“Buy ya a beer?” Wake In Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971)

Wake in Fright

Wake in Fright aka Outback is a filthy, dusty, sticky, sweaty, beer-drenched film. Its soundtrack is a sometimes overwhelming cacophony of males yelling. It’s full of men who congregate in bars, scull beer, gamble and sometimes fight. Basically, it depicts Australians doing what we assume they do all the time—drink VB and fight kangaroos.

The plot is simple. John Grant is a British school-teacher in the tiny town of Tiboonda. From the opening shot the setting is established as being in the absolute middle of nowhere, in the most barren of the Australian plains. On his way to Sydney for the summer holidays, he stops in the nearby town of Bundanyabba only to lose all of his money in a game of coin-toss. Stuck in the ‘yabba the rest of the story follows John as his white suit becomes drenched in beer, blood, and dust when he befriends some of the locals.

There is a tension that never lets up in this film. It is the Australian hospitality, which is more hostile than hospitable. Having a beer bought for you is a test of whether you are a ‘good bastard’ or not, and heaven forbid a man should turn down a fellow blokes offer. In fact, if anything it is the worst crime that is possible. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much beer in a film. Beer is actually used as a symbol of Grants decline; at the start he can’t even finish a glass yet toward the end he’s covered in it. 

Wake in Fright is often called Australia’s great lost film due to its scarcity for many years. The Festival has acquired a great print of it, with a dustiness that seems like part of the film stock. The infamous Kangaroo hunting scenes are both exhilarating and terrifying especially since it is clearly real. Director Ted Kotcheff would go on to make First Blood many years later, a film that also deals with the consequences for an outsider in a backwater town. This film prefigures many of the same traits which defined that film, a simplicity in constructing action sequences and a penchant for Eisensteinian montage every now and then. This film is an amazing spectacle that is truthfully unforgettable with many of the scenes as searing as the outback sun. Life lesson—never set foot in any town that ends in ‘yabba. 

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