Before I read an article about producer-director Ted Kotcheff (1931-) in the University of Toronto alumni magazine, had someone asked me who put Australia on the map of world cinema, I would have answered Peter Weir. Weir’s first movie to make it out of Australia into repertory cinemas was “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” which was released in 1975. (Weir’s Gallipoli (1981), The Year of Living Dangerously, and Witness (1985) all made bigger splashes; the second two starred Mel Gibson who had a breakout success in Australian director George Miller’s 1979 “Mad Max” and its sequels.)
The two 1971 movies set in the Australian outback that played at the Cannes Film Festival (neither of which became hits in Australia) were directed by non-Australians: cinematographer-turned director Nicolas Roeg’s “Walkabout” and Toronto-born (and University of Toronto alumnus) Ted Kotcheff’s “Wake in Fright” (also released as “Outback”). Both involve considerable travails in the outback, though those in “Wake” are much more self-inflicted than the story of two orphaned white children in “Walkabout.” Whether or not they are “horror films,” both are quite disturbing (as Weir’s movies also would be).
“Wake in Fright” opens in the last minutes before Christmas break in a one-room schoolhouse taught by a svelte blond whom we will learn is named John Grant (played by English actor Gary Bond, who was in “Zulu”). He then crosses the railroad tracks in a desolate landscape to the small hotel where he stays, packs two bags, and buys the shabby owner (I think) of the hotel, who is also its bartender a drink.
There is a group of roisterers on the one-coach train that picks him up, the only passenger to board at Tiboonda. John refuses the offer of a beer from them. This turns out to be the only drink (mostly beer) he manages to refuse in the movie.
He plans to stay overnight in Bundanyabba before flying to Sydney, where he will reconnect with his girlfriend (whose picture with a surfboard he carries in his wallet; there was a larger one in his hotel room in Tiboonda). The local constable, Jock (Chips Rafferty, The Desert Rats) stands him a drink, even though he has one. It seems that one must chug one’s beer and accept another if one is offered. A lot are offered John.
Jock takes John to get a steak (charge one dollar; his hotel room was four, btw). Down the table from him is a drunk called “Doc” (the usually sinister Donald Pleasance [Cul de Sac, Will Penny, Halloween]) who takes the bread and eggs John does not want.
Attached to the restaurant/bar is a large room in which men are betting large sums of money (having just been paid) on the outcome of coin flips (“two-up”). Two coins are thrown high in the air. If they come down split (one head, one tail), it doesn’t count. Only two heads or two tails count.
John wins some money, leaves, and considers that with a few dollars more he could buy his way out of the contract that consigned him to teaching in Tiboonda. Instead (quell surprise!), he loses all his money.
Having missed his flight to Sydney, John is taken home by Tim Hynes (Al Thomas). The beer continues to flow at Tim’s house, especially after some other men arrive. John shocks them by being more interested in talking to a woman (Tim’s taciturn daughter, Janette [Sylvia Kay, Kotcheff’s wife]) than in drinking. She eventually leads him away from the house and opens her dress. He climbs on her, but instead of copulating with her, lurches off to throw up.
Later that night, an unconscious John is deposited in the shack in which Doc squats. Then the real horrors begin, notably a “hunting” party in which four drunk men (and a dog) slaughter kangaroos. Though one kangaroo (Nelson) boxes before having his throat cut, others are run down or shot while frozen by unfamiliar(spot)light.
My tolerance for drunks is low and my tolerance for drunks shooting rifles nil. I hunted deer in my youth, but even then considered that hunting by motorized vehicles (helicopters being the most contemptible in my eyes) a travesty of “sport.”
Compared to the slaughter of the kangaroos, I don’t care if Doc raped John while the latter was unconscious. (That would enhance the similarity to “Deliverance” with its American yokels.) I would not have cared if one of the hunters killed another in a knock-down fight that causes considerable damage to an out-of-the-way bar. (And I hoped that Nelson, the boxing kangaroo, would win.)
John has the residual decency to have twinges of distaste for his companions and for the kangaroo slaughter. He is along and participating out of weakness, though in some sense has chosen the degradation of the company he is keeping (going back to selling his plane ticket to gamble). He lacks the defiance of Don Giovanni at the end of the Mozart-Du Ponte opera. He is bewildered by his damnation, not unlike the puzzlement at chaos Richard Chamberlain (whom he physically resembles) portrayed in Peter Weir’s (more opaque) “The Last Wave” (1979).
I will not go farther into detailing the nightmare “vacation,” which has a nicely ironic ending.
The movie was based on a 1961 Australian novel set in the mining town of Broken Hill, New South Wales (where the movie was filmed) by Kenneth Cook, adapted by Jamaica-born screenwriter Evan Jones (who had scripted four Joseph Losey films (Eva, These Are the Damned, King and Country, Modesty Blaise- I’d say “Wake in Fright” most resembles “These Are the “Damned” though that has a more specific source of menace and more terminal malaise).
Having made something of a seminal Australian movie, Kotcheff went on to direct a movie that in a similar way put Canada on the international cinema map, “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” (1974, with a young Richard Dreyfuss playing the title character, also lensed by Brian West), the movie won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, the first Canadian film to win an international award) and my favorite football movie (North Dallas Forty, 1979). More recently, Kotcheff produced (and directed some episodes of) “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit “). According to the University of Toronto alumni magazine, he has retired up the coast from Puerto Vallarta. (BTW, his parents were emigrants from Bulgarian Macedonia.)
Insofar as “Wake in Fright” is a “Christmas movie,” it may be the most unsettling one ever (and more than most, a “holidaze” one!). Its DVD release was championed by Martin Scorsese, who saw it in Cannes in 1971.