Printer Friendly

Dreaming of the devil: revisiting Ted Kotcheff's Wake in Fright.


Every now and then, a film emerges that reshapes the outlook for a national cinema. In Australia, that film may well be Wake In Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971), a movie so renowned that it brings with it its own uniquely unsettling mythology. Upon first release, the film was met with a hostile domestic reception; local audiences reacted with incredulity at the mordant representation of masculinity on display. Jack Thompson, who plays Dick in the film in his first major role, recalls, 'Australians at the time didn't want to see it as Australia. People walked away saying, "That's not us. We don't behave like that.'" (1) Wake in Fright is a brutally visceral film that captures a hallucinogenic waking nightmare. The title suggests ominous portents--the phrase is taken from an old farmers' curse: 'May you dream of the devil and wake in fright.' (2)

Existential dread drips from the screen along with the sweat and the heat and the interminable buzzing of outback flies. The film takes place over just a few days but, in that time, young schoolteacher John Grant (Gary Bond) plunges into the darkest night of the soul.

John is bonded to the New South Wales education department. He must fulfil a tenure in the isolated township of Tiboonda before he can return to the city. The film opens on the last day of term; John is headed for the blue ocean and comforts of Sydney for his summer holiday. An intended one-night layover in Bundanyabba (The Yabba' to locals) turns into an alcohol-fuelled frenzy of enforced camaraderie when John risks--and loses--all his savings in a game of two-up. Unceremoniously marooned in The Yabba, he is taken into the home of Tim Hynes (Al Thomas) and his daughter, Janette (Sylvia Kay). They are joined by Dick, Joe (Peter Whittle) and the nihilistic Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence). John is initiated into their mindless rituals of mateship whereby heavy drinking, misogyny and casual fighting culminate in a nocturnal kangaroo shoot that is as disturbing as anything subsequently committed to film. Genuine footage of a kangaroo culling was cut together with Kotcheff's own images to create a masterful set piece. (3) The film's unflinching portrait of violent masculinity is shaped by an outsider's gaze as both John and the film's Canadian director find themselves in an alien landscape. John's psychosocial journey is magnified by his lack of self-possession, and Kotcheff identifies this as the central trope of Wake of Fright 'the theme of it is a man who doesn't know himself [...] one man's descent into hell.' (4)

Despite being well received in Cannes, the film failed to find an Australian audience and then disappeared for forty years. The film's editor, Anthony Buckley, spent ten years hunting down the original print; he found it just before it was scheduled for incineration. (5) The restored version was released in 2009 and has garnered a far wider audience for Wake in Fright. It is now rightly recognised as a cornerstone of Australian film history, and one of world cinema's most disquieting examples of realist horror. Back in 1971, Wake in Fright was an important forebear of the Australian New Wave. It was made at a time when the local industry was stagnant, and it opened up the creative landscape for future filmmakers like Peter Weir and Fred Schepisi, who were inspired by its bold representation of the outback. Speaking about the work of foreign directors making films in Australia during this period, Thompson is again instructive: 'What they provided was a knowledge for would-be Australian filmmakers that we had the ability to tell tales about ourselves in a way that was dynamic and interesting.' (6) There was a sense of renewed potential for Australian stories to be directed by auteurs with bold aesthetic sensibilities. There was a new sense of what was possible for film in this country, and the significance of Wake in Fright in terms of increased artistic confidence cannot be overstated.

