Wake in Fright (1971)
By: Paul Ryan on June 28, 2010  | 
DVD
Madman | Region 4, PAL | 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced) | English DD 2.0 | 104 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: Ted Kotcheff.
Starring: Donald Pleasance, Gary Bond, Chips Rafferty, Sylvia Kay, Jack Thompson
Screenplay: Evan Jones
Country: Australia
External Links
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Big-city native John Grant (Gary Bond) is a school teacher, stuck in a remote outback town – so remote, the only visible buildings for miles are the schoolhouse and a pub. Working off a state government bond, Grant chafes at the lonely surroundings. Fortunately for him, the Christmas break is about to begin. With his pay in his pocket, Grant heads out to the mining town of Bundayabba, where he will stay the night before flying back to Sydney. Almost immediately, Grant finds himself besieged by the aggressive hospitality of the locals, such as the resident copper Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty, in his final role), and alcoholic physician "Doc" Tydon (Donald Pleasance). Desperate to pay out his government bond and leave the outback behind, Grant succumbs to the lure of the local two-up circuit, losing all his pay – and his trip back home – in the process. Reluctantly stuck in "the Yabba" over the Christmas season, Grant is taken in by another excessively-friendly local, Tim Hynes (Al Thomas), whose adult daughter Janette (Sylvia Kay) barely exists in this fiercely macho world. From here, Grant plunges into a nightmarish lost weekend of violence, booze and terror, in which all of Grant's notions of his own big-city sophistication are brutally stripped away…

Denounced by mortified Australian critics in its day, and virtually lost for three decades, Wake In Fright is a film whose moment has finally come. Co-produced by local television identity Bobby Limb, but directed by Canadian ring-in Ted Kotcheff (since responsible for the eclectic likes of Fun With Dick and Jane, First Blood and Weekend at Bernie's), this is a film which lays bare the ugly, self-destructive end of Australian machismo. As such, it was likely too much for a deeply self-conscious local critical establishment to take at the time, especially as so very few films were made locally, and those that were (such as On the Beach and They're a Weird Mob) were made by foreigners.

Seen today, Wake In Fright stands as a unique, fascinating and brilliant film, full of knife-edge tension, potent imagery and dark humour. Adapted from the 1961 novel by Kenneth Cook, Grant's descent into hell is all the more terrifying because it is so credible and so very human, and challenges our own notions of self-control. Kotcheff's outsider perspective brings a sense of the odd and the strange to such very Australian traditions as two-up, RSL clubs and the Last Post, without ever being condescending or mocking. This is most potently illustrated by the infamous Kangaroo hunt sequence, a harrowing scene which uses actual footage of a government-licenced roo shoot, and is both shocking – obviously - and surreally humourous (in Peter Whittle's one-on-one fight with a one-eyed Kangaroo). Shot primarily in Broken Hill, this makes excellent use of the town's dust –covered settings, with outback vistas that stretch seemingly forever, creating a deep and palpable sense of isolation and alienation.

British actor Gary Bond's slight stiffness and decidedly non-Aussie accent actually help to enhance Grant's air of otherness in this very ocker environment, while fellow Pom Donald Pleasance is body-and-soul brilliant as the grubby, but learned Tydon, who suggests what Grant might turn into after a couple more decades in the outback. Jack Thompson makes his film debut as the slightly fearsome Dick, while Chips Rafferty exudes a quiet menace as the always-smiling Crawford. Sylvia Kay (Kotcheff's then-wife) brings an air of subtle desperation as the most substantial female character in a world where women – and to an even greater degree, Aborigines – are practically invisible. There are also appearances from many notable Australian performers throughout, such as John Mellion, Maggie Dence (of The Mavis Bramston Show, and much later, Neighbours), Gordon Piper (later Bob Hatfield of A Country Practice), and Limb's wife (and TV star in her own right), Dawn Lake.

