A joint venture between Australian based company NLT Productions and US company Group W Films.
Some dispute that the result is an Australian film, but rather with US finance, a Canadian director, a script by Jamaican-born, British based writer Evan Jones, a British DOP, Brian West, a Norwegian-born Brit George Willoughby as the producer, and a generous serve of British leads (Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence, Sylvia Kay), it should be considered a US production.
Given the mix of nationalities, it is equally easy to call it a mongel, larrikin show with a strong streak of Australian, or at least an international production substantially made in Australia with a substantial component of Australian cast and crew.
Production companies: NLT Productions/Group W Films
Budget: c. A$800,000
Locations: initially on location at Broken Hill, Silverton and surrounding district, with interiors shot in Sydney at Ajax studios, Bondi, with a crew of 40. The Yabba two-up school was filmed in an abandoned warehouse in the inner eastern Sydney suburb of Paddington. According to some reports, the shoot in Broken Hill took three months, and director Ted Kocheff became addicted to two up. The notorious 'roo shoot took three days. The opening scenes at the one horse, one school town of Tiboonda were shot last, at a place called Horse Lake about a 100 miles out of Broken Hill. The visually striking railway siding with hand-less clock was built by production designer Denis Gentle and his team.
Filmed: shooting began in January 1970
Australian distributor: United Artists acquired world rights, and handled the Australian release.
Theatrical release: the film was released in Paris 22nd July 1971 and ran for five months.
It opened in London in the Pavilion on October 29th 1971 and was warmly received by press and public, but didn't last long. It opened in Australia October-November 1971, with very short seasons in the major east coast cities.
The premiere in Sydney was on the 8th October 1971 at the Embassy, with the benefiting charity the Children's Telethon.
Rating: SOA, Suitable Only for Adults
Running time: 109 mins (Oxford Australian Film)
DVD copy: 1'44"33 (including added-on end titles)
Box office: the initial Australian launch was a disaster, with domestic box office terrible.
The film did well in specialist houses in Britain and Europe, especially France, but nowhere near well enough to return the film's budget, with dire results for the producers. It would be NLT Productions second and last failure, and people cared so little about the film that its negative would be lost for years.
As if to rub domestic audiences noses in it, Wake in Fright had a Christmas theme, in terms of decor, and was released as the country slid towards Christmas.
Wake in Fright, under its international title Outback, was in competition for the Palme d'Or in the 24th Cannes Film Festival in 1971, alongside Walkabout.
Neither film won.
As some kind of recompense, it was an official selection in the Cannes Classics Film Festival 2009, curated by Martin Scorsese.
For a long time the film was only available on poor quality VHS copies that had been recorded off-air and circulated amongst collectors. With the negative apparently lost, things looked grim for devotees.
Fortunately after the negative for the film was re-discovered, the film was released by Madman in region four, using the the NFSA restoration, which produced a quite fine print.
The DVD came with an interview with director Ted Kotcheff, an audio commentary with Kotcheff and editor Anthony Buckley (who was instrumental in finding the negative), a 1971 segment on Wake in Fright, a Ken G. Hall interview about Chips Rafferty (it was Rafferty's last film), several pieces on the restoration of the film, an exercept from the documentary Not Quite Hollywood about the film, and the international theatrical trailer. A 32 page booklet was also included in the package.
The mastering of the film for the DVD was perhaps not the best to do the rounds, and this is a case where the Blu-ray edition presents a better option for the serious collector.
The extras on the Blu-ray are the same as the DVD, but obviously with more room available to be devoted to the main feature.
In any case, it's worth holding out for the pamphlet. Tony Buckley provides a piece on finding the negative, Graham Shirley, Meg Labrum and Anthos Simon write about restoring the film, and Peter Galvin provides useful insights and information under the header Dreaming of the Devil. An extended piece by Galvin about the movie is, at time of writing, available at the SBS website (see "About the Movie" here, for links)
There is a detailed report and review of the Blu-ray edition here.
The title for Kenneth Cook's novel was derived from an old curse: May you dream of the devil and wake in fright (as Kate Jennings notes here, In medieval times, farmers believed that if they dreamed of the devil, their crops would shrivel).
The novel received good reviews - the New York Times called it a "taut novel of suspense" and Cook "a vivid new talent".
