Welcome to “The Yabba”- short for Bundanyabba, a mining town in the Australian Outback. “Where nobody cares where you came from or what you’ve done” as John Grant’s new drinking buddy in the local Outback bar explains to him. “I’m a doctor. I’m also an alcoholic. But nobody cares about that. You won’t either…as long as you join the guys in the bar in rapid serial beer drinking- opening the throat and pouring the stuff down, quickly and sequentially.” A fair recipe for alcoholism. And no effete pommie behavior, either.
You must join in the pounding of the bar tables. Singing. Gambling racket. Fighting. Laughing like hyenas. There are whole scenes of huge straw headed bright red faced heads thrown back laughing and laughing and howling like dogs or like damned souls in a pot—pure Brueghel. (In case you were wondering, in the Yabba there is a grand total of one indigenous Australian guy who keeps well to himself.)
The protagonist of Wake in Fright is John Grant, a handsome, sensitive, well educated Englishman completely out of his element- posted to a very remote part of Australia and clearly hating it. We see him fastidiously ignoring his classroom of sturdy, blonde, mouth breathing blue eyed kids whose twitches indicate just how intensely they are waiting for the bell to ring so they may bolt outside and off to their vacation. When the bell does ring it’s pandemonium. They storm out.
Grant too can’t wait to get away on vacation. He intends to go to Sidney where he has a girlfriend -but loses his money and his shirt in a gambling bout and finds he’s stuck en route in the town of Bundanyabba- or “The Yabba,” described with sly deadpan glee as the “friendliest little place in the Outback.” And the Yabba bar is the friendliest little place in Yabba.
“Have a beer mate,” says John’s new friend the local cop, repeatedly. To John’s feeble protest “But I already have a beer!” His buddy rejoins “Well drink up and have another!” There is no way one could refuse. A sequence that is repeated constantly throughout the movie. And it is the undoing of Grant who is pretty well disoriented, soused and unable to kick it for his entire 5-day stay in the Yabba.
Beer is compulsory. No scene is complete without all parties’ rapid downing several beers in a row just for starters. Beer is like currency. It is a necessity of hospitality, offering and receiving. It signifies that you’re part of the crowd. Grant walks onto a train in the faint hope it will get him out of town, sits down, and a guy two seats away yells “Have a beer, mate!” throwing him a very large can of Foster’s.
To his credit John catches and promptly downs it. Beer is also cuisine. When we get a look inside the doctor’s fridge there is no food at all but dozens of brands of beer. The fridge of a connoisseur. Beer drinking punctuates the conversation. Also, it provides the excuse for outrageous and degenerate behavior. For example - a home invasion. When a householder sees that his furniture has been trashed, a Yabba inhabitant explains gently “We’re just having a bit of a party, mate.” How could one refuse to join in?
Another theme that is repeated – the sound of loud, insistent flies buzzing. Their buzzing always seems to herald something potentially wicked is about to happen —a massive bar fight, destruction of furniture, an interrupted sexual encounter — “having a go” at the resident comfort woman Jeannette, whose posing and rapid frantic unbuttoning is frustrated by the newcomer John’s inability to hold his liquor. I kept thinking of the Lord of the Flies. For the Yabba rapidly becomes an Australian version of hell and there are many candidates for Beelzebub.
For my money, there are four scenes that grab the attention and won’t let go. One is the house gambling. The routine is simplicity itself—tossing marked coins up in the air and shouting heads or tails. When the tally is shouted, bodies hurl shouting through the air down to the pit to grab up their winning, and the next coin toss begins immediately again.
In a truly bizarre move two marked coins fly high and come down and sit in a Yabba man’s eyes. It’s hard to describe how alienating and scary this coin-marked face is…but it is. It’s an image that lurks behind the watcher’s eyes. The shout level is deafening; the greed is marked and overwhelming, money grabbed up and stuffed in shirts. I would guess that in an Outback mining town there aren’t many ways to make money other than wages.
I was reminded of Tina Turner in one of the Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome sequences, presiding over a cage on which her subjects hang, avid to see two men kill each other by any means necessary. This crowd is avid too but what they want to see is not death – at least, not here- but the conversion of a lost soul to penury.
And finally, they get what they want. Fools like young John Grant lose their shirts. He is penniless and desperate. So desperate, that he joins up with some of the most repulsive Yabba men who essentially agree to fund him while in Yabba—there is some sort of kindness here after all. But he discovers that their idea of entertaining him, of showing him a really good time- aside from drinking, gambling, fighting and having a go at Jeannette—is shooting kangaroos on the hoof from a truck.
There is a disclaimer in the film here—that no live kangaroos were shot in the film. It’s all archival footage. The equivalent of wearing a vintage fur coat whose squirrels are long since dead. However, archival or not, as a piece of sheer horror, fear, and pity, the shooting of these doe eyed creatures too naïve to hop away and save themselves really has no equal. Shooting by these huge laughing, red eyed hulking honking brutes with rifles and a Range Rover (guessing here), which easily outruns the kangaroo. Would we be as horrified if the kangaroos were hyenas? Maybe not but many of the audience, myself included, gasped and covered our eyes.
