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Tuesday, 6 March 2018

REWIND REVIEW: Wake In Fright (1971)

(M) ★★★★★

Director: Ted Kotcheff.

Cast: Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence, Chips Rafferty, Sylvia Kay, Jack Thompson, Peter Whittle, Al Thomas, John Meillon.

"Are you gonna finish that?"
It seems oxymoronic, but having a Canadian direct Wake In Fright is a huge part of what makes it one of the greatest Australian films of all time.

There is no romanticism in the film, and nothing to suggest the people in it or the country represented are misunderstood or in possession of admirable qualities. No, this holds a very dark mirror up to Australian society, and it may have been difficult for an Aussie director to look back without flinching.

The Canadian in question was Ted Kotcheff, whose subsequent filmography would include the debut outing of John Rambo First Blood (a film that also probably benefitted from having an outsider director) and, believe it or not, Weekend At Bernie's. His work prior to Wake In Fright included some live TV plays in the UK (including one where an actor really died mid-play) and three British films - a largely forgotten sequel to Oscar-winner Room At The Top, a civil rights drama called Two Gentlemen Sharing, and the James Mason-starring dramedy Tiara Tahiti.

None of these indicated Kotcheff was the right man for the job of directing a visceral outback-set nightmare about the worst sides of Australian bush culture and its toxic masculinity. But then, Kotcheff himself wasn't sure he was the right man either.

"Being a Canadian I was a bit trepidatious about directing a movie about a country I knew nothing about," Kotcheff told Indiewire in 2012.

"But then I found that the outback wasn’t that different from the Canadian north. It was the same vast empty spaces that paradoxically were not liberating but were claustrophobic and imprisoning. And they also had the same hyper-masculine societies. In fact, I used to describe Canada as Australia on the rocks."

The big difference between those two locations is, of course, the climate. But Kotcheff was fully aware of how to work that to his advantage. Here, by way of example, is Wake In Fright's opening shot:

"I wanted to recreate what I felt and saw – the heat, the sweat, the dust, the flies," Kotcheff told Luke Buckmaster in The Guardian in 2017.

"I said to the set designer and the costume designer, ‘I don’t want to see any cool colours. I don’t want to see blue or green. Ever. On anything. All I want is red, yellow, orange, burgundy and brown. All the hot colours. On costumes, sets, everything.’ I wanted people to watch the film and be unconsciously sweating."

The ploy worked. Wake In Fright takes you into the outback and dumps you there with nothing to drink but beer. The oppressive heat seeps out of the visuals and the flies bombard you with no relief. And if you're a drinker, you will feel the on-screen hangovers deep in your soul.

The poor bastard struggling in this nightmarish hellscape (it was filmed in and around Broken Hill in case you were wondering) is young teacher John Grant (Bond). Stuck in an outback school due to the onerous bond system of the time, Grant flees his post in the summer holidays, desperate to be reunited with his girlfriend in Sydney. He daydreams of her frolicking in the surf - the only relief from the heat in the entire film.

En route to Sydney he stops for the night in Bundanyabba, where an unfortunate turn of events leaves him penniless and stranded. Relying on the hospitality of the 'Yabba locals, Grant is drawn into a violent world of primal beer-soaked masculinity that he seems unable - and perhaps unwilling - to escape. Just as Grant can't get away from the heat or the beers being thrust in his direction, he finds it impossible to prevent his own downward spiral in a swirl of booze, sex and blood.

"Citylink rules!"
Speaking of blood, one scene in Wake In Fright deserves special mention in this exceptionally directed Aussie masterpiece. It's a sequence in which a drunken Grant joins some 'Yabba yobbos on a roo-shooting expedition, and in a pre-CGI age, there was only one way to do the scene in anything close to an authentic manner - film a real-life roo-shooting expedition.

Kotcheff and a minimal crew joined 16 professional roo shooters on a pre-organised cull. The hunters were collecting the pelts and the meat, and the film crew were merely along for the ride. As Kotcheff later put it, in technically correct terms, no kangaroos died for Wake In Fright - those animals were going to die anyway and he just happened to be there to film it. Regardless, it's a horrendous scene.