Cook pursued a diverse career, from butterfly farming to the stage musical Stockade, which bombed as a film, and in his later years - before dying of a heart attack at the age of 57 in 1987 - had turned to publishing lighter tales under titles like The Killer Koala.
Joseph Losey and Dirk Bogarde first expressed an interest in filming the novel, and hired Jamaican-born, British-based Evan Jones to write the screenplay.
Novelist Morris West later bought the film rights for a production company he was thinking of financing.
The rights were finally acquired by the NLT/Group W partnership. NLT consisted of Bobby Limb, a TV singer and television personality, his manager Jack Neary, and Les Tinker, a leagues club manager who helped finance the company. They acquired the rights in the work from West for a reported A$49,000 in 1967.
Editor on the film Tony Buckley later said he never understood why:
"NLT didn't have a clue how to make a film," says Tony Buckley, who, in the 1960s was the country's most sort after picture editor. "They knew how to make Variety shows, they could make TV programs, but as far as motion pictures were concerned they had no idea." Like everyone else connected with the production Buckley, who became the films editor, was mystified by NLT's prestige acquisition of Wake in Fright. NLT bought the rights off West for a reported $49,000 in 1967. "Even talking to Bobby Limb and Jack Neary before they died I never got a handle as to why they wanted to make 'Wake in Fright', he says today. (here).
The agreement with Group W, a division of the Westinghouse company in the United States, optimistically proposed that the joint venture would make ten films in five years.
As a result of the film's poor performance, it became the second and last film of the partnership (the first film being the aforementioned failed comedy Squeeze A Flower).
Penguin issued a new film tie-in following the film's revival. It had also issued a film-tie in on the film's release:
The book has been released in multiple hardback and paperback editions, and remains an excellent, pungent noir read by an author who'd spent time in Broken Hill and hated the joint. It's the ultimate literary payback.
Kate Jennings quotes Cook in an interview with John Ryan for Westerly:
"They are all based on people I knew – they are all dead now, but the characterisations are totally libellous.” At first he called the man who was the inspiration for Doc Tydon “a very evil man”, and then backed off, saying he was “a hateful man, as distinct from an evil man”. Further along in the interview, he pondered whether the men in Wake in Fright were malign or just human: “They are utterly and completely destructive to anything of goodness or responsibility under the sun. And yet they are completely innocent. It is a grotesque mindlessness which they evince in all their actions. They seem to be able to exist in this world without any concern for the horror which is lying around them and to be happy.” (here).
The film is generally faithful to Cook's novel. Cook would tell the press on the film's release that anything that was changed has only improved it, which makes me mad.
2. The Production:
For reasons that remain obscure, NLT and Group W decided to go with Ted Kotcheff, a Canadian director who had spent some time working in London.
Perhaps Group W saw him as a safe pair of hands - Kotcheff had done a series of telemovies in the mid to late 1960s, though his feature films could hardly be called robust (1967's Two Gentlemen Sharing, 1965's Life at the Top, a limp sort of sequel to Room at the Top, and the 1962 UK feature Tiara Tahiti).
Kotcheff had got the nod about the project via the writer Evan Jones, who had written the screenplay for Two Gentleman Sharing, about the racial issue in London:
"You know, Ted, I've been hired to do an adaptation of this Australian book called Wake in Fright, by Kenneth Cook. It's right up your alley. I know you. You'll love it." So I read it and I did love it. He knew me so well. I really responded to the atmosphere of the book, the Outback, the central character, and the incredible tension.
What the producers got was a feral film, more aligned in spirit with Kotcheff's 1982 effort First Blood, featuring Sylvester Stallone as an out of control Vietnam vet, tearing up a town like a Rambo or a 'roo shooter.
Kotcheff would go on to a succcessful Canadian/Hollywood career in feature films and high end television, turning in his later years to production.
Sylvia Kay, who played Janette Hynes in the film, was director Kotcheff's wife. According to one report, citing AD Howard Rubie, Kotcheff was looking for an edge of cruelty in the playing of the role, and after many auditions, and despite worries about nepotism and the unhappiness of his producer, proposed his wife. They were divorced not too long after the film's release, in 1972.
