John Grant: ‘What do you do?’
Doc Tydon: ‘I drink’
The title is misleading. This is not a horror movie. Well maybe it is in a way, but it is certainly not a horror movie in a traditional sense. There isn’t actually a bad character in it, let alone an evil one. Pretty much every character is well meaning, kind even, in his own way. And it is, two characters aside, all ‘his’. Because the horror in this film, is the horror of unbridled and unchallenged working class masculinity.
John Grant (very much not the American singer), played by Gary Bond, is an English teacher teaching in a one-room school in the Australian outback. While waiting over night in the local ‘city’, a mining town called Bundanyabba, Grant loses his fare home gambling in a bar and gets stuck in the ‘yabba’ over the Christmas holidays.
The ‘Yabba’, viewed with something close to patriotism by the locals – ‘the greatest little place on Earth’ as the cab driver tells Grant when he first arrives by train, is overwhelmingly male. It is fuelled by alcohol – gallons and gallons of the stuff. The men, hardworking, are mostly woman-less, and have little else to do with their spare time than drink, gamble their wages away and hunt (while drinking). The tag line for Wake In Fright was: ‘Have a drink mate, have a fight mate, have some dust and sweat, mate? There’s nothing else out here’. And that pretty much sums the place up.
The film follows Grant, an educated man with the only books in the film in his suitcase, as stranded, he gradually becomes one with the men he meets. His introduction to the town and its people is through the only other educated man we meet, the alcoholic doctor (who has been stuck off because of his alcoholism), Doc Tydon, played convincingly by Donald Pleasance. As Doc Tydon says: ‘farming out here means death, the mines worse, what do you expect them to do, sing opera’.
Everyone Grant meets expects him to drink with them, ‘have a beer, mate’. He isn’t expected to pay, they will buy him beers (at a frightening pace), they will put him up in their houses, they will even turn a blind eye when he gets it on with their daughters. Hospitality is everywhere, but it comes at the price of conformity:
‘What’s the matter with him? He’d rather talk to a woman than drink.
‘He’s a schoolteacher’
When Grant hitches a lift with a truck driver and is dropped off towards the end of the film and he turns down the offer of a drink with the driver, it is greeted as the worst possible crime:
“Come on, come and have a drink.
Look mate, I’ve given up drinking for a while.
What’s wrong with you, you bastard? Why don’t you come and drink with me? I’ve just brought you fifty miles in the heat and dust, and you won’t drink with me? What’s wrong with you?
What’s the matter with you people, huh? Sponge on you, burn your house down, murder your wife, rape your child, that’s all right. But you don’t have a drink, a flaming bloody drink with you, and it’s a criminal offence, it’s the end of the bloody world!”
Grant initially (and in a somewhat more dazed fashion again at the end) resists this world, viewing the locals as a barbarous freak show, but within a few hours of being in the Yabba he is taking part in the ritualistic gambling – essentially mass and raucous betting on heads and tails on the tossing of two strips of metal. By an hour into the film (and the next day in film time) he has so lost touch with his role in society as an educated professional that he is drunkenly wrestling a kangaroo during a kangaroo hunt – a hunt that is one of the most genuinely difficult to watch sequences in cinema, as it is inter-splices scenes from a real outback kangaroo hunt (scenes that were supported by the Australian version of the RSPCA, as they hoped it would shock the Australian authorities into clamping down on such hunts).
Bond is excellent as the fish out of water, as is Pleasance, but some of the real delights in this film come from the smaller character parts. Aussie veteran Chips Rafferty, in what turned out to be his last film, is extraordinary as the ever-drinking but never drunk local sheriff who first introduces Grant to the culture of the ‘Yabba’. Al Thomas is superb as the very generous but very drunken, Tim Hynes, as is Sylvia Kay, as his daughter Jeanette Hynes, in the only substantial female part in the film.
Wake In Fright along with Nick Roeg’s Walkabout which came out in the same year, ushered in a couple of decades of superb Australian films. Until a cinema re-release a couple of years back though, Wake In Fright had been largely forgotten, or to the extent that it was remembered it was remembered as an Ozsploitation film – a cult and somewhat trashy B movie. I hadn’t even heard of it until I saw it on the strength of its reviews when it was rereleased.
Yet, in its own way Wake In Fright is as perceptive a study of masculinity as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (the highest possible praise). Loyalty, mate-ism, bonding through competitive drinking, gambling and hunting, inability to express emotions, exclusion of women and the equation of femininity with weakness. The film suggests that we all (or at least we men are all) only a couple of drinks and a lost plane fare away from such behavior. In a male run world, of course, by implication that means civilization itself is equally precarious. With the recent rise of Donald Trump in the US, with his almost cartoon hyper-masculinity, Wake In Fright may, after all, be a horror film – a film warning of the real potential horrors we have to come.