Wake in Fright: some thoughts

To commemorate the Masters of Cinema Region 2 release, and accompanying cinema release in March 2014, of this seminal Australian classic (1971, directed by Ted Kotcheff, starring Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence, and Chips Rafferty), I reproduce an essay I wrote on the Region 4 release two years ago, first published at a tribute site to Bond.

wakeinfright

Canadian director Ted Kotcheff’s film ‘Wake in Fright’ (1971), based on Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel, was many years in the planning, originally intended to star Dirk Bogarde as the bonded teacher John Grant, and to be directed by Joseph Losey.  However by the time it was finally green-lighted in 1969, the lead part had been won by Gary Bond, who had only appeared in two films before in supporting roles (Zulu and Anne of the Thousand Days).  He was not the obvious choice for such a role, particularly being a posh Briton, but made a fair stab at the role and manages to make the character of Grant more than two-dimensional; he’s helped, of course, by a good script and supporting cast (Donald Pleasence, who was actually billed first, being a ‘name’ actor; Jack Thompson in his first big screen role; Chips Rafferty in his last screen role; and Sylvia Kay).

Time Out London, however, does not like the film, dismissing it thus: “A sadly confused film, shot with something  like a social realist’s eye for accurate documentation – clothes, faces, sex habits, furniture, buildings, language. Into this very precise  context, however, is dropped the melodramatic tale of a schoolteacher  from the city (Bond) who goes to pieces in a remote desert township (a  favourite piece of Australian mythology) under the impact of the  hard-drinking, gambling, nihilistic pressures of life there, and is  finally raped by Pleasence’s renegade doctor. The end result is crudely exploitative.”

wake in fright 2

Is Wake in Fright exploitative?

Wake in Fright has often been called an Ozploitation film, which according to Wikipedia means “a type of low budget horror, comedy and action film made in Australia after the introduction of the R rating in 1971.”  By this definition, Kotcheff’s film must have been the original Ozploitation film, defining the genre.  It was made on a budget of 800,000 Australian dollars, but despite receiving positive reviews throughout the world on its initial release, and a nomination for a Golden Palm Award at the Cannes Festival, it was a box-office success only in France and the United Kingdom.  It seemed that to Australians it was too close to home in subject matter to be viewed by a large audience.

Wake in Fright could be dismissed as exploitative of women, who, apart from Sylvia Kay’s Janette, who has slept with most of the men in the ‘Yabba and who initiates a sexual encounter with Grant shortly after meeting him (which ultimately fails as he is too drunk to perform and instead vomits and passes out), are all but invisible.  The tension between the men who fight, drink and curse could be seen as a reaction to the lack of female companionship, or the film could just be seen as unrealistic when it comes to the way women are perceived in Broken Hill.

Wakeinfright.com describes the film as “brutal, uncomprising, and stunning”, and I tend to agree with this assessment rather than dismissing it as a cheap piece of exploitative cinema.  Yes, there are scenes which are uncomfortable to watch – real kangaroo hunts are incorporated into the footage; and the scenes of violence and sexual tension could be read as mere fantasy to depict a vision of the Australian outback which never existed.  However, I feel the Time Out review above misses the point – where their reviewer sees melodrama, I see a multi-layered and beautifully constructed tale of desolation.  If it was done on a relatively small budget the film looks sumptuous, as the recent 2009 restoration proves, with the oranges and reds of the colour palette bringing the story of John Grant and his long nightmarish weekend firmly into the realms of ‘realism’ and away from ‘melodramatic’.

If Wake in Fright is exploiting anyone, it is the central figure of Grant, and he brings all his problems on himself.  No one forces him to do anything – he doesn’t have to gamble, drink, or go out on his own with Janette, or participate in the kangaroo shoot.  The question of whether the ‘rape’ is really that, or a mutually agreed encounter between Grant and Doc (Pleasence), is much more complex than some reviewers think.  For what it is worth, I think there is an element of consensuality, albeit of a kind through a fog of alcohol.

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Is Wake in Fright ‘a great lost film’?

The international release of the film, under the title ‘Outback’ had been shown on television, so the film was not totally forgotten – however, this version had washed-out prints and had been subject to a certain amount of censorship (no nude scene for Bond, the opening and closing credits were different, and the scene after the Grant/Doc encounter was reshot to make it less obvious what had occurred the night before).   Outback is a good film – but the state of the prints does not do it justice (it can be viewed on YouTube though, for those curious to see what the censored cut was like).

The restored Wake in Fright, in my opinion, is a great film.  After a gap of forty years it can finally be seen in its original glory as Kotcheff intended, and the performances of those involved can be appreciated by new audiences.  Fright.com describes Wake in Fright as “at once a uniquely insightful, intelligent character study  and probably the darkest, grittiest, and, I’m told, most realistic depiction of  rural Australia ever committed to celluloid.”  It is as a character study, and a psychological horror (and a very good one) that Wake in Fright should be approached and viewed.

Yes, it is a great lost film, and yes, it is Gary Bond’s greatest work for the screen.  For that reason alone, I have to highly recommend it – at the moment it can only be imported on Region 4 DVD or on Blu-Ray, but it is well-worth doing so.  And although it was included in the documentary on Ozploitation films, ‘Not Quite Hollywood‘ in 2008, I don’t really think it belongs to that group of films at all.

NaBloPoMo November 2013

About Louise Penn

Writer, reviewer, fan. View all posts by Louise Penn

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