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Australian gem celebrates 50 years

Wednesday, 12th May, 2021

By Neil Pigot

Australian novelist Peter Temple joked that it probably set the course of tourism in the country back twenty years.
When a young Martin Scorsese first saw it at Cannes, where it was nominated for the Palme d’Or, he is reported to have continually erupted, unable to contain his delight. So brutal, sadistic and raw in its portrayal of the Australian male under duress that the Pulitzer Prize-winning American film critic Roger Ebert said it made the Wild West look positively civilised.
The film is Wake in Fright, considered by many to be the greatest Australian film ever made. One that became, for decades the Australian cinema version of the Higgs Boson, a theoretical keystone central to the revival of the Australian film industry that most contemporary Australian filmmakers and cinema-goers had never seen.  
It is 50 years ago this month that Wake in Fright was shown for the first time in Cannes and would go on to run for five months to rapturous reviews in cinemas across Paris. Based on the 1961 novel by Australian Kenneth Cook, the script for Canadian Ted Kotcheff’s film adaptation was written by a Jamaican who had never been to Australia, it was produced by a Norwegian-born Brit and starred an Englishman.
Yet despite the international flavour of its creative team, it could never be mistaken for anything but an Australian film, least of all because of the location used to shoot it. Broken Hill.
Wake in Fright follows a few days in the life of John Grant, a refined young school teacher from Sydney played by English actor Gary Bond. Indentured to his job in the outback for another year, Grant must pay off a thousand dollar bond to the education department before he can leave the outback life he loathes. He stops over in the intense and insanely proud mining town of Bundanyabba for a night, after which he’ll catch a train to the nearest airport and fly home to the big city for a holiday with his impossibly alluring girlfriend.
Unfortunately “the Yabba” gets its claws into him.
The film’s opening shot sets the scene. As the camera pans away from a shabby building beside a railroad track, we see only the distant horizon. As the camera returns, having taken in a full 360 degrees, we come to rest on a second building on the other side of the tracks. One building is the school. The other is the hotel. It’s clear that to get to either, people must travel a very long way. Isolation and the potential for danger that it implies is immediate.
Director Kotcheff, in an interview conducted in 2016, said the first thing he did when he landed in Broken Hill was take the editor of the BDT out to dinner.
“You do know that the men outnumber the women in this town three to one,” he recalls the editor telling him. “Oh my God, where are the bordellos?” Kotcheff asked.
“We don’t have whorehouses in Broken Hill.” “Is there a lot of homosexuality?” “Hey, hey, hey, we’re Australian,” said the editor. “We don’t do things like that.” “So what the hell do the men do for human contact,” asked Kotcheff. “We fight,” was the reply.
And that comment in many ways reflects the tone of the film. Brutal.
After a drunken night at the pub where he losses all his saved bond money, Grant finds himself trapped amidst culinary horrors, packs of grunting, shirtless men getting blotto, and a kangaroo-hunt in which actual kangaroos were slaughtered during filming. But the picture is as subtle as it is brutal, an accumulation of casually eloquent details against a background of deranged sadism. Like the opening scene in the pub where the gun-toting publican pours Bond’s soon-to-be stranded city slicker a beer with a head that fills half the glass only to then pour himself one, that is perfect. Or Chips Rafferty’s last, bravura performance as the local cop, at once sly and hospitable, giving off just a whiff of threat when he tells Grant that the two-building town is “a wonderful place - just a few suicides.”
Not only is it a great Australian film, but it also marked the changing of the guard. The first film for Australian cinema icon Jack Thompson and the last for perhaps for one of our greatest film stars, the wonderful Mr Chips Rafferty.
And while it was greatly admired at the time by the rising local film-makers Peter Weir, Bruce Beresford and Fred Schepisi, its portrait of desperate, violent, uncouth lives on the fringes of civilisation was not well received by popular audiences and it bombed at the Australian box office amid cries of “that’s not us.” By the mid-1990s it seemed to have disappeared from the face of the Earth.
That’s when the film’s editor, Tony Buckley, began a search that would last almost a decade, eventually leading him to some reels of film in a warehouse in Pittsburgh, sadly sitting in boxes marked “for destruction”. They were saved from the dumpster only when, as Kotcheff puts it, “two ladies from the National Film and Sound Archive flew over there with their handbags stuffed with money and paid the storage bill”. A print was restored and re-released in 2009. As if to underscore the film’s importance, it received a second screening at Cannes, only the second film ever to be so honoured.
Wake in Fright was remade into a television series just five years ago by Director Kriv Stenders of Red Dog fame. He did a fair job. But the original is in a different league. Raw and uncompromised, well-acted, brilliantly photographed and edited, it is a cinematic rarity. A film that goes for broke and says to hell with the consequences.
Prior to Wake in Fright, film production in Australia had slowed to a trickle and Rafferty had been forced to look overseas to sustain himself.  “What else can I do but look to America for my future when there is still no assistance or help from the government,” he said in April 1966.
Wake in Fright was followed in 1972 by the Whitlam Government’s formation of the Australian Film Commission to support Australian production. Sadly, Rafferty had left us having died of a heart attack just weeks after completing the filming of what many described as his greatest performance.
Despite its being lost for decades, Wake in Fright left an indelible mark on Australian culture. It set the tone for the rebirth of contemporary local cinema, a seminal production that led to what would later become known as Australia’s cinematic “New Wave”. Its themes are still pertinent to the Australian experience, and its dense, expansive and simultaneously claustrophobic, sun-kissed look set a visual template that continues to influence a distinctly Australian cinema 50 years on.

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