A Sleeping Giant of Australian Cinema
It’s considered by some critics to be the greatest Australian film ever made, and it was directed by a Canadian. Next week Ted Kocheff’s Wake in Fright gets its first North American release since hitting theatres in the early ‘70s. Made in 1971, it’s considered part of the Australian New Wave (along with titles such as Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave and Long Weekend) and embodies the sort of gritty, ugly, violent, boundary-pushing aesthetic found in films that were being made in Hollywood in the '70s by a new generation of film school graduates such as Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin and Francis Ford Coppola. Kotcheff, who was born in Toronto, earned a degree from the University of Toronto and worked at the CBC, eventually moved to the UK to work in film. After making two features, he was hired to helm the adaptation of Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel Wake in Fright. (The filmmaker would later go on to make the Canadian classic The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, First Blood, Uncommon Valor and Weekend at Bernie’s.
Wake in Fright stars Gary Bond as John Grant, a teacher in the Outback who leaves on the train to meet up with his girlfriend for Christmas in Sydney. First, though, he has a stopover in the working class town of Bundanyabba, where the locals get him drunk and introduce him to the town gambling den. After winning a wad of cash, he makes one last big play to score enough to solve his financial problems but instead loses everything. Flat broke, John falls in with the hard drinking but generous locals, including an alcoholic doctor played by Donald Pleasance, who lets him stay in his filthy shack and feeds him kangaroo meat. Desperate, frustrated and crazed from the heat, he gives into his most savage impulses when he joins “Doc” and his testosterone-charged buddies on a drunken kangaroo hunt.
In the film’s most notorious sequence, the men shoot, run over and viciously stab the animals. The protracted butchery is real, as the filmmakers joined an actual kangaroo hunt to get the footage. It’s absolutely stomach-churning stuff – an orgy of violence in an already impossibly ugly movie thick with sweat, dust and flies. Yet, it’s not gratuitous in the context of a story about self-destruction. When John wakes up from it all, the horrors he committed threaten to consume him as he tries to finally escape Bundanyabba.
Wake in Fright is a savage fever dream with performances that match the intensity of its atmosphere (and much credit must go to John Scott's surreal, menacing score for making everything feel so dangerous). Bond, as John, slowly sinks into the madness of his surroundings with harrowing, tortured believability, and Pleasance gives what might be the best performance of his career as an educated man who reluctantly accepts his fate blending in with the locals because they don’t question his drinking problem.
It’s such a dark depiction of Australian life that it never aired on television or made it to VHS. In fact the film was believed lost for years until the movie’s editor decided to track down the negative, which he eventually found in Pittsburgh, in a filmhouse bin, where it was marked for destruction. It was digitally restored for an Australian DVD/Blu-ray release, and now it’s being released by Drafthouse films, the imprint spun off from the famed Alamo Drafthouse I blogged about previously. It comes in various special editions (with two hours of bonus features), including one with a poster autographed by Kotcheff and vintage Aussie pennies replicating the ones used in the gambling sequences; it can be ordered here.
This isn't the happy-go-lucky version of the country we often see in movies. Wake in Fright is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach, but it’s a masterpiece of Australian cinema… by way of a Canuck.