Australia/USA | 1971 | Directed by Ted Korcheff
Logline: An English Outback teacher on route to Sydney finds himself trapped and out of his depth in a small township, caught up in the local pastime of drinking, gambling, and aggressive hospitality.
Based on a blistering first novel by Kenneth Cook written in 1961, with an excellent screenplay from Evan Jones, and helmed by the man who would direct the under-rated Rambo movie First Blood, Wake In Fright is a descent into a Dante’s Inferno of temptation and ridicule; a Dionysian-tainted nightmare where a naïve, mild-mannered man is forced to learn a few hard truths about the darker side of his own psyche.
It’s a terrific-looking picture, with stunning cinematography from Brian West (the opening 360-degree pan is a knockout), superb location shooting in Broken Hill (for all the exterior scenes set in the fictional township of Bundanyabba), and expressionistic editing from Anthony Buckley. The casting and acting is all top-notch: Gary Bond as the hapless English teacher, Donald Pleasence as his nemesis, Jack Thompson (in his feature debut), and Aussie legend Chips Rafferty (in his last movie). There’s also memorable support from a myriad of other actors, including the hilarious monotone receptionist (Maggie Dence), the beer-guzzling hotel proprietor Charlie (John Meillon), and a brief exchange from Outback legend Jacko Jackson as a truck driver (“Ya mad, ya bastard!”)
With his earnest intent on rendezvousing with his Bondi surfer girlfriend John Grant (Bond) is inadvertently thrust into the dark heart of the Aussie machismo machine affectionately called the ‘Yabba. It’s a crash-course odyssey in Two-Up and West End tinnies, a listless and toey woman, a stodgy ‘roo breakfast, broke as a bicycle seat, and surrounded by the ever present stinking hot, filthy, dust-laden long arm of Murphy’s Law.
The dialogue crackles with a ferocious authenticity, but it can now be appreciated as a fantastic date-stamp of a different era (6.30pm closing time for starters). Still, the key themes are timeless and universal, and the kangaroo hunt is just as confronting and shocking, despite the disclaimer at movie’s end stating emphatically that the kangaroo scenes were legitimately staged hunts by professional marksman.
Savage ‘roo hunt (and boxing) aside, Wake In Fright is a sensational dramatic-thriller and seethes with cult status, standing alongside Nic Roeg’s Walkabout and Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock as Aussie desert gems. How the original negatives ended up in a Pittsburgh bin marked for destruction is crazy! Thankfully, after Anthony Buckley's discovery and lengthy negotiations with the American rights owners of the original film materials, they were shipped back to Australia to be held at the National Film and Sound Archive, which is where the 2009 digital restoration took place.
Wake In Fright was titled Outback in the States, with the only other difference being an early morning scene where Bond has his gruts on instead of being totally starkers. It's a bona fide Australian classic. Yes, technically a co-pro, but it's most definitely my favourite piece of Ocker cinema. 'Struth mate.