Ted Kotcheff’s ‘Wake In Fright’ Ignited Australia’s New Wave Film Movement

It’s often argued that it takes an outsider to cast an honest, penetrating eye on a particular culture. Ted Kotcheff’s gaze is unblinking in 1971’s Wake in Fright.

Wake in Fright (Outback)
Ted Kotcheff
United Artists
13 May 1971 (Cannes)

For nearly four decades, Wake In Fright, sometimes dubbed less imaginatively as Outback, has been the Great Lost Australian Film, virtually unseen down under or internationally since its 1971 debut, apart from a heavily-edited airing on Aussie television in the ’80s. Apparently the negative vanished after that broadcast, and the film didn’t re-emerge until the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, where director Ted Kotcheff engaged in a lengthy Q & A session with the film’s devoted fans, many of whom were aficionados in absentia; they knew it only by reputation. Now, finally, there’s a deluxe home video package, which was preceded by a limited theatrical run this past autumn. In fact, I caught Wake In Fright last November in San Diego, at a gorgeous multiplex in the historic Gaslamp Quarter.

Wake In Fright, all will agree, is not merely a key release of the groundbreaking ‘New Australian Cinema’ scene of the ’70s and ’80s, but is arguably the ignition for that movement. It arrived in theatres in 1971, almost concurrently with Nicholas Roeg’s eerie Walkabout, and was the first Australian cinematic production of that decade, although it was a cooperative venture of Yank and Oz financing, with several British actors – including the late, lamented Gary Bond as our protagonist – in lead roles. Neither Roeg or Kotcheff are Australians; Roeg is a Brit and Kotcheff Canadian, and I suppose it’s ironic that the two filmmakers who jump-started the Aussie film renaissance are non-natives, but it’s often argued that it takes an outsider to cast an honest, penetrating eye on a particular culture.

Derived from Kenneth Cook’s 1961 eponymous novel, Wake In Fright tells the tale of John Grant (Gary Bond), a bookish, sensitive schoolteacher who devolves morally and socially after getting temporarily stranded in a dusty outpost called Bundiyabba, or colloquially, “the ‘Yabba”. Grant isn’t in the desert by choice; as a new teacher in Australia, he’s obligated to go where he’s sent, and Sydney wasn’t on the list. Like many educated Australians of his era, Grant views England, former colonial master of the Antipodes, as the repository of culture and refinement, and he’d rather be a journalist at a respected London paper than correcting grade-school math exams in the middle of nowhere. I’ve read memoirs of Australians raised during the postwar era whose parents referred to the UK as “home”, even more curious considering the distaste working-class Aussies have held for “pommy” Brits. Of course, Grant’s middle-class upbringing wouldn’t have encouraged such populist scorn, and even lovely Sydney – not yet blessed with the glorious Opera House — was perceived as a backwater by the chattering classes of that period.

Grant is smooth-cheeked, fair-haired, with a superficial resemblance to the young Peter O’Toole, and Kotcheff’s opening shot, a panoramic vista of tawny desert scrub, suggests that like David Lean’s T.E. Lawrence, Grant is lost amidst the desert landscape. The horizontal, empty stillness of his surroundings has a vaguely menacing feel, bringing to mind Spencer Tracy stepping off a train into a town burdened by secrets in Bad Day at Black Rock, or Cary Grant’s impending rendezvous with a murderous crop duster in North by Northwest. In the making-of featurette To the ‘Yabba and Back, Kotcheff discusses the topographical similarities between Canada’s northern territories and Australia’s vast, often forbidding Outback, both environments where one can feel trapped, paradoxically, by the utter lack of human presence or construction.

Grant attempts to make his way back to Sydney, presumably his home base, but through a series of circumstances, finds himself stuck in the ‘Yabba. He gets a taste of what’s to come during his initial train journey when a fellow passenger, hale and hearty, beckons him to “Come an’ have a beer”. It won’t be the last such invitation.

After befriending a couple of locals, Grant is taken in by the middle-aged Tim (Al Thomas) and quickly receives a crash course in Australian concepts of mateship, in particular the crabs-in-a-barrel democracy of Outback life. At Tim’s house, Grant is introduced to two young larrikins, Dick (Jack Thompson in his feature debut) and Joe (Peter Whittle). Uncouth, oafish, but never bullying or malicious, the pair seem to have been plucked from a teenage hijinks romp. Except for Dick’s brief, childish flirtation with Tim’s daughter Janette (Sylvia Kay, Kotcheff’s wife) – and we get the feeling he pulls this crap on every visit – they seem far more enthralled by good grog and jokey patter than the opposite sex. Indeed, when Grant takes a fancy to Janette, Dick is genuinely puzzled that this visitor would rather chat up a woman than down a few beers. Some of the film’s best comic moments feature the aggressive hospitality of the men Grant encounters, who seem to want to pour beer down his throat at every opportunity.

