John Grant (Gary Bond) is a schoolteacher. At the start of the Christmas holiday, he sets off for Sydney to meet his girlfriend. He arrives in the outback town of Bundanyabba for a night’s stopover before travelling on. But he is drawn into a gambling game. Tempted by an early win to risk earning enough to leave teaching, he bets all his savings – and loses the lot. As his one night in ‘the Yabba’ extends to five, John discovers a whole darker side to the town and to his character…
Based on a novel by Kenneth Cook (and originally intended to be filmed by Joseph Losey with Dirk Bogarde starring), Wake In Fright was released as Outback outside Australia. A US-Australian production, made by a Canadian director, an English cinematographer (Brian West), and with two English actors in the leading roles, Wake In Fright was, along with Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout from the same year, an important film in the revival of the Australian cinema industry. It was the last film for Chips Rafferty, who had been an iconic Australian actor since the 1930s, best known for his lead role in the 1948 Ealing studios Australian production The Overlanders. It was the first film for Jack Thompson, who would become himself an icon of Aussie manhood in the coming decade.
Even before Wake In Fright was made, many Australians were concerned about the picture of Australian life the film would present. It’s certainly not a pretty one. Life in ‘the Yabba’ is a male-dominated, macho one, full of beer-swilling as a social ritual, fighting and, in the second half of the film, a bloody kangaroo hunt. (Kotcheff filmed a real hunt, integrating the footage with that of his actors.) Gary Bond is capable enough (though you have to wonder what Bogarde could have done with this role) but he’s out-acted by Pleasance in particular, in one of his best roles as the self-loathing doctor who has hit the bottle. Camerawork and editing are first-rate. Wake In Fright has a strong claim to be Kotcheff’s best film. From his comments in the DVD extras, it’s clearly one he’s very proud of.
Except in France, Wake In Fright was not a critical success but not a commercial one. In the early 2000s, all that survived were some worse for wear 35mm and 16mm prints and the original negative could not be located. Editor and associate producer Anthony Buckley tracked the negative to the United States, just in time to save it from destruction. Wake In Fright has now been fully digitally restored and is now released on DVD and blu-ray. It’s a credit to the digital restoration that you can see fine detail which wasn’t always visible in the chemically-generated 35mm prints.
Madman’s DVD is encoded for Region 4 only. The DVD transfer is in the original ratio of 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced, and the soundtrack is the original mono. Disc extras: an audio commentary with Ted Kotcheff and Anthony Buckley, an interview with Kotcheff, TV extracts on the production, on Chips Rafferty (both in black and white – Australian TV didn’t start broadcasting in colour until 1975) and on the restoration, the international Outback trailer, a restoration comparison feature, a deleted scene from Not Quite Hollywood discussing the film and trailers for other Madman DVDs. A small booklet contains articles on the search for the negative, the restoration and the film’s cultural impact in Australia.