In Australia the sun tortured geography and appearance of seasonless non-changing weather create a desolation that can tug on the most fearless of souls. Suffering and murder are written large in the continent’s last two centuries, and both heroes and villains emerge from morally ambiguous figures such as the bushranger. Against this backdrop the gothic seems a natural choice for Australian literature, art, and, of course, cinema.
The first Australian director to be declared a cinematic auteur was Charles Chauvel, a filmmaker who sought to tell ‘real’ Australian stories located in an authentic Australia. His cinematic masterpiece was Jedda, the first Australian colour feature and the first to focus primarily on the lives of indigenous Australians and foreground an indigenous relationship. But, even in this 1955 feature, the outback is presented as slowly, almost invariably, bending to the will of white Australians, whose stiff upper lips and tenacity enables them to herd cattle in this most inhospitable environment.
In Jedda the central theme is the internal conflict of the Aboriginal girl who gives the film its name as she is torn between the white world of her adoptive parents who have educated her and the world of her blood. The film reflects the period it was produced in and, despite its acknowledgement of indigenous culture and beliefs, the dominant attitude presented is of the allegedly civilizing aspects of white culture.
Sixteen years after the release of Jedda another film was produced that also explored life in outback Australia, but found a very different world from that presented by Chauvel. Instead of basing its story within the classic narrative of the ‘process of civilization’ it presented a very different story rooted firmly in the Australian gothic, the film was Wake In Fright, and was based on the 1961 hardboiled novel by Kenneth Cook.
Wake In Fright was Cook’s second novel, and took its name from the ancient curse "May you dream of the Devil, and wake in fright". The book was successful internationally and was even taught in schools. The story is deceptively simple, and tells of John Grant a bonded teacher stationed for two gruelling years in the outback. Grant is returning home to Sydney for the Christmas holiday before the start of his second year trapped in the middle of nowhere. On his journey he must spend a night in Bundanyabba where he loses all of his money playing Two-up. Trapped in the small town he is invited to stay with the alcoholic Doc Tydon, here Grant engages in excessive alcohol consumption, goes hunting, and has a brief encounter with Tydon, before trying – and failing to hitch to Sydney. Forced into utter alcohol induced despair Grant realises there may only be one escape from existence in the small town.
The first talk of adapting the novel for cinema occurred in 1963, with Dirk Bogarde and Joseph Losey but nothing emerged from this, author Morris West then brought the rights, but again nothing happened. Finally the rights were acquired by NLT and Group W who produced the film, casting it with a combination of both new actors and familiar faces.
The cast included Gary Bond a comparatively unknown screen actor who was better known for his theatrical work, including an acclaimed stint in Joseph And His Technicolor Dreamcoat. On the film’s release Grant was compared by several commentators to Peter O’Toole. The role of Doc Tydon was played by Donald Pleasance, whose performance maintains an air of understated, world weary menace throughout the film.
Wake In Fright opens with a slow, majestic shot of the outback, turning a full 360 degrees through desert shrub and flatness as far as the eye can see. The shot turns across a railway track, allowing the viewer to witness two structures facing each other across the lines and the wooden platform that forms the remote Tiboonda Station: the school and the hotel. The music is haunting and pensive, with a baleful undertow, as the action moves into the school. Here the teacher, John Grant, sits facing the students, there is the relentless ticking of the clock, until finally it is time for the Christmas holiday to start. Locking the school Grant, a self-described “bonded slave of the education department”, crosses the railway line from the school to the hotel, checks out and heads to the rickety platform to await his train to Sydney and civilization.
The train, filled with men drinking and singing, takes Grant to Bundanyabba. On the train an atmosphere of drunken camaraderie dominates, and as soon Grant steps onto the carriage he is offered a beer. From Bundanyabba – or just the Yabba to locals – he plans to catch the plane to Sydney. But in the Yabba, the “friendliest place in Australia” he is told by locals, everything goes wrong. In the crammed bar the local police office Jock Crawford buys him a beer, and soon the two are drinking and heading to a game of Two-up. By the end of the night Grant has gambled away his pay and savings, and awakes destitute and hung-over in the Yabba.
