FrightFest 2013: Wake In Fright

Anton Bitel,

If the principal theme of Ted Kotcheff's overlooked 1971 masterpiece Wake In Fright (aka Outback) is the thin line that exists between civilisation and bestiality, then the film's opening finds a perfect way to visualise this idea. A slow, circling aerial pan (shot very wide) reveals the tiny, dust-blown desert town of Tiboonda, whose 'centre' comprises just two shack-like buildings - one a classroom, the other a pub - divided by a single train track.

Having finished his final lesson for the year, seconded schoolteacher John Grant (Gary Bond) crosses over for what he wishes were the last time to his rented room in the pub to pack his bags. A "bonded slave of the education department", John feels trapped in his dead-end, back-of-beyond job, and cannot wait to be back in the City to spend Christmas with his beautiful girlfriend Robin - although he would really rather be in England ("even Sydney" is not civilised enough for him). En route, he stops overnight at Bundinyabba, described by its constable Jock Crawford (beloved Aussie icon Chips Rafferty in his finest - and final - performance) as the "honestest little town in Australia". After drunkenly gambling away all his money in one night, John finds himself caught in a hallucinatory hell of boozing and brawling, machismo and misogyny, recklessness and 'roos. As his sense of cultured superiority is exposed as a readily disposable vanity, John is all at once drawn to and repelled by 'Doc' Tydon (Donald Pleasence, again a career-best performance), an educated, appetitive alcoholic with far more self-knowledge than the deluded teacher.

Adapted by Evan Jones from Kenneth Cook's 1961 novel, Wake In Fright reduces mateship, that defining lynchpin of the Australian character, to a vice (in every sense) whose grip is near impossible to escape. Here the Yabba folk's spirit of hospitality, though generous to a fault, is also something aggressive and menacing, as John is confronted with a masculine vulnerability in himself that lets him blend right in, fatalistically, with the local colour. He may hope to leave the savage country for the city, but John does not realise that he cannot escape his own worst impulses - or that, as one character puts it, "Bundinyabba's a city" too.

Like the majestic camera movement with which it opens, Wake In Fright is a film that travels in slow, inexorable circles, presenting its paranoid nightmare of entrapment as Kafka down under. Recently restored in all its wide-eyed, widescreen glory, it is a feral classic of the Australian New Wave, revealing the 'lucky country' to be both a nation resigned to its own primal urges - and a state (of mind) hell-bent on self-destruction. All viewers (but especially male, Australian ones) will, like John, see in Kotcheff''s delirious bender a dark image of themselves that they both recognise and abhor.

'Wake In Fright' screens at Film4 FrightFest...

Discovery Screen 1, Fri 23rd August, 11pm

Follow Anton on Twitter: @AntBit

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