A lost classic of Australian cinema reemerges nearly 40 years later as electrifying an experience as it was when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971. Long unavailable and now fully restored, this legendary and controversial film tells the harrowing tale of a naïve young schoolteacher who travels to the Australian Outback. There he confronts the backwards-thinking and foreboding locals, unforgiving terrain, and his own inner demons following five drunken, lost days of gambling and sordid sexual encounters.
“Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright is a deeply – and I mean deeply – unsettling and disturbing movie. I saw it when it premiered in 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.”
“The best and most terrifying film about Australia in existence.” —Nick Cave
“…like a scrofulous version of The Lost Weekend crossed with Lord of the Flies.”
-J. Hoberman, ARTINFO
“It’s simultaneously terrifying and hilarious, a full-on shotgun blast to the face of rediscovered 1970s weirdness, something like finding out that there’s a classic Peckinpah film you’ve never seen, or that Wes Craven and Bernardo Bertolucci got drunk in Sydney one weekend and decided to make a movie together.” -Andrew O’Hehir, SALON
“Wake in Fright is calibrated for maximum psychic impact. Its madness is viral and disconcerting.”
- Marc Savlov, AUSTIN CHRONICLE
A lost classic of Australian cinema reemerges nearly 40 years later as electrifying an experience as it was when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971. Long unavailable and now fully restored, this legendary and controversial film tells the harrowing tale of John Grant (Gary Bond), a naïve young schoolteacher from the big city. He feels disgruntled because of the onerous terms of a financial bond which he signed with the government in return for receiving a college education. The bond has forced him to accept a post to the tiny, one-room school at Tiboonda, a remote township in the arid Australian Outback. It is the start of the Christmas school holidays and Grant plans going to Sydney to visit his girlfriend but first, however, he must travel by train to the rough mining town of Bundanyabba (known as “The Yabba”) in order to catch a Sydney-bound flight. After losing his money in the classic Australian game of Two-Up, he finds himself stranded in the Yabba. Grant is forced to confront the backwards-thinking and foreboding locals, unforgiving terrain, and his own inner demons following five drunken, lost days of gambling and sordid sexual encounters. “All the little devils are proud of Hell,” explains Donald Pleasence, as the town’s alcoholic doctor (and living health warning to educated blokes). Trapped in a hellish limbo, the once ordinary world of rural Australia becomes the setting for his grotesque and sometimes surreal nightmare.
The overbearing residents that inexorably draw Grant into shedding every layer of his ‘civilised’ persona are presided over by bullish policeman Jock Crawford. In an inspired bit of provocative against-type casting, director Ted Kotcheff enlisted Chips Rafferty, “the living symbol of the typical Australian” to play Crawford. A young Jack Thompson is featured as one of Grant’s new-found drinking buddies and Donald Pleasance dominates with an utterly insidious performance as ‘Doc’ Tyson, “a doctor of medicine, a tramp by temperament and, of course, an alcoholic.” Jeanette is the only significant female character, played by Kotcheff’s then wife, Sylvia Kay. “An interesting biological specimen,” muses Doc, “if she were a man she’d be in prison for rape.”
The tag line for the film read “sweat, dust and beer…there’s nothing else out here mate!,” but Grant finds so much more than that. Passive aggressive hospitality, degenerate gambling, rampant misogyny, anti-intellectualism, Kangaroo hunting, chronic alcoholism, casual racism, depression, predatory sex, and attempted suicide are just some of the conflicts that Grant encounters and endures over the course of his stay in the Yabba. Gallows humour, veiled threats and masculine competitiveness course through Wake in Fright’s veins. Never have the outback’s scorched, barren landscapes seemed so claustrophobic.
Quite a few Aussie critics have dubbed Wake in Fright ”the greatest Australian movie ever.” An intriguing verdict, as it was made by Canadian filmmaker Ted Kotcheff (whose other work includes The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, First Blood, North Dallas Forty, Weekend at Bernie’s, and numerous episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit), and because its portrayal of the Australian populace is anything but flattering. Kotcheff was fortunate in being able to work from Kenneth Cook‘s stunning 1961 source novel (which is, sadly, little known outside its native Australia).
For many years, Wake In Fright enjoyed a reputation as Australia’s great “lost film” because of its unavailability on VHS or DVD, as well as its absence from television broadcasts.The movie had been out of circulation for decades because the negative went missing, sparking an international search. After a ten-year quest veteran Australian producer Anthony Buckley finally tracked it down in mid-2004 in a Pittsburgh warehouse, inside a shipping container marked “For Destruction.” The film has now been restored by Australia’s National Sound and Film Archive.
Kotcheff remembers the film showing at Cannes in 1971, and a young man sitting behind him as the finale unspooled. “Oh my God, oh my God, he’s going to go all the way, he’s going all the way!” the man started muttering. Kotcheff insisted on finding out who that young man was – a New Yorker called Martin Scorsese, it turned out. And it was Scorsese who, as honorary president of Cannes Classics, brought the restored Wake in Fright back to the Festival.
The words ‘masterpiece’ and ‘classic’ often too readily used, but Wake in Fright is worthy of both, and deserves to be recognized as such. (Australia, 1971, 114, color, Rated R, 35mm)