“Wake In Fright is a deeply – and I mean deeply – unsettling and disturbing movie. I saw it when it premiered at Cannes in 1971, and it left me speechless. Visually, dramatically, atmospherically and psychologically, it’s beautifully calibrated and it gets under your skin one encounter at a time, right along with the protagonist played by Gary Bond. I’m excited that Wake In Fright has been preserved and restored and that it is finally getting the exposure it deserves.” —Martin Scorsese, 2012
A while ago, I had the chance to check out this rediscovered lost Australian classic from 1971. I had missed out on it the first time Film Forum had played it, but luckily for me Film Forum brought it back due to popular demand. I wasn’t really familiar with the film (or the Kenneth Cook novel it was based on), but its critical acclaim had me interested in it. The re-release poster furthered that interest with its stark image of a lone man holding a rifle with the Australian Outback in the background. Immediately I could sense that this man must experience a harrowing journey in the film. And then, of course, I learned that Wake In Fright helped to kickstart what became known as the Australian New Wave in Australian cinema in the 1970s. This movement included the works of such directors as Phillip Noyce (1978’s Newsfront), Peter Weir (1975’s Picnic At Hanging Rock, 1977’s The Last Wave, 1981’s Gallipoli), Bruce Beresford (1977’s The Getting of Wisdom, 1980’s Breaker Morant), George Miller (1979’s Mad Max, 1981’s The Road Warrior), Gillian Armstrong (1979’s My Brilliant Career), and Fred Schepisi (1976’s The Devil’s Playground, 1978’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith).
Directed by Ted Kotcheff (who’s actually Canadian and is most notable for directing 1979’s North Dallas Forty and 1982’s First Blood), Wake In Fright tells the story of John Grant (an excellent Gary Bond), a discontented teacher who attempts to go on holiday to Sydney, but becomes trapped in Bundanyabba (also known as “the Yabba”) and must endure a nightmarish trip to Hell. To call this film the ultimate parable in the dangers of alcoholism and the evil of greed is an understatement. Wake In Fright presents a man so desperate to escape his indentured servitude that he risks it all and pays a heavy price for it. While waiting overnight for his flight, John has a few drinks at the insistence of the locals and participates in a local gambling game called “two-up,” resulting in him winning some money. When he gets back to his hotel room, he figures that a few more wins would enable him to pay off the remainder of the financial bond he received from the government for his education (which he currently works off by teaching at a tiny school in the remote town of Tiboonda in the Outback) and leave teaching forever. He goes back, only to lose his winnings, and after cashing in his plane ticket, loses the rest of his money. He plunges further into Hell when he’s taken in by Doc Tydon (a creepy Donald Pleasance), an alcoholic doctor who allows John to stay at his shack. Things get worse as John’s continued drinking results with him going on a kangaroo hunt with some new “friends” and, at one point, becomes the victim of a homosexual act. It is after this encounter that John realizes that he needs to stop drinking and escape before it’s too late.
What struck me the most was how relevant the film is today. So many people are in financial situations (some deeper than others) that they so desperately would like to be out of. There are those (banks, credit card companies, Wall Street scumbags) who’ve tried to take advantage of those people by presenting them with an easy way out. Of course, there is no easy way out or quick fix solution; not for us today, and not for John in the film. Sometimes, a little patience can go a long way; it can keep a bad situation from becoming an extremely horrible one. All that’s needed besides a little patience is a strong will to keep one steady, and a little hope doesn’t hurt either.