Revisiting ‘Wake in Fright’
Five decades on from its original release, the film has lost none of its power nor poignancy
Watching the Australian masterpiece Wake in Fright fifty years after its initial release evokes the irrecoverably distant and the hauntingly familiar. In one respect, the film’s desolate setting and Anglo-Australian cast are so far removed from the urban, multicultural experience that so characterizes Australia today, it’s hard to believe these are two visions of the same country, a mere two generations apart. Nevertheless, the film retains an eerie familiarity. The film is still us. The gambling is as endemic as ever; the heat and the outback of course remain; and whilst beer and tobacco consumption have declined, their substitution by other types of vice shows that we haven’t tempered our appetites but transformed them.
Wake in Fright is, as the great American critic Roger Ebert notes: “a film made in Australia in 1971 and almost lost forever. It’s not dated. It is powerful, genuinely shocking and rather amazing. It comes billed as a “horror film” and contains a great deal of horror, but all of the horror is human and brutally realistic.” More specifically, it’s a film named after a curse, and based on Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel of the same name; with the film telling the story of a young man’s drunken descent into a peculiarly Australian form of hell. Beginning in the outpost of Tiboonda, the film sees Sydney-bred teacher, John Grant, sabotage his return home through a series of ill-fated decisions, confining him to the outback town of Bundanyabba — or “the Yabba” as it’s better known — much longer than his intended one-night stay.
The film can thus be viewed as a modern exploration of the ancient notion of hubris: the tale akin to a Sophoclean tragedy, transposed — somewhat curiously — from a Hellenic to an Australian locale. Yet the film could hardly be more Australian. It is, as the writer Kate Jennings remarks ‘one of those rare movies which captures the spirit of a country’ — a work that tells ‘a larger truth about a nation’s collective psyche’, and one that’s ‘usually hard to swallow’. Which in this case is made with explicit reference to Australia’s interior — to life in the nation’s ‘dead heart’. With the Yabba and its inhabitants thinly disguised substitutes for the NSW mining town of Broken Hill, a place which served as a backdrop for the film, a source of its extras and as an inspiration for Cook’s original work. Hence Cook’s decision to set his antipodean untergang in such a locale is not unintentional: it is — as the book remarks — the kind of place where “a man felt he had either to drink or to blow his brains out.” Sentiments which may not be mutually exclusive.
That such a vast expanse oppresses as much as it liberates is a paradox well enough known to Australians. It is, as the ex-patriate author Alan Moorehead observed: the strange ‘sense of claustrophobia in the midst of such as infinity of space’. Although this is not the only baleful effect had upon the psyche. Indeed, that such places serve to form ‘characters’ — in that delectable Australian euphemism encompassing the eccentric through to the psychotic — is axiomatic: they’re an almost inevitable product of living there. Still, this is not to deny these ‘characters’ their agency. In actuality, Cook’s novel is an anger-tinged response to the ‘traumatic experience’ he’d had in Broken Hill as a young journalist. His decision not to locate his tale in Broken Hill proper, nor to name his protagonists after the figures they represent — ‘each was nothing less than a libelous attack on a real person’ — due more to the threat of libel (a spectre which had cruelled his first authorial attempt) than any real reluctance on his part.
That Cook’s disgust with Broken Hill particularly — and Australia more broadly — was the font from which Wake in Fright sprung is now well-enough known. Indeed, as he remarks in a 1972 interview:
[Broken Hill] “first started my definite hate relationship with what I think of as the gross violence, the mindless violence, of one section, in fact I think the major section, of the Australian scene.
‘I was, you know, very strongly impressed with Broken Hill — I hated the place, hated the people, hated the atmosphere, hated the environment, hated the whole thing.
‘And this hatred finally sort of popped out as Wake in Fright some eight to ten years later”
Sentiments confirmed by those who knew Cook, such as his second wife, fellow writer, Jacqueline Kent:
“Ken had a real love/hate thing for the bush” — “I think he had a romantic idea of the bush and the outback himself but the experience of it left him disappointed. He was aching to get out into it but the people he found there he felt were mean and nasty and the writing of Wake in Fright came out of that tension.”
And the novel itself:
‘Another year in this apology for a town, himself an outcast in a community of people who were at home in the bleak and frightening land that spread out around him now, hot, dry and careless of itself and the people who professed to own it’
The work is then not only semi-autobiographical, but highly symbolic. With Wake in Fright’s school-teacher protagonist a thinly veiled stand-in for Cook (or anyone vaguely intellectual) and the Yabba emblematic of many other such places throughout the country. Moreover, Cook’s kulturkampf is representative of those broader social cleavages between the urban and the rural, the professional and the menial, the educated and the non-. The film is also yet another rebuke to Rousseau’s facile theorizing about our innate natural nobility. With the quaint notion urbanites have of rural areas as nothing other than their rustic idyll: of rugged stockmen, quoting Tolstoy beneath a star-filled sky, quickly dissolved when the actual inhabitants of such places turn out to be far closer to the menacing mediocrities described by Cook. At a deeper level the film is also an indictment of 1492 and many of its consequences. That a people of northern-European origin can — with a lot of civilizational armory — live in a desolate inferno like the outback is proven by the two centuries they’ve been doing so, but whether they should is a separate question, and one that Cook rightly answers in the negative.
Yet for a work that’s so paradigmatically Australian, those involved in its production could hardly have been less so. After the almost instantaneous success of the novel, the film rights were soon taken by the pairing of British actor Dirk Bogarde and the American director Joseph Losey. A quick transition to the screen appeared a mere formality: “‘Wake in Fright’ seemed written to be filmed. It had little dialogue, a strong atmosphere, a picturesque location, unique characters, [and] an intensely dramatic situation”. It was, as the film’s Jamaica-born English screenwriter, Evan Jones, remarks “a natural screenplay”. However, after the lapse of the film rights and other assorted delays, it wasn’t until 1969 that production finally began. The film financed by an Australian-American consortium, produced by a Norwegian-born, penny-pinching Briton named George Willoughby and directed by a Canadian son of Bulgarian immigrants named Ted Kotcheff, of Rambo and Weekend at Bernie’s fame. The later hired as he’d previously directed the well-received British film Two Gentleman Sharing, a story about an inter-racial gay couple that was, more significantly, scripted by Jones. A man who, incidentally, had never set foot in Australia and wouldn’t do so until a decade and a half after the film had been produced.
Production thus comes together; with the on-screen roles as exogenous as those behind it. Kotcheff and then-wife, the English actress Sylvia Kay — who will play the film’s only major female role, the sexually-frustrated Janette Hynes — arrive first, landing with their family in late 1969. Joining them soon after is the English actor, Gary Bond, selected to play our pedagogic protagonist after the role had been widely offered, and widely declined: deemed too demanding by most others at the time (aside from the heat, isolation and perpetual drunkenness, there’s also an implied male rape). Accompanying Bond to play the menacing Doc Tydon was another Briton in the form of Donald Pleasence, one of the most acclaimed stage actors of his generation, but perhaps more commonly known as Blofeld in James Bond’s You Only Live Twice. Rounding out the quartet was Chips Rafferty, a Broken Hill native and man of immense physical presence in what would be his last cinematic role — with Rafferty’s nuanced portrayal of Constable Crawford one of the highlights of the film. The film will also include that now-famous figure of Australian cinema, Jack Thompson, as one of the town’s thuggish miners in this his first major role. Still, the predominantly foreign origins of both cast and crew vindicate the work’s underlying premise: i.e. that Australia’s mediocrity is so complete it can’t even begin to express itself on its own terms.
Filming begins at the height of the Australian summer in early 1970 and lasts into the autumn, with production finishing later that year at Pinewood in the UK. Though in what may be a shock to some, the vast majority of this most rural of all films was recorded within the confines of urban Sydney. Owing to a limited budget, only the exteriors were filmed within Broken Hill and surrounds, with the rest of the film recorded at the crew’s Bondi studio or at one of numerous other locales throughout greater Sydney. As the film’s assistant-director, Howard Rubie notes: “there was only one way to make Wake in Fright, given the $800,000 budget…and that was to do 90 percent of the interior work on the film in studios or locations in Sydney and shoot just about all the exteriors in Broken Hill.”
