Wake in Fright: An Australian Nightmare

As an Australian, I can attest to the fact that we see ourselves as a largely amicable bunch, even if we do tend to engage in levels of alcohol consumption that would be considered abhorrent in most places on earth. This is probably the reason that when Wake in Fright originally hit cinemas back in 1971, Australian audiences were less than receptive.

This Peckinpah-esque nightmare-vision (originally a novel of the same name by Kenneth Cook) presented an alternative Australia, littered with aimless, uneducated ockers endlessly drowning themselves in incomprehensible amounts of beer while engaging in acts of extreme violence towards each other AND the local wild-life.

The story, so far as it goes, concerns a school-teacher who finds himself stuck in an outback town (or perhaps small city) on his way to a holiday in Sydney. Having lost all his money in a local game of Two-Up, this teacher finds himself equally horrified and enthralled by the grotesque lifestyle of the locals. Things escalate, as they often do, leading to a night of incredible debauchery, much of which concerns horribly sadistic behaviour towards kangaroos.

The film was received very positively by critics (screened at Cannes) during its original release, and was distributed in many countries around the world under the title ‘Outback’, before disappearing from the face of the earth for over thirty years. In 2009 an original print was found in Pittsburgh, restored, and released in cinemas once more. This time around, Australians were far more receptive to Wake in Fright, and it is now considered by many to be one of the finest Australian films ever produced (perhaps a shaky proposition given it was directed by a Canadian, Ted Kotcheff).

Fans of Peckinpah will be unable to avoid comparisons with Straw Dogs, released the same year. Both films strip back the myth of the simple man’s nobility, exploring the innate potential for brutality and horror behind every human beings civilised exterior. An absolute must-see.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

6 thoughts on “Wake in Fright: An Australian Nightmare

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  4. Plenty of copies in non-U.S. format, I find; also Kindle, though I use Ipad. I’ll find it sometime and will watch. The fact this came out in the same year as Straw Dogs is as much a social commentary and confirmation as anything else. Now to find something that would compare to The Wild Bunch . . . .

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