Wake in Fright (1971) ****1/2
Director: Ted Kotcheff
Runtime: 2h 0m
Note: I’ll admit that I’m pushing it by classifying this as a Christmas horror movie, but it’s one of my favorite films and it does technically take place over the Christmas holiday.
Teachers are so venerated in our society that saying anything negative about them, even a harmless joke at a dinner party, is to set oneself up for a sanctimonious lecture. This has always puzzled me, because while I have had a few competent, and a very few inspiring, teachers, most of the profession, in my experience, has been a bunch of incompetent buffoons who were twiddling their thumbs until their pensions kicked in. Of course, the buffoons were preferable to the bullies, who seemingly took up their profession only because of the power it gave them over people much smaller and less experienced than themselves. The odd part is that all these adults singing the praises of teachers went through the same education system that I did, so how on earth did they forget just what a worthless bunch teachers are when taken on the whole? Fortunately some people don’t suffer amnesia upon filing their first tax return, as evidenced by two of my favorite films: The 400 Blows (1959) and Wake in Fright. The 400 Blows (1959) shows us a real bully of a teacher, while Wake in Fright gives us the perfect example of the thumb-twiddling buffoon. Indeed, the only scene we see where John Grant is actually teaching tells us all that we need to know. It’s the last day of class before Christmas break, and Grant is just as eager to get out of there as any of his students. Indeed, the whole class is sitting in silence, waiting for the clock to count down and the bell to sound.
John Grant, our central protagonist, is a pretentious “intellectual” who is currently serving out his time as a teacher in a desolate backwater settlement deep in the Australian interior. Indeed the settlement where Grant lives and teaches consists of a railroad station, a bar (above which he rents a room), and a single room schoolhouse. There is no way that the Australian government could hope to supply its vast rural countryside with fit teachers, so they have worked out a scheme, which as far as I can tell was actually a real practice in the 60s and 70s: The government pays for the teacher’s education, then makes them work in the outback until they pay off their debt. A teacher that lucks into a bit of money can buy his way out of the task, but John Grant doesn’t have much in the way of luck. Like all “intellectuals” incapable of earning a living for themselves without government assistance, Grant is convinced that he is better than just about everyone around him, a prejudice that has only deepened during his exile in the outback. Ironically, self-involved teachers who feel they are too good to educate their charges are partially at fault for the intellectual stagnation of the Australian back-country. Grant is in for a rather rude awakening regarding his own moral and intellectual pretensions in the coming ninety odd minutes.
Grant’s posting is so remote and desolate that there is not even an airport anywhere nearby that he can use to get back to Sydney. Before he can get home he has to take the train to a still small and desolate, but significantly larger, mining town called Bundanyabba, called The Yabba by its inhabitants. The town is a rough place, populated by rough men who make their living either tilling the barely fertile earth or slaving away in the mines. If the Yabba has any sizable population of female inhabitants they are keeping out of sight. Given that this is Australia, the men are also drunk and disorderly as a rule and sober only as an occasional exception. Pretty much the only place open in town when Grant arrives is a pub with a posted closing time that is as ridiculously early as it is inaccurate; despite what the sign says the joint will be open through the night. Grant, having nothing better to do decides to get a beer and wait for morning.
It’s here that Grant meets the town’s only police officer, one Jock Crawford. Jock is a little smaller than a barn and drinks slightly less than a fish, usually polishing off a pint of beer in one swig. If the booze has any effect on him I can’t see it. Jock is actually pretty good at his job, he realizes that if a fight breaks out it’s gonna happen at the pub, and that the most probable casus belli will be the uppity city-slicker insulting one of the local drunks. So, Jock hangs out all night in the bar, and keeps a close eye on Grant to make sure he doesn’t rub anyone the wrong way. Jock’s instance that Grant match him drink for drink is perhaps a little less wise, but it seems to be just an expression of the ubiquitous charity and alcoholism in the provincial town. As we will see later, Jock isn’t even the most notable practitioner of this either. It’s obvious in his interactions with Jock that Grant looks down on the man, and indeed looks down on almost everyone in the Yabba. Jock is either too slow to catch on, or more probably, too polite and responsible to do anything about it. Eventually Grant manages to separate from the cop, under the pretext that he can drink nothing more without getting some supper, Jock points him in the direction of a greasy tavern where Grant can get a miserable excuse for a steak.
