Wake In Fright: The Film That Left Scorsese Speechless

On 31 March, four superb cult movies are being released on DVD. In the first of a quartet of profiles, I raise a tinnie to Wake In Fright, the perfect Aussie film for anyone who couldn't stand Strictly Ballroom...
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On 31 March, four superb cult movies are being released on DVD. In the first of a quartet of profiles, I raise a tinnie to Wake In Fright, the perfect Aussie film for anyone who couldn't stand Strictly Ballroom...

Film-Wake-In-Fright-001

The Australian Outback is one of the world’s last true wildernesses. Sure, there’s the odd small town – bloody odd in some cases – but should you ever venture off the beaten track down under, it’s easy to understand how the hinterland’s become associated with the most bizarre of goings-on. Mega beasts, rabid biker gangs, tourist-targeting serial killers – it’s been claimed that all can be found in the Never Never. Watch Wake In Fright, however, and you’ll conclude that the most frightening encounter of all would have to be with the common-or-garden Outback Aussie.

Wake In Fright (released in the US as Outback) is a story of conflict. Urban versus outback, new v. old, uncouth opposite urbane – this is a war movie in which the victims are a mob of kangaroos (killed legally but in a fashion that will leave you forever unable to look at a roo burger) and John Grant, a Sydney schoolteacher banished to a one-horse town by an education board more concerned with staffing tough gigs than with the negative effects such postings might have. With the summer term ended and Christmas around the corner, John’s delighted to be returning to his world of surf and sex. But before he makes it back to the Eastern Suburbs he must weather a night in the mining town of Bundanyabba. It is an evening neither he nor we will ever forget.

Based on a book by Kenneth Cook, Wake In Fright was directed by the Canadian filmmaker Ted Kotcheff. As the man responsible for the original and the best of the John Rambo movies, First Blood, you could say that Kotcheff has something of a gift for rural carnage. But what happens in this movie is a world away from the muscle-bound excesses of Sylvester Stallone. For one thing, there’s next to no – human – blood spilt. For another, this isn’t so much a conventional tale as a study of the turning point Australia found itself at in the early ‘70s. A new Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, had transformed the country from a colonial entity obsessed with the gentility of the ‘40s and ‘50s to a forward-looking nation, keen to embrace a new way of life and a heightened position on the world stage. Of course, not everyone was happy about this, and the conflict that followed seeped into every avenue of life. In cricket, there was the fallout between Australia’s brash skipper Ian Chappell and the chairman of the ACB the legendary Don Bradman. In Wake In Fright, meanwhile, the tensions are represented by two very different actors, Chips Rafferty and Jack Thompson.

Cast here as Bundanyabba lawman Jock Crawford, Rafferty (born John Goffage in 1909) was the first real star of Australian cinema. Read any article about classic antipodean film and you’re more or less studying CV. But while he’s excellent in everything from 40,000 Horsemen and The Fighting Rats Of Tobruk to Fred Zinnemann’s The Sundowners and Wake In Fright, Chips had become something of a relic by 1971. More pertinently, his Anglophied Australian accent was scoffed at by those who’d grown to love their strine. On the other hand, Jack Thompson – here playing the roughhousing larrikin Dick - was the poster boy of the new Australia. With a big voice and a strong physique , Thompson had much in common with his cricketing namesake Jeff. What’s more his work in Aussie New Wave landmarks like Breaker Morant and The Chant Of Jimmy Blacksmith was as powerful as anything ‘Thommo’ ever unleashed.

If it has a lot to say about post-‘60s Australia, Wake In Fright also speaks to those unfamiliar with the country in general and its heartland in particular. Upon being first exposed to Kotcheff’s film, Martin Scorsese said the experience left him “speechless”. It’s easy to see why. Indeed, anyone unfamiliar with Australian institutions such as RSL clubs and Two-up will find this exotic fair. And then there’s the epic alcohol intake, the spectacular bonhomie, the miles and miles of bugger all, the relentless heat – what the poet Dorothea Mackellar described as the “beauty and the terror” of “the wide brown land” is all on show here.

Also present is Donald Pleasence playing a derelict doctor –keen to court the foreign markets, it wasn’t uncommon for ‘70s Aussie movies to feature overseas stars – and the otherworldly Sylvia Kay as town bike Janette. Look out too for John Meillon (Paul Hogan’s best mate in Crocodile Dundee) as the seedy hotelier Charlie. There’s also an incredible about of fisticuffs, the Outback being a place with such a predominantly male population that, as the saying has it, “sometimes a fight’s as good as a fuck.”

The last word must belong to Gary Bond whose John Grant experiences more in one film than soap opera characters experience in a lifetime. Alas, a part that should have kick started a great career in cinema instead lead to a disappointing time in TV and a tragically premature passing (he died of an AIDS-related illness in 1995). Bond’s place in the annals of cinema is nevertheless assured thanks to Wake In Fright and his performance as Private Cole, the doomed paperhanger in Cy Endfield’s Zulu (“Why us?” “Because we’re here, lad.”)

Oh, and if you have any desire to play the Wake In Fright drinking game, trust us; it makes the Withnail And I equivalent look like a temperance rally.

Wake In Fright is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Eureka! now