“Wake in Fright”: It’s Australian for fear, mate

The Australian we usually see in movies tends to fall into a familiar stereotype — friendly, manly, beer-drinking alpha males who just want to have a good time. It’s no wonder that many Australians seem to view this Outback character as the “real Australia,” much as some Americans would call the deep South the “real America.”

But there’s a darker side to that national character, one we don’t see much of at the movies. That’s what makes the 1970 film “Wake in Fright” so bracing, over 40 years after its release. The disturbing film was released in the United States as “Outback,” then lost for decades, until a print resurfaced a few years back. There’s a fine new Blu-ray edition out this month from Drafthouse Films, and the UW-Cinematheque is screening “Wake In Fright” at 7 p.m. tonight as part of its Marquee Monday series at the Marquee Theater, 1308 W. Dayton St.

Think of “Wake in Fright” as an Aussie “Straw Dogs” or “Deliverance,” in which a supposedly cultured man has his primal animal nature awoken, against his will. Gary Bond (who bares a striking similarity to a young Peter O’Toole) plays John Grant, a schoolteacher from Sydney teaching in a small one-room schoolhouse in the Outback. He hates the place, hates the people, hates the endless dull copper expanse of the desert around him; the cinematography of “Fright” shows how wide open spaces can feel just as claustrophobic, just as stifling, as a tight crawlspace.

On his train ride home to Sydney for the holidays, Grant is waylaid for the night in an Outback mining town nicknamed “the Yabba.” The hospitality of the hard-drinking locals is almost oppressive, and despite his ill-concealed disdain, John accepts one beer at the local bar, and then another. (One of the film’s running jokes is how Australians impatiently hurry you to finish up your drink so they can buy you another.)

Thoroughly sozzled, Grant wanders into a gambling den where the locals bet on coin tosses. Grant thinks himself above it all, but gets sucked in by the allure of easy money — if he wins enough, he can buy off his government teaching contract and leave the Outback for good. Instead, he loses all his money; in one cruel visual joke, we see him wake up bleary-eyed and naked the next morning, as if he had literally lost his shirt.

Penniless, dragging his suitcase around town, Grant’s downward spiral begins in earnest. He drinks more and falls in with the locals, who love gambling, whoring, and fighting, and drinking above all. The most memorable, played by Donald Pleasence, is a defrocked doctor who has become a sort of wild man; the sight of the normally erudite Pleasence, shirtless and drunk, slurping stew straight from the saucepan, is hard to shake.

The carousing builds to one horrifying scene, in which Grant joins some good-old-boys for a trip to the desert to slaughter kangaroos, cackling as they shoot them with high-powered rifles. (What makes the sequence even more disturbing is that it uses footage from an actual kangaroo hunt.)

What frightens Grant the most is that he starts to like this kind of behavior, that even he isn’t immune to the anarchic lure of the Outback. “Wake in Fright” presents the desert as a morally barren place where men seem to feel they’re out of view of God himself, free to indulge their worst appetites; no wonder that one nickname for the region is the Back of Beyond.

“Wake in Fright” was, not suprisingly, a divisive film upon its release, with many critics calling it an attack on Australian character (it didn’t help that the director, Ted Kotcheff, was a Canadian, an outsider). But others saw it as an important unveiling of a side of the country that most Australians didn’t want to face, and that interpretation has seemed to hold sway.

The extras on the DVD show how the film was lost for years, until the original editor found cans of footage in a Philadelphia warehouse. The Australian Film and Sound Archive did a fantastic job restoring the film to its original, terrifying glory.

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