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Down-Underground: WAKE IN FRIGHT is the Best Movie You’ve Never Seen

Down-Underground: WAKE IN FRIGHT is the Best Movie You've Never Seen

Many people associate Australian films with offbeat comedies like Muriel's Wedding or Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Excellent as such films are, the history of Aussie film-making is a much darker one, shaped by the country’s harsh landscapes and brutal history.  Nowhere are these conditions more evident than in a film that most of us might never have had a chance to see. Although Wake in Fright was greeted with accolades when it premiered at Cannes in 1971, the film’s uncompromising portrayal of colonial life in the Outback incensed Australian viewers, and poor distribution elsewhere drastically curtailed its potential audience.   It was only dogged determination and chance luck that managed to uncover the lone surviving print of the film in a warehouse in Pennsylvania, days before it would have been destroyed.  With this crucial piece of the puzzle of Australian film history now restored, those of us living in the northern hemisphere have the opportunity of entering Australian cinema through its darkest doorway. 

Like America, Australia is a former colony that struggled to find a cultural voice distinct from its British origins.   In 1973 Patrick White was the first Australian to receive the Nobel Prize in literature and it is during that same decade that a distinctive national film culture began to emerge.  A bold group of directors—including Nicholas Roeg, Peter Weir, and Gillian Armstrong—began telling wholly original and often epic stories that placed Australia's distinctive landscape at their center.  Working with absurdly small budgets and means, these directors offered their own, unique response to the revolutions happening in European New Wave and the New Hollywood of the 1970s.  Like these other post-War film revolutions, the new Australian cinema played with familiar genre conventions, injecting them with an often ruthless sense of realism that reflected the country’s particular social and ethnic tensions.  The result is a body of film that is both familiar and strange, engaging, even “accessible” but infused with a sensibility refreshingly apart from American and European film.

Wake in Fright is one of the earliest and most formative examples of this new sensibility, and while it is wholly Australian, it bears comparison with other films from the same era.  Like Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, which also premiered in 1971, it depicts a mild-mannered intellectual’s descent into brutality when he is relocated into an unfamiliar and disquieting rural world.  Like John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) it graphically acts out the alienation of city from country.  Like The Wicker Man (1973), it depicts an outsider’s initiation into a bizarre alien culture.  Yet Wake in Fright is arguably more complex and more disturbing than these contemporaneous classics, at times recalling the work of Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Camus.  If these comparisons seem grandiose, see the film for yourself and get back to me.

It opens dramatically, with a panoramic shot of the bleakest imaginable landscape, the camera circling around to reveal a town consisting only of two small buildings facing a railway.  This is Tiboonda, where John Grant (Gary Bond) is serving out a kind of indentured servitude at a teaching post assigned by the peculiar terms of his student loans.  It is the last day of school, and the students stare vacantly into hot space while flies buzz and clock ticks.  At last released from the confines of the classroom the children flee, and Grant boards a train for the mining town of Bundanyabba where he plans on catching a plane to Sydney to spend the vacation with his girlfriend. 

But Bundanyabba, or “the Yabba” as the locals call it, has other plans for John Grant.  At first the town seems deserted, but it would appear all the residents are at the pub, where Grant is treated to the brutish hospitality of a local policeman, Jock (played by veteran Aussie actor Chips Rafferty), who buys round after round of beer in what will become a recognizable ritual of initiation.  Mateyness, blokeishness, or what we might call dudishness, is portrayed almost as a form of sadism, coerced inebriation being the first of many inductions into the male culture of the Outback, one soon to be followed by gambling, in an explicable, seemingly free-for-all game the locals call “two-up” that seems to be loosely based on the simple principle of heads or tails.  These scenes are mesmerizing, frequently shot directly from above, as we watch with an almost anthropological eye as the locals enact this peculiar, almost dance-like ritual.

Flush with beginner’s luck, Grant pushes it until he loses all his money, rendering him dependent on the Yabba’s tender mercies.  While he had sought to win enough money to free himself from his teaching bondage, he finds himself trapped in another.  With another round of forced pints of beer the next morning, Grant finds himself beholden to local landowner Tim Hynes, who brings Grant back to his place, where he meets a bizarre cast of locals, including Hynes’ enigmatic daughter, two local bullies, and the alcoholic Doc Tyden.  Played by the always inscrutable Donald Pleasance, Tyden is Grant’s perverse Virgil leading him through the Yabba’s surreal Inferno. 

From one bizarre episode to the next, the film draws us in, along with the protagonist, until we are overtaken by a sense of unreality in which nothing is true and everything is permitted.  As Grant moves from hangover to binge, his disdain for the yokels dwindles away, and he engages in acts he never would have dreamed of before coming to the Yabba. 

This perverse odyssey culminates with a night-time kangaroo hunt that remains shocking over forty years later (12 people walked out of the theater when the film was screened as part of a classic series at Cannes in 2009).  The harrowing scene, which portrays the drunken hunters laughing gleefully as they indiscriminately kill and wound dozens of passive creatures, was created by editing shots of the actors with film from an actual kangaroo hunt where the film crew was allowed to tag along.  The footage was later instrumental in Australia’s banning of the brutal hunting practices, where hunters hypnotize kangaroos with bright lights and kill them in droves, for meat that would be sent to America to be used as pet food, while the skins were made into plush toys for the growing tourist market. It is this kind of intersection with Australian history that makes the story of Grant’s descent so powerful.  It might even be argued that the kangaroo hunt sublimates and reenacts the history of slaughter that resulted in the near-genocide of the Aboriginal population. 

These historical resonances make it all the more remarkable that the film was directed by a Canadian, Ted Kotcheff, who would go on to greater commercial (if not critical) success with First Blood and Weekend at Bernie’s.  For this reason it is considered by some Australian film purists as less than genuine, but it is hard to imagine any film that engages more fully with space and place than Wake in Fright.  Iconic Aussie musician, screenwriter and director Nick Cave has called it “the best and most terrifying film about Australia in existence.”  When the film was recently screened at the Sydney Film Festival, followed by a Q and A session, one audience member asked the director if he felt the world depicted in the film still existed, to which three men shouted, “Does it still exist? It exists in my backyard!” 

And for all the film’s brutality, the conclusion seems to imply that the events we have witnessed are just another lost weekend in the Outback.  John Grant gets off the train and wanders past the drunken station master, who asks knowingly, “Did you have a good holiday?” and when Grant answers, “The best,” he almost seems like he means it.  Though rooted in the sun-bleached soil of the Australian cultural landscape, Kotcheff’s masterpiece reveals a penchant for barbarity that is disturbingly familiar.

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