John Grant, a bonded teacher, arrives in a rough outback mining town planning to stay overnight before starting his holiday. But one night stretches to several and with the aid of alcohol he plunges headlong toward his own destruction.
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Wake in Fright is the story of John Grant, a bonded teacher who arrives in the rough outback mining town of Bundanyabba planning to stay overnight before catching the plane to Sydney. But his one night stretches to five and he plunges headlong toward his own destruction. When the alcohol-induced mist lifts, the educated John Grant is no more. Instead there is a self-loathing man in a desolate wasteland, dirty, red-eyed, sitting against a tree and looking at a rifle with one bullet left... Written by
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Kenneth Cook was posted as a young man by the Australian Broadcasting Commission (our state-owned broadcaster) to the NSW outback mining town of Broken Hill in the early 1950s. This experience provided the basis for his scarifying first novel, "Wake in Fright", published in 1960. In the novel, Gary, a young schoolteacher bonded to the State Education Department to teach in a desolate desert whistle stop, visits "Bundayabba" (Broken Hill) on his way back to Sydney, surf and girlfriend for the vacation, loses all his money in a two-up game in a desperate attempt to pay off his bond and descends into drunkenness and depravity with the friendly locals, who all appear to be carrying on as they normally do.
This film was made from the novel in 1970 by a production company hitherto associated with light TV entertainment. The then fairly young Canadian director, Ted Kotchoff, with a couple of foreign leads, Donald Pleasance and Gary Bond, was quite happy to accept Cook's ugly Australians as his local characters and his parody of "mateship" as the social cement binding them together. The dialogue may be spare but the editing (by Tony Buckley) is great, and we are right inside Gary's head as he loses it.
I saw this movie when it first came out in New Zealand, where it passed almost without comment. Australian audiences did not flock to see it, and the general critical reaction was that it was too confronting. Nearly 40 years later, restored by the Australian Film Archive, it is a well-made classic which still has plenty of punch. Gary Bond as the hapless schoolteacher is very convincing. Chips Rafferty as the local policeman with a pragmatic approach to enforcing the law exudes a low-level air of menace. Donald Pleasance as "Doc" the alcoholic ex-doctor who leads Gary astray is not so much menacing as over the top, but very amusing all the same. The rest of the cast are suitably ocker.
Much has changed in the outback since the 1950s. Most of the people you rub up against in the bars of mining towns are likely to be from somewhere else, and you'd be lucky to hear those harsh bush accents. Broken Hill has shrunk a bit and is now a pretty quiet place. The Education Department no longer goes in for bush slavery - this is no more than an historical portrait. Yet many city dwellers still see the outback as Gary sees it a place full of drunken homoerotic dickheads who abuse their environment, treat women like public conveniences and whose idea of mateship is to keep their mates drunk. "Wake in Fright" is best seen as very vivid fiction, a horror movie in fact. I don't think Kenneth Cook set out to write non-fiction. Neither was Ted Kotchoff trying to make a documentary. But, with the aid of several good actors and a host of authentic extras he created such a realistic atmosphere that many viewers were misled.
The film, which launched the career of Jack Thomson for one, is said to have given the Australian film industry a boost, even though few saw it. Certainly some fine films followed ; "Picnic at Hanging Rock", "The Getting of Wisdom", "The Devil's Playground", "The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith" for example. But history prevailed modern Australia was not yet ready to film.
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