Wake in Fright (a.k.a) Outback
By Pepita Greenwood
Running time 109 mins
Shooting began January 1970, NSW, Australia
Production Australian/ American co-production
Director Ted Kotcheff
Producer George Willoughby
Cinematography Brian West
Screenplay Evan Jones (based on the Australian novel “Wake in Fright” by
Kenneth Cook, first published 1961)
Editor Anthony Buckley
Production Companies NLT Productions
Distributor United Artists (acquired in early 1971 for world distribution)
Gary Bond --- John Grant
Donald Pleasance --- ‘Doc’ Tydon
Chips Rafferty --- Jock Crawford
Sylvia Kay --- Janette Hynes
Jack Thompson --- Dick
Peter Whittle --- Joe
Al Thomas --- Tim Hynes
John Meillon --- Charlie
John Armstrong --- Atkins
Slim DeGrey --- Jarvis
Maggie Dence --- Receptionist
Norm Erskine --- Joe the Cook
Cannes Film Festival 1971 (Released under the title, Outback) Ted Kotcheff was
Nominated for a Golden Palm Award.
Paris, 22 July 1971 (as Outback)
London, 29 October 1971 (as Outback)
Australia, 1971 (as Wake in Fright)
New York, 20 February 1972 (as Outback)
BUDGET and BOX OFFICE FIGURES
Wake in Fright was made on a budget of $800 000.
Though I was unable to find exact box office figures, Pike and Cooper state, “it opened in Paris and ran for a highly successful five month season…In London again it was warmly received by the public and the press when it opened…In Australia, however, it made less happy progress; although critics were unanimous in their support, publicity was poor and the public stayed away.” Oxford Australian Film 1900-1977. Australia, Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, p259
BIBLIOGRAPHY OF INTERVIEWS
Much to my disappointment I was unable to find any interviews with the crew and/or cast of Wake in Fright pertaining to the film, either at the time of release or subsequently. The best I could do was to find a statement made by one of the executive producers of the film, Bill Harmon, in the Australian, 23 October, 1971. He voices his distaste at the way United Artists dealt with the distribution of Wake in Fright in Australia; believing that they were;
“treating it like nothing…It almost seems nobody wants anything to succeed here. Here we are, wanting to do pictures here, and it’s terribly important for the investor to get his money back. But if a good movie can’t get any money back here, who the hell’s interested?”
BIBLIOGRAPHY OF REVIEWS AND DISCUSSIONS
1) Adams, B. Shirley, G. Australian Cinema: The First Eighty Years, Australia: Angus and Robertson, 1983, p245, 246, 274, 276
“Wake in Fright was perhaps too uncomfortably direct and uncompromising to draw large Australian audiences” p245
2) Halliwell, W. The Filmgoer’s Guide to Australian Films, London, Australia: Angus and Robertson, 1985, p270
3) Mayer, G. McFarlane, B. New Australian Cinema: Sources and Parallels in American and British Film, Cambridge, New York, Australia: Cambridge University Press, 1992, p113, 122, 182, 196
“[one of] the finest films made in Australia” p122
4) McFarlane, B. Australian Cinema 1970 – 1985, Australia: William Heinemann Publishers, 1987, p 41, 48, 50, 52, 62, 70, 87, 194, 218
“good enough to set the whole 1970s revival going several years before it took off” p42
5) McFarlane, B. Words and Images: Australian Novels into Films, Victoria: Heinemann Publishers Australia, 1983, p 23 - 37
“director Ted Kotcheff and scriptwriter Evan Jones –have captured the tone of Cook’s novel in cinematic terms with remarkable fidelity” p23
6) McFarlane, B. The Oxford Companion to Australian Film, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1999, p520, 521
“almost uniquely unsettling in the history of new Australian Cinema” p521
7) Moran, A. O’Reagan, T. (eds) An Australian Film Reader, Australia: Currency Press, 1985, p54, 248
8) Murray, S. (ed) The New Australian Cinema, London: Elm Tree Books/ Hamish Hamilton, 1980, p25, 38, 133, 145, 148
“Some Australians were outraged by Canadian Ted Kotcheff’s larger-than-life Wake in Fright” p38
9) Murray, S. (ed) Australian Cinema, Australia: Allen and Unwin, 1994, p72-3, 76, 79, 133, 213
10) O’Regan, T. Australian National Cinema, London: Routledge, 1996, p12, 56, 57, 93, 138, 209, 249-51, 255, 256
“achieved critical regard but limited success” p12
11) Pike, A. Cooper, R. Australian Film 1900-1977: A Guide to Feature Film Production. Australia, Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, p259, 260
