Monday, October 7, 2013

#1,148. Wake in Fright (1971)

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. In an effort to change that, its editor, Anthony Buckley, started searching for a pristine copy of the movie in 1994, and ten years later found what he was looking for (in, of all places, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). And now that it’s no longer “lost”, I can say, without hesitation, that Wake in Fright is a movie every film fan should see.

Schoolteacher John Grant (Gary Bond), who’s bonded to the Australian Gov’t and has been assigned 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”. After the town’s chief constable, Jock (Chips Rafferty), gets him drunk, Grant loses all his money gambling, which means he’s stuck in “The Yabba” until he can earn some more. Unable to pay for a hotel room, he moves in with Doc (Donald Pleasance), a former medical man who’s lived in “The Yabba” for the last five years. Thanks to a constant flow of alcohol, Grant is seldom sober during his stay in “The Yabba”, and ends up doing things that under normal circumstance he would have never attempted.

Wake in Fright is a harrowing nightmare of a movie. The moment John Grant enters the town of Bundayabba, we get the feeling he’s not so much a guest there as he is its next victim. Along with the heavy drinking (everywhere he goes, someone wants to buy Grant a drink), its citizens are always looking for something to help them through the boredom of life in the outback. With no other options available, Grant 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, Grant is introduced to Tim’s daughter, Janette (Sylvia Kay), who, before long, tries to lure Grant into having sex with her. But, like drinking for the men, sex is nothing more than a release for Janette, a way to pass a little time (she’s 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 as good as Doc, the former doctor who came to “The Yabba” five years earlier, crawled into a bottle, and has been there ever since. The friendship that develops between the two 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’s continually 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 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 a number of actual killings (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 some of you out there won’t be able to sit through them.

But if you think you have the stomach for this sequence, as well as the rest of the movie, then I strongly recommend Wake in Fright. It may not be pretty, but it’s definitely powerful.

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