Thus to take what is perhaps the film’s most famous sequence, the iconic pub scene, where Grant encounters Crawford amidst a throng of miners in what’s ostensibly a large outback pub, was in actuality staged at a bar beneath Sydney’s main sports-stadium, the SCG, with Grant surrounded by extras Kotcheff had sourced from a labor exchange. The film’s other interior scenes, including Grant’s meeting with the dim-witted Tim Hynes, were also shot within Sydney pubs, hotels and hospitals. The Hynes’ outback home itself was a house in Killara, deep in the heart of north Sydney suburbia, as was the famed gambling scene at the two-up ‘school’, filmed at an abandoned warehouse in inner-city Paddington. Whilst events within Doc Tydon’s ‘outback’ shed — the site of much of the film’s intrigue — were recorded inside a purpose-built replica erected at the crew’s Bondi Junction studio.
To retain the necessary plausibility, Kotcheff and the film’s cinematographer, Brian West, went to some amusing lengths. For one, they procured the requisite red dust of the desert, and they sourced thousands of flies from a University of Sydney science lab, releasing them into the required scenes to affect a more authentic outback aesthetic. West also lit the requisite scenes in such as a way as to reflect the harsh luminesce of the Outback, whilst Kotcheff banned cool colors from the film entirely, attempting to mimic the stifling desert ambience of which he sought. His mission was, as he put it: “to recreate what I felt and saw — the heat, the sweat, the dust, the flies” — “I said to the set designer and the costume designer, ‘I don’t want to see any cool colours. I don’t want to see blue or green. Ever. On anything. All I want is red, yellow, orange, burgundy and brown. All the hot colours. On costumes, sets, everything.’ I wanted people to watch the film and be unconsciously sweating.”
And Kotcheff’s direction is masterful. To take one of the most salient aspects, his foreign origins undoubtedly helped illuminate many of those local idiosyncrasies — be they the summer Santa; or the workings of the Australian RSL hall, replete with the minute’s silence and the dead-eyed glare of the poker-machine — that may have gone unnoticed under a local eye. More importantly, Kotcheff was far more comprehending of the locals than Cook. As the director later noted: [I admired] “their fortitude in the face of the most inhospitable circumstances in the world to work and live in”. [I] “loved their camaraderie…their humour, their generosity and their support of each other. It was extraordinary.”
Hence while Cook’s contempt is barely concealed, Kotcheff’s vision is much more empathetic. Although evidently non-Australian, his background within the vast expanses of Canada helped furnish him with an understanding or rural life that was lacking in the Sydney-born Cook. Kotcheff worked hard as well, taking the time to familiarize himself with the locations, the inhabitants and the customs which he would soon record — even going so far as to learn the uniquely Australian coin-toss game of ‘two-up’ . Yet what is probably the most important feature of his direction is his refrain from judgement. His rendering of Cook’s work is remarkably faithful — much of the dialogue is taken verbatim — yet it’s a rendition that’s explicitly non-didactic. Kotcheff’s role that of a recorder of events, and not an imposer of morality. In this regard, he echoes Chekhov, of whom he quotes approvingly: ‘I’m not the judge of my characters; I’m their best witness’ — further citing the Russian writer’s The Horse Thieves as an inspiration for his stance.
Yet for all the labors of production and Kotcheff’s meticulous direction, the film sank, almost without a trace. Despite an opulent opening at Sydney’s Embassy Theater, the reception of the film was one of almost complete failure. Wake in Fright disappeared from screens in Sydney a mere 10 weeks after its opening and from the rest of the country well before that; with the film pulled from screens in Brisbane after one solitary week. The international response was hardly better. Released as Outback — ‘Wake in Fright’ sounded too Hitchcockian: an obvious pejorative for film executives and their search for the lowest common denominator — the film’s foreign reception echoed the domestic one: sinking again, without a trace. In fact, the only place where Wake in Fright had any real success was France, with the film screening for nine months on a British print with French subtitles as Reveil dans le terreur near the Champs Elysees. The film also made its way to Cannes where it was an official entry for the 1971 festival and where it was enthused about by a then-unknown American director named Martin Scorsese. A happy eventuality that would prove fruitful some four decades later when Scorsese would choose the film as a Cannes Classic, making it only the second-ever title to be shown there twice.