12) Rayner, J. Contemporary Australian Cinema: An Introduction, Manchester, New York: Manchester University Press, 1988, p25, 27, 28, 37, 172, 176
13) Reis, B. Australian Film: A Bibliography, London: Mansell Publishing, 1997, p522
Note: This book contained 20 references to Journal Articles including…
1) Bowers, D. ‘Wake in Fright.’ Metro, No. 51, Autumn 1980, p54, 55, 57
2) Bryning, M. ‘Wake in Fright.’ Lumiere, No. 12, Nov/Dec, 1971, p10
3) Burvill, T. ‘Forever amber: Kotcheff’s Australian nightmare.’ Chauntecleer, No. 6, 1972, p7-10
4) Hall, S. ‘Sinister Banality.’ Bulletin, V. 93, No. 16, October 1971, p39
5) Hanson, G. ‘Outback.’ Monthly Film Bulletin, V. 38, December 1971, p244
6) Quinnell, K. ‘Standing on our feet.’ Nation, No. 328, 30 October 1971, p18
7) Stratton, D. ‘Outback.’ International Film Guide, V. 9, 1972, p53
1) Harmon, B. Australian, October 23, 1971
2) Greenspun, R. New York Times, February 21, 1972
Given the fact that the master copy of Wake in Fright was lost for some time, and therefore audiences were generally unable to (re)familiarize themselves with this film for more than a decade, the online sites dedicated to this film are fairly scarce. I think the age of the film also has a part to play in this as there was obviously no World Wide Web in 1971. However, I did manage to find a few sites, though mostly they contained very limited information.
This site was probably the most detailed, listing cast, crew and a small amount of trivia. It gave a brief plot outline and contained interactive user ratings and comments, though these were not particularly useful.
Again, this site offers a plot outline and refers to Ted Kotcheff as director, but doesn’t offer any particularly in depth information.
Here there is an article by Stephen Smith, first speaking of the film with reference to the book and then offering a critique with relation to the 2001 Federal elections in Australia!
Due to the scarce nature of copies of Wake in Fright, I was surprised to happen upon a site offering the sale of a video for $26.99US, though one may wonder about the quality.
Interested in purchasing one of the film’s posters in mint condition? Only $99.99 !!!
Wake in Fright tells the story of school teacher, John Grant, centering on his experiences during the school holidays. Hailing from England, John has a $1000 bond with the education department and must serve time teaching in Australia wherever they place him. Much to his chagrin he is posted to the very remote and tiny settlement of Tiboonda, in the Australian outback. The film begins on the last day of term and John has planned to go to Sydney for the break to visit his girlfriend. However, because Tiboonda is so small, he must go to the neighbouring mining town of Bundunyabba, (referred to by the locals as “The Yabba”) to catch his flight, which is where his nightmare begins.
Upon his arrival to the Yabba he is “befriended” in the pub by local policeman, Jock, who urges him to drink large amounts of beer and introduces him to a world of maniacal gambling in the form of a two-up ring. John soon becomes heavily embroiled in the game. He begins on a winning streak and rushes back to his hotel with handfuls of cash, but with the thought that he could get out of Tiboonda for good if he could only raise $1000, he re-enters the ring and loses everything.
Despite its release in 1971, Wake in Fright remains a very powerful and confronting film to this day. Directed by Canadian, Ted Kotcheff, the film clearly represents an outsider’s perspective of the outback. This perspective is embodied by the English character, John Grant. John is an alien in the outback, and he clearly does not want to be there. As McFarlane writes, “There is nothing seductive about its empty vista’s for him: it is the antithesis of his longing for Sydney and the surf” Throughout the film John has flashes of his girlfriend emerging from the ocean, a tool used by Kotcheff to starkly contrast John’s current situation.
Wake in Fright begins with an agonizing pan across the desolate landscape, highlighting the isolated nature of the Australian outback. There is a line of train tracks leading into nothingness which sets the tone for the film, and from the very beginning the music reiterates the starkness of the landscape and John’s despondency. When John arrives in Bundunyabba it first appears to be a likeable country town, but upon his arrival in the all-male pub, he is quickly recognized as an outsider by Jock the policeman, who’s bullying hospitality is a sign of things to come.
