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School Daze Down Under

MOVIE REVIEW
Wake in Fright (1972)

Wake-in-fright-movie-review-donald-pleasence-gary-bond
Drafthouse Films

John Grant (Gary Bond) is a teacher working in a small school house in the Australian outback who is unhappy in his job, seeing his teaching contract as a prison sentence. The Christmas holiday offers Grant a brief respite from his job; he plans to leave for a break in Sydney, and is spurred on by visions of a beach and a young woman. On his way to Sydney, Grant stops over in the town of Bundanyabba — nicknamed “the Yabba” by the locals — for the night, which is when his life changes dramatically.

Venturing out to a local bar, Grant meets a friendly policeman (Chips Rafferty) and an eccentric doctor (Donald Pleasence), but he shows obvious discomfort in having to drink and socialize with them when he would much rather be left alone. Grant soon discovers a gambling game in the bar and sees a chance to win enough money so that he can leave his job. Instead, he loses all his money and finds himself trapped in a nightmarish situation with seemingly no way out.

“Wake in Fright” appeared in 1971, the same year as Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs,” with both films being very male-dominated stories showing the gradual metamorphosis of a mild-mannered man into an unthinking brute. The two films even each has a disturbing hunting scene that serves as a crucial turning point for the central character. Like Dustin Hoffman’s mathematician in “Straw Dogs,” Grant thinks that his education makes him superior to the locals he encounters; he makes little effort to befriend them and injects subtle sarcasm into his conversation.

The film shows two sides to the various men encountered by Grant. While the group he later hunts with are shown as boorish and sexist, they are also friendly, constantly offering drinks to Grant and inviting him to join their group. Grant is also a conflicted character. On the one hand, he has a sensitivity that these men lack, which is shown in his interest in — and apparent concern for — a local woman (Sylvia Kay). However, Grant’s attitude marks him as an outsider to the community, as he does not fit in with the other red-blooded men. Grant may be wary of these locals, but they are also puzzled by his rebuffing of their hospitality.

Director Ted Kotcheff is probably known chiefly for helming the Rambo film “First Blood,” which also featured a loner and outsider who is hounded by the locals in a small community. “Wake in Fright” is an equally striking film, displaying a hallucinogenic style that heightens the drama and takes the viewer inside Grant’s head to share the character’s thoughts and feelings. At the start of the film, we catch glimpses of Grant's daydreams that represent the idyllic time that awaits him in Sydney, but these are replaced by disturbing images — real and imagined — later on, which serve to taunt him when the opportunity to leave the Yabba seems to slip away.

The 360-degree panning shot at the start of the film — showing an arid landscape, a railway line, a train platform with a few structures — is reminiscent of the opening to Sergio Leone’s epic western “Once Upon a Time in the West.” Both films show that an isolated landscape can allow lawlessness to occur, but “Wake in Fright” suggests that this environment can also lead to madness. Time literally stands still in the outback portrayed here; a clock glimpsed on the train platform has no hands. The interior of Grant's classroom features the sound of a ticking clock, but it feels like an agonizingly long time as the silent pupils and disaffected teacher wait for the school day to end.

As Grant, Bond has the look of a “Lawrence of Arabia”-era Peter O’Toole about him, but without the mischievous glint in his eye or the steely nerve that saw O’Toole’s Lawrence through his adversities. The stifling circumstances in which Grant finds himself seem to have extinguished any spark of interest in his teaching work; tellingly, he discards his books during the course of the film. Pleasence’s doctor is, like Grant, an outsider; but to Grant he is lost and uncivilized, an example to the teacher of his own fate if he fails to leave.

“Wake in Fright” does not shy away from the violent side of male behavior, which is seemingly amplified by the pack mentality of the men Grant encounters, as shown in the hunt scenes. When Grant joins the male mob to shoot kangaroos, his gets swept up in the alcohol-fueled frenzy, but his face also registers flickers of disgust at what he is seeing and self-loathing at what is doing. The film makes us wonder if Grant’s association with these men and their way of life has corrupted his high-minded principles, or if this group and the environment just revealed the uglier impulses that were already dormant within him.

“Wake in Fright” is an unsettling portrait of a man’s inner turmoil and his slow descent into a personal hell from which there seems no escape. Despite the closing moments slightly taking the edge off the drama, feeling almost like scenes tacked on as a concession to avoid having an utterly bleak ending, this is still a dark, unnerving odyssey. The film shows how men can succumb to their animalistic impulses, and how apparently civilized values held by a seemingly educated man can be dropped on a dime or a drink.

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