Taken in by local drinker and one-time-doctor Doc Tydon Grant is forced to experience life with nothing but the continual flow of alcohol, bush meat, and bennies, offered to him in lieu of healthy sustenance, and drunken male company with all of its increasingly dangerous vagaries, culminating in a night of drunken insanity. What follows is a harrowing journey into alcohol fuelled psychological and physical degradation driven by the nihilism of beer and violence, as the film’s tagline read: “have a drink, mate? Have a fight, mate? Have a taste of dust and sweat, mate? There’s nothing else out here.” One thing is certain, Wake In Fright’s depiction of the outback is about as opposed to Jedda as it is possible to be.
Kenneth Cook’s novel describes the nation’s geographical interior as the “silent centre…the Dead Heart”, this could almost be a description of the men who inhabit the silent landscape. The film emphasises this distinction between the lush green coasts and burned red centre. It depicts an Australia divided between the cosmopolitan cities on the coast and the raw communities of the interior, a division that is marked not just by geography but also by the inhabitants’ relationship to the landscape. Grant is middle class, an educated schoolteacher, and longs for the beach, surf and his girlfriend, all of which are seen in flashback. In sharp contrast those who live in the Yabba are working class and are proud of their town, they do not question their lives spent sweating and working in the outback, drowning out the relentless heat, eternal sun and any existential angst with the dull roar of endless drinking. Stranded, John Grant enters this nihilistic world and is unable to escape.
In America the small town is imagined as the home of American values, it represents the certainties associated with mom and apple pie, it is the world of films as diverse as Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) and Richard Donner’s The Goonies (1985), even when the small town appears in horror films the monstrous primarily comes from outside rather than within. In sharp contrast the Australian small town is frequently a source of gothic darkness. A difference of meaning resulting from the differing histories of colonialism between the Pilgrim Fathers and their search for a new Eden in America and the First Fleet and their human cargo of malnourished convicts and undesirables exiled to the antipodes.
Like those convicts stranded in an inhospitable landscape Grant is trapped, as crime novelist Peter Temple observes in his introduction to Cook’s book. Even with his job he is compelled to work as a bonded teacher for the education department in the middle of nowhere. In the Yabba without money he is utterly marooned. The parallel to the convict history of the continent is clearly alluded to in the film’s original promotional materials that state, “The Outback cages him, strips him bare, and tortures him”.
Wake In Fright falls into the similar Australian gothic as films such as Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975) and The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), and John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005) stories that emphasise a swirling darkness that emerges through the interaction between the protagonists and the eternal untamed landscape, as Ray Winstone’s Captain Stanley asks of the heat in The Proposition “what fresh hell is this?” The hell so clearly shown in Wake In Fright is the endless oppressive heat, the endless buzz of flies, the endless drunken stink of pure male company and the endless meals of undercooked kangaroo flesh and relentlessly drunken tinnies. It is the hell of boredom and time spent rotting like the rusted cars that litter the land around Doc’s shack.
Directed by Canadian filmmaker Ted Kotcheff – who would go on to make the inaugural Rambo movie First Blood (1982) and currently works on Law And Order: Special Victims Unit - the film maintains an outsider’s perspective not just as a result of its narrative but also because of the director’s nationality. This outsider’s perspective is further emphasised by the script, which was written by Jamaican born British writer Evan Jones, and the cinematography, which was undertaken by British director of photography Brian West. Exactly how alien Australia felt was summed up by Brian West, as Anthony Buckley recounts, when West arrived in the country at the start of the shoot he climbed from the plane in bright sunlight simply stated “this country is one stop overexposed”.
The filmmakers appear to have gazed into Australian outback culture, and the rituals associated with its male inhabitants, and recreated them with an absolute attention to detail; the one-minute pause for remembrance in the pub where all activity is momentarily suspended before exploding into life again as the silence ends, the hose splashing beer into rows of schooners stationed along the bar, and the details of the gamblers’ faces as they bet their hard earned wages on the random flicking of a pair of coins.
This unflinching gaze into outback-Australian culture reaches its peak during Wake In Fright’s infamous central sequence in which Grant, Doc Tydon and two other men, Joe and Dick, drunkenly drive into the bush in order to kill kangaroos. The ensuing violence is shocking, as the animals are meticulously hunted and slain. Grant compelled by drunken cock-swaggering bravado, attempts to ‘box’ and kill a wounded bloodied kangaroo, spinning the animal in the darkness lit only by a single spotlight.
