Why I Love… #134: Wake in Fright

Year: 1971

Director: Ted Kotcheff

Stars: Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence, Chips Rafferty

With much of the UK currently enjoying our annual summer sun (known as a nice weekend in other countries), I’ve been thinking about movies that reflect or express a sense of heat and hotness. I’m terrible in hot weather. I get grouchy, I don’t want to do anything. If I’m out, I crave shade. But cinema has a way of making extreme heat palatable. I’m thinking of the post-apocalyptic high octane action of Mad Max: Fury Road, the endless summers of American Honey and The Florida Project, the sweating figures entwined in Body Heat, and so on.

But few films evoke the parched reflexes like Tedd Kotcheff’s 1971 Australian odyssey Wake in Fright; a horror-adjacent fevered dream of salty beer guzzling, delirious gambling and monstrous kangaroo hunting in the wastes of the outback. 

Brit Gary Bond is John Grant, a young, well-spoken middle-class schoolteacher who rocks up in the no-horse township of Bundanyabba (colloquially ‘The Yabba’), somewhat against his will, on his way to take up a new position. There he falls in with local reprobate and dubious medical practitioner Clarence ‘Doc’ Tayden (Donald Pleasence) who introduces him to a coin-flipping gambling racket (a game known as “two-up”) as well as a rabble of locals who orbit Doc, bandying from the local watering hole to a succession of private residences for continuous drinking, brawling and vandalism.

Doc seems to exert a dark magnetism or thrall over his particular band of malcontent outcasts, and John is inexorably drawn in as a somewhat mild-mannered and harangued stranger in their midst. There exists a strange battle of wills between the two men; master and servant; dominant and supplicant. These qualities bring to mind another masculine collision of early ’70s cult cinema; that between Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward in The Wicker Man. As in that movie, the elder quite clearly has the more juvenile on the back foot. 

From it’s opening in the even-more-barren Timboonda, Kotcheff evokes a sense of arid anticipation reminiscent of Sergio Leone’s patient, creaking credit sequence for Once Upon a Time in the West. From then on John is frequently framed quaffing something, be it a cold beer sweating on a bar or ice water from the jug on his train over to ‘The Yabba’. On said train he remembers/fantasises of pressing a beer bottle against the chest of a young woman fresh from the sea; a sexual image potent with parched saltiness and ad campaign eroticism. Another image of feminine sexuality comes swiftly after; as the desk clerk at his hotel dunks her fingers into a bottle of water and traces its coolness across her eyelids, a desk fan working overtime on her. 

From here on Wake in Fright deals almost exclusively in the weathering of male bravado, linked intrinsically with the consumption of alcohol. The town sheriff, Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty), quaffs a beer in one gulp and John seems obliged to show the equal measure of his own constitution. Even as the conversation bristles with class tension (and Wake in Fright is underscored with unacknowledged colonial resentment), John’s otherness and possible queerness prick the picture. Alone, he looks like a ‘john’ cruising for potential partners. 

“Each man knows what’s coming to him; he just goes and gets it”, Jock tells John at the all-male two-up gambling joint, and the line comes to feel like the manifesto of a film that goes on to explore masculine self-destructiveness. John calls the game “simple-minded”, raising himself pompously above the standing of the locals, but he is persistently minimised by Kotcheff. Even when sat at a table with Doc on their introduction, the older man is positioned close to the camera, making John smaller in the frame. Through choices like these we sense that John is naïve, ‘green’, arrogantly or ignorantly walking into the lion’s den. Prideful, but relatively small in size.

Calming or tranquil colours – like blues – are kept to a minimum. Kotcheff instead favours the burning and dusty shades of his locale (a continuation of the western – or indeed spaghetti western – feel of the film’s Leone-baiting opening). The two-up chief’s red polo shirt makes the man himself look like he’s spontaneously combusting, while the shack’s overhead light blinds John as if he were staring into the midday sun. Every forehead that catches the camera wears the glistening gleam of sweat. And, in John’s hotel room, the wallpaper is also garishly hot, suggesting that our man has found himself boarding in hell. It’s a feeling that doesn’t exactly leave the picture as we watch John gamble his future away and dawdle with a cavalcade of men who keep him beer-in-hand.

