Producers’ Note: Photography of the hunting scenes in this film took place during an actual kangaroo hunt conducted by licensed professional hunters. No kangaroos were expressly killed for this motion picture. Because the survival of the Australian kangaroo is seriously threatened these scenes were included with approval of leading animal welfare organisations in Australia and the United Kingdom.
Although these words were intended to soften the outrageous scenes of slaughter included in Ted Kotcheff’s rediscovered 1971 classic, Wake In Fright, the reality of the savage kangaroo hunt is actually the most unsettling aspect of the film. By including what is essentially documentary footage of the unrelenting destruction of Australia’s most recognisable icon, Canadian Kotcheff undid a decade or so of largely sunny touristic commercial cinema and government documentary and aided in ushering in a grittier, bolder and more daring era of Australian film.
Kotcheff’s uncompromising depiction of Australian outback culture came at a time when Australian cinema was still (re)developing. With limited resources, Australian cinema had primarily focused on promoting the Australian lifestyle as rough and rugged, but with an endearing charm. The Hollywood-financed The Sundowners (Fred Zinnemann, 1960) painted the rural Australian landscape as beautifully untamed, while 1966’s They’re a Weird Mob (Michael Powell) lovingly represented our larrikin culture. The TV series Skippy the Bush Kangaroo was still fresh in the minds of the Australian public as they sat down to watch the scenes of barbarity in Wake In Fright, Kotcheff breaking down the sunny stereotypes in one swift blow of iconoclastic brutality.
Wake In Fright follows schoolteacher John Grant (Gary Bond) as it takes the audience on a ride through the alcoholism, misogyny and violence of outback culture. As an outsider, John is assimilated into the hedonistic culture of Bundanyabba. At first as an observer and eventually as a participant in the culture of the town, John and the audience become lost in the madness of “the Yabba”. The point of no return – the moment where John completely succumbs to the savagery of the town – comes when John joins a posse of locals on the now the infamous kangaroo hunt.
After an afternoon of heavy drinking, an intoxicated John and three locals take a truck, four rifles and a stash of liquor out into the desert for a bout of recreational hunting. What ensues is the final dent in John’s veneer of morality. The gang proceeds to ruthlessly slaughter a pack of kangaroos, using a spotlight attached to the truck to stun the animals before haphazardly butchering them. The soundscape is stark, the mise en scéne barren and the men boisterous as they fire their rifles, kangaroos dropping left, right and centre. The scene is the enduring image of the film – the point where uneasiness crosses into full-blown terror.
What makes this scene so deeply affecting is the truly unsettling nature of the footage of the kangaroo hunt. To capture the footage Kotcheff and his crew joined an actual session of kangaroo culling that played out similarly to the events in the film. Members of the crew were shocked to find the hunters drinking during the hunt and described the event as an “orgy of killing”, eventually staging a power failure to put it to an end (1).
The resulting footage is raw. Perhaps the most haunting image is the reflection of life in the eyes of wounded kangaroos as they collapse to the ground. The realism afforded by this footage is unbearable to watch for some (there were reportedly 12 walkouts at a 2009 screening of the film at the Cannes Film Festival ), but as an unrelenting portrayal of Australia’s hideous cultural underbelly, it is hard not to acknowledge its effectiveness.
While critically acclaimed by such legends of the industry as Martin Scorsese and Roger Ebert, the film found little commercial success within Australia. Perhaps the deterioration of Australia’s laid-back and stress free lifestyle into a mess of gambling, heavy drinking and wanton violence hit too close to home for local audiences. After all, Australia’s affiliation with alcohol has generally been thought relatively harmless, associated with our boisterous international perception, yet Wake In Fright depicts it as demonic, forced upon John until it strips him of his morals and eventually his sanity.
Despite the film’s ugliness it has gone on to influence countless other movies, in particular those in the subgenre that can now be defined as “outback survival”, such as Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975), Mad Max (George Miller, 1979) and, more recently, Wolf Creek (Greg Mclean, 2005). The film has experienced somewhat of a revival since its restoration in 2009 and can count itself as only one of two films to be screened at Cannes twice; once in 1971 and again when it was selected as a “Cannes Classic” in 2009. The enduring images of slaughtered kangaroos have made their way around the world, inspiring praise and outrage in equal measures. This is however not for their gratuitousness, but for what they represent – a film unafraid to dissect a national psyche in such a way that the villain of the film becomes the setting itself.
- Peter Galvin, “The Making of Wake In Fright (Part Three)”, SBS 22 March 2010: http://www.sbs.com.au/films/movie-news/345787/the-making-of-wake-in-fright-part-three.
- Kotcheff in an interview with David Stratton, “Wake in Fright Interview”, At the Movies 24 June 2009: http://www.abc.net.au/atthemovies/txt/s2590395.htm.