The casting is notable for being Australian star Chips Rafferty's last film. Rafferty provided director Kotcheff with a good anecdote:
Chips Rafferty, who played the town policeman Jock Crawford, was an Australian film star, and obviously he does a lot of drinking in the film. He pours a whole pint of beer back and orders another one, repeatedly. The first day we’re shooting, he tastes the beer and says, "Ted, this is fake beer! This is non-alcoholic!" I said, "I may do six to seven takes of every setup. Are you gonna drink 20 pints a day?" He said, "You leave it to me, but I can't drink this fake beer. I just can't make it credible. I want real beer." I said OK. He'd drink at least 20 pints every day, never got inebriated, and never slurred a word. His countenance didn't change at all, from morning to night. It was amazing! Australians drink so much, their whole system just hardens. (here).
The film also provided Jack Thompson with a memorable kick start to his big screen career (Thompson's earlier appearance as a flunky in a Reg Goldsworthy cheapie, That Lady from Peking, was less than memorable).
It took a considerable amount of time for Kotcheff to cast the main role:
Kotcheff had tried long and hard to cast the schoolteacher. He asked every eligible British actor and each one turned him down. Perhaps it was the passive-aggressive nature of the role, or the sexual humiliation (including an implied rape). He wanted Michael York, who was intense, intelligent and blonde. In the end he cast Englishman Gary Bond who was 29, with a CV that boasted strong stage work and TV supporting roles. He was also blonde and delicate looking. “NLT and Group W pushed him as the ‘new Peter O’Toole’,” says Tony Buckley, Wake in Fright’s editor. Bond was affable, likeable and somewhat shy, but crew members found him diffident. “Out of hours he was very nice but during shooting he kept himself apart, he wasn’t comfortable around people,” remembers Monica Dawkins, the film's make-up artist. (here).
Pleasence was the one obvious solution for the key role of the alcoholic doctor.
In early press reports, Sir Robert Helpmann had proposed that he would play the role of the drunken alcoholic doctor in the film. He trilled to Robert Drewe in The Age 8th July 1969:
"I can't think why chose me. It's certainly rather early in the moring to be an alcholoic today."
Wisely Pleasence, who had recently been a Bond villian in You Only Live Twice, was given the gig:
Pleasence arrived in Sydney with a long beard (faintly suggestive of the kind favoured by Aussie bushrangers of the 1880s) and a note-perfect accent. Famous for his attention to detail he took one look at the costume that had been prepared for him and rejected it. "He then asked for directions to the nearest opportunity shop and we sent him to St. Vinnies," remembers Dawkins. "He bought this awful suit and that's what he wears in the film." (here).
Pleasence, adapting to the ways of the locals, did something of a Rafferty, or at least method acting, and gave director Kotcheff another anecdote from the set:
Now, my friend Donald Pleasence, he could act all of it, but there was one scene, after the kangaroo hunt, where his character Doc Tyden drinks a lot of whiskey and makes a philosophical speech and afterwards goes crazy and smashes up the front of the pub with a chair. Donald said, "Ted, I don't think I can do this scene sober." I said, "Come on, Donald! You're one of the greatest actors in the world! Of course you can do it sober." He said, "You need that mad, demonic quality, and it's so hard to act that. I need alcoholic inspiration." I said, "Just do it."
We shot the scene [sober] and the next day I looked at the dailies and I apologized to Donald. I said, "You were absolutely right. You need to drink for this scene." [Laughs.] We re-shot the whole scene. That's the only scene he played drunk. It's an amazing performance. He knew how to use the alcohol as fuel for that madness. (here).
The mix, grading and music was done in London, and unhappy with the work of British sound engineers using library F/X, Kotcheff got in touch with Tim Wellburn to record a long list of Australian sounds.
The musical quotation in the film is Amelita Galli-Curci singing an ara - Caro Nome - from Verdi's Rigoletto.
The domestic release in Australia was a box office disaster.
It's easy to imagine the scene reported on by Tony Buckley here:
Buckley remembers watching Wake in Fright with the buyers and bookers from UA and Hoyts, the exhibitor, who handled all United Artists product.
"The lights came up and it was clear that they - UA and Hoyts - were all appalled."
James Mitchell, then the personal assistant to Dale Turnball, Hoyts managing director, remembers: "In those days movie going was still a habit, where the patrons were loyal to a particular theatre, because it showed a certain kind of picture." Hoyts, owned by 20th Century Fox in those days ran about 120 cinemas, had decided to book Wake in Fright into the Embassy. "It specialised in British films," says Mitchell, "especially of the middlebrow, mild-mannered kind.
