Big Screen Berkeley: “Wake in Fright”

“Wake in Fright”: A grievous insult to Aussie manhood or the greatest Australian film ever made?

Studies show that Australian beer consumption is in a death spiral. Recent research by the Japanese brewery Kirin indicates the land down under has slipped from 4th to 8th place in worldwide per capita ale imbibing since 2004 — in fact, it’s been nothing but bad news for Aussie brewers since the late 1970s, when the locals began switching to wine.

It was a much different story during the 1960s and early ‘70s, a Golden Age of Australian wrist raising during which suds consumption soared to all time highs. The era is captured in all its lager-soaked glory in 1970’s Wake in Fright, an existential drama beginning a revival run at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, October 26.

Set in remotest New South Wales during a sweltering mid-summer, Wake in Fright stars English actor Gary Bond as John Grant, a primary school teacher desperate for the Christmas holidays to arrive. Grant has six weeks’ leave (the Australian school year begins at the end of January and ends in mid-December), a sweetheart in Sydney, and just enough cash to have a good time.

Getting there, however, is hardly straightforward. A train journey from the fictional backwater of Tiboonda (in real life a rail stop near Horse Lake, NSW) takes Grant to the grimy mining town of Bundanyabba, where he plans to stay the night before continuing on to Sydney via air the following day. If only it were that easy.

Visiting the Imperial Hotel in search of a quick nightcap, Grant meets gregarious Jock Crawford (quintessential Aussie Chips Rafferty), a policeman who immediately recognizes the clean-cut teacher as an outsider in need of a friend. Crawford begins plying him with beer, and Grant’s soon pounding back pint after pint in a vain effort to keep up with his new chum.

Overlooking John’s big city airs, Jock works hard to convince him that Bundanyabba is the best place on Earth and “the honestest little town in Australia” — despite its high suicide rate and predilection for ‘two-up’, a bizarre coin-tossing game in which thousands of dollars change hands in the back room of a local steakhouse. Brain fuddled by too much drink, John gambles away his nest egg and finds himself broke, alone, and entirely at the mercy of the inebriated, kangaroo-hunting locals.*

Its restoration only made possible thanks to the serendipitous discovery of a print (labeled ‘for destruction’) in Pittsburgh in 2005, Wake in Fright was all but lost for decades. The film wasn’t forgotten, however, its reputation growing over time based on the fading memories of the few who’d actually seen it and the outrage it generated in the press. Considered by many a grievous insult to Aussie manhood, by others the greatest Australian film ever made, Wake in Fright is compelling yet deeply discomfiting viewing. You might even need to have a brewski or three after it’s over.

* The film includes genuine hunt footage and is definitely not suitable for children.

(Note: Though not a commercial success, Wake in Fright nonetheless led to a significant change in state education policy. In 1970, the government of New South Wales assigned all new teachers to the state’s remotest schools. This policy ended after the film’s release.)

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.  

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  • Guest

    This film is legendary. Down in Oz they still whisper about it. Everybody’s afraid to see it.