Even so, this foreign fluorescence couldn’t save the film from almost total oblivion at home. In the decades hence, Wake in Fright was only to be found in a handful of bootleg copies or seen during one of the fleeting number of times it was actually shown on TV. In the case of the later, one sole screening in the late 1980s is deemed to be the only time it was shown again on Australian television in the twenty odd years since it’d been produced. Thus by the 1990s the film had gained a reputation as “Australia’s great lost film” — a gem that had gone and was soon to be forgotten. With the saga of the film’s eventual recovery — the negatives found in a Pittsburgh warehouse in the early 2000s, marked for imminent destruction — one worthy of its own multi-hour epic.
Yet for a work praised by Ebert and Scorsese, feted at Cannes, and regarded as one of the greatest — if not the greatest — film ever to be made in Australia, what induced such a profound neglect? Primarily, the unrelentingly honest vision advanced by the film of Australia and its people was so close to reality it proved unpalatable. Contrary to the conception Australians had of themselves at the time — that of a genteel people, the antipodean inheritors of the British Empire — the film showed us as we really were — and perhaps, still are. A realization that was so confronting it provoked an almost instantaneous hostility. As Jack Thompson recounts years later ‘I honestly don’t think Australians were prepared for the shock of it’, ‘we’d grown accustomed to this mythology that we were really just good blokes — ‘you beauty, mate’ and ‘up the digger’ — and the film presented us, for the first time, in a way that was direct, raw and intimate.” The film was so stark, people protested as it screened. As one viewer recalls “‘during an early Australian screening one audience member stood up and yelled, ‘that’s not us!’ The response by Thompson, viewing at the time, was equally blunt: ‘Sit down, mate. It is us’.
So typical was the work of the Australian condition, it confirmed many of those critiques insightful observers of Australia have long held. Perhaps most famously, it echoed what the poet James McAuley wrote about Australians back in the 1940s:
The people are hard-eyed, kindly, with nothing inside them,
The men are independent but you could not call them free.
Flaws that have been inherent since Australia’s convict conception, as the cultural critic Robert Hughes observes in his masterful The Fatal Shore:
Mateship, fatalism…harsh humour…disdain for introspection, and an attitude to authority in which private resentment mingled with ostensible recognition were the meagre baggage of values the convicts brought with them to Australia. They also brought, if men, the phallocracy of the tavern and ken, and, if women, a kind of tough passivity, a way of seeing life without expectations.
Sentiments that are of course shared by Wake in Fright’s creator, Kenneth Cook. For Cook, the aggressive alcoholism, the mindless gambling, the casual violence and the unrepentant anti-intellectualism are all variations on what Robin Boyd dubbed the Australian Ugliness. With rural areas manifesting these tendencies at their most pronounced, removed as they are from the moderating affects found in cities. Indeed, Cook’s view on the matter is eloquently expressed by Peter Temple in his wonderful introduction to the 2001 edition of the book:
Cook will have nothing of what historian Richard White calls the “familiar iconography of outback Australia — the homestead, the sheep, the lonely gum, and the proud Aborigine.” For him, the place is a variation of hell.
And the ability to be at home in the “bleak and frightening land” is a flaw in the outback’s people. There is something wrong with them for enduring this harsh place. They are not the innocent victims of the lonely, arid land; they have made an unnatural choice to live in it that reflects their own stunted, even perverted, nature.
Notions that are of course equally well depicted by Kotcheff in cinematic form. With one thorough example of this the initial encounter between Grant and Doc Tydon at the two-up school. Responding to Tydon’s enquiry regarding what rankles him about the Yabba, Grant replies: “the aggressive hospitality, [and] the arrogance of stupid people who insist you should be as stupid as they are. An observation that’s hard to deny — then as now. Whilst the Doc’s response — “It’s death to farm out here. It’s worse than death in the mines. You want ’em to sing opera as well? — is one of the rare moments of empathy exhibited for the plight of people in such an unerringly desolate locale.