Bill Harmon, one of the film's producers, in The Australian, 23rd October 1971 complained about UA's handling of the film, and of "treating it like nothing … It almost seems nobody wants anything to succeed here."
He complainted that the critics had almost universally written favourably about the film.
Bill Harmon woke in anger this week, grabbed the phone, and proceeded to tip the bucket on United Artists. It was like a load of gravel pouring from a truck.
"I'll stick my neck out," he growls in his American accent. "I just want to hit 'em. Wake in Fright is a great picture, but I'm livid at the way the distributors are handling it."
Mr Harmon was executive producer of Wake in Fright - a good movie which deserves big houses. It is certainly the best Australian film so far, with excellent reviews all round.
In fact, Sydney, Melbourne Adelaide and Perth now have Wake in Fright - and the country's best new play, David Williamson's, The Removalists, opened this week in Sydney. And both deserve bigger audiences.
"The Wake in Fright reviews are tremendous - for the first time all the critics are in agreement," says Mr Harmon. "And yet the goddamned publicity boys seem to be treating it like nothing.
"They could get 25,000 quotes from the reviews to slap up on the billboards. They could be pounding it more on TV and in the newspapers. Basically, it's great, whether it's made in Australia or not. In fact, I don't think it helps to constantly label it 'Australian.'
"Lack of enterprise - boy! It's had tremendous reviews in Paris, and I want to see it exploited more on TV - they do it with other pictures.
"It almost seems nobody wants anything to succeed here. Here we are, wanting to do pictures here, and it's terribly important for the investor to get his money back. But if a good movie can't get any money back here, who the hell's interested?"
United Artists, world distributors for Wake in Fright, declined official comment yesterday. But its staff has certainly worked hard to publicise the movie, and they don't deserve the full blast of Mr Harmon's wrath.
In fact, some people think they've over-promoted it. And that the main culprit is the Australian who plumps for big stars (preferably foreign, though Leo McKern will do) in overseas productions."They think this is just another one out of the old Outback barrel," explains one film man.
Wake in Fright (now in its 18th week in Paris) has lasted only a week in Brisbane, which prefers James Bond and the Sundance Kid. Interest should build slowly if it gets over the next week or two in the other capitals - Ian Moffitt
What's interesting, in a perverse way, is how the marketing, almost wilfully, completely missed the point.
If the viewing public thought the show was just another one out of the old Outback barrel, then United Artists completely failed in its job.
But Harmon was equally blind. The film was almost universally admired by local reviewers, but it's not easy to draw a tidy pitch out of some of the adjectives they used - Hell, open sore, sickening, stomach-retching, degradation, senseless and violent killing, desolation, humanity destroying, a nightmare from which one awakes limp, drained and vaguely queasy.
For years reviewers had demanded an adult Australian cinema, and when confronted by it, they reeled away in horror and nausea, and so did the Australian viewing public.
Handled carefully, it might have had a life as an art-house cinema item, but Australia wasn't capable of absorbing the notion that Australia had finally produced a devastating, gut-wrenching arthouse film.
What made it even more bizarre is that it came from NLT, who's first outing had been the feeble, genteel Walter Chiari comedy Squeeze a Flower. It was a bit like King Kong following on from Bambi.
The advertising campaign seemed to suggest it was the heat, rather than the booze or the gambling or the Australian character that might be a problem.
To compound the problem, the film also suffered from inverted snobbery.
For example, Erwin Rado, then head of the Melbourne Film Festival, wrote to The Age, and incidentally, while campaigning for an Australian film school, noted that the film wasn't Australian.
The release, and the many issues surrounding the film, turned into the perfect storm:
It was part of the theatre manager’s job in those days to make a kind of exit poll after each new release and report back to head office. It wasn’t an exact science.
"Basically, the manager would just loiter in the lobby," says Mitchell, "and eavesdrop on the patrons - it was a good way to pick up where the word-of-mouth would take the movie." Mitchell says the anecdotal reports on Wake in Fright weren't good. "The Embassy had a very strong female audience and they did not like the kangaroo hunt." Mitchell reckons that the film was clearly more in the nature of what today's market would recognise as an art-house cross over film, the sort of piece that would require a certain amount of special handling. (here).
4. International Response:
Director Ted Kotchell also had his thoughts on the distributor, and their complete lack of interest and understanding.
