Wake in Fright is a 1970 Australian film that was formerly called ‘Outback‘. (Personally I think the original name should have stuck.) It was a combined British/Australian effort and two of the main stars are British actors.
A good friend sent me a message asking about the movie. I had heard of it as it was in a list of movies that had been filmed in Broken Hill (which is a place I have blogged about a few times – search this site for those). This film is famous for several reasons so I just thought I had to find it.
A Little Film History…
Some 20 years after being made Wake in Fright had developed a kind of cult status as a great Australian “lost film” because its master copy had gone missing. Other copies were of poor quality and this impacted on TV showings and VHS sales. Then in 2004, the original film and sound elements were rescued and the film was digitally remastered and re-released in 2009. The film was again shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009, making it the first movie to be shown in two separate film festivals at Cannes.
It has more recently been made into a two part TV mini-series. Maybe I need to check that out too…
It is a curious film set in the outback town of Bundanyabba – referred to by the locals as ‘The Yabba’. Basically John Grant (played by English actor Gary Bond) is a a school teacher in the even more remote outback setting of Tiboonda. When he heads off for Sydney for the summer holidays he passes through the town of Bundanyabba (which is actually Broken Hill) where he gets sucked into the debauchery of constant beer drinking, gambling and violence. Grant gets sucked into a game of Two Up (see related post on the game here) and loses all his money.
Grant then gets offered the hospitality of some “yabba” locals. Which basically means plying him with free alcohol (mostly beer) and inviting him to crash at their place(s). He also gets given a gun to join some of them on a kangaroo hunt. It is probably these scenes that shocked viewers the most.
The kangaroo hunt scenes were filmed during a real hunt. I am sure you will all know that scene in Crocodile Dundee where Mick Dundee turns the tables on the hunters in favour of the roos. Well, this movie is most definitely not that! After the hunt – and barely able to stand up – the group of drunken men brawl with each other and smash up a remote outback bar. Just another excuse to show some (perhaps stereotypical) violence really…
Grant eventually tries to hitch-hike his way to Sydney but by a curious (yet believable) twist he ends up back in the “The Yabba”. Spoiler Alert: Grant then ends up tying to shoot himself with the rifle he was gifted. But after what must be several weeks in hospital he walks out and goes back to Tiboonda for the start of the new school year. Seemingly content. The End…
Personally I think Outback was a better title than Wake in Fright but that is hardly a big deal. As you might expect the movie is very dated. But it painted a picture of the outback – or small town Australia – that would not have surprised many over recent decades. It was how most people outside of the country thought Australians behaved. Right up to and including the time when Crocodile Dundee more or less glamourised such a lifestyle.
The acting was fine and the scenery exactly how it should be – it was after-all filmed in and around an outback mining town. The story just never really took off though for me. It was mostly a pointless excuse to show a load of drunken debauchery and violence. As if the film-makers wanted to show the world what the outback male was like. It certainly will have fuelled the stereotypical image of the Aussie male. And that may still be true in some places but certainly not for the majority who live in the big cities.
The kangaroo hunt may be a bit gruesome perhaps for some – even these days. But it’s not like roos are an endangered species and hunting them is (as far as I know) still legal. On any road trip you will see hundreds along the roads that have been hit by (mostly) trucks. Maybe we really have become soft? Yet even at the time the film was made the crew were apparently sickened by the orgy of blood and guts. Also (apparently) during the 2009 screening at Cannes several people walked out during this scene. I must be a hard old bastard as I didn’t think it was that bad.
Martin Scorsese arranged for the movie to be included in the 2009 festival. He was quoted as saying that Wake in Fright was “a deeply – and I mean deeply – unsettling and disturbing movie”. Imagine that. With the movies that Scorsese has made! Personally I do not share Scorsese’s sentiments but that was another reason I wanted to see the movie.
I would not class it as a must-see movie but I do recommend it. If you can find a copy on DVD or online then give it a try.