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  • United Artists / Drafthouse Films
After watching John Curran's upcoming Tracks, in which a woman (Mia Wasikowska) travels across the Outback, and David Michôd's recently released The Rover, in which a man (Guy Pearce) does the same—though for entirely different reasons—I realized it was time to catch up with 1971's Wake in Fright (The Rover opened two weeks ago; Tracks opens on September 19).

In Canadian director Ted Kotcheff's film, an adaptation of the Kenneth Cook novel, a man (Gary Bond) tries to travel from the Outback and into the city, but the Outback won't let him go (Joseph Losey associate Evan Jones wrote the script).

Bond, a bleached-blond British actor with a young Peter O'Toole thing going on, plays John Grant, a one-room schoolhouse teacher in the tiny town of Tiboonda. Once Christmas break arrives, he hops a train en route to Sydney, stopping off in Bundanyabba, aka "The Yabba," for the night, where a cop (Chips Rafferty in his final film role) buys him beer after beer. This leads John to believe he can make enough money playing two-up to pay off his bond and quit teaching (he'd rather work as a journalist). Instead, he wins a hangover and loses his money.

Thompson enjoys the hunt
  • United Artists / Drafthouse Films
  • Thompson enjoying the kangaroo hunt
The next day, the drinking continues. John's attempt to get busy with Janette (Kotcheff's then-wife, Sylvia Kay), the daughter of his host, Tim (Al Thomas), falls apart when a bout of nausea overtakes him. From the oh-well expression on her stoic face, it's clear she's been down this road before. The day after, John wakes up to another hangover, a shirtless Donald Pleasence, and a plateful of ground kangaroo.

After a breakfast of warm beer, he goes hunting with Pleasence's Doc, a self-proclaimed alcoholic, and his roughneck miner pals, Joe (Peter Whittle) and Dick (the great Jack Thompson in his first film role). They drink more beer and proceed to take their aggression out on a court of kangaroos (the film crew tagged along on a real hunt). It's all very psychedelic in a brown acid kind of way—you can practically smell the beer, blood, and body odor wafting off the screen. I really know how to sell 'em, don't I? Well, it's also rather beautiful in its way, especially John Scott's flute-saturated score.

As with British director Nicholas Roeg's Walkabout, also from 1971, the story ends much as it began, except that John can never return to the person he once was. If the two films share visual similarities, the storyline has more in common with John Boorman's James Dickey adaptation Deliverance, in which Appalachia tests the mettle of four city dwellers (and was also made by an outsider). About Kotcheff's film, which was initially rejected by its home country, Nick Cave has said it's "the best and most terrifying film about Australia in existence."

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  • United Artists / Drafthouse Films
  • As this image attests: Pleasence is very good value

Kotcheff would go on to direct many other movies, including The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, North Dallas Forty, and First Blood, before becoming a producer on Law & Order: SVU (let us not speak of Weekend at Bernie's). In the intervening years, Australia has come to embrace Wake in Fright, which helped to kick-start the New Wave that launched Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock), Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant), and Fred Schepisi (The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith).

So, it's a good film and an important one, but it's no walk in the park despite a fair number of funny lines. Though other actors, like Dirk Bogarde and Michael York, circled the part, the lesser known Bond, primarily a theater actor, turned out to be the perfect man to play the antihero (even if Cook wrote the character as Australian). Bond's ability to take his schoolteacher from condescension to degradation to uneasy acceptance helps this strong medicine go down a lot easier than it would have otherwise—plus, I'm not sure that York or Bogarde would've been as willing to go full frontal (a sequence cut from the original American prints).

Wake in Fright is available for streaming through Netflix and Drafthouse Films.