In one interview he noted that the international title Outback made the film sound like a National Geographic documentary.
They opened it New York, on one screen, in a small movie house, on a Sunday. During a heavy blizzard!
Pauline Kael gave the film a favourable review in The New Yorker, but the damage was done.
The French were infatuated by the film and it ran for some five months in Paris, but it was the only country where the film really worked.
Unsurprisingly, it returned to Cannes in 2009, thanks to Martin Scorsese but also thanks to the ability of the French to spot an interesting movie, resulting in them demanding it be presented as Australia's selection.
As usual there were politics involved in the initial 1971 Cannes selection, and as usual it reflected badly on Australia:
The National Film Board of Australia was an advisory committee whose role it was to represent moviemaker’s interest and talk to the government through the ministry of the Interior. They refused to endorse Wake in Fright as the official Australian entry in Cannes – but Cannes itself had other ideas. Their selection panel invited the film as the official Australian entry. Kotcheff and NLT were ecstatic. But, then, as now, Cannes means more for world-sales, critical recognition, and a filmmaker’s career, than it does in terms of domestic box office. (here).
Kotcheff tells a great anecdote about Scorsese at Cannes, who provided the tag "It left me speechless" for the film's digital re-release.
Kotcheff: He was a twenty-five-year-old kid! Boy, have I got a story. So I was sitting in the balcony at the screening [of Wake in Fright] at Cannes]. And they put the director in the front row of the balcony. And the film starts. Then there is this voice behind me going, "Wow. Wow, what a scene. Boy. I didn't expect that. This is great."
Of course, comments of approbation are music to a director’s ears. But it was unusual that he was American. It was Cannes. And I knew he was a filmmaker because only directors, producers, and writers are allowed to sit in that area, in the first balcony. And this guy just keeps going on and on.
So you've seen the film. There's the homosexual rape scene. Which may be nothing now, but in 1971 it was out-there. And the scene comes on and this guy behind me says, "This director. He's going to go all the way. He's going to go all the way. He's going all the way! Oh my god he went all the way!"
So afterwords, the movie ends, the lights come up and I turn around to look at him. He's this young American, with spectacles. I go outside. And the film's PR guy comes up and asked how it was going. I said, "Good. But there was this guy sitting behind me. This American. And he kept talking; really liked the film." At that moment the guy came out of the theater and I pointed at him. "Oh, yeah, he's a young America filmmaker. Only made one film and it flopped."
So I asked if he knew the guy's name. "You don't need to know him." I didn't give a crap, I wanted to know his name. So he asks another person standing nearby if they knew the kid, and this guy says, "Yeah. His name is Martin Scorsese." And I said, "You're right. I've never heard of him."
And after it was restored, when it was declared a Cannes Classic. You know who declared it a Cannes Classic, who was head of the Cannes Classic department? Martin Scorsese. He remembered the film after all those years. 38 years. I found that one of the most moving things of my creative life. And his generosity has not stopped. There's a line on the new poster that says, "It left me speechless." He gave it to us last week to put on the poster.
Read the rest of the interview here.
5. The Lost Years:
As a result of the NLT-Group W partnership folding, the film's negative was lost for years, and only luck and a determined search saved it from near-extinction.
The negative was found inside a shipping container in a vault in Pittsburgh - about 60 cans of film, labelled "For destruction".
"It's one of the great finds of Australian film," said the veteran producer Anthony Buckley, who edited the controversial drama for the Canadian director Ted Kotcheff. "I regard it as the most important film made in Australia."
The painstaking search started when Mr Buckley offered to track down the missing negative for one of the producers, the late Bobby Limb, in 1994. He thought it would be in Britain but, with the the help of AusFilm, the cans were eventually found in the vault in August (Garry Maddox, Sydney Morning Herald, 16th October 2004, Classic film found in US)
It was ten years hunting, and found in the nick of time. While it's hard to imagine how UA might have handled the film in a way that appealed to the then very conservative taste of Australian film goers in the early nineteen seventies, at least with the film's discovery, restoration and revival that it began to enjoy critical success and recognition in Australia. Better thirty five years late than not at all.
The film is dated by the Oxford Australian Film, and other databases to 1971, but the copyright notice in the head titles is for 1970. This site uses the date of copyright, where available, as the best guide to the year of manufacture.