"It was just horrific," agreed Kotcheff, who was a vegan at the time.

"They shot the roos, skinned them, cut their heads off. I was up there beside the camera, on the back of the truck, next to a big light. Suddenly I heard a thump beside me. My British producer had fainted. He was so horrified he just collapsed.

"I did not use 75 per cent of what I filmed that night as it was too bloody and horrifying," he later added. He and his production team staged a power outage to make the bloodshed end.

"I've got a bad feeling about this."
Regardless of what ended up on the cutting room floor, the resulting sequence makes for "one of the most horrific scenes in any movie ever", according to Screenprism.com.

"Actual bullets are hitting actual animals, and we watch them die completely pointless deaths," writes Nolan Moore.

"Cinematically speaking, it’s a punch-in-the-gut scene that proves humans are brutal, ugly monsters."

It's a make-or-break section of the film for many audience members (there was one walkout in the screening I attended, and many averted eyes) but it's part of Wake In Fright's visceral power. This is one of the last rings of hell for Grant, and he descends into it with a mixture of glee, disgust, self-loathing and relief.

While much of the credit for Wake In Fright's disturbing brilliance goes to Kotcheff and cinematographer Brian West, kudos must go to their willing cast. In the lead role, looking like Peter O'Toole circa Lawrence Of Arabia, Bond gives the best big screen performance of his short career (he died aged 55). He imbues Grant with the right mix of snobbery and naivety at the start, yet makes his downfall utterly believable.

"Actually I ordered the tofu salad."
Pleasence, a man who famously never turned down a role, is the scene-stealer though. Given top billing because he'd previously battled Bond, he plays Doc, who is both the town doctor and the town drunk (the latter descriptor goes largely unnoticed, such is the nature of the 'Yabba's relationship with booze). Pleasence's Aussie accent is predominantly good, and he gives the role a great amount of nuance. Kay, who was dating Kotcheff at the time, is also noteworthy in the only "major" female role in the film.

On a side note, if Wake In Fright hadn't been mythologised, lost, rediscovered, and an actual bona fide classic, it could have ended up as an Australian cinema trivia question for containing the final performance of Aussie acting legend Chips Rafferty (who insisted on sinking real pints of beer in every take - roughly 30 pints a day) and the debut performance of Aussie acting legend Jack Thompson.

Plenty of other articles have been written about how Wake In Fright was lost and found, and you can find that story in the hyperlinks or the video below. It's a fascinating tale, but the thing that makes it most interesting is how its rediscovery saw the film return from its time away as a feted hero of Australian cinema - the complete opposite of its reputation on debut.

The film's unflattering take on the Aussie male saw it bomb in its homeland on release. It went to Cannes in '71 alongside Walkabout, and little did Australia know but the French film festival was witnessing the birth of the Australian New Wave. It screened for over half a year in France, but back home it was ignored by audiences. It tanked in the US as well where it was released under the ambiguous title Outback.

But some people - important people - took notice. Bruce Beresford, Fred Schepisi, and Peter Weir - directors who helped usher in the new era of Aussie cinema which Wake In Fright and Walkabout inadvertently kicked off - were paying attention. The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, The Devil's Playground, and The Cars That Ate Paris all followed soon after.

But also paying attention, particularly in that Cannes screening in 1971, was Martin Scorsese. Scorsese reportedly whooped with excitement throughout the film. A rookie director himself at the time, Scorsese never forgot the raw power of Wake In Fright. It not only influenced him, but he was able to return the favour and help bring the once-lost masterpiece back into the light (as discussed in the video below).

Wake In Fright is one of the greatest Australian films of all time because it was brave enough to do something no Aussie film had done before (and only a few have done since). It was able to get beneath this country's skin and stare into a dark heart that was hidden beneath the ochre dust and boozy bonhomie. It found a masculine menace everyone knew was there but no one dared mention.

A producer later told Kotcheff "that film’s got a tremendous wallop - no Australian could have made that film". They were right.

Further reading: 
Check out this incredible three part long-read on the film written by Peter Galvin for SBS. It's far better than my review, but I wasn't going to tell you that at the start now was I?

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