Australia’s great lost film, Wake in Fright, is a movie of untold wonders that might have been better left untold. Released in 1971, the film is mesmerizing but was nearly lost to the muck from whence it came, fitting considering its bleak, cynical worldview of perpetual loss and emptiness. It’s easy to see why it failed to find DVD or VHS distribution until the 2010s, nearly forty years after its release – this is about as far from a “feel-good” mainstream film as you’ll find. It’s not an easy film to sit through, the kind that not only depicts horrors of all variety but dares us to keep watching and then scares us for our own complicity in the activities it depicts. Wake in Fright marries realism to the land of nightmares as it gives us a vision of modern maleness and male-run civilization as a bandage stretched thin over past wounds still left to fester elsewhere in the world, forgotten by others. It’s a necessary film, an important social statement, but most people would probably rather not have to hear it. Wake in Fright is the purest form of lonely oblivion, an eternally mangled wail into the darkness of blinding light. It is cinematic ungodliness.
John Grant (Gary Bond) is a mild-mannered, middle-class Australian school teacher beset by a lonely job on the desolate outback. At the start of the winter holidays, he finds himself in a small mining town, Bundanyabba , or “The Yabba”, where he is to catch a flight to Sydney to visit his stated girlfriend (whose tangible existence is ambiguous – she serves as a means for Grant to get through the day more than a physical person). There, he finds an opportunity to win enough money to pay off a bond the Australian government has on him, and which would allow him to teach elsewhere in the nation, such as Sydney. After a winning streak, he loses hard and fast. He soon finds himself under the hospitality of a local man whose friends soon reveal themselves destructive drinkers and fighters who conspicuously resemble the human male. Initially repelled, John soon finds himself struggling with acceptance of their lifestyle and the destructive, anarchic appeal they bring to his rigidly ordered life.
Wake in Fright presents a hell-scape vision of maleness, painting its lens right on the masculine image of the Western world, and especially, an Australia birthed on images of rugged male Western colonialism and ragged power. The men John meets are freed in the Outback – given credence for raw debauchery which would be hidden beneath a layer of a pesky civility in mainstream society that has the unfortunate habit of clipping the wings of unbridled torrential destruction. For John, it’s a power fantasy: it allows him to let loose and to break free of the drudgery of his daily life. Early on, he adopts the role of an ennobled sideline player who takes delight in viewing activities from the outskirts while he can still feign superiority to those around him – pitting his “civilized” gaze onto their actions. As a long weekend progresses though, he is transformed into an angry, embittered shell of a man that differs from the shell of a man he entered the film as only in that he now takes his energy out on others and not himself. In Wake in Fright, civilization is produced on the backs of violence and terror, two things still simmering within and which can let themselves out freely on the outskirts where no one is looking. Here, a nation built on the untold violence of masculine colonialism plays out among men whose sole joy is to play out their own maleness, but it is by no means absent among the “civilized”. Indeed, it is the foundation of their civilization, only carefully hidden by city life and a middle-class existence.
Of course it’s hard to write about Wake in Fright without the kangaroo hunt. In the midst of director Ted Kotcheff’s barbaric examination of barbarism, the film’s male tempters homoerotically put their masculinity on display for each other through boastful power grabs – hunting each other in physical fighting, yes, but also hunting others, captured most bluntly in the kangaroo hunt. The hunt is as uncomfortable as any scene in any film, and was captured by the director as he tagged along with real life hunters on their nightly slaughter. He maintains that no kangaroos were harmed specifically “for” the film, having told the hunters not to act any differently than they would have on any other night. Nevertheless, many actual kangaroo deaths are captured by Kotcheff’s knowing, blunted camera, intercut with laughing hecklers more animalistic than anything else, capturing the predator-prey relationship in full swing among humanity. The laughs more than the killing – the thought that these men accrue an uncontainable energy from their actions – sends a nightmarish chill down the spine, with Donald Pleasence’s (in an early role as one of the deranged residents of the Yabba who happens to call himself a doctor) steely smirk beckoning a hell on earth. The scene is on ethically shaky ground, although many animal rights experts have defended the film for placing a critical gaze on hunting as a reflection of wonton maleness and serving no other purpose. The film in no way condones the activity, and it goes beyond criticism and into creating immoral, meaningless hellscapes out of it.
