From the Archives: Wake in Fright (1971)

PRIMAL SCREAM

It’s happened to us all: we find ourselves imprisoned in an environ and methods of escape fail to manifest. Sometimes this misfortune arises literally (ex. being cramped on a commuter train amid Friday rush hour), other times it’s figuratively (ex. being a prisoner of your own mind and fantasies; think Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire). What’s worse is when fate deals that dreaded one-two punch card, rendering you a prisoner in actuality, as well as metaphorically. It’s this dilemma which befalls poor Englishman John Grant, the protagonist of director Ted Kotcheff’s gritty, unnerving, and, horrifyingly bleak tour-de-force, Wake in Fright, an adaptation of Kenneth Cook’s novel of the same name.

Trapped in the two-shack town of Tiboonda, English expatriate John Grant (Gary Bond; effortlessly commanding) just can’t catch a break. Suffering from ennui and working as a schoolteacher to pay back the government for funding his education, he plans to relish in the transient freedom offered by the Christmas Holidays by traveling to Sydney to relax with his girlfriend. Only one night in the Outback town of Bundanyabba (commonly referred to as “the Yabba”) stands in his way. Unfortunately, mass consumption of alcohol and injudicious betting on a game of two-up renders Grant stranded and penniless, leaving him to depend on the “aggressive hospitality” of locals and surrendering to their regional rituals of male bonding.

Wake in Fright’s formidable, nightmarish energy is aided by its glimpse of the repressed, bestial instincts lingering beneath even the most refined surfaces. Here, it’s a certain brand of vain, middle-class, and alienated English masculinity: a meticulously postured image whose air of superiority is gradually stripped away by a slow, on-going submission to toxic mateship and (mostly) common vices – alcohol, gambling, sex, and reckless abandon. Colonial commoner John Grant is introduced to us as a sort-of stiff upper-lip middle-class Englishman, assigned to spread knowledge (and, possibly, through his dapper appearance, the burnishing of civility?) to tikes of the Outback, whose clean-cut surfaces and cool demeanor barely conceal a pompous, condescending disdain for the local yokels, their omnipresent niceties, and, in the grander scheme, the barren, harsh wasteland where he’s found himself stationed. Once Grant accepts the local hospitality, much of which involves random strangers offering umpteen ounces of beer, our displaced protagonist’s worst base instinct arise, as he participates in increasingly rash acts of savagery, exposing the brittleness of that sheen of sophistication.

If Wake in Fright supplies Grant with a foil of sorts, it’s found in the enigma of Doc Tydon, wickedly characterized with understated menace by that ever-reliable British thespian, Donald Pleasence. A disgraced medical practitioner, formerly based in Sydney, whose self-imposed exile was triggered by alcoholism, Tydon proffers a literal coalescing of City-folk mentality and Yabba ethics; he skulks about the frame with a simian languor, but is not above quoting a bit of Socrates while inebriated. While declaring Tydon the id to Grant’s superego misrepresents the former, it nonetheless helps explicate the Venn Diagram-like nature of these two personas. Tydon and Grant share the qualities of being well-educated expatriates who practice respectable professions required for society to more or less function, but what separates these two is the degree to which Grant upholds his aforementioned visage whereas Tydon is consigned to simply live off the land and dispense with society’s dependency on capital, as well as most material goods. Tydon, effectively, proffers an externalized image of extreme societal abandon, as well as the primitive traits which lie beneath Grant. Appearances may deceive, but, deep down, one man – and Wake in Fright is a movie explicitly about masculinity and homosocial camaraderie – is akin to every other.

So what’s the point? Does Wake in Fright favor the down-home conduct of the Yabba’s male inhabitants over Grant’s initially uptight attitudes? Well, thankfully, there isn’t a clear-cut answer to this question, as Kotcheff and co. avoid that often reductive trap of turning their story into a thesis; it’s all too easy for a movie to get on a soapbox and dole out a moral tract, reassuring the audience with didacticism. Despite functioning as the audience surrogate, screenwriter Evan Jones, director Kotcheff, and actor Bond wisely elide any vindication of Grant’s ethos. Furthermore, the increasingly barbaric activities permeating the back-half are presented in a light that’s hardly flattering. If anything, the film is more interested in exploring how all the machismo on display is the cultural upshot of Australia’s violent past, a history brimming with colonialism, imperialism, and Aboriginal displacement. (The film’s sole Aborigine appears at the very beginning; sitting alone on a train, delivering a thousand-yard stare to the void-like desert outside while drunkards make merry, his presence recalls the age-old racial conflict between the then-newly arrived colonists – most of whom were convicts – and  the natives.) Indeed, post-colonial and cultural anxieties, as well as historical reflection, serve as prominent themes in many 1970s Australian productions, chief among these are Nicolas Roeg’s essential Walkabout and Peter Weir’s features, the wonderfully enigmatic Picnic At Hanging Rock and the supremely eerie The Last Wave. Wake in Fright is, perhaps, the most primal exploration of these ideas, delineating how the act of resorting to toxic deportment and camaraderie (much of which appears to be a matter of habit or the solution to curing boredom) might possibly be subconsciously influenced by the inescapable history of colonizing efforts and destructive violence. Even the eminent critic Pauline Kael, in her final line, couldn’t help but declare, “you come out with a sense of epic horror and the perception that this white master race is retarded.”

