One of the first and most telling images from Ted Kotcheff’s ferocious Wake in Fright is an elementary school classroom filled with blank-faced children, sweltering and waiting for Christmas break in the Australian bush with their equally tedium-addled teacher, John Gordon (Gary Bond). In reality, the classroom is more of a shack and Gordon, already dreaming of his girlfriend and a beach in Sydney, isn’t interested in employing any departing wisdom to his pupils.
For John, education is a fool’s errands masquerading as passwords to philosophical liberation. His true disdain for these concepts and the tomes that lay them out, however, doesn’t become truly evident until he arrives in a dusty, poverty-ravaged mining town, Bundanyabba (nicknamed the ‘Yabba) for a stopover before a planned Christmas break vacation in Sydney. There, his initial pomposity to the friendly community, headed by Sherriff Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty in his last film role), gives way to primal indulgences advocated by Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasance), a local legend invariably in the drink.
Tydon enters John’s life in a subtle manner that belies his outsized persona, merely helping himself to some of the young teacher’s discarded food at a small two-up parlor. And it’s during a game of two-up that John sees a chance to escape his station in life, as he finds himself on a roll and only one or two more lucky flips away from a life away from the dilapidated schoolhouse. For Kotcheff and screenwriter Evan Jones, the heart of the story is in this sequence: John’s abandonment of the gradual, hard-won revelations and pleasures found in books and teaching for a flagrant, leisurely life fueled in every sense by money.
Gordon loses all of his money to two-up, which was intended to buy his way home, but a group of locals, led by Tim (Al Thomas) and Tydon, takes him under their wing. Kotcheff and Jones make money and masculinity’s intertwining nature elemental to the story, as there are several opportunities for Gordon to borrow money to get out of the Yabba that he refuses on point of pride; he also gets into a notable amount of discussions about paying for drinks and food that he obviously can’t afford. And the film hits its furious apex during a nocturnal kangaroo hunt, fueled by liquor, beer, and a potently deranged level of aimlessness.
The film allows John’s desperation to escape the Yabba to build smartly and gradually, but the man’s need to flee isn’t due to the moral ache that comes from slaughtering kangaroos, terminally boozing, and, in one instance, sharing a rough, puke-ridden roll in the hay with Tim’s daughter, played by Mrs. Kotcheff, Sylvia Kay. Instead, the film locks in on John’s inability to relate to others without the admiration and power that money affords him; he’s a man defined by what he can pay for. The filmmakers are careful to make Tydon and his cohorts aggressive and domineering but never particularly life-threatening, and by the end of the film, it’s clear that John’s nightmarish journey was powered by a distinct yearning for defeat over his educated and educational life. John’s memory of his girlfriend is of her revealing bathing suit and her cleavage, not of her adoration or understanding, or their shared emotional intimacy. She’s not a person he loves, but a vision of his barely dormant carnality.
The film doesn’t attack intelligence or wisdom, but rather those who partake in knowledge as a means of securing selfish isolation from society, rather than as a means to revolutionize society. By film’s end, the seemingly bat-shit crazy Tydon is presented as a far more self-possessed individual than John. Tydon knows himself and what he likes and harbors no embarrassment, while John seems terminally unable to coincide his socially palatable exterior and the raging beast within. One could even argue that the brutal Yabba is a crude, problematic but perfectly maintained socialist ideal that Gordon’s inherent greed rejects, and the parallels to Kotcheff’s career as a director of low-brow but cleverly realized B movies (rather than “art” films) are easy to assess. Indeed, the fact that the school that Gordon teaches in is little more than a shanty becomes irrelevant when one finally realizes that the pleasant, handsome professional who runs it is actually a vicious coward and a despicable anti-intellectual.
Image Enterainment's A/V transfer of Wake in Fright on DVD is, all told, highly admirable and might even be a preferable venue to see the film as compared to Blu-ray; an element of imperfection is somewhat welcome in this case. The use of oranges, blacks, dark greens, tans, and browns are heavy in Ted Kotcheff's palette, and the DVD preserves the film's humid visual tone. Detail and clarity aren't perfect, but rarely are distracting enough to merit major complaint, and black levels are generally solid and inky. The audio is equally commendable, with the oft-slurred dialogue out front and John Scott's moody score nicely balanced with sound effects in the back.
Ted Kotcheff is an uncommonly energetic and enthusiastic artist and that comes through clearly on his audio commentary. Alongside editor Anthony Buckley, the director discusses various elements of the film's production, from the casting to the setting to discarded story ideas to the film's rediscovery, and both men are consistently engaged and informative about the film. The commentary almost renders the two making-of featurettes pointless. To compensate, there's also a great video Q&A with Kotcheff at the Toronto International Film Festival that brings up a slew of new topics and ideas for Kotcheff to discuss. The video obituary for Chips Rafferty is a classy touch, but the short segment that discusses the restoration of the film is a bit, well, short. The DVD's booklet, however, goes into great detail about the film's rediscovery and restoration. Trailers are also included.
Image Entertainment presents Ted Kotcheff's rediscovered near-masterpiece of disjointed identity in the Australian outback with plenty of extras and a solid transfer befitting a lost classic.