Wake In Fright Ted Kotcheff (Australia 1971)

Wake In Fright Ted Kotcheff (Australia 1971)

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Wake in Fright Ted Kotcheff
(Australia 1971) Donald Pleasance; Gary Bond, Chips Raferty

Viewed ICA Cinema London 10 March 14;
Ticket £6

Signs of the times: delirium tremens

I think the title Wake in Fright points
directly to the intention of the film and probably, but in a
different context, of the book which I haven’t read.In relation to
the film, the title seems not so much a description of anything in
the film but an injunction. It’s an injunction to wake up and see
what’s in front of you. Ted Kotcheff’s movie is directed not so
much at the Australia of the early 1960’s when the book was written,
but more urgently as it found itself in 1970 at the end of the long
blood drenched Vietnam war characterised by the slaughter of
innocents. Murders now forgotten.

Viewed from 2014 Wake in Fright is an
allegorical rendering of the forces of nihilistic destruction that
have been unleashed many times in recent history: Bosnia, Lebanon,
Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan to name but a few.

Wake in Fright chronicles the delirium
of the male when he enters into the world of the dead, or the world
of war. The subsumation of the individual male identity into a
murderous quasi tribal collective psyche.

We see the mild mannered teacher John
Grant enter the craw of a male dominated mining town. As the script
develops he is stripped of his thin outer socialised veneer, his
teacher persona.

Drink, serial ritual drinking a common
element of hazing initiation, breaks him down, replaces the civilised
with the instinctive. His judgement eroded, his perception debased,
his psychic responses are concentrated into a limited number of
survival reflexes. Like a Viking Warrior, he enters a state of
delirium which is his only protection, both from himself and others.
Psychically life is replaced by death as an energiser. In Paul
Virilio’s phrase: the right to live is replaced by the right to die.

Grant is stripped of his money his
clothes and his possessions and enters the final series of drinking
bouts that reduce him to an automative appendage of the collective
male machine. Grant played by Gary Bond is a sort of satirical
inverse of James Bond. The screen realisation of the Bond persona is
a fantasy male figure par excellence. The man who is always in
control. He is intelligent urbane calculating, and has sex appeal.
He is an appendage of the the consumer culture which with its
Ferraris, Computers, Aperitifs etc can festoon him with baubles of
desire. John Grant represents the other pole of reality. As he
enters the fog he is bereft of desirable attributes, there are no
products of desire with which to associate. The alcohol is not so
much a product, it’s a gateway to death. And yet the statement in
the persona of Grant has a resonation deep in the male psyche. This
is what is real; it is more real on its own terms than Bond, this is
what it means to be a man to accept and respond to life: to live in
the delirium of the male. Out of control, indiscriminately
murderous, brutal and psychotic. The history of documented combat
killings: Mai Lai in Vietnam, Haditha in Iraq, and numberless other
unrecorded and unattributed slayings almost unremarked in everyday
life attest to the reality of the delirium.

I did wonder if Gary Bond, who plays
John Grant, had ever been considered for the eponymous part in the
Bond franchise?

If so his association with Wake in Fear
will have killed it off.

In Wake in Fear Ted Kotcheff gives most
vivid expression to this male delirium in the sequence of the
kangaroo hunt in which Grant takes part. These creatures frozen
immobile transfixed in the beam from the mounted headlight on the car
roof, offer themselves as sitting ducks to the guns of the hunting
party. The ‘roos are slaughtered amidst the sound of hysterical
laughter and merriment. The men are lost in an immediate trance in
the spasm of the killing. They are proto hunters engaged in a magical
ritual. In inflicting death, and it is the finality of death that is
important (there is no appeal from the death wound inflicted), the
hunter becomes an elevated being and acquires for himself the magical
protective mantel of their slain victims. Savage. And perhaps it
was like this inVietnam and Iraq and out on the streets.

The ‘roo hunt is depicted as fuelled by
alcohol but the conditions for the delirium are established through the scenario. The physical
proximity of the men and the singing of songs, that are little more
than chants, with strong repetitive motifs, are all strong bonding
elements creating the conditions necessary to the state of collective
male delirium. So although alcohol is a driver in Wake in Fear, fear
itself, with its adrenalin rush, or drugs or righteous belief systems
have the same effect.

The structure of Wake with Fear is
symmetrical in form. It ends and begins with the same shot.

A big wide shot of the isolated
community in the middle of the outback where John Grant is the

In the opening sequence he leaves. In
the final sequence he returns. Outwardly we can see no difference in
him. Like the vets who return to their communities, unless they are
injured, on the outside they appear the same. It is within where we
cannot see what it is that the delirium has wrought or writ.

Wake in Fright belongs to an era when
the concern of significant film makers was to seize consciouness and
engage with the world in whatever manner. Numbered were the days.

Adrin Neatrour


Author: Adrin Neatrour

2 thoughts on “Wake In Fright Ted Kotcheff (Australia 1971)

  1. John Grant

    That was one of the worst and most pretentious analyses I have ever read of this superb film. Thanks!

  2. Jack Crawford

    By the way. The novel this was based on came out in 1961, long before the Iraq or Vietnam wars. 😉


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