Monday, October 7, 2013

#1,148. Wake in Fright (1971) - Spotlight on Australia

Directed By: Ted Kotcheff

Starring: Donald Pleasence, Gary Bond, Chips Rafferty

Tag line: "Have a drink, mate? Have a fight, mate? Have some dust and sweat, mate? There's nothing else out here"

Trivia: At the 2009 Cannes Classic screening of Wake in Fright, 12 people walked out during the kangaroo hunt

For decades, 1971’s Wake in Fright (released as Outback in its native Australia) was considered a lost film. Hoping to change that, its editor, Anthony Buckley, started searching for a pristine copy of the movie in 1994, and ten years later finally found what he was looking for (in, of all places, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). 

Now that it’s no longer “lost”, I can say, without hesitation, this is a movie every film fan should see... if you have the stomach for it. Wake in Fright is a harrowing nightmare of a movie. 

Schoolteacher John Grant (Gary Bond), who has been assigned by the gov't to teach in the remote Outback village of Tiboonda, is heading to Sydney for a little rest and relaxation. On the way, he makes what he believes will be a brief layover in the town of Bundayabba, which the locals refer to as “The Yabba”. 

But from the moment he arrives in "The Yabba", things don't go well for Grant. The town’s chief constable, Jock (Chips Rafferty), gets him drunk, and soon after Grant loses all his money gambling. Unable to pay for a hotel room, he eventually moves in with Doc (Donald Pleasance), a former medical man who has lived in Bundayabba for the last five years. 

With the alcohol constantly flowing, Grant is seldom sober during his extended stay in “The Yabba”, and ends up doing things that, under normal circumstance, he would have never dreamed possible.

The moment Grant enters Bundayabba we get the distinct feeling he’s not so much a guest there as he is the town's next victim. By way of heavy drinking (everywhere he goes, someone wants to buy Grant a drink), the locals hope to escape the boredom of life in the outback. But there are other escapes as well; broke and with nowhere to go, John initially accepts an invitation to spend the night at the home of Tim Hynes (Al Thomas), who he met in one of the many bars in town. Shortly after he arrives at the Hynes house, Tim’s daughter Janette (Sylvia Kay) tries to coerce Grant into having sex with her. But like drinking for the guys, sex is nothing more than a release for Janette, a way to pass a little time. She is not so much attracted to Grant as she is looking for something to do.

Gary Bond delivers a fine performance as Grant, and Donald Pleasance is equally good as Doc, the former physician who came to “The Yabba” five years earlier, crawled into a bottle, and has been stuck there ever since. The friendship that develops between Grant and Doc is tentative at best; in Grant, Doc sees traces of the man he used to be, a well-trained professional whose career is slowly slipping away from him. As for Grant, he is repeatedly shocked and appalled by Doc’s abrasive behavior, all the while realizing that, if he’s not careful, he might end up the same way.

The most controversial sequence in Wake in Fright is when Grant and Doc tag along with a couple of  rough characters named Dick (Jack Thompson) and Joe (Peter Whittle), who are heading into the outback to hunt kangaroos. This hunt, which lasts well into the evening, features real violence; several kangaroos are shot and one is even run over by a car. Despite the disclaimer at the end of the film, which says the footage was captured “during an actual kangaroo hunt conducted by licensed professional hunters”, these scenes are brutal and very difficult to watch. I’m betting a good many viewers won’t be able to sit through them.

But if you're feeling brave, I strongly recommend Wake in Fright. It may not be pretty, but it’s definitely powerful!

No comments: