Until the start of the 1970s films set in Australia been about grandeur and comradeship, the sort of Old West view of the outback that Baz Lurhmann attempted to revive in the embarrassing ‘Australia’. Then two films changed the way in which Australia had always been portrayed.
One was Nicholas Roeg’s ‘Walkabout’, in which two children and an aborigine cross the outback, which becomes a canvas for their emotions. It presented the landscape as alien, awe-inspiring and terrible. Then came ‘Wake In Fright’ (also known as ‘Outback’) which presented it as a Dantean cauldron where men’s worst instincts surface.
Canadian director Ted Kotcheff starts with a 360 degree shot of nothingness, where Gary Bond’s English teacher finds himself trapped. He’s indentured by the school system that makes him hold to his contract because most teachers try to get out as soon as possible. Because here, the landscape is so eye-wateringly vast that the mind can only turn in on itself.
Bond is heading to Sydney for a holiday to see his girl, but he’s destined not to get there. After losing all his money in a bizarre betting game, he’s adopted by a group of men from a bar who drag him into a long dark night of the soul, starting with drinking games, progressing to an astonishing night-time kangaroo hunt, and ending in violence.
There’s an uncomfortable sexual undertow throughout. The outback men don’t understand why he questions their alcohol-enforced friendship. At one point a character asks; ‘Why’s he sitting over there talking to a woman?’ to which the reply is, ‘He’s a schoolteacher’.
He’s befriended by erudite alcoholic doctor Donald Pleasance, who has washed up in the middle of nowhere and is living with his demons. There’s something satanic about Pleasance, as if he’s egging Bond on to break him out of his civilised shell.
Bond is extraordinary. Looking like a young Peter O’Toole – and pretty near as magnetic – he is psychologically dismantled by his experience until there’s nothing left. It’s a brave, exposed performance that should have won him an Oscar.
What happened instead was that Australians were horrified by their on-screen portrayal as uneducated, drunken vulgarians, and the film flopped. It must have seemed to them that all the films which analysed the Australian psyche were being made by foreigners. Despite its selection for Cannes and becoming a hit in Paris the movie was subsequently buried, and remained lost until a team of film researchers found and restored the original negative.
It’s a powerful, uncompromising work that deserves its place among the film greats, and is now out on Blu-Ray.