Wake in Fright
(SPOILERS) Ted Kotcheff’s sweltering outback drama is positioned at the very beginning of the Australian new wave. Like Walkabout, it finds a non-Antipodean filmmaker casting a perceptive eye over the country, its baked mores and behaviours. Yet while both films base themselves on the contrasts between disparate values, tonally they couldn’t be more different. Nicolas Roeg’s study sets his characters against greater forces of nature and the tentative meeting of disparate cultures. Kothceff’s film is narrower in focus but no less insightful. While Roeg’s picture is mostly elegiac in tone Wake in Fright is rough and ready, its content a reflection of the clash of educated and working classes.
To an extent, the picture structures itself as a “see how the other side lives” morality tale.; the protagonist takes a walk to the dark side, but is able to leave it all behind at the end. But there are many nuances within its obvious set-up. Usually we’d expect the innocent or inexperienced to be led astray by untoward forces. Instead, our nominal hero really isn’t such a nice guy. He’s a superior, belittling snob. Time and again he looks down on the over-friendly locals who only want to buy him a drink. Their lifestyle may be dangerously easy to slip into, but John Grant doesn’t invite our sympathy when he falls headlong into perpetual intemperance; he has it coming.
Based on Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel, Wake in Fright finds big city teacher John Grant (Gary Bond who, as others have noted, bears a resemblance to Peter O’Toole; the more so as his character spends the majority of the film inebriated) desperate to escape his nothing job in the tiny township of Tiboonda for Christmas break and reunite with his girlfriend in Sydney. En route, he must stop overnight in the mining town of Bundanyabba (or “The Yabba” as the locals call it) but, rather than having a quite night in, he inveigles himself with the locals. He proceeds to get very, very drunk and loses all his money in a backroom game of two-up. So begins John’s descent into a personal hell of alcohol-fuelled debauchery, violence and despair as his weakness for the liquor and desire to fit in with his peer group spirals out of control.
Wake in Fright is very much a study of the fragile male psyche, and the weakness for falling into pack mentality. It’s evident from the first that Grant thinks he’s better than those around him, making the pit he digs himself, and the state he ends up in (far more debased than those he takes up with), both ironic and fitting. It’s a lesson-learning experience; although it is accompanied by none of the twisted comic relief Scorsese would bring to the later walk on the wild side of After Hours. Still, John is able to return gratefully to his boring existence (just as Griffin Dunne’s character is relieved to end up right back where he started in the 1984 film).
When John arrives in the Yabba he’s informed that it’s “a friendly place”, and the subsequent 90 minutes proves it’s exactly that and then some; it’s just that the friendliness happens to be very bad for him. Everyone treats John well so long as he will drink with them, and yet there’s an unrelenting oppressiveness to the film. It’s there in the dust and the heat and the tangible hung-over exhaustion, but John himself is not put in danger (from others). Rather it’s what he brings upon himself; his undoing is of his own design. Perhaps that’s why he’s told, “If you’re a good bloke, you’re alright”; he isn’t a good bloke. He speaks in superior tones that confuse local plod Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty), noting how he is “a bonded slave of the education system” and fails to disguise his contempt for his stopover (“Yes, that’s something to look forward to” he replies when Jock suggests he visits the town for a holiday). Yet he’s weak-minded enough to continue drinking with the policeman throughout the night.
When Jock is asked what players of two-up do with their winnings, he replies “Well, nothing”; there’s nothing to do in the town but drink and gamble. It’s this “nice, simple-minded game” that defeats John. He’s seduced by his early luck, and the dream that with just one more win he can give up his teaching lark. His hubris and contempt for “the arrogance of stupid people insisting you be as stupid as they are” comes back to haunt him. When he rushes back to the game, to chase that big win, the reaction to his gambling spree is derisive laughter from the attendees; he has taken the bait, hook, line and sinker (and their response is no worse than the superiority he has shown everyone he meets). Awaking in fright the next morning (well, that’s the most thundering literal interpretation of the title, which was renamed the decidedly less evocative Outback in the US), he has lost everything.
Broke, John becomes a reluctant then proficient sponger; anyone he will drink with, which is everyone, becomes a supporting shoulder; Tim Hynes (Al Thomas), real blokes Dick (Mark Thompson) and Joe (Peter Whittle), and drunken unlicensed Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasance). Invited to Tim’s house, John is filching cigarettes immediately and his by-line is to refuse hospitality before accepting it. The only way he can relate to the townsfolk is to blot out his senses, since his natural inclination is soft and unmanly; “What’s the matter with him? He’d rather talk to a woman than drink?” Dick asks Tim. Tim sagely replies that he’s a schoolteacher.
We might wonder why Tim doesn't do everything he can to extricate himself form this situation, but he is clearly beguiled by it as much as he knows it is harming him. It’s exciting, makes him feel alive, he can forget himself if he drinks enough. But it means betraying his better instincts. The kangaroo hunt is a highly distressing viewing experience (Kotcheff went out with actual hunters to get the footage) and finds John proving himself to his new mates by shooting the marsupials before engaging in a fight with one where he is taunted into slitting its throat.
