Wake in Fright: Masters of Cinema Review

Much of the following is a revised and updated version of my 2009 review of the Region 4 DVD of Wake in Fright for this site.

John Grant (Gary Bond) is a bonded teacher. During the Christmas holidays, he arrives in the outback mining town of Bundanyabba, only intending to stay one night before taking the flight to Sydney to meet his girlfriend. But once in “The Yabba” he is drawn into a gambling game, tempted to win just enough to buy him out of teaching – and loses everything. So begins a five-day period of boozing, fighting and discovering a whole dark side to himself that he never knew was there...

Films were made in Australia since silent days. In fact, the first feature (The Story of the Kelly Gang from 1906, originally an hour long but of which only fragments survive) was Australian. Local films were produced up until the mid 1950s, but after that most filmmaking on the continent was in the form of overseas productions using Australia’s landscapes as exotic locations. Jump forward to 1966, and the domestic success of Michael Powell’s They're a Weird Mob renewed calls for a local film industry. Tiny-budgeted independent works were made, most notably Tim Burstall’s Two Thousand Weeks from 1968, often regarded as the real start of the Australian film revival. But far higher-profile was an American-Australian coproduction, directed by a Canadian director then working in England, Ted Kotcheff - Wake in Fright. Kenneth Cook’s novel was originally to be filmed by Joseph Losey with Dirk Bogarde in the lead, which would have been interesting. English actor Gary Bond is no Bogarde, but he manages well enough with this role. It was his third and last film, and only big-screen lead role, following smaller parts in Zulu and Anne of the Thousand Days. All his subsequent IMDB credits are on British television; he died of AIDS in 1995, aged just fifty-five.

If Powell’s film used Australian stereotypes as a vehicle for comedy, Wake in Fright (released outside Australia as Outback) is an altogether darker version, particularly on the perennial theme of mateship. That perennial Australian theme, of bonding with fellow men (and excluding women), particularly over a beer, takes a sinister turn here. It's the worst crime in the world not to share a drink with someone. Before the film’s production and after its release there were concerns that the Outback lifestyle shown here would be seen as an unflattering reflection on Australia’s image overseas. Similar concerns were raised over the ocker comedies which began the 1970s revival in earnest, such as The Adventures of Barry McKenzie and Alvin Purple.)

Masculinity in crisis was not a current term in 1968, but it’s prevalent in this film. John Grant is clearly less than fulfilled as a teacher: we first see him silently supervising a roomful of bored children until the end of class bell sounds. His fatal temptation is to gamble his money to win enough to leave the profession. In “The Yabba” he is drawn into a savage beer-soaked, gambling, fighting, roo-hunting world and the veneer of civilisation is soon stripped away. This is a world where women are incidental: a barmaid, the bored receptionist of his hotel. Apart from John’s girlfriend Robyn (seen only in brief flashbacks), the only woman of any significance is Janette (Sylvia Kay, an English actress who was married to Kotcheff at the time), a sad-eyed woman whose promiscuity causes her to be dismissed by the men as a slag.

As I say above, Gary Bond makes a decent fist of his role, but the acting honours go to the rest of the cast. Top-billed Donald Pleasence shows that he spent too much time being typecast as icy bastards, as he excels as the doctor both repelled and enticed by the Yabba lifestyle, and resolving the contradiction with the bottle. He also manages a very convincing Australian accent. Chips Rafferty is chilling in a smaller role, and Jack Thompson makes an impression in his debut. In a sense, this film, sitting as it does right at the start of the Australian Film Revival. Rafferty, using his imposing stature (6'5”) to good effect here, was an icon of Aussie manhood, a genuine locally-bred star who had come to fame in Ealing Studios' Australian-shot productions The Overlanders and Eureka Stockade. Thompson would fulfil that role in many films in the 70s. Wake in Fright was Rafferty's final film (he died of a heart attack a few weeks after completing shooting. This was Thompson's first. In a sense this film marks a changing of the guard.

Wake in Fright was made at a time when film censorship was breaking down worldwide. You can sense the makers of this film taking advantage of what they could do, and steering clear of what they couldn’t. So we have some nudity (partial breast exposure and full male nudity from behind and also from the front, a year after Medium Cool and Women in Love – though Bond's modesty was preserved by his wearing underpants in the US release version), moderate violence (fisticuffs), implied homosexual assault but none of the strong language you suspect these characters would have used. We also get a bloody kangaroo hunt in the latter stages, which is not for the squeamish. Anthony Buckley’s editing is first-rate, integrating real hunt footage (involving licensed hunters) very convincingly with the actors. As a notice before the end credits states, this is why the film does not breach the animal cruelty laws of the UK or any other country. As a result the film was passed uncut by the BBFC in 1971 and remains uncut to this day. This sequence is strong enough to gain the film an 18 certificate, though in Australia it's a M (advisory regarding the under-fifteens).

The film takes a little while to build momentum, but once it has, Kotcheff keeps the tension high. His direction shows a few markers of its time, such as the occasionally jagged editing – particularly the flashbacks of Robyn, emerging bikini-clad from the sea. This style – much influenced by directors like Alain Resnais, particularly his film L'avventura), when it was reshown as a Cannes Classic in 2009.

The Disc

Eureka release Wake in Fright as a dual-format release. The Blu-ray and DVD are identical in content, and it was the former which was supplied for review. Madman were the Australian distributor, and the print begins with their logo and that of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

The transfer is in the correct ratio of 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced. The film was fully digitally restored from its original negative, and as Anthony Buckley says in the commentary, you can see fine detail that didn't show up in the original chemically-processed cinema prints, such as patterns on the carpet and on Janette's dress. Some sequences seem soft, while others are sharper. Screengrabs follow, first Madman's DVD then this Blu-ray.

The soundtrack is the original mono, clear and well balanced. Unlike the Australian DVD, there are subtitles available for the hard-of-hearing.

The commentary features Ted Kotcheff and Anthony Buckley. Kotcheff says the most, and especially tells us what's happening on screen rather too much. But there is interesting material here. He also points out some intended symbolism, such as the recurrent image of a light shining in John's face. Buckley tends to act as feed for Kotcheff's anecdotes, especially the one about the man sitting behind him and making appreciative noises throughout the 1971 Cannes screening – a young director called Martin Scorsese.

Kotcheff also speaks to camera in an interview (23:16). He covers a lot of ground in discussing a film he is obviously very proud of, though necessarily much of it is also covered in the commentary.

The next items come from Australian television. First up is a segment of “Who Needs Art?” (5:36) from 1971 on Wake in Fright. Along with behind-the-scenes footage, much of the piece is a discussion on the whys and wherefores of a local film industry.

The second item is a piece on Chips Rafferty (3:35), featuring interviews with the man himself and pioneering Australian filmmaker Ken G. Hall, who had worked with Rafferty since the late 1930s. As Australian television did not start broadcasting in colour until 1975, these are both in black and white and 4:3.

From ABC's 7:30 Report from 2009 – and therefore in 16:9 and colour - comes an item on the rediscovery and restoration of Wake in Fright (6:36), with input from amongst others Jack Thompson, Tony Buckley and Meg Labrum, Senior Curator of the NFSAA.

Next up is a US TV spot (0:34) which uses the title Outback and quotes the film's MPAA R rating. Finally, there is Eureka's trailer (1:43) for their 2014 cinema reissue of Wake in Fright, which preceded this dual-format disc release.

Masters of Cinema have provided a 48-page booklet, which begins with a newly-written article on the film, “Breaking Badland” by Adrian Martin. The next three pieces are reused from the booklet Madman included with their 2009 release: “Dreaming of the Devil”, by Peter Galvin, which discusses the film's critical and public reception (respectively, largely positive and largely negative) and its cultural importance in Australian cinema. “Rediscovering a Classic” by Meg Labrum and “Restoring Wake in Fright” by Graham Shirley. We come back to 2012 and a piece by Kotcheff on the filming of the kangaroo hunt, claiming that what was on screen was less than a quarter of what was shot, the remainder being far worse. Finally, back to 2009 and again reused from Madman's booklet, “Lost and Found” by Anthony Buckley, detailing his search for the believed-lost original negative. Also in the booklet are several stills, film and DVD credits and transfer notes.

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