REVIEW – Wake in Fright (1971)
FilmJuice have my review of Ted Kotcheff’s sensational Australian film Wake in Fright.
Released this week by Masters of Cinema, Wake in Fright is one of those films that stays with you forever. Set in the middle of the Australian outback, the film is structured around a descent into madness after a middle class school teacher gets stuck in a working class mining town called The Yabba. Initially smug and contemptuous of the working class culture that surrounds him, the teacher is forced to make friends and make do and so finds himself drinking, gambling, hunting and fighting… his life one bender after another without room to think or breathe. However, rather than being a simple critique of working class habits from a middle class perspective, the film broadens its critique to all of Australian society:
Kotcheff uses John’s journey through The Yabba as a means of exposing the violent alcoholic nihilism that lurks beneath the surface of the Australian national image. John’s reactions are obviously quite bourgeois and, presented on their own, might have resulted in a film that spends over 100 minutes sneering at working-class Australians. However, the film’s use of John as an emotional touchstone is intriguingly refracted through the impressions of two other characters, a middle-class drunk (Al Thomas) whose wit and discernment become less and less obvious the drunker be becomes and an educated nihilist (Donald Pleasence) who has chosen to embrace the Yabba-lifestyle because he sees all forms of social, moral or spiritual advancement as a sign of vanity. The result is a film that manages to walk a fine line between demonising elements of working-class Australian culture and expressing real empathy as to why these people have come to think and act the way they do. There’s a wonderful scene late in the film where John hitches a lift with a trucker who invites him in to have a drink, terrified that another drink might send him back into the Yabba’s downward spiral, John refuses the drink only to be insulted and described as mad. How could anyone avoid descending into alcoholism when refusing to have a drink with a complete stranger is treated as a mortal insult?
As I point out in my review, the film functions almost like a non-genre revisionist western in so far as it sets out to debunk and deconstruct the national icon that is the Australian bushman. Interestingly, while the Australian film industry has produced a number of revisionist westerns (including the excellent Red Hill, which I wrote about a couple of years ago) almost all of them are devoted to addressing the various ways in which white Australians mistreated Indigenous Australians. One of the ways in which white Australians mistreated indigenous Australians is by making them invisible and perpetuating the myth that Australia was an uninhabited landscape before the arrival of the white man. As I point out in my Red Hill piece, this tendency to make indigenous Australians disappear is actually being perpetuated by the fact that all of these films about terrible white people are themselves directed by white people! As a result, Wake in Fright‘s decision to pick a fight with the predominantly white bushman and give his culture both barrels is far less problematic than most of the real Australian revisionist westerns.
There’s also a lovely bit in one of the interviews included on the DVD where someone describes how the first Australian screenings went quite badly with one person standing up and shouting “this ain’t us!” to which a member of the cast responded, gloriously, “Sit down mate, this is us!”.
This film is really something special.