The camera turns slowly in a full circle, giving a panoramic view of an endless, sun-baked emptiness. The merciless desert extends in all directions as far as the eye can see, itself dwarfed by the overhanging expanse of blue sky, sparsely dotted with indolent clouds. A silent railroad stretches off to nowhere like a feeble grey artery, while emaciated utility poles stand as indifferent sentries across the landscape. Beyond these neglected markers, only a couple of beaten shacks testify to any human presence. Nothing living seems to walk, crawl, or fly in the vicinity.
The opening shot of 1971’s Wake In Fright is truly awesome, in the most overwhelming, frightening sense of the word. The 360-degree view captured by cinematographer Brian West encapsulates the existential horror of the film itself in its terrible beauty; a great flat furnace testing endurance to its limits and testifying to the scars wrought by so pitiless an existence.
Adapted by Evan Jones from Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel, Wake In Fright follows the grim misadventures of John Grant (Gary Bond), a young schoolteacher posted in Tiboonda in the Australian outback. Grant hates his job and longs to escape the tiny desert town, with its one small schoolroom for all ages and single rundown hotel and bar. He cannot leave – as a new teacher, he has placed a bond with the education department to guarantee himself employment, which he will lose if he quits. Breaking for Christmas, he plans to return to his middle-class urban life and girlfriend in Sydney for the duration of the holidays. To fly there, he takes the one-carriage train to stop overnight in the mining city of Bundanyabba (known locally as the ‘Yabba).
The taxi driver taking Grant from the station is enthusiastic about his city: “It’s the best place in Australia! Everybody likes the ‘Yabba!” The prominent poster behind the reception desk in Grant’s shabby hotel seems to suggest otherwise, promoting Fly Away Holidays as though escape were the only sensible option. If there was little to do in Tiboonda but drink at the solitary bar, the ‘Yabba replicates this tenfold; the surroundings are almost empty in the evenings but the pubs are packed.
Grant initially scorns the matey, hard-drinking culture, describing it as “the arrogance of stupid people who insist you should be as stupid as they are.” Yet he is soon drawn into the bars, willingly accepting the beers that are almost forced upon him by the aggressively friendly locals he despises.
Several drinks later, Grant sees an opportunity to escape his hated outback job by gambling his savings in the illicit backroom games of two-up (which is basically betting on the outcome of the tossing of two coins). Despite sneering at this “nice, simple-minded game,” he manages to lose almost all of his money. The film cuts abruptly from his ashen face as his luck runs out, to an overhead shot of him waking the next morning in his squalid hotel. Literally and metaphorically stripped naked, and vulnerable as a baby, he is reborn into a new reality. His pretensions torn away, he begins a descent into his own heart of darkness with a nightmarish odyssey of endless beer, oppressive heat, isolation, violence, and unwelcome self-knowledge…
Canadian director Ted Kotcheff brings a sharp, unflinching eye to the heavy-drinking world of the ‘Yabba. A sea of bored, broiling testosterone, it is a realm of repressed emotion where the only tenderness is brutality, and declining a drink the only unforgivable offence. Everything seems to exist in a shadowy legal limbo, presided over with a slightly sinister avuncularity by the local policeman, Crawford (Chips Rafferty). Prominent signs say the bars should close at 6.30pm, but everybody disregards these rules, including Crawford himself; the shady two-up games thrive right under the policeman’s nose; shooting is practised on road signs explicitly banning the use of signs as targets. Most distressingly, a blind eye is turned to unlicensed hunting, with a horrifying drunken kangaroo hunt serving as the rotten heart of Grant’s dark journey of the soul.
Conversely, some incongruously prim conventions are strictly followed. For a surreal moment, everything halts in the RSL club bar for a ‘Lest We Forget’ silence for the war dead, before the drinking and gambling roars back to life. A similarly reverent pause accompanies each toss of the coins in two-up, as though patriotism, violence, and gambling were all articles of the same religious faith.