Issues of masculinity and ‘mateship’ are at the forefront of Wake in Fright, and interestingly there are only two female characters in the entire film. As O’Regan states, “Women were at the heart of the bush narrative right up until Wake in Fright” First, the audience sees the receptionist at the hotel John stays at in Bundunyabba. She is sitting in
front of a fan stroking water over her face and neck trying to cool herself in an arguably sexual way. The other female character is Jannette Hynes. When her father returns home from the pub with boozy stray John, Jannette is clearly unhappy. We are presented with a woman who has seemingly had to put up with her drunken father and his friends in a tiny rural town for her whole life. As the night progresses and more drunk ‘mates’ come over to Jim’s, Jannette and John talk, away from the rest. At one point Dick says to Jim;
“What’s the matter with him? He’d rather talk to a woman than drink beer”
The very idea that there is something the matter with John for wanting to talk to Jannette has undeniable misogynistic undertones. But then, in the Yabba, if a man does not drink he is even more of an outsider.
Alcohol is an obvious problem for the dwellers of Bundunyabba. Almost all the scenes in this town involve beer. From the pub culture, where a man does not sip, he sculls, to the brutal hunting scenes, where a very drunk John wears a maniacal grin while cutting the tail off a kangaroo. As drinking is often linked to notions of ‘mateship’, Kotcheff critiques this partnership by representing the detrimental (and forceful) hospitality of the locals to an outsider such as John. When John states on a few occasions that “It is time for me to go”, the common response is “Go where?!” followed by laughter and more beer drinking. As Rayner points out “The normal camaraderie of drinking and hunting comes to define characters and fill lives in such isolation” The men in this mining town are products of their isolated environment. Because boredom often breeds alcoholism, the Yabba men are at the mercy of their beer. When John wakes at the Doc’s place the first morning after losing all his money, he asks Doc for a drink of water. Doc responds; “The water in Yabba is only for washing” and promptly hands him a beer.
In Australian cinema, quaint country towns are often painted as welcoming and full of friendly ‘characters’, yet as McFarlane suggests, “the rural town is occasionally presented from an angle other than that which celebrates its homely virtues” The mining town of Bundunyabba is indeed an example of another angle. From the moment John arrives he gets caught up in the rituals of the town. When he admits to Doc that he really lost his money gambling, Doc responds “That’s no shame here”. It is almost as though it is expected.
Sexuality and violence are also key issues of Wake in Fright. Through his drunken haze John has two sexual encounters, both initiated by the other party. The first is with Jannette, who, after telling her father that she and John were “going for a walk”, leads John into the bushes, lies down and unbuttons her blouse. Adams and Shirley refer to the Yabba when the state, “The social rituals of this community are just as imprisoning as their actual encirclement by the desert” It is an image that gives the impression she has done the same thing before. There is no passion or foreplay, perhaps signaling the type of sex Jannette has had (or been forced to have?) in the past, again highlighting sexism of the Yabba.
John’s despondency climaxes during a night of brutal hunting fuelled by drunken hysteria. As the beer is consumed so are the men. They are laughing and yelling crazily and in his drunken haze, John appears to be enjoying the killing. The men return back to town and John stays at Doc’s place, where they continue to booze, leading to a homosexual encounter between the two men. Rayner states; “Significantly, the doctor can be seen as the embodiment of societal collapse, since his decline and assimilation into the town’s culture prefigures the teacher’s degeneration” When John wakes, he leaves Doc’s house and the music becomes unmelodic and scatty to reflect John’s spiral into self pity and self loathing. The camera follows him after night has fallen, still stumbling through the bush, his tiny silhouette contrasting with tall trees to represent his mercy at the hands of the outback.
After a failed suicide attempt, John returns to Tiboonda. The holidays are over and he must teach. The music now is more melodic, though still containing a sinister undertone, suggesting John is resigned to the reality that he is stuck in Tiboonda. The camera pans the landscape almost exactly as it does in the opening scene, like the film is on a loop, symbolizing John’s circular journey. Without ever truly leaving the outback, John is back where he started from.