Grant is the film’s protagonist, and our viewpoint character but it’s in this desolate little greasy spoon that we have the first glimpse at the film’s star. Dr Tydon, ably portrayed by Donald Pleasance (who was actually a talented actor when he was not being cast in roles that required he battle The Pumaman (1980) while wearing a bondage outfit), is a disgraced, alcoholic doctor from one of Australia’s costal cities. He has taken up residence in the Yabba to mooch off the inhabitants for limitless free booze, while indulging in all his most perverse desires on the side. If there’s anything he needs to buy, Tydon can barter for it with medical services. It’s Tydon who will be the one leading Grant down the road to wickedness, ruin, and eventually madness. Pleasance’s physicality is a real asset in this role; his small doughy body is incapable of intimidation, unlike the hulking Jock. It’s easy for Grant to let his guard down around the man, particularly when he learns that Tydon is another refugee from the big city. Grant may think that he’s found a peer, but Tydon is leagues ahead of Grant in understanding the situation in the Yabba. He realizes that life in the Yabba is hard and Grant’s sneering condescension is hardly warranted. “It’s death to farm out here. It’s worse than death in the mines. You want them to sing opera as well?” He astutely comments. What does a posh city boy like Grant know about hardship of the rural farmers/miners he’s so quick to look down upon?
Grant then makes the first of many mistakes. After winning a coin toss game that the locals play in the back of the main tavern, Grant realizes that another toss will land him enough to pay off his bond and get him out of his hellish posting in the outback. Maybe if he had had a few less beers he wouldn’t risk all his winnings and spending money on the coin toss, but by now he’s too far gone to think clearly. Grant not only looses the coin toss, he doubles down and risks all the money he brought for his plane tickets back to Syndey. The next morning he will be nursing one hell of a hangover and have just two dollars to his name, one of which he’ll have to give to the hotel to have his room cleaned. To make matters worse the local labor office is closed the next day, so Grant can’t even raise the meager amount he needs to buy a ticket back to his one-room schoolhouse digging ditches or clearing brush. As for the compulsive generosity of the locals, well that’s still in effect but it only applies to booze, not to cold hard cash – few of them have that kind of money lying around anyway. This is the last thing that Grant needs right now, but as I mentioned above he’s going to be making a lot of bad decisions throughout the next couple of days. So, naturally enough he falls in with a pact of generous drunken louts, Dr. Tydon foremost among them, who fill him to the gills with cheap beer. That night, his new friends take Grant on a roo hunt.
Hunting kangaroos in order to keep their numbers under control was a common but controversial practice in Australia circa 1971. The roo hunting sequence in Wake in Fright was obviously intended to inflame this controversy and it succeeds spectacularly. The inclusion of real footage of roo hunters will make the sequence deeply disturbing viewing for any Western audience (Chinese audiences, accustomed to rampant animal cruelty of Calamity of Snakes (1983) and Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind (1980) will probably wonder what the fuss is about). The genuine footage of roo hunts is interspliced with shots of the actors in a similarly barren stretch of Australian wasteland. The whole sequence is so heavily edited that there is no way to objectively evaluate how cruel the kangaroo hunts really were, but the immediate emotional effect will probably prove sickening. Obviously, director Ted Kotcheff finds the practice abhorrent and isn’t afraid to share it loudly.
After the horrid ordeal of the kangaroo hunt, a massive intoxicated Grant stumbles back to Tydon’s hut and appears to have sex with the Doctor. Grant wakes the next morning, disconcerted and hung-over to say the least and decides that he has had enough, he’s going to get out of this hellhole come hell or high water. Unfortunately, it’s at this point that The Yabba starts to resemble Catholic purgatory more than a small Outback town. No matter what road Grant tries to escape by, be it hitch hiking, walking, or even suicide, he winds up back in The Yabba, specifically in the company of the archfiend Dr. Tydon.
To say Wake in Fright is not for everyone is to do my readers a disservice. Hell, I’d say it’s not a movie for anyone, were it not so exquisitely made. Wake in Fright is a visceral, brutal, and unpleasant movie. The ordeal that Grant is forced through is so gruesome and over-the-top that by the end even I, who started off the film hating the smug bastard, was starting to feel sorry for him. It’s no secret that I’m a fan of exploitation movies that take a normal, if somewhat pompous all the better, character and then drag him through the mud until he’s no different than a dirty scared animal. Wake in Fright does just that, and does it expertly. The film is aided in this respect by its nationality; there is no shortage of barren wasteland in Australia’s vast interior. The stark wildness makes the perfect setting for the story of a man clinging desperately to the last scraps of his humanity.