A lost classic of New Wave cinema and the bane of Outback tourism
Wake in Fright is a long-neglected exercise in psychological unease made by Ted Kotcheff, who U.S. audiences know better for 1982’s First Blood, the original Rambo outing. Originally titled ‘Outback’ in non-Australian markets, Wake in Fright screened at Cannes in May 1971 alongside another film with an Outback setting, Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout. While that strange and beautiful gem went on to become an international art-house hit, notable for its lush photography and ambient score and for showcasing British actress Jenny Agutter in one of her very first roles, Wake in Fright fell off the radar and languished in oblivion for many years. Prints of the movie survived here and there, but some felt them to be of poor quality and not worth seeing.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
Then in 2002, the film’s editor, Anthony Buckley, reportedly found master negatives in Pittsburgh just before their scheduled destruction, and the film gained a new lease on life at Cannes and on DVD. The world finally got a version of Wake in Fright whose production quality complements the natural beauty of its setting and the excellence of its writing, acting, and direction. The revived Wake in Fright was so influential it inspired a miniseries in 2017.
A tormented lead
Wake in Fright is the story of John Grant, a teacher at a remote school in the Outback and, in his own words, a bonded slave to Australia’s educational system. He has no choice but to teach to get out of debt, unless of course an unexpected windfall should make him rich. When the semester comes to an end, Grant stops at a local pub for a beer and a chat with the middle-aged barman before getting on a train for Bundanyabba, a mining town with little to recommend it unless you happen to live for beer and gambling.
Grant plans to fly to Sydney the next day and reunite with his girlfriend, of whom he has frequent visions from a time they spent on the beach long ago. But first he has a night to pass in this obscure place. Grant joins a large party of gamblers and, after early success makes him euphoric at the thought of finally having the funds to pay off his bond and escape his teaching obligations, proceeds to blow all his money, even the plane fare. He is stuck.
Too many horror movies depict travelers in the boondocks getting lost or stranded and running into creepy denizens who aren’t shy about putting a blade or a chainsaw to deadly use. It’s the hoariest cliché around. But not too many films present a scenario where the danger, if you should get stuck in a remote place, is to run into locals who are too friendly, if not downright overbearing in their insistence that you come and have a beer with them and enjoy their way of life. The locals in Wake in Fright are all too eager to talk and have a drink or two or fifteen with a bloke from out of town. They take it as an insult if you decline. They’ll even put you up.
Long before cinemagoers met Donald Pleasence as the enemy of Michael Myers in 1978’s Halloween, the idiosyncratic actor took on a lead role in Wake in Fright, playing Doc Tydon, a jovial alcoholic. Inconceivably for most of us these days, he lives without any money, getting by in Bundanyabba on a barter system, and drinks more beer than any five people you know combined. After Grant meets Tydon in a diner adjoining the gambling hall and expresses his caustic view of the town where he has just arrived, Tydon says it could be worse. Grant: “How?” Tydon: “The supply of beer could run out.”
As a character in Sartre’s play No Exit puts it, hell is other people. Bundanyabba has no shortage of folks with time on their hands. It’s not pleasant to imagine where the passions of the hordes of young and middle-aged men might turn if endless quantities of beer don’t mollify them day after day, night after night. While hanging out with Tydon, Grant meets a number of other blokes who make Paul Hogan’s Crocodile Dundee look urbane, drinks constantly, becomes involved with Tydon’s exceedingly odd wife, and goes with the mates on a kangaroo hunt in the bush.
While Kotcheff sets some of the scenes to lively and evocative music, in others the camera just kind of stares at the unrelieved boozing, joking, swearing, and mock-fighting, as if not knowing what the proper reaction is to drunk humans so close to their nadir. But none of this is as awful as the kangaroo hunt, about which more in a minute.
It seems Grant does not understand or endorse the way of life here, but he is passively complicit. What should be a brief stay in Bundanyabba draws on and on. As in J.G. Ballard’s 1974 novel Concrete Island, the seemingly simple goal of a stranded protagonist leaving a place stretches out until it seems to threaten the sanity of both character and viewer. Wandering around the bush and the town, clutching a rifle, Grant turns delusional and finally suicidal as the film’s score grows ever weirder and more mournful.
The evils of the Outback
The sly implication is that the Outback itself affects Grant in oblique ways, that the land has it in for him. Here Wake in Fright sets an example for later movies in which the Dreamtime of aboriginal lore intersects with the blundering of Cartesian-influenced Westerners and strange, rationally inexplicable doings result. Sequences in Peter Weir’s great film Picnic at Hanging Rock and passages in the novel 1988 by the late Queensland novelist Andrew McGahan are highly reminiscent of the scenes near the end of Wake in Fright.
Of all the off-putting aspects of rural Australian life presented here, nothing (except perhaps the bizarre, uncomfortable sex between Grant and Tydon’s wife) will be more off-putting to viewers today than the hunting of actual kangaroos. The makers of the film included disclaimers at the end noting that the scenes of men killing kangaroos came from a legal kangaroo hunt, that no kangaroos died in the course of making the film itself, and that the filmmakers consulted with animal rights groups in Australia and the U.K.
Kotcheff has been quoted as saying, “The very first thing I want to make clear is that no kangaroo was injured or killed for my film Wake in Fright.” The Australian Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals even reportedly encouraged Kotcheff to capture the carnage of the hunt on film, with a view to inducing Australia’s government to outlaw kangaroo hunts.
For some, none of this comes even close to putting the ethical issues to rest. It doesn’t matter that the kangaroos would have died anyway. Kotcheff is not like Alfred Hitchcock, capturing the horror of the Holocaust on film after the fact to bring that horror to the world’s attention. By tagging along and filming the hunters’ bloody work as it took place, the filmmakers were complicit in it. The kangaroos did in fact die “for” the movie.
Nick Cave has called Wake in Fright the best and scariest Australian film of all time. It may well be. But there’s one goal it did not achieve. People kill a reported three million adult kangaroos in Australia every year.