CRITICAL UPTAKE OF THE FILM AT THE TIME OF ITS RELEASE AND SUBSEQUENTLY
Wake in Fright was first seen by the world when it represented Australia at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1971, with Canadian director, Ted Kotcheff, nominated for a Golden Palm award. The critics loved it, and it was soon premiered in Paris and London. As Adams and Shirley write,
“Despite excellent reviews around the world and good public response in London and Paris (where it ran for 5 months), Wake in Fright was perhaps too uncomfortably direct and uncompromising to draw large Australian audiences”
During the early 1970s, when Wake in Fright was released in Australia, local audiences were seeing the emergence of ‘ocker’ films. McFarlane explains;
“‘Ockerism’, the depiction of Australian men as boorish but good humoured, sexually and nationally chauvinistic, may well have been an essential element in overseas perceptions of Australia”
But such “good humoured” stereotypes were just as important for Australian audiences as international ones, perhaps more so, considering the outcry that Wake in Fright caused. Making a joke of the chauvinism of Australian men was easier to watch then the brutal realism Kotcheff offered.
Perhaps some Australians were outraged at the time, because they believed the film would mistakenly be seen as a representation of Australians as a whole. However, in most of the research I did, more recent critiques place Wake in Fright as an exceptionally important film in Australian Cinema history, opening the door for the more confronting aspects of society to be explored. As O’Regan states;
“Kotcheff’s film prepared the way for that mix of hyperrealism, excessive masculinity, ambiguous sexuality and misogyny so insistently present in subsequent Australian Cinema”
Despite its initial failure to capture Australian audiences, Wake in Fright, is now seen by critics as one of the best films to come out of Australia, paving the way for more recent films depicting “hyperrealism” and “excessive masculinity”, such as Wolf Creek.
CIRCUMSTANCES OF PRODUCTION
According to Pike and Cooper, Kenneth Cook’s novel, Wake in Fright, (published in 1961),
“had first been proposed as a film in 1963 by Dirk Bogarde and Joseph Losey. The novelist Morris West later bought the film rights for his own projected production, but again no film emerged. Eventually the rights were bought by NLT and Group W and with a budget of $800 000 shooting began in January 1970”.
The film was shot in NSW, on location in Broken Hill (the area that inspired Cook for the setting of his book) and later at the Ajax Studios in Bondi, Sydney.
One production element which I found to be as interesting as it was disturbing was the footage of the kangaroo hunt. While I watched this scene (from between my fingers) the realism struck me as unique. When the credits rolled I discovered why. A disclaimer stated that despite no kangaroos having been killed specifically for the purposes of the movie, it was in fact real footage of kangaroos being killed by “licensed professionals”. This is clearly a sign of the times as there is no way that a film shot now could possibly use real footage. Animal welfare groups would go berserk. However; as the disclaimer stated “the scenes were included with approval of leading animal welfare organizations in Australia and the United Kingdom”
SITUATE THE FILM IN RELATION TO THE SUBSEQUENT OR PRIOR WORK OF THE;
Ted Kotcheff, also known as William Theodore Kotcheff, has had a long and successful career as a director, both in television and cinema, and has also done some acting. Some of his work includes;
- Tiara Tahiti
- Life at the top
- Two Men Sharing
- Billy Two Hats
- The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz
- Fun with Dick and Jane
- Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?
