I first read Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel Wake in Fright in 1990. It was a set text for my English class and not something that I would have chosen to read. At the time, I was still coming down from a period spent adoring the images of Australia that had filled my head since seeing Crocodile Dundee four years earlier and from the 1988 celebrations of 200 years of permanent white settlement in Australia. As a child I wanted to grow up to be a movie star. Later, after I first saw Oliver! I wanted to be a pickpocket and after seeing Raiders of the Lost Arc I naturally wanted to be an archaeologist – or Harrison Ford. However one of the biggest impressions left on me when I was younger was Paul Hogan playing Mick Dundee, the distinctively Aussie bushman in Crocodile Dundee.
It was not until I read Wake in Fright that I encountered the idea that the Australian outback could be anything but an idyllic mix of mateship, adventure and honest hard work. But in the pages of Cook’s revelatory novel about a schoolteacher trapped for 48 hours in a nightmarish mining town known by the locals as The Yabba, I encountered this world of aggressive hospitality, ritualistic drinking, violence against nature, warped sexuality and primal masculinity. It wasn’t so much that this novel made me start to question the Australia of The Man From Snowy River and Crocodile Dundee, but it unlocked some part of me that had already started suspecting that Australia possessed a heart of darkness that people generally didn’t like to talk about.
Now, almost 20 years after reading the book, I’ve finally seen the restored 1971 film adaptation of Wake in Fright. In the first five minutes of the film two things struck me immediately. Firstly was that the director Ted Kotcheff presents the remote Australian desert in a way that has more in common with the work of the great Italian Western director Sergio Leone than anything done by an Australian filmmaker. The opening 360-degree shot of the brutal emptiness says all you need to know about the version of Australia that we as the audience are about to be thrust into. The second thing that hit me was that John Meillon plays Charlie, the suspicious and unpleasant barman in Wake in Fright. Meillon also played the loveable and amenable Walter Reilly in Crocodile Dundee. These two performances by Meillon alone communicate the vast differences between Wake in Fright’s representation of the outback as a gothic nightmare and Crocodile Dundee’s romanticised imagining.
I had never actively sought out the film adaptation of Wake in Fright so it was not until news of the new print being discovered and then restored did I discover that it was the great ‘lost’ Australian film. I was also surprised to learn that it was an acclaimed film that had been screened in competition at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival and received rave reviews at the time both locally and internationally. So why on earth did it drop out of circulation in the late 1970s?
The fact is that despite critical support for the film, Australian audiences failed to embrace it when it was released. They were shocked and affronted. Wake in Fright was a domestic box office flop, disappearing from Australian cinemas just weeks after its release, receiving just one screening on commercial television in the 1980s. Why did people hate it so much at the time?
Wake in Fright was made just on the cusp of the Australian film industry’s ‘revival’ when the Australian government was making a conscious effort to create the infrastructure for a localised industry. This was done partly to break Australia’s long economic, political and cultural subservience to other countries when it came to filmmaking and film distribution. There was also the stated intention of presenting to the rest of the world a cultural output that Australians could be proud of. So in this new era of patriotic filmmaking it is little wonder that a film that dared to be critical of Australia, which was directed by a Canadian (Ted Kotcheff), starred two Englishmen (Donald Pleasence and stage actor Gary Bond) and was adapted for the screen by a Jamaican (Evan Jones) would be met with resistance from both audiences and from within sectors of the industry.
There was also the fact that Wake in Fright did not easily slot into any of the other groups of films coming out of Australia at the time. It is neither an art-house film nor a historical drama; its dark humour is far too sinister for it to sit alongside the broad ocker comedies and it doesn’t contain the generic expectations or excess that could align it with the Ozploitation films. Along with Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout, and to a lesser degree Tony Richardson’s Ned Kelly, Wake in Fright was an anomaly: made in the wrong time, in the wrong place and by the wrong people – at least that’s the way it must have seemed to local audiences at the time of its release.
I am amazed at how relevant Wake in Fright still is almost 40 years later. In the years between reading the book and seeing the film I have encountered first-hand the vicious snobbery that many Australians have towards people who don’t conform to the blokey ideals of relentless drinking and sublimated homoerotic male bonding. Australians like to think that they’re an accepting and all-embracing bunch. But try fronting up to a BBQ and explaining that you have no interest in any code of football. Try resisting participation in a round of drinks because you only want the one and don’t want to be held hostage to subsequent rounds later that night. It’s little wonder that cultural and intellectual ‘snobs’, such as Wake in Fright’s protagonist John Grant, exist in Australia. These types of snobs are a reaction to Australia’s dominant code of behaviour; a rebellious reaction to what Grant describes as, “the arrogance of the stupid who expect you to be as stupid as them.”
The rediscovery of the original negatives of Wake in Fright, its restoration and now cinema release is a significant moment in Australian film culture. Wake in Fright is a masterfully crafted film and as relevant today as it ever was. Culturally it is a film that the broader Australian community should now be able to appreciate, especially since attitudes towards our prevalent drinking culture are (very) slowly starting to change. The film’s somewhat mythical and cult status should also help to attract audiences simply out of curiosity. But hopefully, Wake in Fright will now earn its place as one of the great Australian films.