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The first time I watched this, I really didn't know what to make of it;
it was so different from any other film I had ever seen. It seemed as
if it was filmed with virtually no budget, the sets and atmosphere were
completely dingy, the setting and much of the language was foreign to
me, and it felt like a kind of homemade independent film. However, upon
a second viewing, I see it for the richly-textured masterpiece that it
is, and for the awesome attention to detail that must have gone into it
which I had taken for granted the first time.
There have been other films with similar subject matter in alternate settings of cultured men reduced to a kind of forgotten primitivity, but I think the thing that sets this movie apart is the fact that director Ted Kotcheff remains completely neutral toward all of the characters - both the cultured schoolteacher as well as the locals. By the end of the film, no character remains unscathed, and yet no character is completely without sympathy, either. It must be quite difficult for a director to remain impartial, especially when most stories require audience sympathy for a protagonist versus an antagonist for story momentum. This impartiality establishes an incredible realism in the film which is difficult to shake off. Here, as in life, things just happen to the main character organically - whether there is any rhyme, reason, or moral to any of it is the complete burden of the audience to figure out.
Another key aspect to the film is its universality. Most people would like to believe that in the modern world, and especially a modern country such as Australia or the U.S, that such ugly colloquial primitivity has been largely purged from polite society, but they would be quite wrong. I can equate some of my own personal experiences with those of the main character in this film, and so felt an uncomfortable recognition as I was watching this. Moroever, virtually every scene in the film I could envision actually occurring - something I cannot say about any other I can think of. Sam Peckinpah's filmic explorations of perverse masculinity, some of Samuel Fuller's work, and "Deliverance" are the only movies that achieve something close to the kind of effect this movie has, and even Peckinpah felt the need to resort to flashy cinematic stylistics to get his points across.
This movie has not aged one bit, and probably never will. It is a tragedy that it has all but disappeared even in its own country of Australia. Director Kotcheff displayed an amazing early talent; it is too bad that his career never reached another peak like this - even in "First Blood" and "Uncommon Valor" - two of his other films with similar themes. And that the same man ended up directing "Weekend at Bernie's" and episodes of "Zalman King's Red Shoe Diaries"!!! The world is a crazy place, and one need only watch this film to realize this fact.
I noted that Speen and some other media commentators think that 'Wake in
Fright' was a foreign product that just happened to be made here in
My father was approached by EMI in 1967 or there abouts. The introduction of colour TV in the US had created a demand for weekly films on the networks, and they were rapidly exhausting the supply of colour films (colour only became the norm post WWII).
EMI was approaching media companies around the world to produce films for cinema release. The two caveats were that the films must contain at least one US marqee name (a recognisable draw card), and the rights for US TV must be given to EMI. All other matter of production were a matter for locals.
My father - who was running a large company in OZ (which had a recording arm) and had been involved in the start of TV, signed up.
The result were to very different films. "Squeeze a Flower" with Walter Chiari (who had starred in 'They're a Weird Mob' two years earlier) with Jack Albertson as the US star, and 'Wake in Fright' with Donald Pleasance as the star.
They utilised largely Oz casts, largely Oz crew and were moderately successful financially (from the Oz viewpoint, I don't know how EMI faired). Even Dave Allen who many now think of as an English or Irish star was the host of 'In Sydney Tonight' at the time (the Harbourside version of Graham Kennedies 'In Melbourne Tonight').
The follow on from this scheme of EMI was the beginings of TV features - specifically filmed for TV as feature films. But "Squeeze a Flower" and "Wake in Fright" were Oz films created for a TV market.
The success of 'Wake in Fright'and 'Walkabout' at the same time, along with the support of the Gorton Government for backing the new film push, started the ball rolling for Oz film's renaissance.
WAKE IN FRIGHT is also known Internationally as OUTBACK. Released to quite a furore in Oz in 1972, I saw it as a teenager and was not unshaken believing that it was all too true. The absolutely brutal sunbaked world of the inland 'scrub' is unflinchingly shown for every part of it's harsh reality. The bozo behavior of local men lubricated with endless alcohol and cruel boredom gets a mighty serve as well. A lot of media and tourist execs of the time were suitably outraged as were the conservative older establishment, and there were opposing films made to soften the blow (SUNSTRUCK, for example). However, WAKE IN FRIGHT is a major achievement as is Roeg's equally devastating WALKABOUT made around the same time. Recently THE TRACKER and RABBIT PROOF FENCE go into the same cinematic territory and deliver equally pungent views. WAKE IN FRIGHT will soon stand among the greats of Australian international cinema and rightfully so. A DVD release and a cinema reissue apparently is keenly awaited.
