Excelsior! The best movie of the week is also the best movie news of the year. Wake in Fright, the long-lost 1971 Australian masterpiece, has been found, restored and redeemed in a sparkling new print available to the public for the first time in 40 years. When I first saw it, shown in competition at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, with its original title Outback, I was so devastated by its haunting beauty and by the strange, hypnotic power of its overwhelming narrative force, I couldn’t move. The uncompromising story of a civilized schoolteacher trapped for five days in a remote, nightmarish mining town called Bundanyabba showed a primal, terrifying side of Australia—a heart of darkness never before captured on film. It received rave reviews from everyone, including the Aussie critics, but when it was released it was so angrily denounced by the filmgoing public in Sydney that it disappeared forever—well, nearly. They were so aghast at the world of violence, aggression, ritualistic drinking, brutality toward nature and warped homoerotic sexuality masquerading as macho masculinity and bogus male bonding, that Outback was a box-office flop. This was a new era of patriotic films opening up a worldwide passion for Australia as a land of mysticism and romance, and Outback was directed by a Canadian (Ted Kotcheff), adapted for the screen by a Jamaican (Evan Jones) from journalist Kenneth Cook’s blistering autobiographical 1961 novel Wake in Fright, and starred two great English actors, Donald Pleasence and Gary Bond. Like Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout and Tony Richardson’s Ned Kelly, it suffered the fate of being made in the wrong time, in the wrong place and by the wrong people. The Aussies have since embraced lighter views of the land down under, like Crocodile Dundee.
Time has proved them wrong. Urged on by renowned Australian director Peter Weir, whose own work has been so obviously influenced through the years by this seminal film, one undeterred editor tracked the film to Dublin, then to London and the U.S. Miraculously, after years of detective work, the original negative was found in a dumpster outside a film lab in Pittsburgh marked “For Destruction.” Restored to its original running time, six minutes short of two hours, the film, now called Wake in Fright, broke all records when it was re-released in Australia in 2009 and has developed a rabid cult following. The flawless new print at the Film Forum, which precedes a nationwide re-release in America, looks like it has been protected in a drawer with someone’s old socks. More relevant than ever, from its opening 360-degree pan of the Australian desert, the film plunges the viewer into a landscape of inescapable horror. The result is a harrowing journey into dragon country.
John Grant, a cultural misfit who is regarded as something of a snob, is a sensitive and unappreciated teacher in a toxic flatland called Tiboonda, on his way to Sydney for Christmas break, who loses his money during a layover in the isolated Yabba outback and can’t get out. Gary Bond, a glowing and saffron-haired British stage actor who looked like a young Peter O’Toole, made a brilliant screen debut in the role, shining and fresh on arrival in his white suit and saddle oxfords. Losing his money in an innocent gambling ritual to pass the time, his visit turns into a chilling study of self-discovery under primitive conditions as the young man’s downward spiral begins. Trapped in the outback under the friendly aegis of an alcoholic local doctor (Donald Pleasence), the idealistic teacher soon slides blindly toward the inner truth about the animal side of his own nature—his lust for blood, his willingness to lie, cheat, cadge money and be humiliated, and the eventual discovery of his own sublimated homosexuality.
His odyssey begins with a sense of his own superiority, but through a series of heart-rending, Candide-like adventures, he is soon confronted with desperation and hysteria, thrown in with bestial cretins who live on warm beer, amuse themselves by shooting up road signs, beating each other’s faces in for kicks and slaughtering animals for sport from a battered police car. With no money to escape, John sinks to degradation and near-suicide. Building the details of boredom, scene by scene, that lead to John’s downfall is paramount to the film’s growing paranoia. Ted Kotcheff has infused Wake in Fright with more suspense than most thrillers, and provided a fascinating look at a desolate and depraved wilderness where beer bellies celebrate Christmas in record heat playing slot machines and howling “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” while the sweat rolls off their dirty necks. No wonder the suicide rate is so high in the Australian provinces.
A great deal of footage is devoted to the alarming, hard-to-take scene in which rowdies prove their manhood by butchering and disemboweling live kangaroos after blinding them with searchlights. But there is a coarse beauty even in these fantastically photographed sequences, and the kangaroo hunt presents a protest against animal slaughter by pet-food manufacturers. There’s a masculine toughness in the design and a rough feel to the fabric of this film that becomes poetic: the harsh inhumanity of the outback (shot like an open-air abattoir from which there is no escape route) contrasted with the sensitivity and studious gentleness of the teacher is a backdrop for a larger conflict between Australia and the civilized world. Mr. Kotcheff’s direction is a revelation to people who respect the richness of traditional narrative that you rarely see any more at the movies.
Wake in Fright probably did for Australian tourism in 1971 what Midnight Express did for Turkey. But in the final analysis, it may be the greatest Australian film ever made. At least it is my personal favorite—a towering achievement that even surpasses other Oz classics such as Gallipoli, Breaker Morant and My Brilliant Career. It marks the last screen appearance by Chips Rafferty, the Spencer Tracy of Australia, and is brilliantly acted by local residents of the actual outback. Special encomiums of praise go to Mr. Bond, whose promising career as the heartthrob of the London stage was cut short by an early death in 1995. He is unforgettable as a young man fallen to self-ruin in a section of the world where there are no clocks. In the end, every value he ever knew has been smashed, every link to the civilization of books, music and cognitive pursuits erased. Waking up naked and raped after a five-day orgy of depravity, physically decimated and mentally depleted, he sits against a tree like a rag doll, staring at a rifle with one bullet in it. It is up to you to imagine how the nightmare will end. Wake in Fright is the closest a movie can get to a primal scream.
WAKE IN FRIGHT
Running Time 114 minutes
Written by Kenneth Cook (novel) and Evan Jones
Directed by Ted Kotcheff
Starring Donald Pleasence, Gary Bond and Chips Rafferty