I had the great good fortune to obtain a ticket for a one-time-only
screening of Wake In Fright (aka Outback) at the 2009 edition of the
Toronto International Film Festival. I had heard of the film and read
reviews of it, but it had receded from my memory before I noticed it in
the festival program. Ted Kotcheff was known to me as the talented
Canadian director of such artful Canadian films as The Apprenticeship
of Duddy Kravitz (1974) and subversive Hollywood offerings like North
Dallas Forty (1979) but I had not connected him to WIF.
The screening was part of TIFF's Discussions series, which features an
extended, moderated Q&A after the film. I believe this one ran at least
one hour, and was very informative and interesting. But first the film.
Briefly, school teacher John Grant (Gary Bond) is contracted by the
government to teach in a one-room schoolhouse in Australia's primitive
Outback. The school year ends and Grant thankfully boards the train for
a six week summer vacation. But he loses all his money when drawn into
a stupid gambling contest in the first settlement the train reaches. He
is thus just as helpless and alone as any civilized man among dangerous
savages (think The Naked Prey with drunk, horny rednecks chasing the
titular hero.) Grant first meets the local lawman Jock Crawford (Chips
Rafferty) who appears unconcerned with the pervasive drunkenness in his
community. He insists they get sloshed together, and unwittingly leads
him to the gamblers, who play a simple-minded game of heads or tails
with two coins. Grant wins at first, but then loses it all. Destitute,
he has no choice but to accept the sodden hospitality of the locals. We
get the idea (via excellent acting by Mr. Bond) that the educated young
man is not happy being at the mercy of these lower-class savages. But
their brutish acting-out is partially accounted for (but NOT excused)
by the scarcity of sex -- whatever each of these man-children desires,
men or women, they just aren't getting enough! An excellent sequence in
the film is the attempted seduction of Grant by Janette Hynes (Sylvia
Kay), daughter of one of Grant's erstwhile "mates." Loneliness,
desperation and sexual frustration are etched in her face, and she
leads Grant out of a drunken party for a walk, intending to do the
dirty literally in the dirt, but her intended vomits up one of the
1,000 or so beers he downs in the film. Her wretchedness as she flees
sobbing back to her father's house is just devastating.
The most controversial scenes in the film were shot during actual
kangaroo hunts, conducted at the time with no decent regulation, for
the benefit of foreign pet food companies. Drunk as lords, the Aussie
crew speed through the desert in a "Mad Max" hunting truck, shooting
every poor 'roo they can find. In the grisly climax, Grant agrees to
kill an animal with a knife and his bare hands.
Later, seriously alcoholic 'Doc' Tydon (the great Donald Pleasence, at
the peak of his brilliance) sexually assaults the (finally) unconscious
Grant in his filthy hovel. Grant "wakes in fright" to find the good Doc
asleep on the floor, naked except for a woman's baby doll nightie. "Gay
panic" ensues, and after an unsuccessful attempt to hitchhike out of
the town, he returns to the cabin with his kangaroo rifle and confused
intentions. (SPOILER) 'Doc' returns, but Grant turns the rifle on
himself and fires. He awakes in a hospital bed, and signs a statement
saying the shooting was an accident. He is discharged just in time to
return to his school house.
At the Q&A we learned some interesting facts: The film was shot on
location in a small Aussie town, and the bar, gambling hall, the Hynes
ranch, the schoolhouse, etc. are real, and together with the stark
cinematography impart a sense of one of those faintly recalled
nightmares that seem like a true occurrence. Mr. Kotcheff told us he
was aiming to create claustrophobia in wide-open spaces, and in my
humble opinion he succeeded.
The 'roo hunt was filmed documentary-style at a real hunt. The
filmmakers consulted with Australian anti-hunt groups who told them to
go ahead, so that the Australian public could see the cruel slaughter
for themselves. It's quite sickening -- the hunters amuse themselves by
shooting to wound, then watching the bleeding animals jumping about in
pain. The killings by knife were simulated, shot in a black-out tent to
match the night-time of the documented hunt.
The film was well received by critics at Cannes (and the restored film
was re-screened there this year), and the director remembers being told
by his hosts that it was an important film for Australians, and that it
could only have been made by an unbiased outsider. Its North American
release (as Outback) was botched -- perhaps deliberately, since (I
suppose) unfettered alcoholism + gay rape + graphic animal slaughter
wasn't expected to sell well, even in the cinema's post-60's creative
Eventually, the film was forgotten and the master negatives misplaced.
The film's editor spent two years on his own time and dime tracking it
down. He found the reels in a Pittsburgh, PA warehouse, in containers
marked for destruction. Restored, remastered and revived, it has met
with accolades in Australia, at Cannes, and of course here at TIFF.
Needless to say, I am anxiously awaiting the DVD release!