Why hadn’t I seen Wake in Fright before now?! For that matter, why the hell haven’t you seen Wake in Fright (assuming you haven’t, of course, but if you have, kudos)?! It boggles my mind to see such an incredible piece of cinema as this remain all-but-forgotten except by a small but devoted cult following until now. The film deserves recognition not only as (perhaps) the greatest film ever to come out of Australia, but also as one of the most affecting pieces of cinema released in the past 50 years. Wake in Fright, which was directed by Ted Kotcheff (First Blood, Uncommon Valor), saw its initial theatrical release way back in 1971, but is only now, thanks to a recent restoration, a run of the festival circuit, and an upcoming home video release from Drafthouse Films, getting the attention and acclaim it deserves.
The film centers on discontented schoolteacher John Grant (British actor Gary Bond), who has been required, much to his dismay, by Australian educational authorities to teach out of the one-room schoolhouse in the isolated outback town of Tiboonda. The film opens at the outset of one summer vacation in which John sets out toward Sydney to see his girlfriend, but soon finds himself stranded in the (fictional) outback mining town of Bundanyabba, known locally as The ‘Yabba. Flat broke and desperate, John reluctantly throws in with the locals and embarks on a maddeningly debaucherous weekend of gambling, drinking, and kangaroo poaching that quickly destabilizes his moral core and undermines his formerly rigid sense of self. His “guide” on this journey, if indeed one trapped in a downward spiral can even be said to have a guide, is “Doc” Tydon, a local drunk who practices unlicensed medicine in exchange for beer, food, and sex. Fellow Brit Donald Pleasance plays the role of Doc and delivers easily one of the single greatest performances of his career, bringing some humanity to the otherwise caricatured citizenry of The ‘Yabba even as he embodies the very madness that vexes John.
For some viewers, the story of John’s self-destruction will appear as something of a horror story, while for others the film will advocate a universal need for acceptance. The latter viewer will interpret his cinematic journey as a castigation of anyone who exhibits an unwillingness to acknowledge the validity of others’ lifestyles, just as John does the way of life in The ‘Yabba. Both interpretations of the film, while diametrically opposed in many ways, are equally valid, however. Personally, though, I embrace the film as tale espousing the equivalence of all people. After all, the film is about human nature, for better or worse. To read the film as purely horrific hinges on the viewer’s ability to focus exclusively on the negative aspects of humanity depicted therein. Still, such a reading is not unwarranted as the filmmakers refuse to spoon-feed us a message of any kind, as difficult as some sequences may be to watch, and actively put in place elements that allow for a myriad of interpretations. This freedom to play with the film’s meanings will ultimately have you thinking about the picture long after “The End” has flashed across the screen.
Wake in Fright will be released on Blu-ray and DVD from Drafthouse Films on January 15, 2013, packed with over two hours of special features. The HD restoration of the picture looks absolutely spectacular on the Blu-ray release, capturing the grittiness of The ‘Yabba with incredible clarity, and the release is also surprisingly loaded with special features. These features include:
-an audio commentary with Kotcheff and editor Anthony Buckley;
-an interview with Kotcheff from Not Quite Hollywood director Mark Hartley;
-a Q&A with Kothcheff at the 2009 Toronto international Film Festival;
-an ABC report on the film’s rediscovery and restoration;
-a vintage excerpt about the production of the film from the Australian television program, Who Needs Art?;
-an obituary for actor Chips Rafferty, who made his final screen appearance in Wake in Fright;
-and theatrical trailers.
The release also comes with a 28-page booklet featuring essays about Wake in Fright, its rediscovery, and the restoration process, as well as a code for a free digital download of the film, available through the Drafthouse website.