Wake in Fright (1971)
Director: Ted Kotcheff
Writer: Kenneth Cook (Novel), Evan Jones
Starring: Donald Pleasance, Gary Bond, Chips Rafferty
How I Watched It: Vudu
Review By: Griff
It’s a rarity when a film I have never heard of sneaks up on me. Especially one that received rave reviews and has become a cult classic, but that is exactly what happened with Wake in Fright. I just happened to be cycling through the new releases on Vudu looking for something to watch and there it was, sticking out like a sore thumb amongst the usual rabble. When I see things like “It left me speechless” on the poster I am suckered in right away. When I see that the quote was from Martin Scorsese my money is already gone. It turns out that this little gem was believed to have been lost. The negatives were gone and it wasn’t until 2004 that someone in Pittsburgh found a copy in a shipping container that had been marked for destruction!
Wake in Fright is a story about John Grant (Gary Bond) a bonded teacher who is taking the Christmas holiday season to travel to Sydney to see his girlfriend. He gets waylaid in a small town in the outback called Bundanyabba or The Yabba as the local call it. Grant only intends to spend the night and then travel on the next morning but he runs into the town sheriff who starts feeding him beers like they are going out of style. Grant eventually gets so inebriated that he has to go and eat something before he passes out. The Sheriff takes him to local restaurant to get a steak. In the back room, there is some serious gambling going on over a game called two-up. The game literally involves throwing two pennies up in the air and betting on if they will land heads or tails. Grant starts playing the game and is doing really well. He is close to making enough money to pay off his bond and be free of teaching in the outback. Emboldened by his winning streak he bets all his money on the next flip and loses everything. Now Grant is penniless and stuck in the Yabba with no way to get out.
The next morning, not knowing what to do, Grant returns to the bars and ends up befriending a local resident named Tim (Al Thomas) who once again feeds Grant full of beer and then talks him into spending the night at his house. SInce he has no place else to go Grant reluctantly agrees. Tim has some friends come over and they all begin drinking very heavily. What follows is a weekend of drink induced debauchery that will change Grant’s life forever.
I saw a lot of reviews that compared Wake in Fright to movies like Straw Dog and Deliverance and there is definitely a similar theme. All of these movies deal with an educated man thrown into circumstances where he must embrace the more primal part of himself in order to get by. The big difference with Wake in Fright is that Grant is not forced into these reactions because his life is in danger. Grant is a willing participant in all the goings on. With very little persuasion he quickly becomes caught up in locker room mentality and is firing off guns and cavorting in the outback with the rest of the men.
I should mention that what makes this movie truly shocking are the drunken episodes of kangaroo hunting. Kotcheff intersperses scenes of the men shooting at kangaroos with actual footage of Kanagroos being shot. It is real, it is disturbing, and it will be haunting me for some time to come.
If you can stomach the Kangaroo parts the movie is definitely worth checking out. Donald Pleasence of Halloween fame plays an alcoholic doctor and really seemed to go for it with the role. He is in his glory drinking beer standing on his head and firing off guns in all directions. Gary Bond is also terrific as the unassuming book worm John Grant. It is surprisingly well directed for the budget and the cinematography is excellent. You really get a sense for the emptiness and isolation of the outback.
It has been said that this movie set back tourism in Australia for years and after watching it I can see why! Wake in Fright get 2 and 1/2 guys from me.