FILM (1971)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 December, 2009, 12:00am

Wake in Fright
Donald Pleasence, Gary Bond, Chips Rafferty, Jack Thompson, Sylvia Kay
Director: Ted Kotcheff

Canadian filmmaker Ted 'First Blood' Kotcheff picked up Kenneth Cook's 1961 Australian novel Wake in Fright and couldn't put it down until he'd read every word. So when it came time to turn the book into a film, Kotcheff was determined to stay as faithful to the written word as possible. First, he shot in and around Broken Hill, in outback New South Wales, where the book was set. Then he went about recreating the atmosphere of dry, dusty desolation that slowly envelopes schoolteacher John Grant (played by Gary Bond) when he finds himself trapped for five nights in a brutal town where he doesn't belong.

That the director was successful on both counts proved both the genius of Wake in Fright and its downfall. For despite premiering at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival - and competing for the Palme d'Or under the title Outback - it was widely snubbed at home where it was 'perhaps too uncomfortably direct and uncompromising to draw large Australian audiences'. It was, however, warmly received by critics and audiences alike in Britain and France (where it ran for five months).

The only known print of the film was found in Dublin in the early 1990s, but it was of such poor quality that a DVD transfer was put on hold. The film's editor, Anthony Buckley, made it his mission to search for a better-quality print and in 2004 he stumbled upon a set of negatives in a shipping container in Pittsburgh labelled 'For Destruction'. After four years of painstaking digital restoration, Wake in Fright was finally released on DVD and Blu-Ray last month following a rapturous cinematic run at the Sydney Film Festival in June.

Make no mistake, Wake in Fright is a masterpiece, but at times it's all a little too real. And that was especially the case for audiences Down Under, where legend has it that at the first screening in Broken Hill, one of the locals leapt to his feet and hollered: 'That's not us!'). For international audiences, the culture depicted must have seemed blood-thirsty and terrifyingly alien.

The central character, Bond, is trying to get back to the 'big smoke' (Sydney) to spend the Christmas holidays with his girlfriend. But he ends up in The Yabba, a grim bolt hole where the six o'clock swill (sculling beer), gambling (two-up, above) and blood sports (kangaroo shooting) are the primary pastimes. Despite his haughtiness and perceived intellectual superiority, Bond is slowly drawn into this barbaric, male-dominated society and enters his own personal hell. Kotcheff focuses on the suffocating isolation a stranger can feel when trapped on society's fringes. And he gets it spot on. From the 'roo shoot' (controversially, the filmmakers took cast and crew along for an actual kangaroo cull), to the bar room brawls and banter, Wake in Fright cuts no corners.

It's a horror show for sure, but one with dashes of rough humour thrown in among the bleak realities so you are as much entertained as engrossed. A piece of cinematic history everyone should see.