Wake in Fright

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

19 April

Captain James Cook espies Australia, 1770

On this day in 1770, the British captain James Cook’s ship Endeavour became the first recorded European vessel to catch sight of Australia.

Cook had been commissioned to travel to the Pacific Ocean by the Royal Society, who were collecting data on the transit of Venus across the sun, during which the planet appears as a black dot against the solar disc. It is a rare occurrence and the Royal Society hoped the measurements Cook’s ship collected would add to the sum of scientific knowledge, as well as helping to calculate longitude, which was still difficult to work out in those days before accurate marine timepieces.

Cook also had a secret mission, which he embarked on once the (not particularly successful) collecting of data on Venus was complete: to seek out and locate the rumoured land of Terra Australis Incognita (the “unknown land of the south”).

Cook sailed from Tahiti westward and eventually reached New Zealand, which was already a known quantity. Having mapped the entirety of New Zealand’s coastline, Cook continued west, and eventually came across Australia, finally making landfall at a place now known as the Kurnell Peninsula, Botany Bay, New South Wales.

Wake in Fright (1971, dir: Ted Kotcheff)

Remarkable on many levels, director Ted Kotcheff’s “lost” film is the story of a slightly effete schoolteacher John Grant (Gary Bond) who, instead of getting a Christmas holiday full of physical rest and cultural recuperation spends five days of booze-soaked extreme masculinity in the Australian Outback.

Telling its story at speed, the film shunts us from the broiling schoolroom on the last day of term, to the flyblown local hotel, then on to a train packed with people steaming through the booze (our fastidious hero turning down the offer of a drink), then into a hick town called Bundanyabba (“the Yabba,” as the taxi driver calls it, “best place in Australia”) where Mr Grant is to spend a night before travelling on to the city. A journey he’ll never make.

The Yabba is where his ordeal of trial by “aggressive hospitality” takes place, first at the hands of local copper (Chips Rafferty) who plies our guy with drink, buys him a steak dinner and shows him the sights, and finally ending up in the company of Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence) – “I’m a doctor of medicine, a tramp by temperament. And an alcoholic” the doctor (surely disbarred) tells him.

The five days are marked by drink, raucousness, rough friendship, sex, gunplay and more drink, the whole thing coming across like The Wicker Man (made two years later) with a lot more sunshine and a lot more lager.

Bond is not a great actor but he’s good enough, his big Peter O’Toole head and shock of blond hair making him the right choice to play a prissy snob who’d actually rather be a journalist and would dearly love to be anywhere else but right here right now. The rest of the cast deliver salty masculinity by the stained shirtload – Rafferty is ocker blokeishness in a cop uniform and a revelatory Pleasence hops about like an antipodean sprite.

The whole thing culminates in a bloody kangaroo hunt that was done for real, Kotcheff only able to use a few shots from the gruesome footage he shot.

Strangely, the film is often lumped in with Picnic at Hanging Rock, mostly because it is a key work in the Aussie New Wave. Stylistically it has nothing in common with Peter Weir’s gauzy film, Kotcheff and DP Brian West going for an almost expressionist use of camera, with wild angles and odd framings, to suggest Mr Grant’s increasing distance from terra cognita.

It’s a complete one-off, a total success on its own terms, doesn’t put a foot out of place, and uses the dusty locations with the anthropological eye that you see in Get Carter (shot the same year and bristling with similar skuzzy energy).

So why did the film disappear? Possibly because the picture it painted of Outback maleness was out of keeping with the image that Australia wanted to project to the world – these were still the days of the cultural cringe and the  jibe about the only culture available in Australia being a in a pot of yoghurt.

Kotcheff went on to direct Sylvester Stallone’s first Rambo movie, First Blood, and the comedy Weekend at Bernie’s, both very different but full of the off-centre energy on display here. Bond kept plugging away in supporting roles until his early death in 1995. But at least he made this… What a film!

Why Watch?

  • The director of Rambo: First Blood’s surprising history
  • A classic of Australian cinema
  • Great dilapidated Outback locations
  • Brian West’s remarkable cinematography

Wake in Fright – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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