I have no idea why he thought I would be interested in a film about homosociality, repressed homosexuality, and drunken depravity.
Wake in Fright is a classic Oz film that I should of course have been more aware of, especially given my 2001 ‘Beyond the Valley of the Mardis Gras‘ essay about my trip to the globe’s nether regions. Though in my defence, the film was regarded as being ‘lost’ in the 1990s until a restored, uncensored, remastered print was released in 2004 to critical acclaim.
Since Wake in Fright is of a piece with my fruity Limey prejudices and fantasies about Australia, I think it quite likely I did see it on late-night TV c.1980 when I was a teenager. I remember being a fan of the peculiar, sparse, yet often quite pretentious Australian films they liked to put on in the post-pub slot, usually on BBC2 the (then) artsy channel – and, after its launch in 1982, Channel 4, the norty-pretending-to-be-artsy channel.
To a teenage Pom, Oztralia seemed to be both exotic and familiar – a budget US without the psychosis and puritanism. And less bourgeois, damp and dreary than the UK: there was more nudity and realistic sex in Australian films than either UK or US films at the time. Wake in Fright gives us Bond’s tan-lined bubble-butt face down on his bed, and his flaccid penis when he gets up. (Though likely the version aired on late-night UK TV c. 1980 would have censored the cock shot.) In a perverse and unsettling fashion, Wake in Fright now seems like an early sighting of male objectification.
And even if I didn’t see it, this bad-dreamlike film was always playing in my head whenever I thought of Australia.
Billed as a ‘psychological thriller’, Wake in Fright does indeed have a lot to do with psychology, and Dr Freud, but I’m not sure it’s what most people would expect from a ‘psychological thriller’. It’s more of a sci-fi horror movie, but with no sci-fi or (human) gore. The singer songwriter Nick Cave described it as “the best and most terrifying film about Australia in existence”, which is quite the accolade from the man who wrote ‘Release the Bats’.
Directed by Canadian Ted Kotcheff, who went on to direct the original Rambo movie (First Blood, 1982), and the black comedy Weekend at Bernie’s (1989), Wake in Fright does have a persistent, pervasive, and escalating sense of non-specific dread. It was based on Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel of the same name – though it the screenplay by Evan Jones upped the (perverse) sexual ante.
English actor Gary Bond is here in his prime – and bottle blond – as John Grant, a young, middle-class but highly athletic-looking, impressively low body-fat Australian schoolteacher, forced to accept a teaching job at a small school in the flyblown outback for two years, to pay back his tertiary education – a $1000 bond (a lot of money back then) guaranteeing his fidelity. Deeply unhappy with this posting and his status, he describes himself as “a bonded slave of the Education Department…” This seems heavily symbolic: Australia was built by indentured servitude – transported convicts obtained their freedom through hard labour.
John, who speaks posh for an Aussie (and was slated to be played by bloomin’ Dirk Bogarde in a much earlier screen adaptation of the book), dreams of moving to England and becoming a journalist – the classic aspiration and escape route for Australian intellectuals. Or ‘pooftahs’, in the local vernacular. (Bond was, by the way, an openly gay actor – decades before it became a good career move.)
NOTE: If you haven’t seen the film, you may want to stop here and come back after you’ve watched it, since there follow almost as many spoilers as beers glugged in the movie.
Wake in Fright has one of the most eloquent and elegant openings in cinema – a simple crane shot of a shack next to a railway line spooling out to the horizon, with a slow, 360 degrees pan across the arid, red, nothingness as far as the eye can see – beaten flat by the scorching, pitiless outback sky, while a Martian soundtrack plays. When the camera finally returns to its starting point you spot a second shack on the other side of the railway line. This and a tiny wooden platform with a sign depicting the name ‘Tiboonda’, is all there is to this town.
The first shack is the school where John is finishing his last class of the year, before he begins his long journey to Sydney, ostensibly to spend Christmas with his girlfriend. The other is a pub, run by a surly lout, above which he has been lodging.
John’s girlfriend, a voluptuous young woman whom we only see in flashback/reverie in her bikini on a beach in Sydney, and in a frayed black and white photo in his wallet that could, in fact, be a clipping from a newspaper or magazine – and whom he doesn’t telephone at any point – is called ‘Robyn’.