The few female characters we meet seem expected to submissively serve the men. Janette Hynes (Sylvia Kay) seems ambivalently resigned to her fate, tolerating her father’s habit of inviting friends and strangers to their house for drunken dinners, and waiting on the males while they ogle and harass her. When Grant offers to help her clean up, one of the other guests openly wonders: “What’s the matter with him? He’d rather talk to a woman than drink?” Yet ultimately Grant is not so different to the others. He talks at her rather than to her, utterly misunderstanding what she wants, and when his beer-filled stomach fails him as he submits to her compulsive sexual advances, Janette sadly wipes his mouth clean as though he were an incapable child. In his earlier daydreams of his own girlfriend, Grant tenderly touches her with a beer bottle rather than his hands; even his educated fantasies seem to require alcohol as a crutch to cope with emotional contact.
If Kotcheff’s eye does not flinch, nor does it lack for compassion and empathy with those it studies. Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence) fiercely counters Grant’s scorn for the ‘Yabba’s inhabitants: “It’s death to farm out here. It’s worse than death in the mines. Do you want them to sing opera as well?” The landscape is harsh, unforgiving, and lonely. An exaggerated matiness and the release of alcohol are perhaps the only ways the characters can find to cope (hence the blind eye turned to their misdemeanours by the wily Crawford). With men significantly outnumbering women, fighting frequently replaces sex as the chief source of physical contact – the unstated aim being less to hurt than simply to touch and be touched by another human being. Even the repugnant, pointless cruelty of the kangaroo hunt has a perverted emotional rather than practical purpose, serving as a pathetic attempt to assert dominance over an overwhelmingly hostile natural environment. Having largely obliterated the native culture, the dominant whites appear discomforted by their adopted ‘home’ (their ostentatiously drunken singing on the train contrasting with the quiet, unnoticed song of the sole aborigine onboard). The film absolutely does not condone their brutality, but it does recognise the pitiful, twisted human needs that motivate it.
The character of Doc Tydon stands at the mid-point between the ‘Yabba’s bleak toughness and Grant’s educated middle-class airs, showing a disarming self-awareness beyond the abilities of the other protagonists. He is a trained doctor and an unrepentant alcoholic, wryly noting: “My disease prevented me from practising in Sydney, but out here it’s scarcely noticeable.” He seems to almost embrace his miserable situation, under no illusions about his own nature, or that of humanity at large. His first line, commenting on the inhabitants of the ‘Yabba, may be that “All the little devils are proud of hell,” but he knows he is not above them. He gleefully joins in with the beer-soaked fights, smashing fixtures and fittings with a chair in an ecstatic display of nihilistic drunken destruction.
At times, Tydon acts as a kind of infernal ringmaster, cackling his way through a two-up game, downing beers while stood on his head, and showing an omnivorous, unsettling sexual virility. He punctures Grant’s pretensions so mercilessly that he becomes the central tormentor in the teacher’s nightmare visions. Yet he also offers Grant food, drink, and shelter, and bids him an almost tender farewell at the end – it is one of the most striking ironies of the film that it is the ostensible friendliness of the locals that leads to most of the main character’s sufferings.
Unsurprisingly, Wake In Fright was controversial on release, with many Australians seeing the film as an attack on their culture. This is perhaps to miss the point, however; replace the baking desert with humid grey clouds and muddy fields, and it is easy to see the story recast in a forgotten corner of England, for example. The setting is Australian, but the horror at its heart is universal.
Fifty years on, the film remains ferociously powerful. Anthony Buckley’s editing brilliantly evokes a sunburnt spiral of hungover despair, with the director’s insistence on removing cool colours from the screen creating an indelible atmosphere of relentless heat. John Scott’s deceptively jaunty title music hits just the right note of sinister friendliness, before moving into more eerie territory. The terrific leading performances combine with unforgettable, visceral images, to linger in the mind long after the credits roll. May you dream of the Devil and wake in fright, indeed…