Wake in Fright

Starring: Gary Bond, Chips Rafferty, Donald Pleasance, Jack Thomson, Peter White, and Sylvia Kay. Directed by Ted Kotcheff.
Rated M (violence and mature themes). 104 min.

This film was made in 1971 and has been re-released following digital restoration, after it was assumed to be lost. When first released it was a commercial failure, despite the fact that the film was nominated for a Golden Palm Award in Cannes in May, 1971. Shooting was in Broken Hill, NSW. It was Chips Rafferty's last film, and Jack Thomson's first. Now, over thirty eight years later, it has resurfaced from a locked vault in Pittsburgh, USA, to emerge as unquestionably one of the finest Australian movies ever produced. Though there are many international influences in its making and direction, it remains as a masterpiece of Australian cinema.

Based on a novel by Kenneth Cook about his experiences in Broken Hill, the film tells the harrowing story of a young, handsome, and class-conscious teacher, John Grant (Gary Bond), who is posted by Government to teach at an outback school in Tiboonda, NSW. While on a trip to Sydney to see his girl friend, Grant finds himself sucked into the environment of a nearby mining town, Bundanyabbe (known to locals as "The Yabba"), and he becomes a tragic victim of the town's aggressive drinking, gambling, and homophobic culture. Following a humiliating sexual encounter with a local woman, Jannette (Sylvia Kay), he becomes the butt of jokes about his masculinity. Pressured to conform, he joins a drunken and brutal kangaroo hunt with Dick (Jack Thompson), Joe (Peter White), and "Doc" Tydon (Donald Pleasance). After the shoot, Grant returns to the shack of Tydon, who initiates a homosexual advance. Sickened by the violation and the seedy encounter, Grant attempts suicide. The movie ends by showing us Grant being farewelled by Tydon, as he returns to Tiboonda to teach. In the short time he has been in "The Yabba", Grant has lost all self-respect, and lives only with his memories of moral degradation.

When the film first appeared, no doubt the negative public response was due to the movie's trenchant criticism of Australia's mateship culture and this country's fondness for alcohol. The film is thoroughly uncompromising in what it says about Australia and the significance it attributes to drinking and mateship, and the violence that can be associated with them both. The friendship between males in this film has a very dark side and the tone of the movie is worlds apart from the Australian romanticism that seeps out of films like, "The Man from Snowy River", and "Australia". Outback Australia, it argues, always prefers mateship and manliness to tolerance and sensitivity, especially when they are fuelled by alcohol, sexual pleasure, and gambling. "The Yabba" is a brutal, intimidating place, and John Grant's visit to Bundanyabbe takes us, with him, into a world of violence and despair.

The kangaroo shoot scene in this movie is one of the bloodiest ever put on film and not at all suitable for those, who are faint-hearted, and who love animals; the scene is one that probably could never be filmed today, and it is horrendous. The photography throughout the movie by Brian West and the editing by Tony Buckley (who was involved in the film's restoration) are superb, and the grim, isolated outback with its dusty desolation is wonderfully captured. Their combined talents are helped enormously by a very talented cast, with stand-out performances by Chips Rafferty, as the town's police officer, and Donald Pleasance as its rogue doctor. The Director, Ted Kotcheff, ensures insightfully that the film shocks virtually all the time, and his achievements are that much more impressive, because he is Canadian and not Australian. This is a film, where we are shown a home-grown culture that exists and has endured, one where the love of beer and two-up combines with a pathological distrust of genuine friendship, and which illustrates the attitude that no relationship with a woman is worthwhile, because women are too sluttish for real men to care about. This extraordinarily intense film is the most savage movie about Australia that has ever been made, but it is also one that comments meaningfully on the spiritual isolation of a British teacher's doomed journey to find solace.

Given the choice to depict sin or redemption, this movie is all about sin and its constraining force. References to heaven and hell occur through the film, but it depicts "The Yabba" as Sodom, and in so doing, it conveys a very powerful moral message of its own making. The film's enormous capacity to confront makes it a most uncomfortable movie to see, but it is a movie that stands the test of time, and it remains as a milestone in the history of Australian cinema.

"Wake in Fright" was a stunning achievement in 1971, and it is a magnificent one in 2009; only the musical soundtrack dates it in any way. This is a brave movie, of remarkable quality, that should not be missed.

Madman Cinema. Out July 23, 2009 (SA, QLD).

Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the National Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

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