Cult Cinema: Wake In Fright (1971)

WAKE IN FRIGHT (aka Outback) (1971)

Dir. Ted Kotcheff

Starring: Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence, Chips Rafferty, Jack Thompson

Wake in Fright, based on the chilling 1961 classic novel by Kenneth Cook, is one of Australia’s great mythic films, not simply because of its inherent quality or because it heralded the film industry renaissance of the 1970s, but more particularly because it was so nearly lost to us. Although critically acclaimed internationally upon its release, it was deeply unpopular amongst local audiences; it was rarely seen on television or home video and only unwatchable 16mm prints and VHS tapes remained. After a decade long quest, the original negatives were discovered in a vault in Pittsburgh marked “for destruction”. After extensive digital restoration, the pristine result can be seen in the current re-release.

In what has been described as a brutal horror story, the film portrays the destruction of an educated young school teacher (English actor Gary bond) serving out his tenure in remote Australia. In transit to Sydney, he is forced to spend the night in a rough mining town where there is nothing but dust, flies, and beer; the innocent abroad is thus lured into the local culture but without the experience to resist its tragic consequences. Within twenty four hours alcohol and gambling have ruined him physically and financially and he is trapped destitute with no means of escape.

English actor Gary Bond plays the cultured and well educated school teacher out of his depth; his performance is competent but not thrilling. Chips Rafferty, in his last film, appears as the local policeman and at first seems just too amiable to be a genuine element of this brutal community; his affability, however, is the bait which coaxes the naïve stranger to his fate.

Surprisingly, the real treat of the film is the appearance of respected English character actor Donald Pleasence. As with many Australian films from the 1950s and 60s (and even now), it was considered necessary for it to feature at least one internationally known actor. Often they played Australians with little credibility. In this instance, however, Donald Pleasence not only convincingly portrayed the Australian accent but also managed the subtleties of region, class and education which most non-Australians would find impossible.  He is the educated, literate Doctor who, because of his alcoholism, has retreated to a part of the world where he is accepted without question and can still practice (albeit free of charge).  His finely honed characterisation, including the slightest hints at madness in the mere glint of an eye, is simply mesmerising.

The opening scenes, with the camera lingering over the vast expanse of the desolate Australian landscape, may be a little slow for modern audiences who expect a bang in the first five minutes. Nevertheless, accomplished Canadian director Ted Kotcheff paces his film with precise care.  Each step in the protagonist’s downfall gradually works towards the frenzied climax: a drunken roo shoot which ends in a debauched orgy of violence and blood letting.  This segment, featuring a real roo shoot, was frequently removed by censors and is still profoundly shocking today. It is, however, essential to the delicate structure and intensity of the film.

Perhaps now, nearly forty years on, the subject matter can be viewed dispassionately by Australian audiences. At the time, however, it bared the uncomfortable truth at the heart of the iconic Aussie male traditions of mateship, beer and gambling. Donald Pleasence, as the alcoholic doctor philosopher, expresses it thus:

“I’m a doctor of medicine. And a tramp by temperament. I’m also an alcoholic. My disease prevented me from practicing in Sydney. But out here it’s scarcely noticeable.”

Wake in Fright is screening currently at selected cinemas and will be released on DVD later this year.

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