Australia’s great lost film has aged like fine rotgut — an examination of apocalyptic masculinity more potent than ever, with a lingering aftertaste.
Trigger Warning: This film contains graphic depictions of real animal violence and cruelty.
Most of the lurid, loopy, and low-budget history covered in Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation is remembered lovingly, or at the very least begrudgingly, by the talking heads in attendance. One of the few films to inspire any genuine, if polite, hostility is 1971’s Wake in Fright, released in the earliest days of the Australian New Wave.
Its home-made contemporaries were critically savaged for the kind of moral depravity that makes sex comedies worthwhile, but celebrated by the general public as rowdy declarations of national identity. By contrast, Wake in Fright was nominated for the Palme d’Or, but was roundly denounced by audiences for its nihilistic critique of Aussie culture.
I can’t find the exact quote because Not Quite Hollywood has unfortunately left Shudder since I covered it in January, but the Canadian director of Wake in Fright defends his work on the grounds that sometimes it takes foreign eyes to see what’s wrong with your backyard, whether or not you like what they notice.
On one hand, this is a great excuse for straight white guys in film school to tell stories from perspectives well beyond their privilege or understanding. On the other hand, Ted Kotcheff also directed First Blood, one of the most furiously American movies ever made. Not pretty. Not proud. The oiled pecs wouldn’t come until the sequel.
It took a first-generation Canadian born to Bulgarian immigrants to hoist the proper Molotov cocktail to our creaking notions of heroism on the losing end of the Vietnam War.
Wake in Fright sweats authenticity from the first frame.
A two-thirds split between faded blue sky and cracked yellow earth, with only railroad tracks and a faraway bar to note the intrusion of man. It feels alien in the way only documentaries can — show but don’t tell, look but don’t touch. For the first half hour, Kotcheff and cinematographer Brian West keep it all at arm’s length, just like protagonist John Grant.
When the 29-year-old Gary Bond was cast in the lead, producers heralded him as the next Peter O’Toole. The resemblance is hard to miss, though Bond was already comfortably established by 1971. He’d been acting on stage for almost a decade, including a stint on Broadway. The following year he’d play the first Joseph of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
Here, in one of his only screen performances, Bond can make himself twelve-years-old or two years from retirement in the same sweltering close-up.
John Grant teaches in a one-room schoolhouse across the tracks from that faraway bar in a town called Tiboonda. Not by choice. In exchange for his college education, he’s bonded to the government for $1000. Pay it off and he can do what he likes, but until then, he teaches where they send him. All he does is watch the clock, imbibe responsibly, and dream of his girlfriend in Sydney, a million miles away if a meter.
He also happens to view the locals like exhibits in a permanent sideshow.
And if tiny Tiboonda is a sideshow, then The Yabba, the only place in his neck of nowhere to catch a plane, is a three-ring circus. Everything about their behavior is strange to him: their vaguely threatening courtesy; their ever-present pint in their calloused hands; the way they halt their backroom gambling to stand in unified reverence for fallen soldiers of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, then get right back to it after the broadcast.
Grant never mocks them, at least not to their face, but he’s not a nice man, no matter what his book-learning might’ve convinced him. He’s arrogant and careless, each fault compounding interest on the other. But Bond finds a naïve soul within Grant’s khaki shell. Instead of rooting for this high-brow sap to get his bell rung, we watch him fumble and offend like an unexpected guest at a dinner party with no concept of the customs.
He stays above it all until the local sheriff shows him an illegal yet well-attended game of two-up. The rules couldn’t be simpler. Two coins are thrown in the air and players bet on how they’ll land — heads up, tails up, or one and one. It’s so simple, an educated man like Grant assumes there’s a catch or at least a crime. The sheriff assures him the gamblers never so much as look at each other funny. But Grant doesn’t take his word for it.
Instead, he listens to the only civilized accent in earshot: “All the little devils, proud of hell.”
Even his name, Doc, is at best a half-truth and at worst a lazy lie. Clarence “Doc” Tydon was a doctor once, until a drinking problem ran him out of business. He ended up in The Yabba, tracking odds with pen and paper, because nobody notices alcoholism when every social encounter starts with a free beer on somebody else’s aggressively friendly dime.
“I’m only accepted socially because I’m an educated man and a character.”
He’s also played by one of the greatest educated-man-and-character actors to ever do it, a lithe and leathery Donald Pleasance at the height of his wild-eyed powers, spending more scenes shirtless than you’d expect.
Grant thinks he’s found an ally, not realizing he’s staring at a reflection in a dirty mirror.
