When it comes to movies, I am not easily unsettled. Indeed, I could probably count on one hand the number of films that have deeply disturbed me, American Psycho being the number one. However, on the other hand, most of the really off-putting films I’ve seen have also been extremely fascinating. Some time ago I went to see Wake In Fright, a an Australian film from 1971 based on Kenneth Cook’s seminal 1961 novel of the same name. Directed by Ted Kotcheff, it focuses on John Grant (Gary Bond), a rather posh, high-minded new teacher on his way to Sydney after completing his first year of a rural placement in the outback outpost of Tiboonda. Along the way, he has to stop in the town of Bundanyabba for a night before catching a plane out the following day. However, he becomes addicted to two-up in the space of an evening, loses all his money, and is trapped in the town.
We went to see it at Perth’s Rooftop Cinema, which has been set up atop a multi-storey carpark in the city’s nightclub district. As a venue for watching a film, it is just brilliant. It’s high enough above the ground to escape all but the loudest city noise, there was a breeze, the deckchairs they have were comfortable – the whole shebang was quite impressive, and it’s a shame it’s not a permanent setup.
The film, for decades, was considered lost, until the one remaining original negative was unearthed in Pittsburgh, USA, marked for destruction. The film’s editor saved it, and it was returned to Australia, to be restored digitally by the National Film and Sound Archive. The restored version looks amazing, and was released in 2009 on both DVD and BluRay, as well as a brief re-release in cinemas. It garnered wide critical acclaim for the second time worldwide (having been shown at Cannes in its original release), and for the first time in its native Australia, for reasons which will later be made clear.
And now, the film itself. Initially, before he is corrupted by peer pressure and drink, it is obvious that Grant perceives the residents of The ‘Yabba as below him, intellectually and socially. Sitting in a rather unpleasant steakhouse, he meets Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasance). Below is a key exchange between the two:
TYDON: All the little devils are proud of hell.
GRANT: You mean, you don’t think the Yabba is the greatest place on earth?
TYDON: Could be worse.
TYDON: The supply of beer could run out.
GRANT: Why did you say that?
TYDON: Say what?
GRANT: About them being proud of hell.
TYDON: Discontent is the luxury of the well-to-do. If you’ve got to live here, then you might as well like it. Why don’t you like Crawford?
TYDON: The touch of his hairy hand offended you.
GRANT: I’m bored with it. The aggressive hospitality, the arrogance of stupid people who insist you should be as stupid as they are.
TYDON: It’s death to farm out here. It’s worse than death in the mines. You want them to sing opera as well?
It’s obvious to us as the audience that the ‘Yabba is hardly the sort of place you would crave to live in, and yet its locals love it. You could almost compare it to the “Dullsville” tag that the Western Australian capital Perth used to carry – some people loved the city, frowned upon those who did not, and vice versa.
At this early stage of the film, I agreed with Doc.
However, as it wore on and the truly unpleasant events unfolded, I grew to hold the same opinion that Grant screams at a toothless truck driver in the final act:
MORLEY: Come and have a drink, mate.
GRANT: No thanks.
MORLEY: Come and have a drink. Only take a minute.
GRANT: I’ve given up for a while.
MORLEY: What’s wrong with you, you bastard? I just brought you 50 miles in the heat and dust. Come and drink with me!
GRANT: What’s the matter with you people? Sponge on you, burn your house down, murder your wife, rape your child – that’s all right. But not have a drink with you? Don’t have a flaming bloody drink with you? That’s a criminal offence! That’s the end of the bloody world!
MORLEY: Yer mad, yer bastard!
It’s a condemnation of the drinking culture that manifests itself beneath so many chilled out Australians. It doesn’t take much for it to surface in many people, Grant included – temptation is a wonderful thing.
There’s pretty much only one reason that the film received such a cold reception in Australia in 1971 – it paints an image of mid-twentieth century rural Australia that’s rather too close to home. The horror of the film isn’t drawn from psycho murderers or aliens, but from a slight atmosphere of unease that becomes extremely prominent as the film goes on. Everyone in Bundanyabba is just…creepy. When Grant awakens after his drunken night of Two-Up, he wanders the town, before sitting down next to some old men who don’t appear to have anything else to do than just sit there. One of them stares at Grant, with an emptiness in his eyes that is unsettling. We speculated later that this particular situation, like a great number in the film, was more fact than fiction.
Wake In Fright was filmed mostly on location in Broken Hill. It’s very realistically done, and both my parents reminisced uncomfortably about the visuals and the types of places and people the film portrays. I feel as though we have come a long way, but I’ve rarely been into rural Australia and have only the highest respect for people who live and work out there in such adverse conditions. But this is a film as much about the difficulty of escaping a rut that you become stuck in, as it is about the unpleasantness of rural life at that time (and, some posit, still today). Grant manages to escape, after a horrid time, but we have to pity people like Doc Tydon and the other supporting characters, who seem to have all but given up on a “normal” existence, their drunkenness having become their normality.
The cinematography, by Brian West, contributes a lot to the film. It emphasises the emptiness of the outback, starting with a huge 360° panning shot of the miniscule Tiboonda township. As the train Grant is aboard to the ‘Yabba crawls along its route, we see more empty desert, miles and miles of it. All the key locations are in the middle of nowhere. And it is hot. Lens flares, heatwaves and every character’s sweat-soaked clothing add authenticity to the Australian heat that the director especially wanted to emphasise, even seeking only hot colours in the costume design and coating everything in red outback dust and live flies. Not a nice film to look at initially, but certainly appreciable in its skill and execution.
The soundtrack was composed by John Scott, and features mainly string instruments, and the ever eerie theremin, which naturally contributes an air of unease. I’ve tried in vain to find the music, which is a shame because it was very effective in conveying the emotions on screen.
It took me a frightfully long time – weeks, in fact – to write this review. It really hit me hard, which sounds ridiculous but I don’t like thinking about it much. I couldn’t help but see a little of myself in Grant, but God forbid what happens to him should happen to me if I go on a rural placement when I finish my degree…
Wake In Fright is an awful, intense but surprisingly magnificent film. See it, if you dare.