Derided by the public upon its release, Wake in Fright looks today like something of a father figure to contemporary Australian cinema. With recent Australian films such as Snowtown, Animal Kingdom and The Proposition achieving critical and box office success despite their challenging subject matter, it is interesting to think that in the early 1970’s such candid self-reflection was out of bounds. Today Wake in Fright is ready for due consideration as a prominent piece of Australian filmmaking, but the question remains – was it tough for its time or is it still today?
Wake in Fright tells the tale of a middle-class school teacher John Grant (Gary Bond), who works at a tiny school in a township called Tiboonda in the Australian Outback. Upon closing school for Christmas, Grant gets the train to a local mining town known as “The Yabba”, from where he plans to fly to Sydney. Stopping at a cavernous, yet heaving bar Grant meets a policeman called Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty) who encourages him to drink numerous glasses of beer and gamble, whereupon he loses all his money. Unable to leave “The Yabba” Grant enters into a journey of Heart of Darkness proportions as he begins to mix with the local people, most of whom share the same infectious drinking habit.
Director Ted Kotcheff creates an image of hell out of the outback. The world of “the Yabba” is geographically barren, saturated with alcohol and male-dominated (with only one prominent female character called Janette, who seems to have had relations with all the local men). The situation Grant finds himself in makes it easy for anyone, including the well orientated, to slip into disarray. The film contains a number of distressing scenes including a ruthless cross country Kangaroo hunt and brutal brawls, as well as implying disturbing relations between various characters including a local doctor and alcoholic Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence), who Grant befriends.
Grant’s journey from upstanding school teacher to crazed maniac feels swift and it is naturally portrayed by Gary Bond. The film has pace and like a roller-coaster we are flung through Grant’s descent. The film gives us the feeling that not only is any man susceptible to base behaviour but he has it innately in his physical and psychological make-up. This is emphasised by Grant’s encounters with Doc Tydon, who is respected as a local doctor despite his alcoholism. The direction their relationship takes towards the end is unexpected but not entirely surprising.
The enduring impression of Wake in Fright can be seen in 2011’s Snowtown (based on the true story of John Bunting, Australia’s most notorious serial killer) and Animal Kingdom (a crime family story equivalent to Australia’s Goodfellas), in that they represent a national cinema that is fearless in its representation of dark but valid cultural themes. The difference, however, is that Wake in Fright portrays an entire community with an undercurrent of madness; it therefore suggests a disturbing cultural trend on a much larger scale than that of a serial killer or even a crime family. Wake in Fright does not allow the audience member to entirely disassociate themselves with the themes of man’s barbarism – some audience members may feel that it points the finger. For that reason it was controversial in its day and is potentially still a shocker today.