The Australian film industry had more or less ground to a halt by the 1960s, but a pair of remarkable premieres at Cannes in 1971 helped spark what would become known as the Australian New Wave. Both were helmed by foreign directors, though they were Australian productions and told what were very much Australian stories, using the phantasmagorical desolation of the Outback to depict the frailty of civilization when confronted with barbarism and impulses older than memory. One of those films, Walkabout, has been widely seen, dubbed a masterpiece, and written about in these pages not so long ago. The other, Wake in Fright, is far too little seen, was long considered lost, but has recently been restored and re-released.
Based on Kenneth Cook’s eponymous 1961 novel, the film stays close to its protagonist, a handsome, big city, middle-class, casually snotty educator stuck teaching grade school in some impossibly remote village dubbed Tiboonda, a place with a bar no one goes to and a train station comprised of a platform slightly larger than a diving board. John (Gary Bond) has plans to visit Sidney during school holidays, but a stopover in the mining town of Bundanyabba gradually and insidiously thwarts his trajectory. The aggressively friendly locals ply him with beer until his overstated contempt for them and their uncultured lifestyle is softened, and soon John is gambling away his earnings in some rowdy backroom game that involves nothing more than tossing coins, is waking in strange places (with a sinisterly charming Donald Pleasance), and going on horrific hunting trips in which kangaroos are slaughtered, their carcasses left to rot. John is initially repulsed, but something in him responds to all this, something drawn to oblivion, longing for permission to destroy without discretion. A local cop (legendary Aussie actor Chips Rafferty, in his final screen appearance) brags of Bundanyabba’s low crime rate, but notes that the town does have its share of suicides.
Elements of Wake in Fright recall the stories of Paul Bowles, or films like Woman in the Dunes (1964), but a key difference here is that the world that appears to be swallowing up our hero isn’t one of ancient ritual, unbreachable cultural difference or obscure, conspiratorial strategy; it is, rather, a sort of post-colonial hell, a chaotic cesspool of white male-dominated debauchery and corruption. No doubt the film was not popular within the Australian tourism board. Toronto-born director Ted Kotcheff would go on to make First Blood (1982) and Uncommon Valor (1983), perhaps because it was not difficult to sense in him a facility with tales of men in need of excuses to become animals. And I should emphasize the word “men” here, because Wake in Fright is nearly devoid of women, and the one woman that does appear (played by Sylvia Kay, Kotcheff’s spouse at the time) seems traumatized, cloistered and abused, accustomed to sexual assault as a sort of local pastime.
I suppose all of this reads as unremittingly dark, yet Wake in Fright takes some surprising turns and is interested in more than mere entropy. Call it a cautionary tale of sorts, and a great film about a time and a place and the dangers of classist arrogance. See it.