In a recent conversation with a friend, the question was raised, “What exactly constitutes an Australian film?”The subject matter in combination with the cast, crew, and filmmaker, I argued.By his definition, the combination of Australian stars and filmmakers made a film Australian.By such reckoning, he informed me, Moulin Rouge! (BazLuhrmann, 2001) was an Australian film.I countered that The Matrix Reloaded (The Wachowski Brothers, 2003) was equally an Australian film.The purpose of my mentioning this fairly ridiculous conversation is that the production of Australian Cinema, reaching back to its renaissance in the late 1960s, has always struggled with such definitions and, in turn, what constitutes the industry, and the narratives it produces.Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1974)was a picture directed by a Canadian, with two English stars playing Australians, and a crew of technicians, the major contributors of which were English.This artefact of vintage Australiana – a quintessential tale of the outback, with an outsider becoming lost to the heady cocktail of gambling, violence and booze – is arguably not purely a product of the fledgling Australian film industry.It is the tale of an outsider, by outsiders.
Tina Kaufman’s entry ofWake In Fright to the Australian Screen Classics Series is a thorough study of the production and reception of the film.It does well to take account of these production ambiguities, and to acknowledge that many of the film’s successes may be due to the outsider’s perspective brought to this story of an outsider.Director Ted Kotcheff’sCanadianess, his membership in the Commonwealth, and his own nation’s extreme climate are emphasised as making him suited to the material of Ken Cook’s novel, even while his clear-eyed observations of “The Ugly Australian” are credited to his outsider status.Kaufman’s assessment (through a quote credited to reviewer Jake Wilson) of Donald Pleasance’s contribution to the film in the pivotal role of alcoholic doctor Tydon wisely acknowledges the skill and observation this British actor brought to his performance. Also well observed is her take on lead actor Gary Bond “whose Englishness actually heightened his difference” (p. 28), even to the point where some critics have mistakenly claimed the character to be from England.These outsider players added immeasurably to the skilful execution of the film’s central themes, that of The Outsider in the Outback, and the attendant encounter of gentility with Outback vulgarity.
Kaufman also does well to concisely document the sterling efforts of the major player involved in returning the work to the screen: the film’s editor, Anthony Buckley.This now-producer worked tirelessly to locate, then refurbish, a print of the film.Considered lost for years, Buckley searched hard for a usable print.It was only to be found in America and saved from destruction virtually at the last moment.Once more, as irony would have it, this quintessential Australian classic was to be found not in pristine condition in some Australian archive, but in that of the US television network CBS.
The reception of the film upon its re-release in 2009, following its restoration, has added an intriguing new layer of alienation to the viewing experience.While the film confronted audiences upon its initial release with its depiction of “The Ugly Australian”, time has now rendered certain aspects of the film quaint.While Kaufman herself testifies to the seminal impact of the film upon her when it was first released, she notes the story now seems alien to a younger generation of critics:Dave Hoskin of Metro refers to the film’s depiction of a bygone era,hinting perhaps that its cultural relevance may have dated.In choosing to contrast the views of critics of the period of the film’s release, with those of the younger generation, Kaufman has with real skill illustrated the impact of the film in two distinct cultural periods in Australian history: 1971 and 2009.
Kaufman observes that the film’s richness is such that it would easily reward continued study and analysis.Her book does well to contribute to the story of the film’s rediscovery with abundant detail, and goes a long way to establishing a sense of its lingering cultural impact.However, given that the film was so very dependent on the contributions of outsiders to the local film industry, it is a pity the book does not provide some sense of their own artistic trajectories.Kotcheff’s work before Wake in Fright is covered in adequate detail, but an opportunity is missed in discussing the film in relation to his later work. In fact, what may be judged to be generally absent from Australian critical commentary on the film is acknowledgement of Kotcheff’s experience with similar themes throughout his work.His oeuvre is more that of a journeyman director than an auteur, but he has thrived in all-male narratives, eager to reveal the obsession, competition and malice which can easily thrive in testosterone-heavy environments.His excellent North Dallas Forty(1979) stars a young Nick Nolte as a pro footballer appalled at the narrowness, lust, and hedonism of his teammates; the protagonist of Wake in Fright stands by in similar, appalled fascination.Likewise the technical skill Kotcheff brings to representing the outback environment, an aspect of production which Kaufman addresses in detail, was at the very least matched in his direction of the first Rambo film,First Blood (1982), a film often overlooked in its own intense depiction of similar essential flaws in male character.If outsiders indeed contributed so pivotally to our film history, as Tom O’Regan claims in his book Australian National Cinema (1), then the question must be asked why so little attention has been paid to Kotcheff as a director.
A member of the production alternately overrepresented in the book is actor Jack Thompson.While he is now an industry stalwart, in Wake in Fright (his film debut) his role would best be described as minor.The deaths of lead actors Gary Bond, Donald Pleasance and Chips Rafferty do make the collection of new interviews from the major cast impossible, yet Thompson’s involvement is limited to a few scenes, those exemplifying much of the film’s more extremebehaviour.Numerous quotes from Thompson on these scenes, and the film in general, detract from potential commentary on the film’s “outsider” story, emphasising instead its “Ugly Australian” side.Kotcheff, in his own DVD commentary (2), emphasises that the film is not even designed to criticise the behaviour of Australian males, but that of males in general.
It is possible that, given the film’s complicated Lost Masterpiece narrative, the drive to return the film to cultural prominence has become a major part of its critical acceptance and commentary.Perhaps the film has survived not because of its daring critique of the outback;after all, surely the grotesques of the similarly themed Welcome to WoopWoop (Stephan Elliott, 1997) might be judged more culturally embarrassing than those of Wake in Fright.Cunnamulla (Dennis O’Rourke, 2000) detailed a similar setting in far greater sociological detail, with perhaps a more unflinching eye.It is not the setting of Wake in Fright that is of greatest significance;it is, rather, the universal themes of male ego and self-destruction, and – equally – that of the repellent encounter of the Intellectual (in this case symbolised by John Grant) with his opposite,the Brute.This Australian film is really, in fact, so much more than that.
Wake in Fright, by Tina Kaufman, Australian Screen Classics series, Currency Press, Strawberry Hills, 2010.