John marks his conversion to the Yabba way of life by not covering his eyes but blasting away at the kangaroos with the best of them. It is perhaps at this moment that he is at his lowest level. He has become one of them.
The final scene that doesn’t let go—is a drunken, rolling on the ground, really quite raw and sexy interaction between John and the doctor. Presumably making crude desperate howling passes at other men is one of the things the doctor has done in the past that nobody cares about in Yabba. Strangely politically correct—but it is not romantic. It is vicious and much is hanging on the one who wins the bout. The conclusion is a surprise. We have seen Grant, filthy, raw red with sun, sick with all the alcohol he has consumed over five days, with the blood of kangaroos on his hands, considering shooting himself in the head with a shotgun. And at this point it’s hard to see a good reason why not. How much lower can he go?
Yet the final scenes show him clean, shaven, hair trimmed, in a spotless white cotton shirt and pants, heading towards the train to go back to the school again. I have a literal mind. Was this supposed to be heaven? Has he expiated his sins? Or is it really simple— he’s just sweated the booze out of his system. I’ll never know. But this film will never let me go!
Interview with Ted Kotcheff, the director.
You’re Canadian, born in Toronto with a degree in English Literature from the University of Toronto. You made a very speedy transition from country to country and from the movies to the stage to TV. How did that work?
There was no real difference, for me! I worked in all three—and in all three countries—at the same time. At the age of 24 I was a director in TV for the CBC and then working on live dramas. We were working to bring culture to Canada by putting on plays.
When I moved to England, TV was just getting underway. My television work in Great Britain has been dubbed part of the “new working class wave…in British TV in the late 1950s.” My film career also started in England: Edna, the Inebriate Woman an episode of “Play for Today” (1970). which won the British Emmy for Best Director. “Tiara Tahiti” (1962), a social comedy starring James Mason and John Mills; “Life at the Top” (1965), starring Laurence Harvey and Jean Simmons; “Two Gentlemen Sharing” (1969), starring Robin Phillips, a film “dealing with relationships between West Indian blacks and whites,” the British entry at the Venice Film Festival.
When did you film Wake in Fright?
My next film, Wake in Fright (1971), was made in Australia. It was an adaptation of a book Wake in Fright, by Kenneth Cook, filmed as The Outback. It was the Australian entry in the Cannes Film Festival. And it was a unique way of life brought to the screen, for the first time. Although I was a Canadian, Australians loved my portrayal of the Outback.
Give me a sense of the Outback 40 years ago.
The Outback landscape 40 years ago was not really so different from parts of Canada and the US—Nevada, Arizona- today. Bleak, dust and sand, with scrub and cacti as the only foliage. It was a male society. In order to understand the Outback and the working men (no women) I spent several weeks living in the Outback—the landscape, the pubs, the central importance of drinking, fighting, trashing furniture, raw sex. The Yabba could have been my pub. The pub, and beer, were the center of all society—nothing else for hundreds of miles. The men would be inside, drinking, fighting, the women outside in their cars at 110 degrees heat. Waiting. (e.g.: The semi-pro character of Jeannine in Wake in Fright). They were not allowed inside.
Drinking- the men would chug beer constantly, opening their throats and pouring it down. No noticeable difference between sobriety and drunkenness—incredibly high tolerance—until a critical mass had been reached. Then it was time for a fight..and trashing furniture. And time to kill some wildlife. The drinking and fighting was constant. And central to social life.
Fighting- the trick with bar fights was to get in the first strike and then stand over the fallen body of your opponent ready to hit him again. Aside from winning the bout, the issue with bar fights—it was a way to license touch. Otherwise these men had so little by way of – tenderness? Even friendship? At the very least, human contact.
Trashing furniture – territory marking? A way of working out hostility? Hard to say. But it was clearly party time. No-one was expected to take exception to it.
Killing kangaroos. This was sport for the guys in this film, hunting and killing kangaroos from a SUV. It has aroused much negative reaction, which I’ll gladly deal with later. I will just mention that the Outback feeling about kangaroos was not friendly — one guy called them “the bastards. “You’re gonna kill them, the bastards, eh?”
How did they react to you?
I looked very strange to the men of the Outback. I looked like a hippy with my long hair. A guy would yell to me “Hello Stalin! Hello Stalin!” Apparently the hair and glasses touched off a memory. “C’mon, let’s fight!” It was a trick for me to evade the fight. And still be seen as a man. I managed it. But I was constantly challenged.
That one issue remains: Killing kangaroos. The images are so graphic and violent and the kangaroos so innocent and helpless. Why did you put this in the movie?
Well. Killing wild animals for sport went to character within the film. But I no more than you would voluntarily kill wild animals for sport. And in fact, what you saw was not “real”—no kangaroos were killed for this film. This was all archival footage. As a matter of fact, this Producers’ Note at the end of the film offered an explanation of the scenes: “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 organizations in Australia and the United Kingdom.”