Film Review – Wake in Fright -By Niall Curran
Released in 1971 to critical acclaim, Wake In Fright is one of Australia’s most controversial films. Think Mad Max if it was set in the early 1960s as this film depicts the lawless and atavistic lifestyle of the men who toil in the mines of outback Australia.
From an Irish perspective, it offers an interesting context to media reports about the destruction wreaked by Irish workers returning to Perth from the mines of Western Australia with pockets laden with cash and an unquenchable thirst for alcohol.
Based on a novel by Kenneth Cook, it begins with the last day of school before the Christmas holidays for John Grant who is the only teacher in Timboonda, a remote scorched outpost of New South Wales with two buildings – the schoolhouse and a bar. After closing bell, he boards the train destined for the nearby mining town of Bundanyabba, known as “The Yabba”, to take a flight to Sydney and be re-united with his girlfriend.
Arriving in The Yabba, he wanders into bar of the Imperial hotel where he is befriended by the local police chief Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty) over a few cold beers and complains about being enslaved by the Department of Education who have the power to send him anywhere because failure to comply means forfeiting the $1,000 bond paid to the Department. Crawford introduces him to the backroom of a dingy local eatery where the miners gamble their pay on a two coin flip. Initially repulsed by what he calls ” a nice simple-minded game”, he starts to play and win but loses everything in a futile attempt to win the $1,000 necessary for his freedom.
Returning to the Imperial Hotel the next morning, his destitution forces him to rely on the hospitality of some of the town’s inhabitants which leads him into an inescapable, surreal and nightmarish world of alcohol, sex and violence that threatens his sanity.
Gary Bond, a statuesque theatre actor, is convincing as the schoolteacher John Grant who he plays as an arrogant and effete middle class boy whose superior attitude melts in the oppressive heat of The Yabba. His innocence is the ideal counterpoint to the wild characters he encounters during his nightmare. Donald Pleasance is the stand-out performance of the hospitable locals as the unhinged and alcoholic Doc Tydon who savours the alcohol soaked savagery of life in The Yabba and his exalted position as one of the few educated men in the town.
The film was unpopular in Australia on its release which is not a surprise as it is a savage and often grotesque depiction of men who live on the fringes of civilisation and dose themselves with incredible quantities of beer as an essential part of their existence. It also has a very controversial Kangaroo hunting scene which is a suitable metaphor for the atavistic nature of The Yabba’s inhabitants and was actually filmed on a government sanctioned cull of Kangaroos in New South Wales.
Not for the faint-hearted, this film is an excellent but raw exploration of Australia’s wilder culture that is as compelling as it is repulsive.
Wake in Fright – Directed by Ted Kotcheff (1971) – Running time: 114 mins
Wake in Fright is released EXCLUSIVELY at the IFI on the 7th March 2014