But Wake in Fright isn’t just a provocative glimpse of life-on-the-edge and toxic masculinity, it’s also an example of superior craftsmanship. Director Ted Kotcheff runs a formally restrained, but nonetheless ravishing visual playbook, opting for a mostly mise-en-scène approach while still savoring moments to deploy ferociously potent montage effects. His opening shot, an elevated 360-degree pan across the desert landscape, effectively introduces the Outback as one of the key characters, in addition to establishing the desert environ as a dusty, earthbound purgatory; the recurring images of sweat beads dripping down human skin and blinding shafts of light impart on the viewer the sense of oppressive, maddening heat compounding Grant’s sojourn in the infernal Yabba. Kotcheff saves some his most charged effects for an unforgettable (and highly controversial) sequence wherein Grant, Tydon, and a few other mates go hunting for kangaroos. (It’s worth noting that several marsupial “extras” were slaughtered as part of a purported licensed hunt, for which Kotcheff and crew tagged along to capture footage for the film. Editor Anthony Buckley’s splicing of this documentary B-roll with the narrative elements is seamless to the point that one might question the validity of the filmmaker’s statement prior to the end credits.) Here, Kotcheff’s contrasting of the lush beauty of the Outback locales with the horrific barbary the characters indulge in yields, perhaps, the purest visual distillation of the movie’s central idea. Buckley’s classical cutting of the sequence is clean and tight, creating visual order and logic out of a chaotic narrative interlude; he shapes the shot flow for maximum effect, the succession of images generating tremendous tension. Even so, the technical wizardry on display might render the scene all too effective for some.

Sure, all this intellectualizing (some might call it “pontificating”) proves the movie substantial, but is it a gripping watch? Thoroughly, but, make no mistake, it’s a sometimes bitter pill to swallow. Wake in Fright is a visceral slice of 70s-era nihilism viewed through two distinctly foreign lenses: yes, Grant’s, but also that of Canadian-born Kotcheff, who, despite directing the majors hits First Blood and Weekend at Bernie’s, has yet to eclipse, let alone near, such a level of artistic success. This ranks among the very finest films of the Ozploitation cycle – a strain of art and genre films produced in Australia amid the 70s and 80s.(Other canonical titles include Road Games, Next of Kin, Long Weekend, Dead End Drive-In, RazorbackEscape 2000/Turkey ShootMad Dog Morgan, Mad Max, and the aforementioned Roeg and Weir pictures.) Even with the deliberate pacing, there’s a narrative economy absent in much of the art’s current state; it recalls an age when movies refused to spoon-feed their underpinnings and explicate the obvious. Furthermore, it makes one long for a time when movies could seem dangerous; there are hardly any concessions here to produce a middle-of-the-road “entertainment” designed for mass consumption. There’s no easy way out, neither for the audience, nor for Grant. All we can be assured of is this: the man had one hell of a holiday.

Wake in Fright is available to watch on Fandor, iTunes, and various other streaming platforms. You can also support Philly film culture (as well as a small business) by renting it on DVD from Viva Video in Ardmore. The DVD features bountiful supplements, including a featurette documenting the painstaking restorative efforts, a Q&A with director Ted Kotcheff recorded at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, a tribute crafted by the director of Not Quite Hollywood, and an informative commentary track featuring Kotcheff and editor Anthony Buckley. Supplements and commentary are unavailable via streaming platforms.

Author: Dan Santelli

Dan Santelli is a film writer/critic and cat-loving dirtbag, born in Ohio and raised in Philly. When not hiking or talking someone’s ear off about Pauline Kael, he can be found at Viva Video in Ardmore. You can follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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