This sobering chronicle of scorched-earth drunken havoc in the Outback returns to us now packaged as a lost classic, as if returned after 40 years of doubled-over straggling through the desert. In fact, the movie—which premiered, alongside Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout, in the 1971 Cannes competition and soon thereafter received a brief U.S. theatrical release as Outback (never released on home video stateside, but garnering three stars from Leonard Maltin)—had been serving time under archival negligence. Discovered in a Pennsylvania vault just a week from scheduled incineration and subsequently restored by the National Film and Sound Archives of Australia, the original-negative version itself often seems on the verge of self-combustion. Desiccated brush, bottomless drafts, and creeping sweat stains all fade to the same parched golden hue. Various overhead lights glare directly into the camera; one character opines that “water’s only for washing.”
Set over the sweltering Southern Hemisphere Christmas holiday, Wake in Fright stars Gary Bond as schoolteacher John Grant, assigned to a desert outpost consisting of two small buildings that cling tight to the train tracks. The film follows the self-described “bonded slave” to the education department on his way out of town: Grant arrives at bustling Bundanyabba (sitting away from the passenger-car rabble and across the aisle from a mumbling aboriginal man), en route to Sydney for his six-week holiday. Dreaming of a prototypical girl-back-home and harboring vaguer aspirations of a London journalism career, Grant initially bristles at “the Yabba” locals’ idea of hospitality, which involves strong-arming visitors into a drunken stupor. In short order, though, he’s half in the bag and has gambled away all his money on a mindless backroom game of chance.
Effectively stranded, Grant gets swept up by a battery of true-blue white-man grotesques as they blaze through the landscape, littering the desert with kangaroo carcasses, tossing chairs through windows, and tumbling around with (or groping toward) one another. Grant remains most troubled by the hooligan who has settled into this way of life by choice and has not forsaken culture wholesale: former Sydney physician Doc (Donald Pleasence), who provides the teacher with a cot for the duration of his stay in the Yabba. Doc wakes mid-afternoon, putting on opera and trimming his beard with surgical shears, already guzzling beer in preparation for the day’s descent into five-alarm heedlessness.
Wake in Fright was written by Evan Jones (from a novel by Kenneth Cook) and directed by the Canadian Ted Kotcheff, here eight years away from making the enduring pro-football snapshot North Dallas Forty. Both movies might be seen as entrenched local-color examinations of grown men invested in the cultivation of a largely unexamined roughhouse dynamic, with Wake in Fright going deeper into existential terrain to greater overall effect. The film might flirt with aspects of hillbilly horror, but it’s precisely rendered enough to achieve an absolute seriousness of purpose: dissecting the dark insinuations at the heart of the national fellow-feeling, Wake in Fright describes a society in which colonial-heritage rapaciousness is alive and well—and in which the supposed barricade of civilization might easily be torn asunder.