The most telling moment though comes when John exclaims in delight after he shoots a fox, finally a man of the pack. When he runs out to get it, the others laugh and call him back, reminding that the fox as a physical entity is good for nothing. It’s the idea of the fox, the idea of staking their claim as men through the act of killing, that matters – the prey is irrelevant. From that point on, Grant’s expression changes from self-righteous and holier-than-thou to devilish smug smirk as he enjoins himself to the group’s devil-may-care lifestyles.
Pleasence gives the film’s “largest” performance as a big-city doctor who’s taken to the more “truthful” life of hard living in the Yabba, a land he, like Grant, simply can’t leave. Here, he can drink and fight to his heart’s content, living out an underbelly that civilized society would shun. He comes off as Grant’s polar opposite: not self-righteous and smug but entirely committed to the lifestyle with passion. But as the film progresses the differences between the two diminish. It is, after all, Grant’s civilized demeanor which keeps him in the Yabba – he can’t act, nor can he take his own critical perspective of the activities he comes to take part in beyond his own internal rue. He has no will for speaking up, and condemns himself to quiet brooding – he is a passive figure, content with his own milquetoast civilization and uninterested in standing up for anything. He, for his self-superiority, is no better than the film’s more conventionally savage males, and about the only thing he does in the film is reveal himself to be like them. His final action in the film speaks to his passivity, to his inability to break from a negative cycle where he has no power over the men of the Yabba other than to leave them after his excursion on the dark side and let them be.
But Wake in Fright is first and foremost a film of images and sounds, and of the dialectical tension between the rigid, suffocating tight grip of pure, careful craftsmanship and something much more abandoned and ruggedly chaotic. Kotcheff’s film deals in lights so bright as to blind human eyes from the soullessness of the land’s inhabitants, interspersed with a darkness that would be the pinnacle of emptiness if it did not hide actions so horrid. Kotcheff plays with light and dark throughout the film – when he pans around the desert in the film’s opening image, he introduces us to a desolate hell of light until we realize that the true hell is in the night where men are let loose upon a town of their own making. In the early gambling scenes, we’re treated to a cacophonous mess of human activity, rendered like a jungle. The camera follows coins up and down into the light flickering above a darkened room, blinding us in the process as the men are blinded by pure greed. A bravura image has Pleasance staring up at the light with the coins the men use to make the game covering his eyes, literally blinding him with greed. The coins also have white x’s taped over them, capturing him as death incarnate.
I could go on and on about the film’s pure craft. The music, from an opening drone approximating the essence of anxiety to the wonderfully devilish playfulness of a song that sees Grant off of his yearly work as a school teacher and toward the train to take him to hell, is eye-opening, if only because we must open our eyes. Not doing so could render our ears bearing the brunt of the pain, becoming that much more damaged by the cacophony of otherworldly sounds on display here.
Kotcheff also makes repeated use of a woozy visual trick throughout the film where he disturbs the camera as it cuts from image to image, as if shaking it upon cut or as though they were less cuts then uneasy swipes from action to action. The effect is cheap and ragged, and even annoying, but it’s entirely effective in it’s fitting the raw, rough-around-the-edges characters of the film. It is also completely amateurish, the kind of technique a “great” director might have left out, but it works like nothing else. Plus, it becomes more deranged as the film goes along, as if Kotcheff was becoming himself blinded and maddened by the Outback, struggling in a losing battle to maintain a tight control of his work in the midst of the hot sun and an aimless, decayed freedom of a life away from larger society. The effect is as if the camera was drunk – perhaps on its own power – and wobbling uncontrollably, fighting to maintain a semblance of control and rapidly losing. It looks like the men in the film, especially John. It distills a perpetual tension between order and anarchy.
Wake in Fright came out the same year as another film that dealt uneasily with the perpetual cycle of male-ness rendered explosive by deranged activity and darkness, Straw Dogs, and another film released the following year, Deliverance. Both films are more famous, and both have their strengths. The former, in particular, knows its own tense masculinity well and tempers its own ability to take part in what it chastises with a scary, increasingly self-destructive anti-protagonist. The latter film is less successful, and far more problematic for its rendering backwards poor Southern whites as one-note villains to the city-boy protagonists who deal in revenge but never truly succumb to what they detest – they are very much above the villains, while Wake in Fright knows that John only pretends to be. Both films lack the delirious nihilism of Wake in Fright, and neither are willing to descend to this film’s unholy hell-on-earth. They, for their complication, still want to see hero and villain, and they prefer to shock rather than to chill. Wake in Fright has the edge and filmmaking energy of pure horror, but the horror it posits is captured in a lens aimed squarely at us.