WAKE IN FRIGHT: Lost in the outback, Scorsese approved.


Wake in Fright starts with an image of the Australian outback (Outback happens to be the international title of the film), the camera circles a full 360° and the only thing we see is a railway, a tiny hotel/bar and another tiny building which turns out to be the local school. Inside the school we see a teacher John Grant (Gary Bond) and a handful of kids, no actual teaching is occuring. Everybody is counting down the last moments before the Christmas holiday is about to begin.
Grant plans to visit his girlfriend in Sydney over the holidays. To get there he first needs to stay overnight at a mining town called Bundanyabba or just the Yabba as it’s lovingly called by the locals. The plan is to take a plane the next morning. However the miners are all to happy to buy and share a beer with the newcomer, one after the other, refusing is not an option. A local sherif (played by popular Australian actor Chips Rafferty who died shortly after completing the film) takes him to a place where he can get the best steak in town, just for 1 dollar. in the back of the restaurant there’s a gambling den where a game called Two-Up (a traditional Australian game where 2 coins are trown in the air by a ‘spinner’ and the players gamble on whether the coins will fall with both heads up or both tails up) is played. Grant is looking down at the local mining population and their drinking and gambling rituals, a culture routed and founded by boredom.
Grant is not only stuck in the town (somewhat similar to the bourgeoisie in a Buñuel film), he’s also stuck professionally. A thousand dollar deposit keeps him trapped in his teaching job. The Two-Up game might give an easy way out, or not.

It is an intense and brilliantly crafted and acted film (Donald Pleasence as ‘the doc’ deserves a special mentioning), depicting one man’s drink-induced descent into a hellish nightmare culminating in a violent and controversial kangeroo hunting scene. Contrary to the CGI effects Greg Mclean’s used in the more recent Wolf Creek 2 (2013) director Ted Kotcheff’s (First Blood, 1982) Wake in Fright uses real footage of actual Kangeroo’s being gunned down. The filmcrew followed hunters during their hunting party and only filmed what would have happened anyway. As you can read during the end credits this was done with the approval of Australian animal rights groups as they wanted to denounce the activities of the real hunting which at one stage even threatened to make kangeroos extinct.

This film was part of the offical selection of the Cannes film festival of 1971 where it represented Australia. In that period Australian films were still directed by foreign director’s, famous examples are Michael Powell’s They’re a Weird Mob (1966), and Nicholas Roeg’s masterpiece Walkabout (1971), paving the way for local director’s like Peter Weir (o.a. Picnic at Hanging Rock, 1975) and George Miller (the Mad Max films). It’s incredible that this film was director by a Canadian as the movie feels extremely authentic

One of the films greatest champions is Martin Scorsese -being an unkown at the time-who saw the film in Cannes at it’s initial showing. In 2009 -now a celebrated director- when Scorsese was guest curator for the Cannes Classic section he selected the then recently restored version of the film that left a lasting impression on him and had this to say about the film:  Wake in Fright is a deeply — and I mean deeply — unsettling and disturbing movie. I saw it when it premiered at Cannes in 1971, and it left me speechless. Visually, dramatically, atmospherically and psychologically, it’s beautifully calibrated and it gets under your skin one encounter at a time, right along with the protagonist played by Gary Bond. I’m excited that Wake in Frighthas been preserved and restored and that it is finally getting the exposure it deserves.”

I’ve prepared to below clip comparing a scene from Wake in Fright with some shots from Scorsese’s Casino (1995). You can judge for yourself if Scorsese was inpired by Kotcheff.

Jan Bollen

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