“It could be worse; the supply of beer could run out.”
-Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence) assesses his home town of Bundanyabba
Wake in Fright is not a film about the 2010 Australian federal election (that one might be called Lie Awake in Despair), but it is a film which says uncomfortable things about Australia, and therefore is not entirely unrelated to this winter of political discontent. It lays waste to the cherished Australian ideal of mateship and beyond that specific cultural provocation, it can be seen as a film about friendliness in general. Many places are described as friendly, without the further interrogation which might reveal the differences between, say, the way people are friendly in northeast Ohio, and they way they are friendly in Istanbul. The study of friendliness is rich territory for art and the fact that nearly everyone in Wake in Fright could be described as friendly is disturbing indeed.
The film’s protagonist, John Grant (English actor Gary Bond), is certainly alienated from his surroundings, even if he hardly ever finds himself alone. Someone, however disagreeable, is always on hand to buy him a beer, however unwelcome. Unable to finance his aspiration to expatriate himself from the Lucky Country, he finds himself about as fastened to Australia as a man could possibly be, the sole school teacher in the one pub outback town of Tiboonda. Grant is stuck in a modern form of “indentured servitude” to the state Department of Education, to which he has paid a thousand dollar bond in return for university tuition and guaranteed employment. It must have seemed a good deal to him at first, an educated Australian with intellectual pretensions, but without connections or money.
Wake in Fright begins about as promisingly as it is possible for a film to begin. From a high angle, perhaps a water tower, we see a 360 degree pan of Tiboonda. There is almost nothing to it; nothing happens, railway tracks stretch off into the distance, all under a bleaching summer sun. The place is utterly charmless and completely sinister. School lets out and Grant boards a train, looking forward to spending the six week Christmas holiday in Sydney, which may not be up to his standards of sophistication, but at least has beaches (sadly, most Tiboondas would have lost their rail service by 2010). The train fetches up in the large mining town of Bundanyabba (based on, and filmed in, the town of Broken Hill in far western NSW) where our hapless protagonist plans to spend the night before flying to Sydney. From here I won’t give anything away, but suffice it to say an unbelievable amount of beer is consumed and things go very pear-shaped.
Upon its release in 1971, Wake in Fright was not a success (though it played in Paris for five months). Back then it might have been rejected as a heartless dissection of the national character, but it has endured because its dissection is in fact too curious to be heartless. The film succeeds because it is simultaneously pitiless in depicting the brutality of its setting and sympathetic to all its characters. Almost everyone we meet has his reasons, and the film somehow maintains a bemused objectivity which transcends the occasional moment of arty subjectivity. The national character, like any concept so broad, is complex and John Grant’s listless intellectualism is as questionable a tendency in Australian culture as the raucous ockerism around him.
Wake in Fright came out shortly before the emergence of the Australian New Wave and was directed by a Canadian, Ted Kotcheff, from a novel by Kenneth Cook, which might account for the almost anthropological feel of its best moments. In those moments, which are almost constant in the first half of the film, the camera seems obsessed by details; by the way beer is poured, by the protocol of two-up (a famous Australian coin game), by grubby pub rooms and the fried eggs which accompany the school teacher’s steak dinner. In Bundanyabba, Kotcheff recognized strong similarities between the induced madness of frontier city life in Canada and Australia (for those interested in the peculiar concept of human settlement where it ought not to exist, I highly recommend Pierre Berton’s book Klondike, about the Canadian gold rush and the Yukon boomtown of Dawson). In Wake in Fright, the belligerent insecurity of such a place takes the form of the incessant question “how do you like the ‘Yabba?, an insecurity which of course echoes the famous Australian need for external reassurance(‘…and what do you think of our latest Prime Minister, Mr. Obama?’).
It would be satisfying to be able to call Wake in Fright an out and out masterpiece, but it is more like a placeholder for a masterpiece. Its first half is incredibly well constructed; dread accumulates from so many directions, in so many guises and so deftly that you begin to feel the film could credibly become anything — horror, suspense, arthouse surrealism or the document of a strange way of life. The performances are universally stellar, especially Donald Pleasence’s depiction of Doc Tydon, a local doctor too alcoholic, to filthy and too libertine to practice anywhere more distinguished than Bundanyabba. Though the school teacher develops in an interesting way — he ‘wakes in fright’ to the fact that he actually enjoys the primitive male aggression around him — I feel the film is simultaneously let down by excessive violence (there is almost unwatchable footage from a real kangaroo hunt) and by an needlessly soft conclusion. There is a temptation for critics to prove their seriousness by praising films for their honesty when they depict such explicit violence, but this reduces watching movies to a test of machismo. In the case of a film which sets out to be as psychologically precise and closely observed as Wake in Fright, the moment when blood flows represents a loss of control on the part of the filmmaker. It is clear from the moment the school teacher arrives in Bundanyabba that the most horrific violence lies barely concealed by the town’s odd decorum; it is there in the lurching male bodies in the pub, in the dead eyes of the town’s women and in the unmentionable consequences of not letting your new best mate shout you a beer. The power of the film persists as long as the full brunt of this violence remains implied. The film is ultimately about the way John Grant’s mind becomes trapped in Bundanyabba, and therefore the notorious kangaroo hunt seems like a bait-and-switch, the substitution of physical horror for a genuinely disturbing resolution (or non-resolution) of John Grant’s psychological torment. Is the true torment his realization that he could not bear to live anywhere else?
Wake in Fright is available in a beautifully produced DVD edition, with well-chosen special features and an informative booklet of essays about the film’s history. Its restoration is a saga in itself, with the original negative thought lost only to turn up marked for destruction in, of all places, a vault in Pittsburgh, PA. The Australian National Film and Sound Archive rescued the materials and a Sydney lab generously provided a digital restoration for the price of a photochemical one. The DVD contains side by side comparisons between original and restored footage, and the difference is startling, to the point where the director says it has never looked better. The restoration has revealed intricate detail in the shadowy interiors and blown-out exteriors without tarting up the pleasing graininess of the era’s film stocks. The Archive, and all those who worked on the restoration have done us all a great service in bringing this film, a true classic, back into the light.