7. Animal Cruelty:
These days it would be impossible to make Wake in Fright in its current form. Few movies dare to challenge the credo, "no animal was harmed in the making of this film."
Kotcheff followed professional kangaroo shooters for the 'roo shoot scene, which still makes the film impossible for some to watch.
As Kate Jennings notes, Kotcheff used a genuine 'roo shooter in the show to play the role of Morley:
The fellow driving the jeep was not an actor. He was Jack, a nearly toothless, illiterate, nuggetty roo hunter, the genuine article, as Jane Perlez reported in the Sydney Morning Herald. The actor who was to play Morley broke his jaw, so Kotcheff recruited Jack. Fingers were crossed that he would remember his lines. As Kotcheff called for a dozen takes under a pitiless sun, Gary Bond was falling over from exhaustion, but Jack was cheerful to the end, glad to be in a movie. Jack’s physical appearance and performance tickled me no end, as did the faces in the two-up game and the RSL club, all of them non-actors.
The 'roo shooters were also genuine, as Jennings records in her interview with Kotcheff:
The kangaroo shooting necessarily came up. Kotcheff told me about a chilling conversation he had with two of the professional hunters. They asked him, "Where do you want us to shoot them. Kidneys, brain, heart?" "Well, what’s the difference?" replied Kotcheff. The difference: "With kidneys they die immediately. They drop. If you shoot them in the brain, they take a couple of hops. The most dramatic is when you shoot them in the heart. They leap four or five or six times and then right up into air and finally die." Completely taken aback, Kotcheff said, "Please don't do anything for me. Just go and do your job."
It was like the water buffalo shooting sequence in Roeg's Walkabout, pumped up to eleven, and all the more surprising because Kotcheff could claim the approval of Australian environmentalists, as he did in his FF2012 interview:
Kotcheff: "It was a professional kangaroo hunt that we piggybacked along with. I was in the back of the truck. And it had the exact same set-up as in the movie, with a light that they'd use to hypnotize the karangoos with. And I just stood in the back of the truck and it was like I was making a documentary film. I hate to say it, but using the footage gave us tremendous reality. And I was encouraged in all this by the Australian Prevention for the Cruelty of Animals. Because nobody knew they were killing hundreds of kangaroos back then to be sold to America as pet food.
Kotcheff: Yup. They'd kill 'em, then skin 'em. The skins were used to make those cuddly little koala bears tourists would buy. And then the carcasses where shipped to America to be sold to the pet food industry. Your dogs and cats were eating kangaroo meat! That was the real scandal of it all. One thing I am proud of - some of the footage, some of the footage that was too horrendous to be used in the film - the Australian environmental people used it. And they finally outlawed killing kangaroos to be shipped to America as pet food. They'd killed hundreds every night! It's incredible.
I am very against the killing of animals. I have never understood the pleasure that people take in shooting a living creature and killing it. When I was faced with one of the climatic scenes of the teacher’s degradation, I said, “How am I going to do this?” While I was pondering, one of my crew members told me, “Ted, they kill hundreds of kangaroos every night. They bring up these great refrigerator trucks, and six pairs of hunters in state trucks go off in different directions and they kill 10, 12 kangaroos and they bring them back and skin them for their pelts and then they hang the carcasses in the refrigerator.” I said, “To what end?” He said, “They’re shipped to America for the pet food industry.” I said, “You’ve got to be joking. All the cats and dogs in America are fed on kangaroo meat?” And he said, “Yes, it’s a very lucrative business.”
I went up to one of these refrigerator trucks and I spoke to a pair of hunters and I got my camera and I said, “I’ll ride on the back of your truck, shooting over the cab, and you go on with your business.” They were very accommodating. That is basically how I did it. I also did little visual tricks, like I would zoom in on a close-up of a kangaroo, and I’d say “Jump!” and he would jump out of frame and it would look like a bullet had hit him.
From 6 p.m. until 2 a.m. they were killing with great efficiency. Suddenly, around two in the morning, they started to miss and wound the animals. It was horrendous. The kangaroos were rolling around on the ground, and they were chasing the wounded kangaroos and putting them out of their misery. I learned that they had drank a half of bottle of whiskey. Some of the footage that I shot was so repulsive, heinous, and bloody that there was no way I could even use it...