"Outback" is unlike any other film ever made and quite impossible to categorize. If the movie taught me anything at all, it's that the Aussies can drink seriously hard and loads of it. They even drink till they pass out and then immediately open another can when they come to their senses again. I thought only Belgians did that. You cannot possibly count the amount of beer cans and bottles that are consumed in this film and the most repeated line of text/monologue is without a doubt: "C'mon mate, let's have a drink then". Based on the novel by Kenneth Cook, "Outback" tells the story of a young school teacher visiting the little outback community of Bundanyabba, where the local population is so hospitable and acts so familiar it becomes truly disturbing. They fill their days with drinking, gambling, getting involved in bar fights, drinking again, kangaroo hunting and drinking some more. John initially disapproves their savage habits and looks somewhat down upon the villagers, but slowly and gradually he becomes one of them as he wastes his entire year salary on booze and primitive roulette games. "Outback" is very slow-paced and moody. Sometimes you can literally taste the copious amounts of liquor and experience the heat of the Aussie summer. The noticeable heat, together with the feeling pure geographical isolation truly makes the film disturbing and uncomfortable as hell. "Outback" works effectively as psychological drama but even more as the non-fictional portrait about a society that is largely unknown and unspoken of. The footage of the kangaroo hunting trip is haunting and very, very depressing. I was really relieved when, during the end credits, a message appeared on the screen to state that no real kangaroos were harmed during the production. The film mostly benefices from astonishingly mesmerizing photography, superb music and Ted Kotcheff's solid direction. The versatile and brilliant actor Donald Pleasance is even convincing as an Aussie drunkard and the rest of the relatively unknown cast delivers great performances as well. This is one of them unique movies you only encounter a couple of times in a lifetime, but it's incredibly obscure so if you find a copy treasure it. So mate shall we have a beer then?
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I had the great good fortune to obtain a ticket for a one-time-only
screening of Wake In Fright (aka Outback) at the 2009 edition of the
Toronto International Film Festival. I had heard of the film and read
reviews of it, but it had receded from my memory before I noticed it in
the festival program. Ted Kotcheff was known to me as the talented
Canadian director of such artful Canadian films as The Apprenticeship
of Duddy Kravitz (1974) and subversive Hollywood offerings like North
Dallas Forty (1979) but I had not connected him to WIF.
The screening was part of TIFF's Discussions series, which features an extended, moderated Q&A after the film. I believe this one ran at least one hour, and was very informative and interesting. But first the film.
Briefly, school teacher John Grant (Gary Bond) is contracted by the government to teach in a one-room schoolhouse in Australia's primitive Outback. The school year ends and Grant thankfully boards the train for a six week summer vacation. But he loses all his money when drawn into a stupid gambling contest in the first settlement the train reaches. He is thus just as helpless and alone as any civilized man among dangerous savages (think The Naked Prey with drunk, horny rednecks chasing the titular hero.) Grant first meets the local lawman Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty) who appears unconcerned with the pervasive drunkenness in his community. He insists they get sloshed together, and unwittingly leads him to the gamblers, who play a simple-minded game of heads or tails with two coins. Grant wins at first, but then loses it all. Destitute, he has no choice but to accept the sodden hospitality of the locals. We get the idea (via excellent acting by Mr. Bond) that the educated young man is not happy being at the mercy of these lower-class savages. But their brutish acting-out is partially accounted for (but NOT excused) by the scarcity of sex -- whatever each of these man-children desires, men or women, they just aren't getting enough! An excellent sequence in the film is the attempted seduction of Grant by Janette Hynes (Sylvia Kay), daughter of one of Grant's erstwhile "mates." Loneliness, desperation and sexual frustration are etched in her face, and she leads Grant out of a drunken party for a walk, intending to do the dirty literally in the dirt, but her intended vomits up one of the 1,000 or so beers he downs in the film. Her wretchedness as she flees sobbing back to her father's house is just devastating.
The most controversial scenes in the film were shot during actual kangaroo hunts, conducted at the time with no decent regulation, for the benefit of foreign pet food companies. Drunk as lords, the Aussie crew speed through the desert in a "Mad Max" hunting truck, shooting every poor 'roo they can find. In the grisly climax, Grant agrees to kill an animal with a knife and his bare hands.
Later, seriously alcoholic 'Doc' Tydon (the great Donald Pleasence, at the peak of his brilliance) sexually assaults the (finally) unconscious Grant in his filthy hovel. Grant "wakes in fright" to find the good Doc asleep on the floor, naked except for a woman's baby doll nightie. "Gay panic" ensues, and after an unsuccessful attempt to hitchhike out of the town, he returns to the cabin with his kangaroo rifle and confused intentions. (SPOILER) 'Doc' returns, but Grant turns the rifle on himself and fires. He awakes in a hospital bed, and signs a statement saying the shooting was an accident. He is discharged just in time to return to his school house.
At the Q&A we learned some interesting facts: The film was shot on location in a small Aussie town, and the bar, gambling hall, the Hynes ranch, the schoolhouse, etc. are real, and together with the stark cinematography impart a sense of one of those faintly recalled nightmares that seem like a true occurrence. Mr. Kotcheff told us he was aiming to create claustrophobia in wide-open spaces, and in my humble opinion he succeeded.
The 'roo hunt was filmed documentary-style at a real hunt. The filmmakers consulted with Australian anti-hunt groups who told them to go ahead, so that the Australian public could see the cruel slaughter for themselves. It's quite sickening -- the hunters amuse themselves by shooting to wound, then watching the bleeding animals jumping about in pain. The killings by knife were simulated, shot in a black-out tent to match the night-time of the documented hunt.
