Considered one of the greatest Australian films of all time, Wake in Fright was supposedly lost for nearly forty years since its original theatrical release back in 1971. However, the original film reels were eventually recovered in early 2000s and after another decade of painstaking work, this important piece of cinema has been restored to its original glory. Screened in the eerily appropriate Mackintosh church as part of the Glasgow Film Festival, the general public can now finally witness the power and engrossing beauty of Wake in Fright.
Based upon Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel of the same name, the film follows the young sophisticated school teacher John Grant, currently working in the desolate Australian outback, as he travels to Sydney for Christmas break. However, after a drunken bout of gambling, Grant is left with a single dollar to his name and stranded in the rough mining town known as The Yabba. Grant is now at the mercy of the friendly but brutish locals and slowly becomes enthralled in their alcohol fuelled barbaric culture where sex, violence, and sheer cruelty are common place.
It would be an insult to define Wake in Fright as part of any one genre, but given the impact on the viewer it more closely resembles a horror film than any other. The classic horror tropes are cast aside in favour of introspective shock as the true fear lies within the morally absent characters and their negligence, perfectly summarised by Donald Pleasance’s Doc Tydon as he addresses Grant in a drunken stupor “I cannot accept your premise, Socrates. Affectability? Progress? A vanity spawned by fear”.
Grant’s fall from grace initially seems fun as he engages in the excessive drinking, bizarre games, and brash humour of the colourful citizens of The Yabba, but slowly the intoxicated antics become more sinister and so disturbing that by the end of the film the laughter has faded completely. This tonal shift is never more evident than during the infamous kangaroo hunt where real footage is employed showing these animals murdered at the hands of drunken brutes. The juxtaposition between our carefree protagonist’s laughter and the gut-wrenching squeals of these poor animals is difficult to watch, but the choice to use real footage reinforces the disgusting culture that existed in the arid plains of the outback.
With a powerful and thoughtful script, fabulous performances from the entire cast, and some truly gorgeous shots of the beautiful landscape, Wake in Fright deserves every bit of praise that it has received. This masterpiece delivers a rare and engrossing glimpse of humanity, so horrid to watch but impossible to look away.