Thus whilst Wake in Fright’s cultural critique is well established — ‘the most savage comment on Australia ever put to film’ as one reviewer asserted — what frightened away many others was the confronting kangaroo-hunt that serves as the film’s climax. With this visceral sequence consisting of actual footage that Kotcheff and his crew had recorded of real-life hunters out on a cull, which was then edited and interspersed with the dramatic performance well after the event. Although the sequence that appears in the film is shocking enough — raw enough to warrant a disclaimer and for people to leave theatres in disgust — the recording of the original footage proved so disconcerting it lead to the fainting of a crew member and to a feigned ‘power outage’ by the rest of the crew in order to end the carnage early.
As the cinematographer Brian West tells it: ‘“By 2AM the hunters were getting really drunk and they started to miss”…Wounded kangaroos were hopping about helplessly, trailing their intestines. “It was becoming this orgy of killing and we (the crew) were getting sick of it.” [I then] had a private word with Tony Tegg, who arranged a ‘power failure’. “I told Ted that we didn’t have enough light to continue.” The crew headed back to Broken Hill, some of them fighting back tears.’
Such brutality may not appeal to all; yet, these dark undertones have undoubtedly enhanced the film’s popularity since its reemergence. After the film’s 2002 rescue, a painstaking process of restoration was undertaken to render the work amenable to the modern eye. In 2009 that restoration was complete, with the film finally receiving the premiere it had originally warranted and the broader recognition it had long deserved. A felicitous occurrence, pleasing to both a new generation of viewers, who hadn’t seen the original, and more importantly, to Kotcheff himself, who finally saw his labors vindicated some four decades after the event.
So popular was the reemergence of Wake in Fright it led to the aforementioned second-screening at Cannes, a renewed edition of Cook’s original novel and a spin-off as a two-part Australian TV series. It also refocused attention on Kotcheff, now in his 90s, and the pivotal role he played in the creation of the ‘Australian New Wave’: that confluence of directors — including George Miller, Bruce Beresford and Peter Weir — and their films — namely Mad Max, Breaker Morant and Gallipoli — that formed the renaissance of the Australian film industry throughout the 1970s and 80s. For these directors, Kotcheff was a direct inspiration, the one who blazed the trail through which they’d soon follow.
And the film is very much worth re-watching. The harshly beautiful aesthetic captured by West, beginning from the film’s opening panorama and continuing throughout, is as captivating as ever. As are the performances: the decline of Bond’s incongruous urban everyman still intrigues, and Pleasence’s Doc Tydon has lost none of his original menace. Whilst Rafferty’s Crawford and the town’s thuggish miners exude those particularly Australian traits of outward friendliness and internal malice with an authenticity that’s still very much evident today. Like other memorable works, such as the Coen Brother’s The Big Lebowski, the work also exhibits enough philosophical whimsy to further confirm its status. Be they Doc’s initial encounter with Grant: ‘Discontent is a luxury of the well-to-do’; his thoughts on female sexuality ‘why shouldn’t a woman take a man?’, or his drunken, Lear-like, outback disquisition, conducted amidst two brawling miners and a comatose Grant: ‘Perfectibility? Progress? — A vanity spawned by fear!’ The film possesses a depth that’s not entirely evident on an initial viewing.
And this final point is a crucial one. Whilst Wake in Fright is an enthralling, well-performed and beautifully-made film, ultimately it’s the visual manifestation of its creator’s unsettling insight. It’s a film about our permanent capacity for savagery: a story designed to show us in the most unflattering of all lights. In this regard, the film is not exclusively Australian. It’s a universal Dante-esque tale of despair, holding out little in the way of redemption. With the filmmakers inviting us to realise that Grant’s decline in a harbinger of our decline too — that Grant is us, even if we’re unwilling to acknowledge it.
It’s this universalism and permanence that have ensured the film’s endurance: the qualities that make it a classic. Five decades after its release, Wake in Fright remains a brutally captivating reminder that civilisation is but a thin veneer, barely concealing the darker recesses of the human heart.