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Friday, 12 December 2014

Wake in Fright (1971)

Some movies gain almost mythic status when one considers their fate over the years and the above film is an interesting case in point. The original novel published in 1961 by the Australian writer Kenneth Cook was first optioned by a British television producer to be adapted for the box. This TV drama was meant to be directed by Joseph Losey and to star Dirk Bogarde, with Robert Helpmann (and subsequently James Mason or Donald Pleasence) in the main supporting role.

Those plans obviously crashed and the next one knew the novel was being made into a film in Australia with the Canadian director Ted Kotcheff at the helm. The main role of John Grant was filled by the Aussie actor Gary Bond (a cross between a young Peter O'Toole and a young Richard Chamberlain) with Pleasence -- always a creepy presence -- still in the frame and with the addition of Australian old-time movie star Chips Rafferty also in support. The final picture was sufficiently well thought of to be selected by Cannes to be the official Australian entry in 1971, but the country's National Film Board refused to endorse this because of the unfavourable light in which the country was depicted. Still the film remained in competition and was subsequently a long-running hit in France. In contrast, it was something of a financial flop elsewhere, appearing in chopped up versions under the title "Outback", until only distressed and incomplete negatives were available.

The movie's mythic reputation continued to grow, since this film and "Walkabout" released at about the same time, were credited by local film-makers as spurring the Renaissance of Australian movie-making in the early 70s and beyond. However the master negative had disappeared and after years of searching it was located finally in a Pittsburgh company's dump bin marked "for destruction".  It was eventually restored and re-mastered and in 2009 it became only the second film to be invited to Cannes for a second showing.

The movie centers on Bond's Grant, an impoverished yet relatively cultured university graduate, indentured to teach in a one-room schoolhouse in Tiboonda in the back of beyond, a desolate settlement in the endless vast hot, dry terrain. For his Christmas break he takes the one-carriage train, ignoring his boisterous and drunken fellow travellers, to the nearest big town, Bundanyabba - The Yabba for short - where he plans on getting the next day's flight to Sydney and civilization. That evening when most of the locals have gathered in the illegal, after hours pub, he witnesses their simple pastime, a gambling game totally without finesse where they bet on whether two tossed coins will land heads or tails. While unable to understand the idiocy of this game, he is tempted to try his luck and proceeds to win a goodly sum. However, thinking that further winnings could free him from his teaching contract, he returns to the floor and manages to lose everything -- stranding him in this frontier mining town. He wakes naked the next morning -- a man without prospects.

The film would have it that Aussies are imperialistic drinkers so there is no shortage of punters offering to buy him a few jars. He is invited to 'lunch' by one of the locals, who is soon joined by three of his friends including 'Doc' (Pleasence), and an afternoon of heavy drinking. He tries to become friendly with the daughter of the house (and none of the others can fathom why he might prefer talking to drinking) but only can vomit when the encounter threatens to become sexual. He fends off an actual sexual approach from 'Doc' with whom he spends the night, and by the next afternoon he willingly joins the four of them for a bloody and vicious kangaroo hunt. Effectively Bond is rapidly becoming a man who is having the veneer of civilization stripped from him piece by piece and he finds himself in a no-win situation. With no funds, he attempts to hitch his way to Sydney, but unwittingly finds himself back at The Yabba and ultimately back in the dead-end world that is Tiboonda.

No one can claim that 'no kangaroos were injured in the making of this film' as Kotcheff includes footage of actual licensed kangaroo hunters who went out nightly to stalk their prey by blinding them with bright spotlights. This graphic and gory footage managed to get both the government and the environmentalists up in arms. The Australian Tourist Board could hardly be pleased with the negative imagery of their would-be tourist attractions. The director claims that he himself would never injure an animal and that kangaroos are the most anthropomorphic of beasts. He adds that the footage was included to illustrate the depths of Bond's degeneration -- and apparently the bloodiest footage never made the final cut. As is, it is all pretty horrific.

I wondered about the film's title as there is nothing explanatory in the movie. It is explained by a one-line foreword in the novel itself and reads: "may you dream of the devil and wake in fright".
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