Wake in Fright

Wake in Fright (Outback) (1971) movie poster

(1971) dir. Ted Kotcheff
viewed: 06/27/09 at Verona Cinema, Sydney, Australia

On vacation in Sydney, Australia, visiting for the first time, the idea of seeing a film was out there, but not top of the list.  But in reading the local newspaper, I saw that this film, Wake in Fright, was being re-released as a new print from a recently salvaged original negative, a nearly “lost” film.  On the promotional material, songwriter/singer Nick Cave called the film the “scariest and most Australian of Australian films” or something to that effect.  It seemed that these characteristics made it an ideal film for a visitor to see on the big screen in the big country of “Down Under”.   The film’s re-release actually was only the day prior to seeing it.

The film is a true Australian nightmare.  I’ve often noted about Australian films that the self-depiction of the “Outback” (which was the American title of this film when it was released), portrays Aussies as smiling psychopaths.  This film takes that to the extreme, perhaps truly defining the archetypical experience or image of the sweating, manly, drunken mania that is either a result of environment or perhaps some relationship to Australia’s criminal outpost origins.  Not that the film tries to say “why” things are the way they are, rather that it’s depicting the bacchanalian hell that is Australia’s bulk of body.  And the film is quite the shocking ride.

The story follows a would-be intellectual, college-educated city man, who is stuck in an outpost teaching in a town with two buildings: the one-room schoolhouse where he is the teacher and across the tracks at the bar/hotel/shack where he lives.  He considers himself an indentured servant, having to pay off some $1000 to the government by working as a teacher wheresoever they post him, paying back for his education.  This might be some reflection of the criminal situation of the convicts who founded Sydney, being put in indentured servitude for their time as exiles.  But he is heading out on Christmas holiday (the bleeding hot summer Down Under), traveling by train and plane to Sydney, to his fantasy girlfriend and the life he wishes he was in.

He overnights in Bundanyabba, a town that is both Purgatory and Hell all rolled into one, but as a visitor, he hasn’t caught on to the life of the Outback.  The culture that there is is one of “Buy you a beer, mate?”, an offer that can’t be refused no matter how many times it is proffered.  He meets, in the sweatiest, dirtiest, enormous Outback bar, the local sheriff, played with perfection by Chips Rafferty, a character straight out of Jim Thompson, an overly friendly seeming buffoon, drinking him into oblivion.  And he meets “Doc”, played by the sweaty, filthy Donald Pleasance, a bizarre and definitive character who lives on nothing but the town’s fringe.  And he is introduced to a coin-tossing gambling game, a metaphorical yet ludicrously simple crap shoot that drags the locals in like vultures.

The teacher drunkenly indulges in the gamble, enjoying the manly, drunken fraternity despite its personal “otherness”, and makes a killing, earning himself a big wad of cash.  But like many a gambler, he goes back for the big score (enough to buy him out of his servitude), and loses everything.

But in Bundanyabba, as Doc tells him, you can live on nothing but the friendly charity of others.  Everyone wants to buy you a beer, one after another, endlessly.  And every character has this psychotic manly friendliness that is ingratiating but frightening, and the teacher drops into the drunken abyss.  The hedonism is both sexual and violent, sickening, shocking, but eventually he falls all the way into the pit.

The film is shocking in particular for its depiction of the slaughter of a multitude of kangaroos, which was shot at the time following professional hunters on a kangaroo cull, and edited into the film to look like the doings of the drunken louts, roving the nighttime Outback in a Range Rover of sorts, catching the roos in the headlights and shooting them down, occasionally collecting their bollocks for eating (to further the intake of manhood).  The slaughter initially intrigues the teacher because he thinks it’s going to be more like a “hunt”, but it turns out to be just literal bloodlust, eventually wrestling a kangaroo to slit its throat and going mad and stabbing it to death.  The scenes are shocking because they are real to an extent.  The violence and excess oozes and inflates the other scenes.  It’s psychotic.

Donald Pleasance is a satyr, an unlikely bald, bearded, unclean middle-aged satyr, but the exemplar of non-comformist pure indulgence, satyr or devil.  He’s more than just a piece of work.  He’s a piece of pure creepiness.  But his discussions of free love and independence echo of movements of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, not idealized but ideological, and though his words and essence are revolting, he speaks a truth about the world in which he lives.  It’s an amazing performance, impossible to imagine anyone else to have played the role.

The film was released the same year as Walkabout (1971), another film set in Australia though produced by the UK and directed by Nicolas Roeg.  Walkabout won the Palme D’or that year at Cannes, and though Wake in Fright recieved positive reviews on its release, its shocking and negative portrayal of Australia perhaps helped it on its way to the near dustbin.  Very luckily, it was found, restored, and made available.

My trip piqued my interest in Australian history quite a bit and made me reflect on my perception and commentary on Australian films, such as my note to say that Australian films depict their world as pretty backwoods and psychotic.  Wake in Fright is almost an Australian version of Deliverance (1972), but with lots of friendly schooners of beer.  So, now I am thinking that I will have to do some re-investigation of the films that I referred to in my thinking.

Doubtlessly, Wake in Fright is very much the ultimate in this area, but not just for its extremity and creepiness, but because it’s a fantastic film, replete with dark humor and constructed with great efficacy and power.  Not everyone will be able to stomach it, but for those who can, it’s nothing like you’ve ever seen before.  And afterwards, you’ll be quite cautious to take an offer of an Aussie buying you a beer.

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