WAKE IN FRIGHT
Director: Ted Kotcheff
Stars: Donald Pleasence, Chips Rafferty, Gary Bond, Jack Thompson
Download the original novel for kindle here
Convicts were sent to Australia for the term of their natural life and there was real truth in sentencing in those days. The journey to the ‘land beyond the seas’ took eight months and if they survived that, they could help build a colony - that they would have no citizenship of - under the blistering sun or escape into an endless desert filled with deadly spiders and snakes.
Little has changed in the 200 years since, with 99% of Australians crammed into the fertile coastal slivers on the east and west of the continent, while many British backpackers and the occasional baby never return from ill-fated journeys into the mysterious, vast interior.
Long before Tourism Australia joined forces with film makers and movies like Crocodile Dundee and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert made the Outback cute, the films of the first Australian New Wave like Picnic At Hanging Rock, Wake In Fright and The Last Wave reflected the Outback in all its malevolent glory. Wake In Fright is new to DVD after a surviving print of the ‘lost film’ of Australian cinema was discovered in a recycling container in a Pittsburgh factory in 2004 and given a brief theatrical re-release in Sydney and Melbourne in 2004.
In Wake In Fright John Grant (Silence of the Lambs fans will note the character name) is serving out a bond to the Department of Education to pay back his teacher training debt by teaching several years in a drab Outback town. Finally granted some Christmas leave, he aims to head for Sydney via the bush plane out of Bundanyabba, a rough as guts place full of hard working, blue-singlet-wearing blokes whose veins run clear with beer.
Grant loses all his savings on a game of Two-Up and falls into a set of threatening misadventures with a violent trio and the alcoholic, slightly mad local doctor known as Doc (Donald Pleasence). After a brutal all-night kangaroo hunt that forced the film makers to add a cruelty to animals message at the beginning of the closing titles Grant and Doc have what appears to be a very drunken male-male sexual encounter.
The action between the creepy, demonic Pleasence and the reasonably-attractive Grant must have had no applicable warning and it does not appear on screen. Instead, we see Pleasence straddle Grant and pin him to the floor, then the pair wake groggily the next morning, looking shattered and shamed. Totally disheveled by now, the English-accented Grant grabs a gun and sets out to wreak his revenge on Doc and the entire town.
Wake In Fright premiered at Cannes in 1971 as Outback and it ran under that name in France for six successful months. It was less well-received back at home, where quirky urban comedies like Homesdale and Stork were all the rage. Its 2009 revival was met with great excitement by the art house but commercial movie tastes have long since moved on - this year’s superb Samson and Delilah returned audiences to the Outback, minus the whitefellas and their 1970s angst and with intoxication via diesel fuel instead of beer.
Australians will laugh with what everyone else will laugh at, such as the matter-of-fact consumption of potentially deadly levels of alcohol. Line after line of clever dialogue is well hidden underneath outback accents as thick as crocodile skin but keen-eared types will pick out plenty of real beauties.
Beyond the fun, Wake In Fright is like a horror film but the only apparent source of danger are the men of the town, yet they seem oddly benign under their gristly surfaces. While the isolated locals show each other how tough they are without fear of intervention (the only authority is Chips Rafferty’s Jock Crawford and he is the drunkest and crookedest of the lot) the Outback itself is relegated to the background.
I really like the (almost) all-male population, appropriate for a movie that mixes up the iconography of a nation settled by men who hit the rum before hands and mouths started wandering in the woolsheds until the Lady Julianarrived. This might be the most interesting part of Wake In Fright, which is an unsettling movie set nowhere that has just re-appeared like a mirage.