The horror of the hunt is made all the more visceral because the footage is authentic, with film of a hunt undertaken by licensed hunters used. The emphasis is on documentary, on presenting the audience with the authentic outback hunting experience. Lit using only the glaring spotlights on the front of the car the scene takes on a nightmarish feel as the whoops and laughter of the men is punctuated with the snap of gunshots in the darkness with only the bright circle of light momentarily catching the stunned animals as they stare with blank stupidity into their oncoming doom. The spotlit action, swirling camera, and hum of the soundtrack add to the nightmarish drunken hunt, a nightmare punctuated by breaking glass, drunken abuse, brawling, and cheering.
The swagger of the drunken men, the dog stationed on the backseat of the car, the bludgeoning mateship rituals of monotonously swigging beer, all are unmercifully presented for the camera. This is an Australian outback far removed from the tourist friendly, good-natured lovable larrikin nature of the eponymous Crocodile Dundee.
With Broken Hill - where Cook lived and worked during the period he wrote Wake In Fright - doubling as the Yabba the film captures the sweltering heat of the tin roofed buildings, the relentless buzz of flies, and the stink of rotting sweat drying on the drunken / hung-over / drunken men’s dirty clothes. With shooting starting in January 1970 the average temperature on a working day was 43C and on occasion reached 46C, the heat is palpable to the viewer. The film’s editor – and the man eventually responsible for saving it from destruction – Anthony Buckley describes the creative process behind Wake In Fright as a collaborative and supportive experience.
With United Artists acquiring the distribution rights the film was premiered at Cannes in 1971, where Ted Kotcheff was nominated for the Golden Palm, although in the final eventuality the prestigious award went – coincidentally considering his early interest in Cook’s novel - to Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between (1971).
The French took to the film, which was released under the title reductively simplistic title Outback in July 1971. In Paris Outback reportedly screened for five months (some accounts put the run as long as ten months for a cinema on the Boulevard Sant Michel). The re-titled film also saw a British release in October 1971, where it was moderately successful, and an America release the following February.
On its domestic release in 1971 Wake In Fright was praised critically but failed at the local box office. In Sydney the film played for ten weeks at the Embassy, but was unpopular for the first few weeks until word of mouth spread, unfortunately such support came too late and the film was taken off at the end of its run. The lack of interest in the film among some audiences made an evidentially infuriated Peter Timms write in Lumiere “they baulk…at anything labelled ‘Australian film’”. Of course, the local audience may not have been ready for such an unremittingly nihilistic, and perhaps honest, portrait of outback Australia.
In the ensuing decades Wake In Fright slowly vanished from sight, although it had ardent fans. The film has a clear influence on subsequent Australian cinema, not least in its depiction of the brutal masculinity of the small town and the Australian gothic. Wake In Fright was the first of the Australian films of the seventies that presented the world with a different, brutal side of the continent. By the time it was re-evaluated, alongside other Australian classics from the same period, in the ‘90s – and considered to be a classic - the film was believed to be lost. Television rights had expired and most prints had vanished, with only a scratched print in Dublin, Eire, known to exist.
According to some reports Wake In Fright had never been released on video, and this explained why the film was so hard to see. However, according to the website www.pre-cert.co.uk a VHS video of Outback was released by Intervision in March 1983 with the tagline “From nowhere he came, through hell he went”. This may help explain the number of people who have actually seen the film despite it being considered lost.
In the mid ‘90s Wake In Fright’s editor Anthony Buckley started searching for the negative of the film. Originally it was believed the negative would be readily available in London, although this proved to not be the case, and after extensive searching the parts were eventually located a decade later in 2004. Eventually 260 reels of the film, including tri-separations, negatives, and soundtrack, were found in Pittsburgh, USA, in a container marked “for destruction”. The cultural importance of the find was such that the parts were shipped back to Australia within a month for restoration.
This restoration process has taken more than a year, with the National Film and Sound Archive using digital technology to preserve the film. According to Anthony Buckley the new digitally restored print will offer the viewer the chance to see the film with a new clarity of vision, with the colour improved from the slight muted tones on the original version of the print and the night scenes brought to vivid new life.
Wake In Fright remains a unique vision of the Australian outback, a world it defines as caged in alcohol, violence and heat. With the restored print set for cinematic screenings in late 2008 / early 2009 and the long hoped for DVD release in sight then an entire new audience can see this long lost classic of the Australian screen. Whether it will set tourism back twenty years, as Peter Temple half-jokes in his introduction to the novel, remains to be seen.