...The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals gave me the seal of approval for everything that happened because they realized no animal had been hurt or shot specifically for my film, that this was all documentary footage of an actual hunt. I gave them the worst footage to put into their propaganda films, and even these hardened environmentalists were horrified at what they saw. One of the nicest outcomes of the whole thing was, about 10-15 years ago, as a result of the kangaroo hunt in my film, they banned the killing of kangaroos from the pet food industry. (here).
In one scene, Kotcheff revisited a familiar Australian icon, the boxing or fighting kangaroo, and cranked it up to eleven.
This kind of 'roo had been seen in Ken G. Hall's family film, the 1936 Orphan of the Wilderness, which featured a boxing 'roo cruelly trapped in a travelling circus.
Kotcheff went where no Australian film director had dared to go:
As part of their machismo, the hunters challenge a kangaroo to a fight. On the whole, kangaroos are not vindictive or aggressive, but fighting one is very dangerous. The kangaroo has powerful jumping legs, and if you try to attack them they lean back on their prehensile tail, all four legs off of the ground, then they embrace you with their upper arms, which are very much like human arms, and they raise their kicking legs and they give you a kick that breaks every bone in your body and kills you.
We built a huge compound for that particular scene. I was surrounded by kangaroos. They didn’t want to fight. They looked very comfortable lying around, just looking at me looking at them. [Laughs.] I said to the sheep rancher, “Let these kangaroos go back into the Outback, and get me a really big kangaroo.” They came back with this eight-foot kangaroo that I called Lord Nelson, because some human being had shot one of his eyes out. He was the Moby Dick of kangaroos; he hated human beings for what they had done to him.
When we shot the fight sequence, this kangaroo immediately wanted to destroy Peter Whittle and went after him. I don’t know how Peter did it. There was no double, no stunt man, it was him all the way. Peter kept dodging Lord Nelson, and finally, of course, he lifted his tail off the ground, which renders them impotent, and we pretended to cut his throat.
After three hours, I had the greatest shot and they were both exhausted. I have the greatest picture of Lord Nelson and Peter Whittle. There was no animosity between them anymore; they were leaning on each other from exhaustion.
I said, “OK, let’s give Lord Nelson applause.” The whole crew applauded and he looked around like, “What is going on here? Why are these people applauding me?” All he knew was that human beings were trying to kill him. And then I said, “OK, you can go now.” He looked at me dubiously. We opened the doors to the compound and he took five exploratory jumps and looks back at me and I said, “I mean it, Lord Nelson. You’ve done a great job and you may go. Bye.” And he hopped off in to the darkness, the one kangaroo that hated human beings. (here).
8. Further reading:
As a lost masterpiece restored, Wake in Fright has probably attracted more critical attention than most Australian films of any period.
A book has been written on the film which is sometimes attributed to Kate Jennings but is credited to Tina Kaufman. More details from the publisher Currency Press here.
Kate Jennings has also written a lengthy response to the film for The Monthly, available at time of writing under the header Home Truths: Revisiting 'Wake in Fright', online here. That piece can also be found in her book Trouble Evolution of a Radical/Selected Writings 1970-2010.
Perhaps the best piece in Jenning's piece is that bit of her interview with Kotcheff which explains why he was so artful in getting inside the heads of Australians:
I was particularly curious about Kotcheff’s refusal to judge his characters. “I remember an Australian saying to me,” he explained, “‘You’ve come here to rubbish us.’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘Yes you are. You’re going to rubbish us.’ And I said, ‘I’m a filmmaker. I don’t judge. I observe and empathise.’” He went on to talk about the influence of Chekhov on his work: “He was criticised for not taking a moral stand in his story ‘The Horse Thief’, for not condemning the thief. His reply was, ‘If you need me to teach you that stealing horses is wrong, your moral structure is very creaky indeed. I’m not interested in condemning the man. I’m interested in getting inside his head. I am not the judge of my characters. I’m their best witness.’ I tell you, this still makes me shiver. It became the backbone of my own creative work. I am not going to judge people. We are all in the same existential boat.”
Kotcheff did indeed empathise with his outback characters and the outback itself, which helps explain the film's enduring appeal. It might be a nightmare, but it's more than a stereotype - the people who get the teacher into a strange place in his head are also friendly, cheerful and hospitable.
