As many of you may still be filling in the blanks after a somewhat inebriated Jubilee celebration it seems the perfect excuse to revisit Australian classic Wake in Fright (1971): the tale of one man’s lost weekend.
Over a decade before Canadian film-maker Ted Kotcheff made First Blood (1982) he directed Wake in Fright ,(aka Outback) – a film that helped kick-start the 70s renaissance in Australian cinema . An undercurrent of homo-erotic tension, sexual frustration and existential angst runs through its masculinity-in-crisis narrative. This woefully undervalued film was deemed a ‘lost’ classic due to it being virtually unseen anywhere after its initial appearance in 1971. A 2009 restoration and DVD/Blu-ray release rectified this anomaly.
When middle class English teacher John Grant (Gary Bond) is forced to spend a weekend with the isolated locals in the outback town of Bundanyabba whilst en route to Sydney, his school holiday plans go seriously awry. The tag line for the film read ‘ sweat , dust and beer … there’s nothing else out here mate !’, but Grant finds so much more than that. Passive aggressive hospitality, degenerate gambling, rampant misogyny, anti-intellectualism, animal slaughter, chronic alcoholism, casual racism, depression, squalid, predatory sex and attempted suicide are just some of the conflicts that Grant encounters and endures over the course of his stay in the Yabba. Gallows humour, veiled threats and masculine competitiveness course through Wake in Fright’s veins. Never have the outback’s scorched, barren landscapes seemed so claustrophobic.
The overbearing residents that inexorably draw Grant into shedding every layer of his ‘civilised’ persona are presided over by bullish policeman Jock Crawford. In an inspired bit of provocative against-type casting, Kotcheff enlisted Chips Rafferty, ‘ the living symbol of the typical Australian ‘ to play Crawford. A young Jack Thompson featured as one of Grant’s new-found drinking buddies and Donald Pleasance dominates with an utterly insidious performance as sexual deviant ‘Doc’ Tyson, ‘ a doctor of medicine , a tramp by temperament and , of course , an alcoholic ‘. Jeanette is the only significant female character, played by Kotcheff’s then wife, Sylvia Kay. ‘A n interesting biological specimen ‘, muses Doc, ‘ if she were a man she’d be in prison for rape ‘.
Adapted from Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel, Wake in Fright was filmed largely on location in Rafferty’s home town, Broken Hill, the place that first inspired Cook to write the novel. The stark verisimilitude of the movie can be attributed to Kotcheff spending months living in the town prior to shooting, and the air of outsiderdom evinced by Bond’s Grant has its roots in real life. Bond, a homosexual Englishman, and Kotcheff, a visiting Canadian, were as much outsiders in reality as the film’s fictional central character. Kotcheff instils Grant’s position in this society by pointedly showing him sat apart from the dominant groups; first opposite an aborigine on a train and later with Jeanette and a dog during one of countless drinking sessions. An off-key score, lurching from woozy cabaret style piano motifs to discordant, staccato strings, heightens the film’s oppressive atmosphere, and Kotcheff captures Grant’s alcohol poisoned mental state and disjointed memories with moments of dizzying, spinning camerawork and flickering, strobe like editing.
The words ‘masterpiece’ and ‘classic’ often too readily used, but Wake in Fright is worthy of both, and deserves to be recognised as such on a much wider scale than it currently is.