For the longest time, Australia has been known more as an exporter of beer, singers, and Television, even though they have a wide, varied, and interesting home-grown cinema. Even though there have been a number of breakthrough hits or films which have brought attention to the country – Mad Max, Wolf Creek, and of course Crocodile Dundee, it remains a mysterious uncharted land for your average cinema goer with a slew of undoubted classics of multiple genres passing far under the radar. Wake In Fright is arguably the foremost of these – a film which received critical praise upon release but a muted commercial response and which has found subsequent acclaim with each new generation of viewers.
I should get the notorious elements out of the way first, as they may be the deciding factor on whether you watch or not. The film does feature live and active violence against kangaroos, with some scenes of a drunken hunt. We see them being chased by dog, by car, shot, wrestled with, and stabbed – it’s understandable if you want out at this point. The filmmakers defended the footage by saying it was part of a real hunt and later became disgusted by it that they feigned a power outage so it would end. The hunt is just one of the symbols of machismo which the film explores, surrounded by drinking, fighting, a give no fucks attitude, and a disregard for anything resembling cultured humanity.
It’s the descent of an otherwise decent man into this male pack mentality which takes up most of the film. John is an affable teacher in the Outback but who wants more from life – an escape from Australia and a more cultured and worthwhile existence. During the Christmas holidays he heads towards Sydney and his girlfriend, stopping off in an outback town known as The Yabba. The locals are overbearingly friendly, casing John as an outsider and keen to involve him in their customs – namely, drinking, eating, and gambling. John as an intelligent educator views himself as better than them, treating these experiences as an off-putting but nevertheless interesting excursion on his way to civilization, but the effects of alcohol and the lure of a huge gambling win to fund his escape to London set him on a downward spiral. Trapped without a penny to his name, he must rely on the charity of the locals and pay them back by getting involved.
The film takes a different approach to the ‘fall of the civilized man’ sub-genre which populated the early 70s. Rather than some extreme event twisting the protagonist towards violent revenge, John is led by smiling faces and helping hands towards what would appear to be man’s natural state. He isn’t forced or forcibly coerced but knowingly succumbs to a societal peer-pressure however horrendous the result. This is all convincing thanks to a terrific lead by Gary Bond and a host of buffoon locals and drunks, most notably a fantastic lost performance by Donald Pleasence. Pleasence veers between funny, charming, extremely creepy, displaced, and at home often within the same scene, often with just a glance and a facial expression. Few films have a power to fill you with unease quite as much as this, and upon rewatch it’s not clear why or how these feelings come so powerfully. There is nothing overt in the first 30 minutes, nothing grim or harsh or violent or frightening. Certainly Kotcheff’s direction has a lot to do with it with plenty of rapid camera moves and spins and frantic close-ups of shouting and claustrophobic masculinity. More likely it is that the film, through its many combinations of writing, direction, score, performance and more, has tapped into a fear which many men have – a fear of the alpha, a fear of not being part of the pack or possibly worst of all, the fear of being part of it – and enjoying it.
The film starts out with a wonderful shot, evocative of Once Upon A Time In The West of all things – just an empty landscape which stretches on forever, a railway track yearning for the horizon, and a single building on either side. The camera does a creeping 360 and we see, impossibly, that there is nothing else for miles – we may as well be at the end of the Earth. It’s the only glimpse of beauty we get as the camera spends the rest of the film closed in and up close. As hopeless and vast as the opening shot is, and as much as John desires to escape from it, by the end he and us want nothing more than a return to its simplicity. Wake In Fright is one of the finest Australian movies ever made and one of the best films of the 70s. It’s depressing that so few film fans have seen it or even know it exists, but it should be spoken of in the same breath as Straw Dogs, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Taxi Driver as an example of striking, unforgettable 70s Cinema.
Let us know in the comments what you think of Wake In Fright!