The irrational and the sensuous

While Wake in Fright is resolutely an 'Australian' film, a great deal of analysis and commentary is circumvented by the trap of responding to its depiction of outback life at the expense of the style in which it is presented. Much writing about it seems to take it up as a kind of socio-historical artefact rather than a potent work of cinematic fiction. In sidelining the uniquely filmic qualities of Wake in Fright, there is a tendency to approach it as a static text rather than a film that uncomfortably immerses us in a mobile, kinetic, full sensory experience. For some commentators, in particular, it synthesises fundamental fault lines in the national character; Kate Jennings goes so far as to claim that it

tell[s] a larger truth about a nation's collective psyche, and usually one that's hard to swallow. In the case of Wake in Fright, the truth is that underneath the vaunted easy-going surface of Australians is a deforming truculence, an ugly snarkiness. (7)

Such overly personal readings are interesting, but they place limitations on the film by pinning it down to its immediate context. In filtering its characterisations through subjective experience (and then recognising these as 'authentic' representations of life in the bush), the universality of Wake in Fright is undermined. In fact, Kotcheff uses the specificity of place to mobilise more fluid and far-reaching motifs; the film's thematic reach exceeds its commentary on Australian outback masculinity. One of the reasons for its enduring hypnotic power is its ability to resist clear categories of place, production, genre and even politics. Wake in Fright was directed by a Canadian, stars British actors in lead roles and was adapted for the screen by a Jamaican--screenwriter Evan Jones--who had never visited Australia, let alone the outback. (8) This cross-fertilisation is evident in the film's ambivalence towards its characters; formally inventive, Wake in Fright takes up an irrational space that replicates the moral vacuum of The Yabba. Its genre hybridity creates mobile sites of meaning; part western, horror, thriller and drama, the film evades straightforward classification, absorbing disparate signifies and transcending the limits of place.

The colour palette is a controlled exercise in restraint: reds, oranges and browns dominate every frame so that the relentless crush of dirt and heat bears down on the spectator without the respite of cooler colours. The film transmits a mercilessly forceful asphyxiation, mirroring John's descent into the realm of the illogical and animalistic. Kotcheff says he 'want[ed] the audience to feel the heat and the dust and the flies [...] not just see but have an impact on them'. (9) This kind of displacement of the hierarchy of the senses is telling--the register of the film is primarily sensuous. The emphasis is always on the materiality of the landscape bearing down on both the characters and the spectator. Absent is the kind of distanced intellectual engagement that we could enjoy if the visual were the film's privileged mode of communication. Merely 'watching' Wake in Fright from a safe distance is not an option. It is experienced via a brutal contact that really gets under our skin, and it is through this contact that the irrational is most forcefully conveyed.

The outsider's gaze and irrational spaces

Peter Galvin's research into the making of the film begins with this appraisal of Kenneth Cook's source text: 'Short, blunt, and stark Wake in Fright has all the urgency and horror of a battle report where the main casualty seems to be reason itself.' (10) The film stylistically conveys this sense of dislocation, whereby reason is abandoned in favour of the irrational. Giving new meaning to the term 'beer fear', Kotcheff's

Wake in Fright sometimes lacks exposition between scenes of extreme inebriation, leaving loathsome questions hanging even as the answers are all too clear. Recalling the mental confusion of an alcoholic blackout, some edits are abrasive, ending suddenly without the logic of continuity. But this muscular style is embedded in the film's mode of address right from the opening sequence; rather than merely magnifying John's intoxicated confusion, it creates a space that doesn't quite make sense from the outset. A 360-degree crane long shot of the Tiboonda landscape is disorienting to the spectator; the physical relationship between the setting and characters is articulated via the circular sweep of the camera. We search urgently for an anchor for our gaze to land on, something that will help the scene to 'make sense', but the claustrophobia of endless space creates an oppressive keynote.

Much has been made of the impact of Kotcheff's foreignness on the making of the film. Was his an exaggerated perspective based on just a superficial awareness of the outback microcosm? Or was the outsider's perspective a passport to greater insight? These questions are, ultimately, distractions from the more universal structure of the overall film form. In fact, the director's outsider's gaze offers an irrational space that takes up cultural imagery--the XXXX beer can, the cajoling Aussie mate, the blazing sun, Anzac remembrance rituals, the boxing kangaroo--and distorts their signification. One of the more explicit examples of this distortion is the playing of two-up in The Yabba. As the game is illegal except on Anzac Day, the town commemorates the fallen Anzacs with the ritualistic 'Lest We Forget' every day. Despite it being December, the pub crowd falls silent in the traditional mark of respect, before resuming their gambling. Their attempt to legitimise the operation means that cultural history is perversely reappropriated. The name 'Yabba' nods to another (only obliquely referenced) reappropriation: it is an Aboriginal word, meaning 'to talk'. This presents another dislocation of meanings in an irrational space that unmoors customs from their usual logic. Their vulnerability to contamination echoes the trajectory of John, whose experience plays into a more archetypal pattern of displacement and loss that uses this location devoid of reason to interrogate more universal truths. As screenwriter Jones has remarked: 'If it were set in another place, another remote location, the essential point of the fiction would be the same.' (11)

