John Grant (Gary Bond) is the bored teacher at a one-room school in Tiboonda, a tiny railway junction on the far western plains of New South Wales.
On his way to Sydney for Christmas, he stops overnight in Bundanyabba (affectionately nicknamed ‘the Yabba’ by its inhabitants), a frontier mining town. The local policeman, Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty), introduces him to after-hours drinking and a two-up game where he loses all his money.
At the pub the next morning, businessman Tim Hynes (Al Thomas) takes pity and invites him home for lunch. After a disastrous sexual encounter with the man’s voracious daughter Janette (Sylvia Kay), Grant gets drunk again with the enigmatic ‘Doc’ Tydon (Donald Pleasence) and his two roughneck pals, Dick (Jack Thompson) and Joe (Peter Whittle).
He wakes up in Tydon’s dishevelled shack, to a breakfast of kangaroo hash and pills.
Tydon is a disbarred doctor, describing himself as an alcoholic tramp who lives without money or pretence. He taunts Grant over his sexual failure with Janette Hynes.
That night, Grant joins Tydon and his friends on a kangaroo shooting trip and he learns how to kill a wounded kangaroo with a knife.
The hunters trash an outback pub and he is sexually assaulted by the drunken Tydon.
Grant tries to get away the next day by hitchhiking, but the truckie just brings him back to ‘The Yabba’. In a fury, he goes to Tydon’s shack to kill him but succeeds only in wounding himself.
After discharge from the hospital, Grant takes the train back to Tiboonda, for another year of teaching.
Wake in Fright is probably the most unflattering depiction of Australia that has ever been filmed, but it remains a profoundly ambiguous work, suspended between disgust and a kind of admiration for the honest depravity of what it shows.
In terms of the Australian film revival in the 1970s, it is one of two key films that galvanised the local industry – the other being Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971).
Both films opened in Australia in October 1971 after notable debuts at the Cannes Film Festival. Both were directed by foreigners and both showed the Australian outback as a kind of deadly apocalyptic landscape.
This was Chips Rafferty’s final film. He died in 1971 just before the film was released.
Slim De Gray
Joe the cook