Wake in Fright (1971)

Posted: March 25, 2014 in Drama, English language, Older releases
Tags: , , , , , ,

Image

Director: Ted Kotcheff

Australia/USA 1971 (restored 2009)

114 minutes

The primatologist Frans de Waal has written critically of “veneer theory”, the idea that human morality is just a thin layer over an amoral or immoral core. The 1971 cult film Wake in Fright, now restored and showing in some London cinemas, addresses a similar idea – if you take a cultured man out of his familiar civilised environment and place him in a much rougher place, how long will he last? The answer, apparently, is not very long.

The film opens with a slow 360-degrees panning shot of the Australian outback, demonstrating just what an extraordinarily huge wilderness this part of the world is. In the tiny town of Tiboonda schoolteacher John Grant (Gary Bond) is packing up for the Christmas holidays. Grant describes himself as a slave of the education system and means this literally. In order to get a job he has had to deposit a thousand dollar bond, and must then agree to be sent wherever the education department sends him until he has paid back the bond. Grant plans to catch the train back to Sydney to meet his girlfriend, but has to make an overnight stop at Bundanyabba (the “Yabba”), another outback town. Grant himself is a handsome man with a cut-glass accent; there is a touch of the Peter O’Toole about him. At a bar Grant meets the local policeman, Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty), who gets Grant drunk and introduces him to the bar’s popular pastime, in which people bet large sums on the outcome of two tossed coins. After some initial wins, Grant sees an opportunity to win enough to pay back his bond. Of course, he loses all the money he has and finds himself unable to get back to Sydney.

Grant is initially taken in by Tim (Al Thomas) and then by “Doc” Tydon (Donald Pleasence). He falls into drinking with them and their male friends, and before long he is joyously engaged in a kangaroo hunt, whooping and hollering as their car careens through the outback in pursuit of the animals. When sober, however, Grant knows that he has to get out. For the men of the Yabba, who have no obvious way out, it seems that alcohol is how they get by. Their bonding is real enough, but based on immature behaviour and fuelled by booze, and the women’s role presumably is to clear up after them. To be fair, there are only three women who feature at all in Wake in Fright. There is Grant’s hotel receptionist (Maggie Dence), who seems to spend all her time sitting in front of a fan and dripping water onto her skin in a manner that seems quite erotic, although she herself appears permanently bored. There is also Tim’s wife (Sylvia Kay), who clearly is sexually frustrated. The third woman is Grant’s girlfriend (Nancy Knudsen), who only appears in his daydreams – emerging from the surf – and in the photograph he carries with him (where she his holding a surfboard). These images of water, of course, are in stark contrast to the stiflingly hot and dry environment in which Grant finds himself.

Ultimately, whilst this is not a horror movie as such, Grant’s incarceration in the Yabba is so oppressive as to be horrific. Gary Bond turns in a convincing performance as John Grant, alternating between civilised calm, drunken blokishness, and desperation. Aside from Bond, the stand-out performance here is Donald Pleasence as the educated but alcoholic Doc Tydon. Tydon, you realise, is the man that Grant could become if he stays in the Yabba.

Rating: 10/10

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s