“Wake in Fright” is a 1971 psychological drama film set in a fictional town in outback Australia. It tells the story of a school teacher who ruins himself by drinking and gambling during his holidays. Based on Kenneth Cook’s novel of the same name (1961). It was a co-production between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Directed by Ted Kotcheff. 109 minutes.
A young, middle-class man John Grant (Gary Bond) has a girlfriend named Robyn in Sydney, but he is forced to live alone and to work as a teacher at a tiny school in Tiboonda, an isolated township in the outback of western New South Wales. He is dissatisfied with the situation.
He is going to go back to Sydney by train to spend his Christmas holidays with Robyn. On the way back to Sydney, he spends a night in the mining town of Bundanyabba, which is nicknamed “the Yabba” by the locals.
He goes to a pub in the Yabba, where many guys drink beer like crazy. There he gets to know Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty), a local policeman, and he drinks beer a lot with Jock.
Jock introduces John to a steakhouse. Eating a steak, John encounters a mystery man named Clarence “Doc” Tydon (Donald Pleasence).
There is an illegal gambling place of two-up (a gamble of throwing two coins) next to the steakhouse. John keeps betting money at two-up because he thinks if he makes a lot of money on gambling, he will be able to get out of his present circumstances, but he ends up losing all his money.
He gets stuck in the Yabba because he became penniless. While drinking beer at a pub, he gets to know mining director Tim Hynes, and he is invited to Tim’s house, where he meets Tim’s adult daughter, Janette (Sylvia Kay), and Tim’s two friends, miners Dick (Jack Thompson) and Joe. Doc also comes to Tim’s house. Tim, Dick, Joe and Doc keep drinking beer all night. Janette tries to seduce John, who is drunk with beer.
John awakens with a hangover the following afternoon in a shack where Doc lives. Eating kangaroo meat, Doc says that he is a medical practitioner, and he cannot practice in Sydney because he is alcoholic and vagrant, so he lives in the Yabba. According to Doc, Janette has sex with a large number of unspecified men, including Doc.
John is invited by Doc, Dick and Joe to have a bloody hunt, in which they kill kangaroos in the desert, drinking beer all through the night.
“Wake in Fright” is a lovely Christmas film filled with the heat in December in Australia, the dust in the desert, the drunkenness of beer, a cloud of buzzing flies, and the smell of the blood of kangaroos.
The film was shot on location in the mining town of Broken Hill, New South Wales and Sydney.
The film had its world premiere at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival. Though it was highly valued by critics, it was a box-office failure in Australia.
The film had been almost impossible to see for a long time because its master negative had gone missing. In 2004, the film’s editor Tony Buckley found a 35mm negative print at a CBS storage facility in Pittsburgh, and the restored version was screened again at Cannes in 2009, and was released theatrically worldwide.
Australian singer, songwriter, author and screenwriter Nick Cave has called the film “the best and most terrifying film about Australia in existence”.