John is painted as comparatively feminine again. While keeping the company of a gang of local men, who drink and chat and pass the time, John gravitates to the excluded housewife Janette (Sylvia Kay) in the scene. It does not go unnoticed; “What’s the matter with him? Rather talk to a woman than drink?” But his advances are nonthreatening. Indeed, she becomes the conquistador in their exchange. Wandering away from the house, Janette offers herself to John, writhing in the sand as she unbuttons her dress. The only release John is capable of, however, is to vomit in the scrub beside her. Yet again his sexuality or virility in the picture is left as something of a stalemate. And though Doc assumes that John slept with her during their sojourn, he also downplays the importance of sex. His philosophy is more concerned with a kind of planned self-annihilation in which he seems comfortably on-course.

Wake in Fright is primed to be considered as a critique of Australian (and Western) binge-drinking culture. That it coils this excess with a kind of encompassing death-wish leads to another ’70s cult connection to do with consumption; Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe of 1973, in which a number of socialites lock themselves away from the rest of society and slowly gorge themselves to death. 

La Grande Bouffe was pointedly an attack on consumerism – something Wake in Fright appears to have little interest in – but both films unquestionably embrace our obsessive urge to overwhelm or absorb to destructive ends. The film is thirsty in the sense of its hotness, its heat, its desert saltiness. But it is thirsty in this darkly metaphorical way, too.

In Wake in Fright this is rendered as a particularly masculine, patriarchal vice. In the film’s most contentious sequence, John is corralled with Doc and others on a kangaroo hunt, for which Kotcheff uses actual footage from a hunt that was taking place independent of the film’s production. The footage is upsetting and disturbing and goes some way to getting the film its label as a horror, but it also acts to underscore this sense of inherent evil – or casual callousness – so easily awoken in men when overwhelmed by a ‘pack’ mentality. The men become murderous boys. When one of their number gets into a brawl with a kangaroo, the scene is a far cry from the silliness of The Mighty Boosh‘s “Killeroo”.

Descending into the film’s heart of darkness, John is coerced into murdering a wounded kangaroo calf; an act that he finds evidently distressing. But Doc, who looks on, quietly congratulates his new disciple, as though he has seeded in John the germ of loutish nihilism that he seems to use to exert dominance.  Doc’s cult of toxic masculinity has grown. As John and Doc roll around together in the aftermath, a suggestive cut to morning brings with it the insinuation that the two men have consummated the kill and become lovers.

Staggering back into town, the Yabba’s populous that were previously depicted as damned near feral now seem quaintly conservative. While John himself looks like a man who’s been through, well, a lot. Still, with a shower and shave he is able to don the respectable garments of his former life and at least seem the part. Yet, we sense, he is irrevocably changed. An abortive attempt at escape The Yabba only leads John back to the home of Doc, delirium and a murderous burning rage. A palpable evocation of heat stroke. Though armed, John comes to look desperately sad and fragile. He crumples and he cries; small in the picture once more. Turning the rifle on himself, he fails in a suicide attempt that Sheriff Jock Crawford hastily helps him to hush up (sadly indicative of the approach to mental health at the time).

Still, this ultimate act of self-destruction and the will behind it seems to lead John to breakthrough to a new level. Doc seems happy with the results, as though his pupil has passed some uncharted test. Rather like Edward Norton’s Narrator at the end of Fight Club, John seems to have finally made himself anew. He appears at peace and more confident even if, returning to his old life, he seems to shrug off his experiences in The Yabba as nothing more than good holiday memories. A holiday from himself, perhaps.

But just who has returned to Timboonda? And where can Doc’s influence spread now that it has potentially been made flesh in this teacher, once more loosed upon the world? Wake in Fright ends as it began, with that arid dry heat and a lingering sense of disquiet.

We’re left waiting once more, under the baking sun.

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