Wake in Fright made its first appearance in Cannes in competition in 1971. This critically acclaimed landmark Australian film challenged the way Australians saw themselves and their environment. Based on the novel by Kenneth Cook and directed by Ted Kotcheff, Wake in Fright starred the late Donald Pleasence, Gary Bond and Chips Rafferty (in his last feature film role) and marked the first feature film appearance of a young Jack Thompson. Wake in Fright follows a young outback schoolteacher whose eagerly anticipated summer holiday becomes an alcohol-fuelled descent into violence and despair.
Hats off to Madman Entertainment for giving Australian audiences the chance to discover Wake in Fright, a long-lost and neglected Australian masterpiece.
As my colleague Peter Galvin has reported, Canadian director Ted Kotcheff’s raw 1971 dissertation on Australia’s dark side went un-seen for many years until Tony Buckley, the film’s editor, discovered a print in a Pittsburgh vault in 2004 and it was digitally restored by Atlab.
I had a personal connection to the movie as I was on a temporary posting to Murdoch’s newspaper in Broken Hill in 1970, visited the set and interviewed several of the cast. Nearly 40 years on, the movie is far more violent, viscerally powerful and confronting than I remembered it.
But Wake in Fright deserves to rank as an Australian classic as it packs enormous emotional force, was bravely and inventively directed, and features superb performances. And I’d argue that its commentary on the rigours of outback life, excessive boozing, pre-occupation with gambling, and propensity for violence and cruelty are no less valid today.
At its heart, the screenplay by Evan Jones, based on a novel by Kenneth Cook, deals with the corruption of a relatively naïve and innocent English teacher, John Grant (Gary Bond), who’s posted to a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, which he hates.
En route to Sydney to see his girlfriend during the summer holidays, Grant stops over in the rugged mining town of Bundanyabba, standing in for Broken Hill, where he gets drunk and loses all his money playing two-up, under the watchful eye of the local cop (Chips Rafferty).
Grant is befriended by several locals including Donald Pleasence as a creepy alcoholic doctor. After a failed romantic attempt with the sullen, sexually voracious Janette (Sylvia Kay), John sets off on a kangaroo hunt with the Doc and young roustabouts Dick (Jack Thompson) and Joe (Peter Whittle). That sets off a chain of events which cost John the last vestiges of innocence, and nearly his life.
For a film of that era, the violence was explicit, and not just the brutal roo shoot: the disclaimer that these scenes were shot by licensed professionals during an approved cull doesn’t make them any easier to watch. The emotional violence is even more disturbing, particularly a drunken encounter between Grant and the Doc. Bond graphically portrays his character’s descent from an educated, civilized man to a broken, dirty, addled mess.
Although nominated for the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971, it proved to be too brutal and intense for Australian audiences at the time. So Kotcheff deserves huge credit for making an unflinchingly honest film. Some may quibble with the casting of Brits Pleasence and Kay (who was married to the director at the time)—in quintessentially Australian roles, but the Aussie film industry was in its infancy. It was Thompson’s first feature, and he showed glimpses of that raw talent and energy which was to sustain his career in Oz (although, sadly, not in Hollywood). And it was Rafferty’s last movie: he succumbed to a heart attack in May 1971.
When Buckley found the print after an eight-year search, it was in a dump bin marked for destruction. The film is getting a five-print cinema release in Oz before it goes out on DVD, with an audio commentary recorded last week by Kotcheff and Buckley, in November. Worth noting: This will be the last Aussie feature to list Atlab’s name on the credits, as that company is now Deluxe Australia.
The movie premiered at Cannes this year, along with a restored version of Michelangelo’s L'avventura, which marked the first time any films had screened twice in Cannes. The Wake in Fright Trust, headed by Buckley, is clearing the international rights, so folks overseas will soon get the chance to appreciate this fine, brave film.