in fright.'), it was adapted by an Englishman who never visited the country (Evan Jones, "Modesty Blaise"), directed by a London-based (at the time) Canadian and starred British actors. It was nominated for the Palme d'Or at 1971's Cannes Film Festival, but disappeared soon after its theatrical release (retitled "Outback"). The film's dogged editor, Anthony Buckley, tracked it down to Philadelphia where it had been tagged to be incinerated one week hence. And this is the film that now shares the distinction with Antonioni’s "L’avventura" of being only one of two films to have screened at two different Cannes festivals (it was presented by Martin Scorcese in 2009). (On a local Boston note, it will be screening at the Brattle Theater in a new 35 mm print.)
In some ways "Wake in Fright" is like an Australian "Deliverance," except this is one man's journey and he participates in the debauchery and savagery. In other ways, it reminded me of a couple of Vietnam war films. The big Yabba gaming scene which sets everything in motion has a similar tension and hysteria on display as the Russian roulette betting of "The Deer Hunter." Later Grant descends into a nightmarish madness like Colonel Kurtz in "Apocalypse Now," 'the horror' in this case the slaughter of indigenous, if non-human, innocents.
The film begins with an establishing shot of Tiboonda, which consists of a railway platform, that schoolhouse and a ramshackle hotel all abandoned against a dry, barren, baked landscape. It's clear Grant is out of his element and wishes to remain so, but his condescendence is not only noted, but slyly, and nonverbally, remarked upon by hotelier Charlie (John Meillon, "Crocodile Dundee"), anticipating what will happen down the tracks. The train which arrives is like something out of an old Western, with only one passenger car full of beer-guzzling locals. Grant declines to join them. When he check into his hotel in Yabba, the receptionist barely greets him, intent on tracing her face, neck and bosom with wet fingertips in front of an oscillating fan. Maggie Dence ("Look Both Ways") imbues the scene with a sinister wantonness. No sooner has John made his way to the large, packed, local drinking establishment ('Shut the door, we're closed,' yells a patron as we note a sign above the door declaring the establishment cannot operate after 6:30 p.m. Above a clock which shows a time hours later.), than he's aggressively befriended by the sheriff, Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty, 1962's "Mutiny on the Bounty"), who pushes round after round until John insists he must eat or pass out. During his meal (a $1 steak!), John meets 'Doc' Tydon (Donald Pleasence, "Halloween"), a civilized man looking for his next drink. Jock then introduces him to the penny spin, which John categorizes as 'simplistic' until he realizes he could make the thousand dollar bond that keeps him teaching in undesirable locations. The next morning, as his plane to Sydney leaves, John wakes hung over and utterly flat broke.
No worries, mate! There are plenty of friendly faces around waiting to proffer a drink, a meal, a place to crash and soon John is in with Tim Hynes (Al Thomas) who takes him to his middle class abode where pretty daughter Janette (Sylvia Kay) is sourly waiting to serve lunch. But it's party time. Dick (Jack Thompson, "Breaker Morant") and Joe (Peter Whittle, 1970's "Ned Kelly") arrive and the next round of drink 'til blackout begins. Each evening becomes more nightmarish with strange sexual interludes and rampant disregard for life all couched in boisterous machismo. John's three attempts to flee reflect a condensed seven stages of grief via the 'Twilight Zone.'
Animal lovers should be warned that although Kotcheff killed no kangaroos for his film, he did film a corporate nighttime kangaroo hunt and was encouraged by the Royal Australian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to use the worst of the footage to reveal the atrocities, something he refused to do. It's hard to imagine how much worse what he saw actually was. This footage was edited together with actors, who are also seen in 'hand to hand' combat with a couple of the creatures.
Bond, a kind of poor man's Peter O'Toole, is a sympathetic lead as he's weaned into behavior he had previously disdained with copious amounts of alcohol. Glimpses of the man's interior struggle continue to wink through as his morals debate his need for approval from his new 'friends.' Later, his harsh retort to a ride upset that he won't share a drink is both a confession of self-hatred and condemnation of a lifestyle. Pleasence has never been better as the civilized, educated man who embraces the beast of his livelihood.
Cinematographer Brian West accentuates tiny figures in vast landscape. Blinding sunshine can be felt even in shade. In later goings, extreme close ups magnify John's psychological state. A swinging lamp like the one in "Psycho's" climax is used to obliterate rather than reveal. The film only shows its age with a choppily edited montage used to fill in black-out blanks with horrors previously only imagined. The sound of flies is used prominently, but sparingly, to signify different kinds of rot and John Scott's ("Amores Perros," "Zoolander") terrific score utilizes varied Australian musical influences for evolving emotional effect.
If "Wake in Fright" is missing one essential element of Australian cinema's rebirth, it is Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil, who made his acting debut that same year in Nicolas Roeg's "Walkabout." But "Wake in Fright" only subtly acknowledges the Aborigine, whose culture embraces the environment, instead of the usurpers driven mad by it.
Robin also gives "Wake in Fright" an A-.
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