She, if she actually exists as anything other than an ambiguous aspiration for John, is one of only four female characters in this entire film – two of which are walk-ons: a young, sulky, taciturn receptionist behind a glass screen, only concerned with the fan keeping her cool; and a middle-aged, disapproving bartender. The fourth woman is Janette (played mesmerizingly by Sylvia Kay), the adult daughter of Tim, one of John’s middle-aged male suitors, a sexually assertive, unapologetically promiscuous avowedly single woman with a rapacious gaze.
But there are of course scads and scads of men. Teeming crowds of them. Men all cheerfully half-cut and sometimes half-dressed enjoying a beer or three and being in the company of other men, just like them. Apparently not missing the company of women at all. The (outback) Australia of Wake in Fright is frighteningly, relentlessly – or endearingly – homosocial. Boozing and gambling and singing and back-slapping are compulsory pastimes.
John finds this sweaty, matey homosociality terribly vulgar and beneath him. Or disturbing – reminding him perhaps of what he really is and what he really isn’t. When he gets on the train to Bundanyabba – called ‘The Yabba’ by locals – from where he plans to fly to Sydney, a group of merry, matey men singing songs offer him a beer and ask him to join them. He sniffily refuses their hospitality and sits primly apart.
In The Yabba, a sprawling mining town, he finds even more – much more – of this ghastly fraternal friendliness and is even more repulsed by it.
He does however allow himself a beer in a vast, man-packed bar that has a ‘CLOSED’ sign on the door, and where the filling of beer glasses is shown as an industrialised process. Here he is befriended by a middle-aged man – the local police chief, Jock Crawford, played by the most Australian Australian, Chips Rafferty (who died not long after shooting wrapped, aged 62).
Not that he has much choice in the matter. John leans against a wall in the crowded pub that looks, if you squint a bit, like an Earls Court gay bar c. 1980, and pops a cigarette in his mouth. Before he can light it himself, a uniformed arm shoots out of nowhere with a flaming lighter for John’s unlit cigarette: “You new to the Yabba?”
Jock – for it is his arm – then buys John a steady stream of beers that cannot be refused. Which in Oz tradition, have to be downed immediately they arrive – Jock watching John intently, as if to make sure he doesn’t cheat. But as with so much in this film, it is fascinatingly difficult to make out what Jock’s actual intentions are. Is he just being matey? Is he sussing out a new face in town as part of his job? Does he fancy John? Maybe all of the above – and none of them.
John then witnesses a bizarre, hilarious, and eerie tribute to The Fallen mates of ANZAC – “we will remember them” – which interrupts the slot machines and drinking for one solemnly observed minute.
John gets drunker and drunker, sweatier and sweatier, and passed from one insistently friendly and beer-purveying middle-aged man to the next, ending up with, I kid you not, Donald Pleasence, playing with gusto Clarence “Doc” Tydon, a bearded medical doctor who is a chronic alcoholic and lives like, or more accurately as, a tramp. Like John he is educated and politely spoken, but he makes no complaints about the uncouthness of the outback or his station in life.
Unlike John, he has no illusions about himself, or why he’s ended up in The Yabba – where, unlike Sydney, no one judges him, his drink dependency is barely noticeable, and people are happy to give him beer and food.
Doc also makes a keen diagnosis of John’s malady:
Doc: Discontent is the luxury of the well-to-do. If you’ve got to live here, you might as well like it. Why don’t you like Crawford?
Doc: The touch of his hairy hand offended you.
John: I’m just bored with it: the aggressive hospitality, the… arrogance of stupid people who insist you should be as stupid as they are.
Doc: It’s death to farm out here. It’s worse than death in the mines. You want them to sing opera as well?
Doc’s outsider-ness runs deep. It later turns out he is a practitioner of sexual libertinism. He has a supply-and-demand, casual but intense, sexual relationship with Janette, who has a hearty sexual appetite and sense of adventure. John doesn’t approve.
Doc: …What’s wrong with a woman taking a man because she feels like it?
John: I really don’t know.
Doc: Because there’s nothing wrong with it. Sex is just like eating: it’s a thing you do because you have to. Not ’cause you want to, but most people are afraid of it. You seem offended by my little discussion of Janette. In the circumstances, I thought you’d be interested.
John: Well, I’m not.