- North Dallas Forty (director and co-writer)
- First Blood
- Joshua Then and Now
- Switching Channels
- Weekend at Bernie’s (directed and played the part of Jack Parker)
- Hidden Assassin
- A Strange Affair
- The Shooter
- Shattered Glass (as actor, played Marty Perez)
This is really just a sample of Kotcheff’s work. He is most recently recognized for his directorial contributions to the television programme, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, but his involvement in TV began when he moved from his native Canada to the United Kingdom in the 1950’s. More information can be found at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0467646/
Brian West and Ted Kotcheff have worked together since Wake in Fright, on such films as, Billy Two Hats and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Some of West’s other contributions are;
- The Ceremony
- Squeeze a Flower
1974 The Spikes Gang
1975 Russian Roulette
1977 Age of Innocence
1979 Yesterday’s Hero
1984 Bloodbath at the House of Death
1984 Finders Keepers
Again this is merely a small sample of West’s work as a cinematographer. A more detailed list can be found at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0921956/
Actor: Donald Pleasance
As ‘Doc’ Tydon, Donald plays a pivotal character in Wake in Fright. Pleasance’s film and television career includes his involvement as an actor in more than 200 productions which span from the 1950s until his death in 1995. Due to his bald head and interesting look, Pleasance is well known for his roles in horror films. He played evil characters such as Dr. Samuel Loomis in the 5 Halloween movies, and Ernest Stavro Blofeld in the Bond film, You Only Live Once. This part would later be parodied by Mike Myers who styled his Dr. Evil character in the Austin Powers films on Pleasance’s Blofeld. Pleasance also acted in:
- The Beachcomber
- The Great Escape
- Fantastic Voyage
- Innocent Bystanders
- From Beyond the Grave
- Escape from New York
1987 Prince of Darkness
1990 Buried Alive
Pleasance also did a huge amount of television work and in 1958 was voted ‘British Television Actor of the Year’. For more information on Pleasance’s other films and television roles: http://www.answers.com/topic/donald-pleasance
Current Place of Wake in Fright on Contemporary Critical and Market Horizons in Relation to the General Position of Australian Film and its Value
Due to the master copy of Wake in Fright being lost for more than a decade, many viewers (particularly of more recent generations) are perhaps unaware of its existence. While the research I did indicated the importance of the film in Australian cinema history from a critical perspective, its market horizons can not really be judged until it is re-released on DVD, which is yet to be done.
As a foreign director, Kotcheff was able to show an outsider’s view of interior Australia without a biased perspective. Though some may argue that using a foreign director did not make the film uniquely Australian, the issues and style of Wake in Fright were arguably a precursor for such films as Crocodile Dundee and Wolf Creek. While Crocodile Dundee was a more light hearted approach to Australian outback stereotypes, the imagery and ‘otherworldliness’ of the landscape again brought to the world the notion of the unforgiving nature of the Australian environment. Despite the film’s humour, it still represented the idea of the individual vs. the environment, particularly when placing an American woman in this setting.
More recently, Wolf Creek places two female English backpackers into the landscape. The parallels between this film and Wake in Fright are plentiful. Both represent the brutality of men in an isolated landscape, and their interaction with ‘outsiders’. Many of the shots in Wolf Creek correlate with those in Wake in Fright, particularly foreign bodies moving through the Australian landscape. The shot of the English backpacker escaping the mad-man and running into nothingness is not dissimilar to John’s desperate escape from the Yabba.
Australian Cinema today is more celebrated than in the 1970s, and holds a significant place on the global, as well as local market. It must also be remembered that as an English speaking country, Australia is often in direct competition with the UK and USA. However, as O’Regan points out, “National Cinemas…partake of a broader ‘conversation’ with Hollywood and other national cinemas. They carve a space locally and internationally for themselves in the face of the dominant international cinema, Hollywood” In the 1970s the ‘conversation’ between Australian cinema and Hollywood was much more one sided. But in the last decade Australian cinema has come to be seen as a legitimate contender on the global market. Thirty four years after Wake in Fright represented Australia to critical acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival; Wolf Creek was presented at the same festival and also gained a positive critical response.
While much of my online research, particularly movie sites such as www.imdb.com , placed Wake in Fright as part of the drama/thriller genre, writers such as Rayner would suggest that it more fittingly belongs to the area of Australian Gothic. However, because films can belong to more than one type or genre, it really depends on the audience’s perception. With relation to Australian films in general, it suits my purposes to agree with Rayner. He states;
“The narratives [of Australian Gothic] borrow freely from recognizable popular genres…and transplant their protagonists to create unease and alienation…Australian Gothic represents a mode, a stance and an atmosphere…with the appellation suggesting the inclusion of horrific and fantastic materials comparable to Gothic literature”
From the outset of the film the sinister music alone creates a sense of unease. The content of Wake in Fright is, without a doubt horrific, with the town of Bundunyabba creating a creepy atmosphere of contorted values and maniacal, alcohol fuelledbrutality. As Rayner points out, “Wake in Fright foregrounds rural towns and eccentric communities as the breeding grounds of the Gothic” Set in the relentlessly isolated Australian outback, the inhabitants are like caricatures, products of their unforgiving environment. The lighting is dark and the tone of the film even darker, but the very title itself “Wake in Fright”, lends itself almost entirely to the Australian Gothic genre.