The film was well received by critics at Cannes (and the restored film was re-screened there this year), and the director remembers being told by his hosts that it was an important film for Australians, and that it could only have been made by an unbiased outsider. Its North American release (as Outback) was botched -- perhaps deliberately, since (I suppose) unfettered alcoholism + gay rape + graphic animal slaughter wasn't expected to sell well, even in the cinema's post-60's creative ferment.
Eventually, the film was forgotten and the master negatives misplaced. The film's editor spent two years on his own time and dime tracking it down. He found the reels in a Pittsburgh, PA warehouse, in containers marked for destruction. Restored, remastered and revived, it has met with accolades in Australia, at Cannes, and of course here at TIFF.
Needless to say, I am anxiously awaiting the DVD release!
It's been said: "The best film ever made about Australia was directed by a
Canadian." Possibly true. "Outback/Wake in Fright" is one of those films
which gets a little too close for comfort. Unlike most Australians, those
us who grew up in the country will recognise a lot in this film, not
What a strange, malleable career Ted Kotcheff has had. Of late he has retired to the relative comfort of making TV movies and even contributed to "Law and Order SVU". Yet like Nicolas Roeg ("Walkabout"), Kotcheff's brief spot of work in Australia was a wake-up call to a blinkered urban population (or those that went to the movies at any rate) to the complexity of the outback, in all its bloody glory, dispensing with the romantic pills we were used to swallowing. Kenneth Cook's novel should be held in equal regard, but his writing doesn't get much press these days, which is a shame.
Television prints of this film - rarely shown these days - heavily censor the kangaroo kills, which says a lot about the hypocrisy of the city. Uncut version is essential viewing.
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.
Yet another first-class film made in Australia by foreigners (a Canadian
director working for a British studio), during the long period from World
War II to the early 1970s when Australian cinema lay fallow. Like many
other good ones - "The Overlanders" (1946), "They're a Weird Mob" (1966),
"Age of Consent" (1969), "Walkabout" (1971) - although "Walkabout" is more
seriously flawed than the others I've named - it doesn't feel like a foreign
film; it feels as if the director made an honest attempt to be Australian,
and succeeded. It's interesting that all these films are British. American
films shot in Australia during the same period are, without qualification,
American films; one scarcely even notices that "On the Beach" was shot in
Melbourne rather than, say, Capetown or Tierra del Fuego, however many trams
and banksias there may be.
The central character is clearly English; just as clearly, he doesn't like Australia. But I suspect that even in 1971 a greater proportion of Australians would have felt themselves to have been trapped in Hell if they'd been in his circumstances, than English. A greater proportion of Australians, then as now, live in cities, and the outback is further away from over 90% of Australians than anything is from anyone in England.
It's interesting that this fellow should be so RIGHT about everything (The Yabba IS a "bloody terrible" place, the hospitality he encounters DOES border on aggression, the game of two-up IS about as simple-minded and dull as it's possible for a game of chance to be), and yet be such an unsympathetic, unimaginative prig with scarcely more insight than he has backbone. He always needs a local to tell him what's going on and even then he doesn't get it. Yet we follow him with fascination and real concern all the same.
This is one of my favourite films of all time and I'm not surprised when I
hear of others who also see it as one of their favourites (including
Nick Cave and Robert Mitchum). Detailing the life of a city school
stuck in an Australian outback town, this movie shows in great detail the
ugly side of Australian country life that the Australian tourist
attempt to hide. Excellent performances by all the actors, including
Pleasance, Jack Thompson, John Mellion and the legendary Australian
character actor Chips Rafferty (in his final film) help give the film a
gritty "real" texture.
Known as "Wake in Fright" in Australia, the film is still powerful nearly thirty years after it was made, although viewers unaccustomed to the Australian lingo may need an Australian strine dictionary to get them through some scenes. I saw this film with a Polish friend who was so overawed by the film and wanted to get a copy of the movie to take back to Poland and show it commercially there.
As an interesting side note, at the end of the film, in the spot usually reserved for the caption "No animals were harmed in the filming of this movie" is instead a note stating that the kangaroos killed during the making of the movie were killed as part of an official kangaroo culling programme.
See this movie if you can.
It is this film which tells me more about Australia than any other.
Shown this film by Australian film scholar Cath Ellis i was captivated from start to finish. It is this film which does not flinch from the heart of Australian masculinity. There is no romanticism as with that found in Gallipoli or Newsfront.
We are slowly drawn into the disintegrating world of a hapless teacher who is trapped in the Australian interior. This isn't the Australian dream of the new frontier, this is a vision of Hell.
By the finale you will be swearing (as many Australian students apparently do when confronted with this film) that it cannot be that bad, the rampant hyper masculinity on display is too much and too wantonly violent. Hmmm.
The film is notorious for scenes of a Kangaroo being brutally murdered by a pack of drunken men engaging in an uncontrollably escalating series of dares. It is one of the most damning scenes about the pillage of Australia you could ever see. But like a train wreck you cannot avert your eyes.
On a cheekily upbeat note, look out for Donald Pleasance who seems to be enjoying the whole thing far too much. It looks like they were paying him in beer...
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