This attempt to prove his masculinity to a group with no inner lives finds reflection in those he meets on the fringes. Tim’s daughter Janette (Sylvia Kay, Kotcheff’s one-time wife) has no interest in the drunken antics of her father and his friends; she finds her outlet through sex. But when she leads John off for a tumble in the bush he is unable to perform, another blow to his esteem. There’s a degree of self-loathing in Janette, clearly unhappy with her lot (“She’s a slag, the little mutt. She’ll try anything” she spits of the pregnant hound in the house), although this comes with self-awareness. As vouched by Doc, “We break the rules buy we know more about ourselves than most people”.
Doc: I’m a doctor of medicine and a tramp by temperament and an alcoholic.
It’s Doc who shines the harshest light on John’s behaviour, and Pleasance’s performance, to those who most identify him hamming it up as Dr Loomis in the Halloween series, is astonishing (and very spry, given the dexterity displayed). A devoted, hearty alcoholic, he thrives on and revels in the gauzed existence booze offers. Doc too is an educated man, but he is accepted by those around him through taking the path of least resistance. He rejects John’s aloofness (“Discontent is the luxury of the well to do”) and displays a tendency to the aphorism that suggests the holy fool/seer. Doc lives life (barely) consciously, and doesn’t need to pretend. He admonishes John for lying about losing his money at gambling, and advises he is better off with him than “sponging off men like Tim Hynes”.
While their interactions and altercations have been regarded by some as marking out Doc as predatory, I’d argue Doc represents a force of tough enlightenment and revelation to John; Doc allows John to meet himself and so move on with new understanding. Yes, he’s grubby alcoholic, but everything Doc does, consciously or otherwise, seems designed to bring John to a point where he realises the life that beckons if he follows a similar path (and without the same cracked insight that fortifies Doc).
Crucial to the persona of crazy sage, Doc is not interested in money and charges no fees. He understands his role within the group (he is accepted socially as “an educated man and character”) and has free lodging and food and (most importantly) drink for his services. We also see Doc is not without a value system of sorts even when intoxicated; he involves himself in the massacre but opts not to take part in the kangaroo cutting exercise, as if fully aware of the malign effect it will have on the perpetrator. He also attempts to intervene when Dick and Joe are fighting; the violence Doc perpetrates is on the bar wall.
Doc: Sex is just like eating. It’s a thing you do because you have to.
Doc pushes John’s buttons from the get-go, pricking the sore spot of wounded machismo. He tells John everyone has had an episode with Janette, including himself. We’ve seen John’s fantasies of his perfect, swim suited girlfriend (significantly, a beer bottle nuzzles her breasts) and Doc accuses him of being a puritan who thinks Janette is a slut (he also suggests that if she were a man she would be in jail for rape; again, this appears designed to rouse John, and to mark him as feminised and inadequate).
This brewing tension leads to a post-kangaroo, probable-sexual encounter between Doc and John. Doc gives him all he needs to push him to the brink. He first cajoles John by imitating the traumatising throat cutting (that John went through with anyway to impress the lads). Then mid-drunken wrestling on the floor, they exchange a meaningful look and the picture cuts to black. John awakes the next morning semi-clothed with Doc lying nearby. The implication is clear, but it’s never implied that Doc forced himself on John; the latter’s disgust and rage is all about the further desecration of his masculine ego. He can’t prove himself with the proper men, he can’t prove himself with the ladies, and now he’s made himself Doc’s bitch. It’s this that drives his desire to shoot Doc (he hallucinates Doc, the unlikely alpha male, seducing his girlfriend), and leads to his attempt to shoot himself.
Awakened and bandaged (a white halo round his head; his battered and bloodied pale suit has also somehow been freshly laundered), John’s flirtation with excess is over (Doc too is spruced up for his brief return to the big city that spurned him).
We’ve seen the incestuous, destructive influences of the small town mentality elsewhere; the same year’s Straw Dogs has another educated man pitted against the ignorant locals (although there he encounters active contempt and then aggression). The most disturbing part of Wake in Fright is not the hard-drinking dead-end world of the Yabba; it’s how easy it is to become a part of it and relinquish one’s self (John, a stumbling wreck through the town’s streets, carrying a rifle, has stooped to a state beyond anyone else we see).
Train passenger: Hey mate, like a beer?
As soon as John is on the train “home” he appears to have learned something, accepting the offer of a beer from rowdy passengers when before he refused it and sat alone (as did the solitary Aboriginal traveller, minus the offer of the beer). Back in Tiboonda John is grateful for the security and solace of his own dead-end job, and happy to greet barman/hotelier Charlie (Crocodile Dundee’s John Meillon) when before he could barely contain his desire to be shot of the place. His earlier attempt to leave The Yabba, only to have his hitch deposit him back in the town, recalls the spinny head games of The Prisoner episode Many Happy Returns, in which an escaped Number Six, believing himself to be free, finds himself deposited unceremoniously back in the Village.
For a long time Wake in Fright’s reputation lay as a great lost film, as it had been out of circulation until about five years ago. It can currently be viewed on YouTube, and fortunately it’s one where rediscovery has only reconfirmed its reputation. It was Kotcheff’s third picture, and as someone more experienced with his later, decidedly unrewarding fare (some will defend First Blood but there’s also Uncommon Valor, Switching Channels and Weekend at Bernie’s to contend with; the ‘80s were the undoing of many a director) it's something of a revelation (Kotcheff is blessed with a superb, by-turns sinister and jaunty, score from John Scott and suffocatingly parched cinematography from Brian West). Even his later ‘70s efforts are less than stellar, making it even more welcome that this picture has been found anew.