Wake in Fright ✮✮✮✮

Primal Before Peckinpah?

by Glenn Lovell

Who would have guessed that we’d find one of the year’s best films in the remainders bin? Ted Kotcheff’s nightmare-inducing “Wake in Fright” was not only tossed out, it was tossed out four decades ago!

You heard right, this mesmerizing Australian thriller (now at San Jose’s downtown Camera 3) bears a 1970 copyright. It had its world premiere in May, 1971, at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was nominated for the top prize, and then found limited release in France and the U.S. before being dumped by its distributors as too unrelievedly downbeat for general consumption.

“Wake,” the third feature by Kotcheff, best known for “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” and “First Blood,” the original Rambo film, opens and closes with stunning panoramas of the outback at its most parched and desolate. This is home to a disgruntled schoolteacher named John Grant (Gary Bond, who resembles the young Peter O’Toole). You wouldn’t know it by the flies and stifling heat, but it’s Christmastime. Grant plans to spend the holiday in Sydney with his fiancée. En route he stops at The Yabba, a wide-open frontier town. It’s supposed to be a quick overnight, but the place and its rowdy, beer-chugging characters, including a suspiciously chummy constable (Chips Rafferty) and a scruffy, misanthropic doctor (Donald Pleasence), put the hooks into Grant, who goes from uptight visitor to primal being, sating hidden urges for gaming, drink and blood lust (in a wild kangaroo hunt).

For Grant, it’s a dark, draining journey into Self, with homoerotic undertones.

But he should count himself lucky, proffers Doc Tydon (Pleasence at his most Pinter-esque). The people of The Yabba ‒ and, presumably, the Australian male in general ‒ “break the rules, but we know more about ourselves than most people.”

Thanks to Martin Scorsese, who has long been a fan of this outrageously overlooked masterpiece, and the sleuthing of Anthony Buckley, the film’s editor who tracked a pristine negative to a Pittsburgh warehouse, “Wake in Fright” is seeing the light of projectors once again. If you care about movies, you owe it to yourself to seek it out.

More, “Wake” is a wake-up call to film scholars who will now have to rethink what came first ‒ this film or Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs,” which basically charts the same territory in dealing with “civilized” man’s innate animalism?

I’d go further ‒ in light of this new/old film, Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” and Nicolas Roeg’s “Walkabout” will have to be reappraised. Much of what these film have to say about our inherent thirst for violence had been said months earlier by Kotcheff.

WAKE IN FRIGHT ✮✮✮✮ With Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence, Chips Rafferty, Sylvia Kay, Jack Thompson. Directed by Ted Kotcheff; scripted by Kenneth Cook, Evan Jones from Cook’s novel. 114 min. R

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