Dir: TED KOTCHEFF
It is becoming all too rare nowadays to see a film that leaves a genuinely indelible impression. A combination of my own academic education (which pretty much destroyed the magic of the movies) and a gradual desensitisation towards challenging and provocative material means that most films cross my line of sight with barely a blip on my internal Richter scale. But occasionally one can still find that precious diamond buried beneath the tonnes of coal. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that when such a discovery is made the film is quite often a product of the 1970’s. One such recent discovery was an Australian film called Wake in Fright, a nightmarish narrative that left me bewildered and devastated in equal measure. That we can now view Wake in Fright in a pristine high definition transfer is a tremendous privilege. For decades the only print of the film in existence was considered totally insufficient for either VHS or DVD release. But thanks to the dogged efforts of the films editor Anthony Buckley, the negatives were located, and one of the most important restoration processes in modern film history was able to take place.
Wake in Fright is a cloying and insidious experience. It taps into fundamental and universal fears, principally in this case the terror of isolation, alienation, paranoia, and the horror generated by a world without rules; a world in which the ideological, political, and social safety nets that have been steadily constructed over centuries of civilisation have suddenly been removed. The isolation and alienation is indicated immediately by the 360 degree pan that opens the film; a lonely and dilapidated railway station that is barely fit for service, an equally tired and decaying hotel, and a small schoolhouse. These three objects are surrounded by wide open space, the landscape is arid shrub land, a scorching desert tract, no points of reference; a panorama lifted from a primal nightmare. Into this benighted and inhospitable terrain comes schoolteacher John Grant (Gary Bond), a man of education, intelligence and free thinking; a man whose sardonic attitude to the local culture is about to be shattered as he attempts to get to Sydney for the Christmas holidays.
Wake in Fright is littered with moments of dark irony. Grant’s refusal of a beer on the train to Bundanyabba is referenced at the end of the film, when on the journey back he accepts a beer with gratitude and relief. It is this event more than anything that illustrates the extent to which Grant has become absorbed into the culture of the Australian outback. It is important to note that Grant is a bonded teacher, and in effect his inexorable journey into the dark heart of outback life is a direct result of his economic situation. He wouldn’t even be in this rural locale were it not for this bondage. His decision to gamble all of his money in a game of ‘two up’ is out of desperation to raise the funds necessary to pay off the bond. His inevitable bad luck means he his stuck in the mining town of Bundanyabba, a place in which the locals spend most of their time drinking...and drinking...and drinking! An early encounter with the local law enforcement Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty) provides a warning to Grant that he chooses to ignore; the police officer’s main task is to clear up suicides! Although Crawford takes Grant under his wing on his first night in the ‘Yabba’, it is clear Crawford is testing the young man, pushing him to drink more than he wants, and occasionally a look crosses the lawman’s face which is very disquieting. It develops an uneasy subtext which resurfaces a number of times in the film, that John Grant is being played, and silently mocked.
With the loss of his money Grant embarks on an odyssey of self destruction. At first he accepts the generosity of the locals, but pretty soon a vortex of rampant and unchecked machismo, misogyny, racism, and barely hidden homo-eroticism sucks him deep into its dark heart. From the moment Grant hooks up with another educated émigré Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasance), a doctor who was struck off in the city, but is able to practice in the outback, and is subsequently supported by the townsfolk, his fate is sealed. If the film has a villain then it is surely Tydon. A man who years before was clearly in the same position Grant finds himself in, but instead of challenge the prevailing culture, Tydon chose to embrace it. He is paid in beer and sex, and this satisfies him. He is a villain because he knows better, and instead of assisting Grant to resist this heady and destructive maelstrom, he watches it develop. In point of fact he actively accelerates the process, by inviting Grant to join him and two others on a violent Kangaroo hunt. This sequence is the most troubling and disturbing in the film, but it illustrates the extent to which Grant has gone native. The hunt is an orgy of depravity, a vile exercise of contempt towards the landscape and the nature that resides on it.
The unrelenting heat is brought vividly to life by the saturated cinematography of Brian West; the camera alights on every drop of sweat, on the sheer physical effort of existing from day to day in an unforgiving environment. It is often said that the outsiders view is the one that can best identify the neuroses and faults of a society. The film was directed by Canadian Ted Kotcheff, a man whose television career largely overshadowed that of his film career; though he did go on to make the thematically similar First Blood (1982). The screenplay was written by Evan Jones who is Jamaican. The novel itself was written by Australian journalist Kenneth Cook, and the raw authenticity of the film undoubtedly derives from the very real experiences that formed the basis of the novel. It is hard to put one’s finger on just what is so horrifying about John Grant’s descent into oblivion. I think it is perhaps the loss of control, the inevitability of his attempted suicide, the lack of a safe refuge, the knowing looks exchanged by the men leading him into the abyss. Wake in Fright is a genuine existential nightmare, and it is one that leaves the civilising forces of education scattered to the four winds. This is horror in the true human sense of the term, and it disturbs on an emotive and primal level, this film demands to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.
© Shaun Anderson 2013