Jennings' piece is extremely approachable, blending her own experience of the bush with her experience of the film. She muses on the place of opera in the bush, and the impact of the 'roo shoot, and the similarities between Canada's desolate open spaces and the bush, and even speculates about her own mother perhaps having a fling with a bonded slave teacher.
As well as interviewing Kotcheff, she spices her appreciation with anecdotes about the filming, including an extended story about associate producer Maurice Springer acquiring a taste for two up, and making out like bandits.
A useful detailed summary of the film's development, production, and release, by Peter Galvin (who also turns up on the Blu-ray pamphlet), can be found at the SBS site in three instalments:
Part One, which details the background to and the development of the film.
Part Two, which looks at the production of the film, the casting, the rituals of mateship, the studio and location shoot, the phobias and tensions of the producer, and includes a great anecdote about director Ted Kotcheff encountering public bar pub culture;
Part Three, which looks at the 'roo shoot, location filming, the editing by Tony Buckley (who stayed in Ajax studios cutting), director Kotcheff conducting operas while the editing proceeded, the film going over budget, and an attempt by producer George Willoughby to replace Buckley with an English editor, Thom Noble, who advised him not to touch a frame of it, and the premiere.
Galvin spoke to many players on the set, and produces many anecdotes about the making of the film.
Tony Buckley, in his autobigraphy devotes a generous amount of space to the experience of editing the film. As the man who saved the film from extinction, he has a special place in its pantheon.
As well as the interview already referenced, here, there are other interviews with Kotcheff, usually bubbling with anecdotes, as can be found in this one here, and this interview here (just google Ted Kotcheff interview and count the hits, and you will also find him interviewed by David Stratton for the ABC, here).
Most of the interviews contain variations and repetitions of Kotcheff's repertoire of anecdotes, but new variations make each worth the read:
One thing that was interesting in Australia was the amount of fighting; people like to fight as well as drink. In the town where we shot, Broken Hill, men outnumbered the women three to one, and there were no brothels. My explanation is that the lack of female presence made the men crazy.
When I made this film I looked like a 1960s hippie. I had a handle-bar mustache, my hair was down to the middle of my arms. Guys always wanted to fight me. I’d say, “No, I’ve got no quarrel with you,” and they would stick their jaw in my face. If I took one strike I’d break their jaw. I rapidly discerned that they didn’t want to hit me, they wanted me to hit them. They were so desperate for human touch, and hitting was the easiest way of getting touched without indulging in homosexual behavior. This is my theory anyway of why the fighting was so prevalent. (here).
Kotcheff has clearly enjoyed the re-discovery and re-release of the film and now writing about the film is something of a mini-industry on the internet.
Why not. How often does a director live in ignorance that his film almost became extinct, permanently lost in its original form, and then wake up with pleasure to discover the world praising him for making an Australian masterpiece.
9. A personal note:
Finally, it should be noted that this writer grew up in a country town, and saw something of the cult of mateship, and the difficulties women faced in the patriarchy, and the law of the shout and beer, and spotlighting and 'roo shooting first hand.
I first saw this film in Sydney on its original release, in a virtually empty cinema (most sessions it played to empty cinemas). They say that films aren't life-changing, but I staggered into the bright light in Castlereagh street, and swore on the spot never to become a bonded teacher, capable of being sent anywhere at the whim of the Education Department, ending up like one of my schoolfriends in a single teacher school somewhere near Woop Woop, and turning to the grog for comfort. It cost me money - the department wanted its bond back - but I've never regretted what the film did for me.
This site would give the film eleven out of five stars if it was possible. It's the first film masterpiece made in Australia, and it still has a visceral effect, at least on those who remember how close to a certain reality it was.
MORLEY: Come and have a drink, mate.
GRANT: No thanks.
MORLEY: Come and have a drink. Only take a minute.
GRANT: I’ve given up for a while.
MORLEY: What’s wrong with you, you bastard? I just brought you 50 miles in the heat and dust. Come and drink with me!
GRANT: What’s the matter with you people? Sponge on you, burn your house down, murder your wife, rape your child – that’s all right. But not have a drink with you? Don’t have a flaming bloody drink with you? That’s a criminal offence! That’s the end of the bloody world!
MORLEY: Yer mad, yer bastard.
If that doesn't make any sense to you, get yourself in a drinking school and down ten schooners (fifteen ounces) in an hour, and then see how you feel.