Permanent Thirst

Ted Kotcheff, Wake in Fright, 1971, color, 35 mm, 116 minutes. Left: Doc Tydon and John Grant (Donald Pleasence and Gary Bond). Right: Joe, John Grant, Doc Tydon, and Dick (Peter Whittle, Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence, and Jack Thompson).

OUTBACK AUSTRALIA is an inhospitable environment. The light is blinding, the heat searing, and the arid, burnt-earth expanse goes on forever. Yet, ironically, it is the hospitality of those hardy souls desperate or crazy enough to live there that poses the greatest threat to civilized mind and body. Wake in Fright (1971) contrives to ensnare an educated city boy in the hard-drinking, hypermasculine pastimes of a fictional, but all-too-real, outback mining town named—as if to summon the Aussie drawl—Bundanyabba. A reasonably faithful adaptation of Australian author Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel of the same title, the film is the bastard child of a nascent collaboration between Australian and American production companies. Directed by Ted Kotcheff, a Canadian then working in British TV, scripted by a white Jamaican, with the lead roles played by English actors (and supporting roles played mostly by Australian actors), this multinational effort is nonetheless a painfully accurate portrayal of the cruel conviviality—on condition of collective inebriation—that characterized the old, beer-and-Scotch-sloshed Australia.

The narrative arc is entropic: Said city boy, John Grant (Gary Bond), who is paying down his debt to the education department by teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in the middle of nowhere, becomes stranded in “the Yabba” en route to Sydney for summer vacation. Blowing his wad on a “two-up” game that he had hoped would release him from financial bondage, Grant reluctantly submits to the kindness of strangers and is thereby drawn into a boozy maelstrom of moronic male bonding that quickly strips him of all sense and dignity. The descent into madness culminates in a horrifying kangaroo hunt that devolves into sexualized violence: Post slaughter, macho knuckleheads Dick (Jack Thompson) and Joe (Peter Whittle) square off in a drunken brawl that edges slowly toward merged unconsciousness, while “Doc” Tydon (Donald Pleasence), an amoral, alcoholic doctor taking refuge in “the Yabba,” waxes philosophical to Grant, who, paralytic, passes out. Rallying, Grant spirals deeper into oblivion back at Doc’s shack where more booze and gunplay lead to a semiconscious libidinal encounter. Upon regaining his senses, Grant tries to hitch a ride to Sydney, but, owing to a miscommunication, gets taken back to the Yabba. Having finally reached the end of his rope, our beaten-down protagonist attempts to off himself but instead winds up in the local hospital, spending the rest of his vacation in recovery.

Blending the psychological horror genre with cultural anthropology and fictive documentary, Wake in Fright mercilessly skewers and debunks two of Australia’s proudest mythologies—the moral rectitude of Aussie “mateship” and the romantic mystique attached to the outback terrain. Shocking in its day—the brutal hunting scenes, for instance, laid waste to the saccharine fantasy of environmental harmony promoted by the anthropomorphizing adventures of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (a hugely popular TV series launched in 1966—think Lassie or Flipper but with bizarre marsupial heroics)—the film provided a savage riposte to the operative models of Australian masculinity, Grant’s arrogantly cultured persona included. Consequently, in my mind, Paul Hogan’s lovable larrikin Crocodile Dundee will be forever stalked by the malevolent stupidity of Jack Thompson’s WiF character, and the populist desert idyll promoted by canonical colonialist art and literature will always be haunted by the image of shitfaced bozos tearing up the landscape in a battered V8, running down ’roos. Neither a redeeming journey of self-discovery nor a visual paean to majestic outback vistas, Wake in Fright is most remarkable for its unexpurgated depiction of life at the perimeter of a peripheral Commonwealth nation, spinning a tale—that rings utterly true—of culture and consciousness unraveling at the frayed edge of Western civilization.

A new 35-mm print of Wake in Fright will be screened at Film Forum in New York, October 5 through October 11.