The film's editor Anthony Buckley spent several years tracking down prints of this film, which was never released on video in Australia (and barely screened on television to boot), finally locating a usable set of negatives in Pittsburgh, USA which were just about to be destroyed. Restored by the National Film and Sound Archive in partnership with Atlab, this film has been renewed with an extensive digital clean-up. Buckley's tireless work in sourcing the print is to be highly commended, as is the end result of the restoration, which looks stunning on the big screen, and is just as impressive on the small. The work done in rescuing this film from the abyss is to be savored, but the fact that this film emerges so vital, so potent and so relevant after almost forty years is the icing on the cake.
Video
Taken from the NFSA/Atlab restoration, this looks exceptionally good. The parched, arid landscapes shimmer with warm colours, and while the film possesses a slight softness representative of the original film stock, detail is otherwise incredibly rich. There are no subtitles presented, which is a shame for hearing-impaired viewers.
Audio
Just a 2.0 Dolby track here, which is perfectly fine. John Scott's eerie, slightly whimsical score has been persevered beautifully, and dialogue is always clear.
Extra Features
Audio Commentary (Ted Kotcheff and Anthony Buckley): Though a number of anecdotes will be already familiar to anyone who has read up on the making of this film, Kotcheff and Buckley deliver a richly informative commentary. Buckley discusses the restoration process and his experiences working on the original edit. Kotcheff discusses various topics including the film's colour scheme and design, along with a discussion of the still-disturbing kangaroo hunt. Both men speak with a pride in their work which is very well-deserved.

Interview with Ted Kotcheff: Shot during Kotcheff's visit to Melbourne last year (at Cinema Nova from the look of those seats), this 22-minute interview goes into great depth as the director discusses his experiences making the film. Kotcheff speaks about his background as the child of Bulgarian migrants in Canada, and how his sense of feeling like an outsider has informed many of his films, not least this one. Kotcheff adamantly states that the film is intended a look at men rather than a critique of Australian character, and how his experiences shooting in Broken Hill informed the feel and character of the film itself.

Restoration Comparison: To get an idea of the sort of state the rescued reels of the films were in, this piece contrasts clips pre-and-post restoration, with the results literally night-and-day in comparison. In its unrestored state, the film looks excessively dark and speckled, with the digital cleanup reinstating the correct levels of contrast. It really makes you appreciate the work that has been put into the restoration all the more.

Segment from Who Needs Art?: This is a clip from a 1970 ABC arts program, which documented the filming of Wake in Fright. The very notion of an Australian film industry was a new and strange one at the time, and this piece addresses the first steps by the then-Gorton Government in initiating investment in local film. The piece questions just how "Australian" one could call the film, given its Canadian director, English writer and Dutch-born, English producer (George Willoughby), giving a taste of the indignant local reception the film ultimately received. Willoughby articulately defends the film's cultural relevance, while a very young Phillip Adams comments on the larger issues of government film funding.

Ken G. Hall Interview about Chips Rafferty: Chips Rafferty passed away not long after finishing Wake in Fright and this news excerpt from the time sees his long-time collaborator, director Ken G. Hall (Rats of Tobruk, The Forty-Thousand Horsemen) share some insights on Rafferty's career. At just under three-and-a-half minutes, it's cursory, but the comments from this Australian film pioneer are very welcome indeed.

Segment from The 7.30 Report: An excellent piece from ABC's The 7.30 Report, this ran a few months prior to the film's theatrical re-release. Jack Thompson addresses the scathing local response to the film in 1971, accompanied by an impassioned defence of the film by Bill Collins, who aired the film on Ten in the 1980s, and how the film disappeared into the ether for a long time. Buckley's quest to track the negatives down is explored and we get a look at the restoration process with the NFSA's Meg Laybrum and Deluxe's Athos Simon.

Extended Not Quite Hollywood Excerpt: A six-minute segment from the rough cut of Not Quite Hollywood, this covers similar ground to the other interviews, but does make some pointed comments on the role both this film and British director Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout had in creating an Australian cinematic dialogue. Kotcheff and Thompson are interviewed, along with comments from Phillip Adams, Barry Jones, David Hannay and Richard Brennan. The clips from the film itself (likely taken prior to the restoration) look awful, and make a stark comparison to the final version.

International Trailer: Bearing the American title of Outback, this is listed as a theatrical trailer, but given its 33-second length, it's more likely a TV spot. Nonetheless, it is valuable as an example of how the film was marketed abroad.

Booklet: An excellent 32-page booklet accompanies the DVD, containing stills, artwork and essays by Anthony Buckley, Meg Labrum, Athos Simon and Peter Galvin, the latter of whom has written extensively on this film.

Bonus Trailers: Previews of other Australian titles from Madman, consisting of Romulus My Father, Ten Canoes, Look Both Ways and My Brilliant Career.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
It's truly alarming just how close Wake in Fright came to being lost in the cracks of Australian film history, but all involved (especially the tireless Anthony Buckley) should be roundly applauded for rescuing and revitalising this film. It's fair to say this was a film Australia simply wasn't ready to accept in its day, but almost forty years later, Wake in Fright is arguably more relevant, fascinating and powerful than ever. There's never been an Australian film like it, and maybe there never will. Madman's DVD presentation has been assembled with great love and care and demands a place in the collection of any serious follower of Australian cinema.

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