Doc: You’re probably a little puritan, like the rest of these people. They think Janette’s a slut… the women who’d like to act like her, and the men she has given a tumble to. Janette and I are alike. We break the rules. But we know more about ourselves than most people.
John doesn’t know very much about himself. He is in fact working hard not to know very much about himself. Before this exchange he has had an abortive encounter with Janette, after she took an unstoppable shine to him, copiously vomiting when it came to the moment of insistently required coitus. (Throughout the movie, John is presented as passive – for both men and women, and events.)
Janette’s interest in John is though partly because, unlike the other men, he showed interest in her – actually talking to her. Prompting this darkly comic exchange between the other men:
Dick: “What’s the matter with him, he’d rather talk to a woman than drink?”
After his sticky disaster with Janette, John surrenders to the increasingly wild, matey bonding rituals of drinking and kangaroo hunting that Doc, tiny Tim and a couple of huge, macho, misogynist miner mates engage in. John embraces the savagery of the night-time hunt, stabbing a wounded young kangaroo to death.
In addition to finally providing the audience with some action and horror, the director Kotcheff (a vegetarian) is making a blood-stained point about the dark side of Australian mateship and culture, and perhaps hinting at other massacres in Australia’s past. Fortunately, Kotcheff isn’t subjecting us to a feature length lecture about ‘toxic masculinity’ as would be required by law nowadays. He is ambivalent and ambiguous about Australian mateship, but under no illusions. In fact, it is the ambiguousness of this movie and its characters that makes it so compelling. So, documentarian.
The night-time ’roo hunt is followed by another climax: a very messy, drunken encounter between John and Doc in his cabin – although initiated by Doc, it seems consensual, on the basis of the looks exchanged. But the scene discreetly ends before anything happens – this is 1971, remember. [After writing this, I saw a clip in which the director described this in passing as the ‘rape scene’ – so obviously I shouldn’t be allowed out. Then again, what actually happens on-screen doesn’t preclude the possibility that what happened off screen was consensual, but bitterly regretted by someone deeply conflicted.]
The next morning, waking up partially undressed and hungover in the filthy shack, with Doc’s leg sprawled across him, John is filled with horror and revulsion and tells Doc he is leaving. Having lost all his money a couple of days earlier in a drunken gambling spree he hoped would pay off his bond with the Education Board, he is forced to hitchhike out of The Yabba to Sydney. Where ‘Robyn’, civilisation and illusion is waiting for him.
One of his rides is a middle-aged man in a Land Rover. After dropping him off outside a pub, he asks John to come for a drink. John demurs, and the man is clearly hurt, provoking perhaps my favourite exchange in the whole film:
Morley: What’s wrong with you, you bastard? Why don’t you come and drink with me?! I’ve just brought you fifty miles in the heat and dust, and you won’t drink with me! What’s wrong with you?
John: [flabbergasted] What’s the matter with you people, huh? You… sponge on you, you, burn your house down, murder your wife, rape your child, that’s all right! Not have a drink with you, not have a… FLAMING, BLOODY drink with you, that’s a criminal offence, that’s the… end of the bloody world!
Morley: Yer mad, yer bastard!
As a result of another misunderstanding on his next ride, he eventually wakes up in the back of a truck that has brought him back to The Yabba instead of Sydney.
He cannot, in other words, escape himself. In a fury, he rushes to Doc’s cabin, the author of his misery, to shoot him with a rifle: lurid images of Doc having lusty, kinky sex with Janette flashing through his head. Jealousy? Or does Janette stand in for him?
But Doc isn’t there. John waits a while, then attempts to shoot himself, first placing the barrel of the rifle in his mouth, before deciding against fatal fellatio, and pointing it at his temple instead – pulling the trigger just as Doc returns, calling out “JOHN!”
John wakes up bandaged in hospital, having survived with concussion and a bad graze. The near-death experience has however changed him: certain demons have been exorcised or accepted. We see a reconciliation of sorts with a cleaned-up, sober-seeming Doc, who takes him to the train station and sees him off – on his way back to the tiny school in the middle of nowhere. A fate John no longer seems to resist.
In a replay of the scene at the beginning of the film, the carriage John enters is occupied by a group of merry men, one of whom offers him a beer.
This time, however, John accepts the gesture.