He complains of “the arrogance of stupid people insisting you should be as stupid as they are.” Doc resists with a crooked smile: “Discontent is a luxury of the well-to-do.” Grant waves him off as a lost cause, but takes his odds anyway. That’s when he commits a cardinal sin.
He bets everything on heads. He’s given the privilege of tossing the coins. He throws a pair of heads. But the crowd boos. He tossed the coins wrong. All those rounds he gawked at, belittled behind his pretty blue eyes, he never paid attention. He didn’t watch, only looked.
From there, Wake in Fright slowly loses its documentarian distance and John slowly loses everything.
First, his money.
John’s black stare follows the coins to the betting floor. In one of the film’s cruelest cuts, we don’t see them land. Only his eyes, then his naked body on a no-tell motel bed. Then, as he runs into obstacle after obstacle in the purgatorial Yabba, his mind, his masculinity, and his studied notions of man fall apart, too.
Despite its almost fifty-year vintage, Wake in Fright’s interpersonal politics are still progressive.
Janette, one of the few women in the movie and seemingly the entire town, is sexually liberated. She sleeps with whoever she wants to. “They think Janette’s a slut, the women who’d like to act like her and the men she hasn’t given a tumble to,” explains Doc, who maintains a comfortably open relationship with her. All this disgusts and later torments modern-man John Grant, but his earliest test is telling.
Janette takes him for a walk into the desert, lies down in the dirt, and unbuttons her dress. At first, John doesn’t know how to take the invitation, then, as soon as he kisses her, he vomits from a long day of liquid pleasantries in The Yabba. Janette wipes him off and walks away, no use for a drunk that can’t even hold it. Later, in a moment that as maddeningly ambiguous for the viewer as it is John, the sheltered reality of his lover-boy daydreaming is called into harsher question.
Its frank exploration of sexuality would’ve been enough to brand Wake in Fright controversial, especially in 1971.
But a more visceral taboo overshadowed all that. It still does, for good reason.
In a movie made entirely of breaking points, the most violent comes when John joins Doc and some rough-riding buddies on a midnight kangaroo hunt.
Cinematographer West starts it like Creature from the Black Lagoon. Tortured branches glow against the night like white fingers reaching from a great black beyond. The men in their truck watch for the monster we’ve been trained to expect. But we know they’re only going to find kangaroos. They do. The animals look at the divine brilliance of their searchlight with eyes like marbles.
Then the men open fire with real bullets and tear the kangaroos to real shreds. The monsters have already arrived.
Ted Kotcheff, a vegan at the time and a vegetarian to this day, filmed a real kangaroo hunt because they couldn’t fake it well enough to leave a mark on the audience. He thought the local hunters would make it clean and quick and that would be that. He knew he was in trouble when they asked how slow he wanted the animals to die.
Without any encouragement from the crew, the hunters unloaded. The footage was so shocking, one cameraman passed out. That same footage remains in the finished film, along with an apology and ecologically minded defense after the credits.
Mileage may vary on how well that sits in your stomach, but it’s one of the most horrifying sequences I’ve ever seen put on film.
Not just for the real violence, either.
John, drunk as ever, is challenged to cut the tail off a young kangaroo. He tries, but he can’t even muster enough Marlboro Man machismo to grab it. So he takes out his frustration by stabbing it to death. The truck, radiant as an angel of death, rocks with slurred applause. Doc watches from the fender, not clapping, not laughing. For a moment, not even drinking. Until he gives up and takes a long pull from his bottle.
Wake in Fright walks a constant line of uncanny anxiety. The little situations that should be joyful, but blur past in nauseous close-up. The human agonies in the background of good-natured barfights. Fun and fear. Masculinity and masochism. In a later scene, Doc quotes Socrates as his friends throw each other through the front of a general store just to see if they can.
The line between salvation and damnation is a knot in The Yabba.
It’s a dyed-in-the-wool Australian film, no doubt about it – John Scott’s haunting score sounds like an electric digeridoo at times – but the apocalyptic philosophy should be familiar to anyone who recognizes its special hell.
Those quiet, comfortable places where the locals would hate to see you go, even though there’s nothing to do but drink, bullshit, and find love for thirty minutes at a time. The special hell that, to the right person, is the farthest thing from it.
One of the last lines in Kenneth Cook’s original novel lays out the philosophy as only John Grant’s inner monologue could:
“I can see quite clearly the ingenuity whereby a man may be made mean or great by exactly the same circumstances.”
That’s all well and good, but in Kotcheff’s version, where Grant devolves into a thoughtless creature of feverish urge, that philosophy seems a little too eloquent. The closest alternative comes from the cheery cab driver that unwittingly delivers John Grant to his dark vacation of the soul:
“If you’re a good bloke, you’re alright.”