Wake In Fright



This neglected morality piece by Director Ted Kotcheff, originally released in 1971, gets a timely rerelease on DVD and shows us parts of Australia that the guide books would doubtless prefer to skip. Young teacher John Grant (Gary Bond, looking uncannily like a young Peter O Toole) sets off from a remote town in the outback with the intention of spending his summer vacation with his lady love in Sydney. Driven to boresom by his current job, from which there seems no escape unless he can buy himself out of his contract, he is relishing six weeks of freedom. But the trip incurs a one night stopover in Bundanyabba, a bustling little township where drinking and gambling seem to be the residents’ full-time occupation.

John bumps into local copper Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty) who shows him ‘the sights,’ most of which seem to involve the imbibing of copious amounts of alcohol and he also encounters Doc (Donald Pleasance) a former man of medicine, now a full time drunk. Before very long, John finds himself drawn into a local gambling craze, where people bet large amounts of money on the toss of two coins. At first, he wins and starts to see a possibility of a way out of his financial problems… but almost before he knows it, his luck changes and he finds himself drunk, broke and reduced to begging off the locals for his board and lodging…

Wake In Fright barely got noticed on first release and it’s easy to see why. Its unsympathetic illustration of the outback aussies as a race of drunken halfwits wasn’t going to make any friends in Australia, (particularly when helmed by a Canadian director) and his unflinching depiction of the ‘sport’ of kangaroo hunting, utilising genuinely harrowing footage, must have had the animal rights lobby all stirred up too. Throw in an ending that’s about as bleak as a wet weekend in Morecambe and it’s little wonder that this didn’t put bums on seats in ’71. But with the gift of hindsight there’s much here to admire, not least the performances of Gary bond and the late, lamented Donald Pleasance, who offers yet another in his gallery of grotesques. As a salutary warning to avoid the excesses of alcohol, it’s powerful stuff that was probably years ahead of its time.

Give it another shot. But be warned. If you were planning to go Walkabout in the outback thss year, you might find yourself rethinking the whole thing.

 4 stars

Philip Caveney


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