By Robert Kenneth Dator.
Great Australian films are not so hard to come by. Finding great Australian films that Australians think are great is another matter all together. Australian film, troubled from the late 1940s when exhibitors decided to get out of the production business, spawned a robust share of shaky productions lacking in idiomatic focus that belied their earlier Cinesound days; an unfortunate circumstance that existed well into the late 70s. Add to this a contempt for Hollywood joint productions—The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll [aka Season of Passion] (1959); The Sundowners (1960) to name but two—joint productions that offended Australian purist sensibilities concerning authentic content, add a dash of growing dilettantism, toss in a crop of local shyster producers looking for a tax dodge if not free money, and viola: trouble in paradise. This environment also bred a mania for experimentation and a slavish bond to the new, the brash, the cutting edge, leading to movies from the 1960’s and ‘70’s that, by-and-large, suffer from third act trouble or manifest meandering—wayward plots and story lines that just seem to stop rather than end—so that one imagines a cast of characters left to wander aimlessly in the dark. Many another cannot get out of its own way for crushing self-consciousness. But, a complete film, a solid film unencumbered by a need to dismantle the linear narrative will rank amongst the greatest of the great films worldwide. Wake in Fright is just such a film.
A truly seminal work, Wake in Fright directed by Ted Kotcheff, met with a dismal reception upon its release in 1971. A film possessed of raw power and blistering honesty, Wake in Fright is hard to watch in any age, but for an Australia contemporaneously looking for a national identity on a world stage, it struck entirely too close to home. “No,” Australians will argue, “this is not the real Australia, the cultured Australia, the cultivated Australia, the educated and sophisticated Australia, this is a snapshot of the underbelly of a big, dry, dusty continent.” Fair enough, but neither is every Australian the son or daughter of a deported convict or remittance man, and yet, this embarrassment of circumstances effects the cultural heritage and national psyche as much as tales of Sydney’s 19th century razor gangs, the myths of Ned Kelly, and the Bunyip—but to the good, there remains Banjo Patterson, Norman Lindsay, Sister Kenny, and Dame Joan Sutherland, to mention but a fraction of greats. In the end, heritage, like it or not, is the warts-and-all product of a people from the greatest among them to their most detested.
For a nation still searching for authentic representations of its character, Wake in Fright offers an honest look at the less genteel reality of life for a whopping-great segment of the population, summed up in what protagonist John Grant (Gary Bond) coins “aggressive hospitality.” But Wake in Fright is far more than a nasty criticism of what might laughingly be called “rural Australia.” It remains an outwardly simple story bursting with intricate shades of underlying entendre and emotional nuance—all of which is handled deftly by a brilliant cast, perfectly at home in its collective skin. Wake in Fright is so far from self-conscious that the forgiving nature of an ethos that judges not lest it be judged comes to the fore in all its manifestations, from self-serving stoicism to something approaching tenderness. Into the bargain, Wake in Fright is as much cathartic vehicle for a darker self crying out for recognition as it is a time capsule, for here one can see icons and early appearances by those who would become icons of the Australian film industry: the perennial, Jack Thompson (Dick); all to brief screen moments with revered actor John Meillon (Charlie), and the legendary Chips Rafferty (Jock Crawford). Additionally, Donald Pleasance turns in perhaps his greatest performance as the resigned Doc Tydon.
Wake in Fright is, among a great deal else, an indictment of lonely men on the fringes of a society that needs them to do the thankless jobs in the pitiless hard places best left out of sight and out of mind, and the rocks under which the failed and the broken can crawl seeking shelter from a pitiless light from which no blemish can hide. Wake in Fright is at once taut drama, psychological thriller, and allegorical horror. For the panoply of sweat-stained, bedraggled diggers, cheerfully, perpetually drunk, it is just another day into night into day… For John Grant, the town of Bundayabba—“the Yabba,” as it is affectionately known by the residents of the milder, shallower circles of hell—presents a slow dissent toward madness. Yes, the ragged edges of depravity peek through in this film of unparalleled savage intensity, but one devoted to a hard and unforgiving country, to hard and yet fair-minded men, generous to a fault, possessed of a nonetheless gentle heart—no matter how well armored. When the shock wears off, and the hangover eases a bit, there is yet something redeemable underlying the tragic depictions of waste and dissolution; something rye and deeply, if not darkly funny: like the fable of Sisyphus, the boulder of unresolved grief awaits the slope of the daily ordeal of living “out the back of Burke.”
Actor, writer and director, Robert Kenneth Dator worked in feature film and television in the United States and Australia before teaching and attending Graduate School. Rob and family live in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he is hard at work on several projects including the soon to launch academic website Cinepsyche.
Wake in Fright was released on Blu-ray and DVD by Eureka! Entertainment as part of their “Masters of Cinema” series.