For John's journey is at the heart of the film--he discovers just how quickly the veneer of 'civilisation' can slip. The outback becomes an existential metaphor for the desolate psychological landscape of the human condition. The 'civilised' man, with education, culture and intellect, stands at a distance from this 'savage' state, yet the distance between 'civilised' and 'savage' is shown by Wake in Fright to be, at best, illusory and easily threatened. As Doc wisely points out, 'Discontent is the luxury of the well-to-do. If you've got to live here, then you might as well like it.' When John asks Doc how he tolerates The Yabba, his reply is succinct: 'I drink.'

This dialogue chimes with the atmosphere of entrapment that Wake in Fright captures so memorably. Shot through with abject melancholy, the film recognises a brutal truth of human existence. 'Philosophy is no good in this universe,' Kotcheff once mused. 'That's not true just in the Outback. Sartre calls it abandonment. Abandoned, with no god, we despair and we have to create ourselves.' (12)

Gabrielle O'Brien is a freelance writer and teacher. She has an MA in film studies and is a regular contributor to Metro. An unrepentant cinephile, she likes it best in the dark!


(1) Jack Thompson, in the documentary Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!, Mark Hartley, 2008.

(2) Cited in Kate Jennings, 'Home Truths: Revisiting Wake in Fright', The Monthly, July 2009, <>, accessed 9 May 2017,

(3) Peter Galvin, 'The Making of Wake in Fright (Part Three)', SBS Movies, 22 March 2010, <>, accessed 9 May 2017.

(4) Ted Kotcheff, in 'Wake in Fright--Ted Kotcheff Interview', YouTube, 17 November 2016, <>, accessed 9 May 2017.

(5) See Tom Stockman, 'Wake in Fright--New Trailer for Lost Australian Horror Film from 1971', We Are Movie Geeks, 18 September 2012, < 2012/09/wake-in-fright-new-trailer-for-lost-australian-horror-film-from-1971/>, accessed 9 May 2017.

(6) Thompson, op. cit.

(7) Jennings, op. cit.

(8) James Guida, 'Wake in Fright: Prepare to Be Disturbed, Mate', The New Yorker, 4 October 2012, <>, accessed 12 May 2017.

(9) Kotcheff, op. cit.

(10) Peter Galvin, 'The Making of Wake in Fright (Part One)', SBS Movies, 1 June 2009, <>, accessed 9 May 2017.

(11) Evan Jones, quoted in ibid.

(12) Ted Kotcheff, quoted in Jennings, op. cit.

Caption: Above: Schoolteacher John Grant (Gary Bond, second from left) with Bundanyabba locals, including Dick (Jack Thompson, right) Opposite: Dick

Caption: Clockwise from bottom right: Dick; John in Bundanyabba (four images), and with Janette (Sylvia Kay, third image from bottom); the Tiboonda train platform; Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence)

Caption: Clockwise from top left: Jock (Chips Rafferty); Doc and John; Doc; John taking part in a game of two-up with locals; Charlie (John Meillon)
COPYRIGHT 2017 Australian Teachers of Media
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2017 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:CRITICAL VIEWS
Author:O'Brien, Gabrielle
Publication:Metro Magazine
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Jun 22, 2017
Previous Article:Sounding 'unstable terrain' in Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rack.
Next Article:Part 38: Backroads.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters