If the popularity of writers such as Donald Ray Pollock, Cormac McCarthy, Daniel Woodrell and Frank Bill is anything to go by, rural noir is a big deal in the United States.
While it may not be anywhere near as well-known, for my money, the 1961 novel Wake In Fright by Australian writer Kenneth Cook is up there with the best of them. The film adaption of Wake In Fright hit Australian cinemas in 1971. Forty-three years later and it’s hard to think of comparable piece of cinema that has come out of the country.
Wake In Fright was a blistering take on three of the central features of the 1960s white Anglo Saxon culture in Australia: mateship, the romance of the outback, and drinking. Especially drinking.
The central character, John Grant, is a mild-mannered teacher working in a tiny speck of a town called Tiboonda. Its isolation and distance from the coast has obliterated nearly all aspects of civilization, except the ability of the local pub to keep the beer cold. Grant is leaving for his Christmas holidays. He has his holiday pay in his pocket and fantasies of meeting up with his girlfriend in Sydney. All that stands in his way is an overnight train stop in Bundanyabba or ‘the Yabba’ as the locals call it.
Grant passes his night in the Yabba sinking a few beers in one of the town’s many pubs. He meets Jock Crawford, the town’s police chief, who tells him it’s a quiet place with a low crime rate. “Of course,” he adds, “we do have a few suicides.”
Crawford takes Grant to another pub for dinner. In a room adjoining the restaurant, a crowd of men is playing a traditional Australian betting game called two-up. Grant can’t resist having a go and ends up loosing all his holiday pay. Thus starts a lengthy, booze soaked couple of days in which Grant will loose his pride and his sanity, and suicide won’t seem such a bad option.
Grant is nursing a beer, bought with his last remain funds, plotting how he can escape the Yabba, when he is befriended by a local mine manager called Haynes. Haynes insists on taking him home for a roast dinner and what turns into an all night drinking session with other men from the mine.
Grant wakes up next morning in a shack owned by Doc Tydon. “I’m a doctor of medicine and a tramp by temperament,” Tydon tells Grant. “I’m also an alcoholic.” While his drinking is a major impediment to practicing medicine in most cities, according to Tydon, “here it’s scarcely noticeable”.
The men from the previous evening arrive to take Tydon and Grant kangaroo shooting. The ensuring drug and alcohol-fuelled carnage comprised over 40 pages of the book and is given significant treatment in the film. The visceral images are so disturbing due to the fact that much of the killing was real.
Canadian Director Ted Kotcheff hired professional shooters for the hunting scenes, to ensure the kangaroos were killed quickly and painlessly. The shooters drank whisky to keep warm during the lengthy night shoot, got drunk and started wounding the animals instead of killing them.
The following morning, Grant makes another effort to escape the Yabba, by hitching a lift with a passing truck driver, but this, too, ends badly.
Wake In Fright works so well because fear of being trapped in the outback – the vast expanse of harsh terrain that makes up the majority of Australia – is still semi hard-wired into the psyche of most city-dwelling Australians. The prospect must have been even more terrifying back in the early seventies, when our interior was so much more remote and alien.
Cook infused his book with his experiences working for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in the remote mining town of Broken Hill, 1,000 kilometers inland from Sydney. Broken Hill also stands in for the Yabba in the film. It was by all accounts a tough shoot that lasted nearly three months.
Not content with Broken Hill’s already hardscrabble look, Kotcheff got his crew to catch blowflies to release on set and dust was sprayed on to furniture and props to make them look older. The cumulative effect, in addition to the blood, sweat and constant drinking, is enough to make even the most hardened cinemagoer want a shower afterwards.
English actor Gary Bond does a wonderful job of portraying Grant’s slow descent into the nightmare landscape of the Yabba. The tension is heightened by solid performances by the supporting players. Australian screen veteran Chips Rafferty, in his last movie role, is particularly good as the police chief, an Australian version of noir’s classic southern US sheriff. Donald Pleasance almost steals the show as the debauched outback libertine, Doc Tydon, complete with a near perfect Australian accent.
The film had a major critical impact in Australia, and is often credited as being responsible for the rejuvenation of our local film industry. It was also a hit in the US and Europe (where it was retitled Outback), and was shown at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival.
Local audiences gave the film a cooler reception. Many were shocked by its portrayal of the outback, particularly the savagery of the kangaroo hunt. Wake In Fright sank into obscurity and was unavailable on VHS and DVD until 2009.
It wouldn’t have been re-released at all were it not for the efforts of the film’s editor and a number of others, who scoured international film libraries for nearly six years to find the original print. They eventually found it in, of all places, in a shipping container in Pittsburgh in 2003, along with a pile of other films labeled ‘For Destruction’.