Definite homosociality, or in Kotcheff’s view, homoeroticism seems to be at play here. It’s not clear if Dick and Joe have wives, or even, to put it quaintly, are ‘going steady’ with anyone, but many of their chums in Bundiyabba are, yet the men seem to prefer socializing apart from their wives, and women are prohibited from patronizing the pubs. And the men are all very tactile, instinctual beings. They love to yammer away all night about nothing important, but intellectual pursuits are off the table, and inebriation and brawling (enabled by drink) are rife. A vague Jean Genet fantasy transported to a rural setting? Hmm.

By far the most intriguing rascal Grant encounters is Doc Tydon, played with cunning glee by the late Donald Pleasance. Before seeing Pleasance in Raw Meat a few months back, I, like most Americans, primarily knew him as the grave Dr. Loomis, from the Halloween cycle. We’ve underrated the man. A brilliant craftsman never blessed with conventional handsomeness is how he should be remembered. His Doc is an actual physician who also became rooted to the ‘Yabba after losing his license, it seems. No less erudite and sophisticated than Grant, he’s nevertheless adopted the local customs and been embraced as a “right ol’ bloke” by his new neighbors. He may have gone native with a bit too much gusto; in a drunken fit, he smashes a chair and lurches back-and-forth maniacally in one scene.

Had the film attracted larger audiences, “You bloody bastards!” might have become a popular tag line for the actor. Doc’s ironic existence is best exhibited in another sequence, where he stands shirtless in his primitive hovel, frying kangaroo meat – “bush tucker” before the trendies discovered it – while an opera recording plays on a phonograph as if Fitzcarraldo had abandoned his grand illusions, succumbed to the sweltering Amazon, but refused to leave Callas or Pavarotti behind.

In the documentary Not Quite Hollywood, Wake In Fright is inexplicably grouped with various exploitation cheapies produced in Australia during the ’70s, but this simplistic characterization sells the film short. Why the label? Is it the violent kangaroo hunt, a source of much controversy when it was released, and at least partly why Aussie filmgoers held their noses? We now know that the offending footage was that of an actual cull. There’s so much more going on in this tale, and not merely in subtext.

John Grant experiences his own trial-by-fire, as he goes through a transformation frighteningly human, and emerges a different man. In an early scene, we see an impromptu performance of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, and it seems to foreshadow Grant’s metamorphosis from aloof outsider to enthusiastic, pub-crawling sod, now willing to participate in the local ‘reindeer games’. It’s an understatement to say that the ‘Yabba’s harshness is a twist in this sheltered urbanite’s sobriety, and the threatening climax takes us very near the abyss before yanking us away.

Extras are copious enough to give the Criterion boys night sweats. The largest package in the goodie box is a 45-minute Q & A session from TIFF ’09, in which Kotcheff is interviewed by journalist Martin Knelman. A compelling raconteur, Kotcheff muses on Australia’s rowdy pub scene, his beginnings in early Canadian television – there’s a subject one hears little about! – and the Australian public’s re-appraisal of Wake In Fright. Australian audiences were offended by the movie in its initial release, and in an Australian Broadcasting Corporation TV spot (included here) about the film’s restoration, Jack Thompson, now the Grand Elder Statesman of Australian cinema, argues that his countrymen weren’t yet ready to look in the mirror, to see the “ugly Australian”.

We’re also treated to Who Needs Art, a black-and-white short film about Australia’s blossoming early-’70s arts movement, a tribute to actor Chips Rafferty, the 12-minute To the ‘Yabba And Back, and a smattering of trailers for Draft House Films (the distributor) DVDs. If that’s not enough, please peruse the color booklet with essays detailing the film’s rediscovery and its complex preparation for screenings. And a flyer with instructions on downloading a free digital copy, a redundant bone to millennials living their entire lives in digital multi-tasking nirvana.

Wake In Fright heralded the arrival of Australia on the international film scene, and it was probably inevitable that it would eventually receive its due. It was well-received at Cannes back in the day, and the French gave it a big hug, but too many others dismissed it. Very much of a piece with the downbeat, searching major American films of that same halcyon era, one notes with regret that Australia still manages to churn out movies of this nature, but my own country’s globe-conquering film industry is unwilling to take the leap. Not quite Hollywood, indeed.

RATING 8 / 10


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