Movie Locations No.2: ‘Wake In Fright’
Kenneth Cook’s book ‘Wake In Fright’ is a reminder that a short sharp shock of a novel can be infinitely more memorable than a 400-page thriller. Also known as ‘Outback’, it presents the Australian wilderness as a Dantean cauldron where men’s worst instincts surface. It’s a deeply uncomfortable but highly vivid read. Kenneth Cook is something of an enigma, having only written a bleak novella that prefigured ‘Wolf Creek’ and an apocalyptic allegory about mice. ‘Wake In Fright’ was made into a film by an outsider, Canadian director Ted Kotcheff, who 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 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 sarcastic reply is, ‘He’s a schoolteacher’.
He’s befriended by erudite alcoholic doctor Donald Pleasance, who has washed up in the middle of this flyblown 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 almost 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, if Oscars had ever worked on merit.
Australians were understandably horrified by their on-screen portrayal as uneducated, drunken vulgarians, and the film flopped. 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. Shot is merciless searing reds and yellows, its most nightmarish sequence takes place in dust and darkness – yet the landscape is eerily tempting as well.
Apart from ‘Walkabout’, probably the only other film to nail this sense of unease in the outback that I’ve seen is the underrated ‘Welcome To Woop-Woop’, from the book ‘The Dead Heart’ by saga-writer Douglas Kennedy. Like the arctic tundra, the desert location is used as a roadmap to the soul.
Australia eventually embraced this inner darkness and last year turned ‘Wake In Fright’ into a TV series, but got it spectacularly wrong, updating it to a world of drugs and gangs – proof that they never understood why it was so powerful in the first place.