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 teacher.
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.