When I first got married in the late sixties you could get an assisted immigration passage to Australia for a tenner, you had to stay there, I believe, for two years, following which you could return without incurring any addition charges for the original trip. This scheme was to encourage people to move to the continent to find work and set up a home, you needed no qualifications! We got as far as getting the forms from Australia House in the Strand, London but when it came down to it my new wife would not leave her family so in the end we never went, something I regretted, that was until I saw Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright (1971), filmed on location at Broken Hill New South Wales in the Australian outback and at the Ajax Film Centre Sydney in January 1970 which would have been around the period we would have been living there, if our original plan’s had come to fruition.
The films story, based on a novel of the same name by Kenneth Cook and adapted by Even Jones, is one of the most unsavoury tales I have ever had the displeasure to sit through! It not that it’s a bad film it just reflects a particularly bad light on one of our crown colonies and the people that resided there.
DOP Brian West opens the proceedings with a high level pan shot of a single railway line running through Tibooda a starkly desolate stretch of the outback with a school on one side of the track and bar with a lodging house attached on the other. It’s at these lodgings that the teacher stays while teaching a mixed age classroom during term time. We join John Grant (English born actor Gary Bond) on the last day before the school breaks up for the Christmas holidays and discover that he intends to join his girl friend back home in Sydney for the six-week holiday period. To this end he catches a train to Bundanyabba. ‘The Yabba’, as its fondly known to its inhabitants, is described by the cabby, that brings him in the town to spend his stopover before catching his flight home, as “friendly place where there’s plenty to see and enjoy”, probably a little over stated. This rather wild dusty town mainly seems to consist of bars and gambling dens full of men who seem to do no more than loose their money and drink exceptionally large quantities of beer! The local police chief Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty in his last screen appearance before his death in May 1971) encourages our teacher to consume vast quantities of alcohol and introduces him to the ‘two-up’ lounge where he looses all his vacation money! He ends up in the house of John Hynes and his miserable looking daughter Janette (Sylvia Kay), completely broke.
Following this we witness John Grants decent into despair, plumbing the very depths of his existence. We get to meet some of the local residents he spends time with and we learn the details of their sad existence. Janette Hynes invites Grant to go for a walk in the bush and seduces him; we meet the alcoholic doctor played by the always-creepy Donald Pleasance who the frustrated Janette regularly has kinky sex with! Then there are the two drunken hunters Dick (Jack Thompson in his first screen role) and Joe with whom Doc Tydon and a very drunk Grant go on a barbaric Kangaroo killing spree.
|....seduced by Janette Hynes....|
What you really notice is how alcohol affects all these rather nasty people, nothing else really matters but to drink and get drunk, one character remarking with some surprise that John Grant would ‘rather talk to a women than drink’ ‘well he is a teacher’ relies another. But we watch how these grubby, sweaty and unpleasant individuals have a marked affect on the teacher. It’s a film that actually makes you feel dirty and you can’t wait to have a shower after watching it.
Quoting Russian writer Anton Chekhov ‘Don’t judge the characters, just what they do’ Where as far as John Grant is concerned he does things during this lost weekend which he never thought he was capable of. Nick Cave called it ‘the best and most terrifying film about Australian existence’ I would change that to read ‘the best and most terrifying film about an Australian’s existence.’ How a perfectly respectable schoolteacher can change for the worse in such a short period of time. This movie demonstrates that extremely well and all credit to the director and Gary Bonds acting. It also underscores the relationship between men when women are in short supply, at times substituting wrestling/fighting for closeness and touching.
There were no stunt men used in the making of this film meaning that all the actors did their own stunts. The extras used in the gambling scenes were actual people that run and took part in the ‘two-up’ lounge. It is alleged that the killing of the kangaroo’s was not carried out for filming purposes but these scenes were actual hunters and the footage was virtually a ‘documentary’ of a real killing spree. Something that still courses controversy to this day, of which I’m not surprised!
Kotcheff has been credited with reviving the Australian film industry with this movie and despite this important film being lost for many years has been restored and is now regarded as a cult movie. Based on a digital restoration completed earlier that year it was finally released on both Blu-ray and DVD in 2009. Which gave an opportunity for this grim and brutal film to be seen by a far wider audience than ever before.