WAKE IN FRIGHT
In 60s Australia, John Grant (Gary Bond), is an Education Department bonded teacher at a tiny outback school. Making his way to Sydney for the holidays, John takes the train but stops overnight in Bundayabba. Drawn into the 'Yabba's' culture of drinking and gambling, he becomes embroiled in the locals' insular and threatening world.
Review by Louise Keller:
What a treat to see this remastered 1971 Australian classic that depicts a particular part of the Aussie culture so beautifully. Of course it would be true to say that 38 years after the film was made, audiences will see it quite differently; perhaps that cultural cringe we had in the 70s and 80s when looking at the Strine Culture has now been dispelled in a healthy way. It's a bit like living through one of David Lynch's nightmarish dreams. Through the eyes of its ultra handsome British protagonist played by Gary Bond, we are trapped in a wild, vulgar, upside-down world in the outback where beer flows like water, money is tossed and lost gambling, women show their animalistic urges and men bond in a cloud of dust while shooting kangaroos.
Based on a novel by Kenneth Cook, Evan Jones' screenplay perfectly captures the shock and horror of the fish out of water scenario. Director Ted Kotcheff may be Canadian, but he understands everything about the culture at hand. The opening scene says it all as the camera pans across an endless horizon of a bleak, desolate landscape. In a hot classroom in a small painted weatherboard school surrounded by dusty red soil, sits a man in a suit with sweat on his brow. Bond, with handsome looks reminiscent of Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, is perfectly cast as the teacher who sees himself as a bondage slave to the Education Department. We suffer every humiliation and indignation with him as he sets off for Sydney for the Christmas holidays and to see his girlfriend. But first, he has to spend the night in Bundayabba (Yabba for short).
Every character he meets makes an impact in 'the worst place on earth'. Even those with small roles. There's John Meillon as Charlie who runs the pub ('Have you got snakes in your pocket?' .. asking to be paid), Normie Erskine as the Chef who serves up steak and eggs, Dawn Lake as the barmaid, Maggie Dence as the hot, bored receptionist plus Buster Fiddess and Slim De Grey too. And Chips Rafferty as the watchful town cop, in his last role. This is Jack Thompson's first film role and he looks just like an Aussie Outback Sex Symbol. This is the culture that wonders what is wrong with someone if they prefer to talk to a woman than drink. There's an 'episode' with Janette (Sylvia Kay), a shocking excursion into the night shooting roos and debauchery of untold magnitude as John's world unravels. Donald Pleasence is a real scene stealer as 'Doc' Tydon, the doctor whose alcoholism is barely noticeable in the environment.
The film's return to the screen is one that is almost as harsh as the Australian outback. The original negatives were lost, found, preserved, digitally restored and remastered by Atlab, the National Film and Sound Archive and Soundfirm over a period of years under the creative supervision of the film's editor Tony Buckley. This is a wonderful film that connects on many levels and is filled with truths. It also reflects a real slice of the Australian Meat Pie, which we recognise and laugh with fondly.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
No mere curiosity from 1970, Wake In Fright is a riveting film with exceptional relevance today in its cultural veracity and its observation of not just outback Australian society (if you can call it that) - but in human nature. And no wonder, since it comes from a novel that was based on the real life experiences of an Aussie journo, Kenneth Cook. Nor is it surprising that the film was screened in Competition in Cannes (1971) where it was screened again in the Cannes Classics sidebar in 2009.
What's great about the film is the recognisably real flip-flop intensity and humour, the characters and the isolation that forges its inhabitants like a blacksmith forges and shapes and bends hot steel. Gary Bond, reminiscent here of Peter O'Toole in his Lawrence days, is a hapless young teacher who is posted to a settlement the size of two buildings. A pub on one side of the railway tracks and the small school house on the other, catering to a dozen or so local kids. When school holidays finally arrive, he heads straight towards Sydney and his girlfriend. He doesn't get past Bundayabba, a small town that is not dissimilar to Broken Hill (38 years ago).
Ted Kotcheff has directed a minor masterpiece - and that's not meant to be disparaging; through the relatively simple story of a young man's hard living adventures over a few days, he has found a rich source of observation. He serves it up with an emotional payload, and a driving force that leaves no room for judgement. The characters are complex and unpredictable, even when they are behaving badly, which is pretty much all the time. And yet, however unconventional, these characters are by and large genuine Aussies - and genuine.
Kotcheff orchestrates some remarkable scenes, ranging from an extensive and pivotal two-up game in the pub, to a kangaroo hunt, a singular would-be sex scene (you'll have to see it to understand), to a brawling, drinking party .... and the climactic sequence.
The iconic cast includes Chips Rafferty in his last role, as the town cop, Jack Thompson in his first role, as a hard drinking, rowdy local lad, John Meillon in a cameo as the publican of the tiniest and emptiest pub I've ever seen, Maggie Dence as the unforgettable motel receptionist, Donald Pleasence as the alcoholic dropout doctor, and Sylvia Kay as the dutiful daughter whose modest exterior hides a ferocious secret.
It's a rare pleasure to revisit this Australian classic, which has been spectacularly restored after an agonising search around the world by its editor, Anthony Buckley; great job, Tony and thanks to Atlab and the National Film and Sound Archive. A genuine gem.
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WAKE IN FRIGHT (M)
CAST: Gary Bond, Chips Rafferty, Donald Pleasence, Jack Thompson, John Meillon, Slim de Grey, Maggie Dence, Norm Erskine, Sylvia Kay, Peter Whittle, Al Thomas, Jacko Jackson
PRODUCER: George Willoughby
DIRECTOR: Ted Kotcheff
SCRIPT: Evan Jones (novel by Kenneth Cook)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Brian West
EDITOR: Anthony Buckley
MUSIC: John Scott
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Dennis Gentle
RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Madman
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: (Re-release, restored); Sydney, Melbourne: June 25, 2009; Adelaide, Brisbane: July 23, 2009