Wake in Fright

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Wake in Fright
Australian daybill film poster
Directed byTed Kotcheff
Screenplay byEvan Jones[a]
Based onWake in Fright
by Kenneth Cook
Produced byGeorge Willoughby
CinematographyBrian West
Edited byAnthony Buckley
Music byJohn Scott
Color processTechnicolor
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release dates
Running time
109 minutes[3]
  • Australia
  • United Kingdom
  • United States[5]
Box office
  • $321,323 (Australia re-release)[7]
  • $50,394 (US re-release)[8]

Wake in Fright (initially released as Outback outside Australia) is a 1971 psychological thriller film directed by Ted Kotcheff, written by Evan Jones, and starring Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence, Chips Rafferty, Sylvia Kay and Jack Thompson. Based on Kenneth Cook's 1961 novel of the same name, it follows a young schoolteacher who descends into personal moral degradation after finding himself stranded in a brutal, menacing town in outback Australia.

Filmed on-location in Broken Hill and Sydney, Wake in Fright was an international co-production between Australia, Britain,[9] and the United States.[10][11] Alongside Walkabout, it was one of two Australian films to be nominated for the Grand Prix du Festival at the 24th Cannes Film Festival. Despite attracting positive reviews at the time, the film was a commercial failure in Australia, in part due to scant marketing by United Artists, as well as controversy surrounding its portrayal of outback life, including a hunting scene in which real kangaroos are shot and killed.

By the 1990s, Wake in Fright had developed a cult reputation as Australia's great "lost film" because its master negative had gone missing, resulting in censored prints of degraded quality being used for its few television broadcasts and VHS releases. After the original film and sound elements were rescued by editor Anthony Buckley in 2004, the film was digitally remastered and given a 2009 re-release at Cannes and in Australian theatres to widespread acclaim; it was issued commercially on DVD and Blu-ray later that year. Wake in Fright is now considered a pivotal film of both the Australian New Wave[12] and the Ozploitation cycle,[13] earning praise from contemporary critics for Kotcheff's direction and the cast's performances.[14]

Wake in Fright was remade as a two-part miniseries that aired in 2017.


John Grant is a young, middle-class schoolteacher who feels disgruntled because of the onerous terms of a financial bond that he signed with the government in return for receiving a tertiary education. The bond has forced him to accept a two-year post at a tiny school at Tiboonda, a remote township in the arid outback. It is the start of the Christmas holidays, and John plans on going to Sydney to see his girlfriend Robyn, but first he must travel by train to the nearby mining town of Bundanyabba – affectionately nicknamed "The Yabba" by the locals – in order to catch a Sydney-bound flight.

Upon arriving at The Yabba, John goes to a pub, where he meets the local policeman, Jock Crawford, who befriends him after both drink repeated glasses of beer at the pub and an RSL club, where they witness an unnerving ANZAC memorial service. Crawford then introduces him to the illegal game of two-up, and to Clarence "Doc" Tydon, a vagrant, alcoholic medical practitioner who questions John's contemptuous view of The Yabba and its populace. Deciding to try his luck at two-up, John has a winning streak but becomes reckless: in a desperate bid to win enough money to pay off his bond and escape his indentured servitude as an outback teacher, he loses all of his cash in two rounds. This results in John becoming stranded in The Yabba with no money, leaving him at the mercy of its searing heat and eccentric but sinister townsfolk.

While drinking, John becomes friends with a resident named Tim Hynes and goes to Tim's house, where he meets his adult daughter, Janette, and his two friends, miners Dick and Joe. Tim, Dick and Joe engage in an all-day drinking session, where they are eventually joined by Doc. John converses with Janette, who quietly desires a life outside of waiting on her father and his friends. She aggressively tries to seduce John, who vomits partly in disgust and due to the beer he has ingested.

After engaging in more debauched rituals with the Hynes and their guests, John finds refuge in Doc's isolated shack. After providing him with medicine to cure his hangover and feeding him on kangaroo meat, Doc expounds his worldview onto John, revealing that his alcoholism and self-sufficient attitude to life prevented him from practicing in Sydney. He also reveals that he and Janette have had a long-standing open relationship punctuated by unorthodox sexual encounters.

John and Doc are joined by Dick and Joe in a drunken, barbaric kangaroo hunt that lasts into the night, which culminates in Joe engaging in fisticuffs with one such kangaroo and John clumsily stabbing another to death. The four then vandalize a bush pub, where Dick and Joe engage in a playful fight that turns brutal, interrupting Doc as he lectures an unconscious John about the violent nature of civilization despite its philosophical and materialistic trappings. At dawn, John returns to Doc's shack, where Doc initiates a homosexual encounter between the two.[15]

Repulsed, John leaves that morning and returns to town, where his two suitcases, left behind at a hotel after he met Tim, are returned to him by Crawford. After discarding one suitcase – mostly containing textbooks, including one on Plato – he wanders through the desert towards Sydney, hitch-hiking with truck drivers where possible and procuring food using the rifle he was given during the hunt. He eventually arrives at a truck stop, where he persuades a driver he assumes is heading for Sydney to give him a lift. However, due to miscommunication, John returns to The Yabba instead.

Enraged with Doc and his perversity, John rushes to his empty cabin, intent on shooting him upon his return. However, he becomes overwhelmed with loneliness and remorse, and turns his rifle on himself. Doc arrives to witness John shoot himself in the temple, the impact of which scars but fails to kill him. John recovers in the hospital and signs a statement from Crawford explaining that his suicide attempt was an accident. Several weeks later, Doc takes him to the railway station, where they quietly make peace with each other. No longer contemptuous of the outback's inhabitants and more assured of himself, John returns to Tiboonda to begin the new school year.



Bundanyabba is a "thinly disguised portrait" of Broken Hill, where much of the film was shot.

A film adaptation of Kenneth Cook's 1961 novel Wake in Fright was linked with the actor Dirk Bogarde and the director Joseph Losey as early as 1963.[18][19] Morris West later secured the film rights and tried, unsuccessfully, to raise funding for the film's production.[11] The rights were eventually bought by Australian company NLT Productions and American firm Group W Films and Canadian director Ted Kotcheff was recruited to direct the film.

After Wake in Fright, Kotcheff would continue to have a successful career as a director. His later films included The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1973), Fun with Dick and Jane (1977), First Blood (1982) and Weekend at Bernie's (1988).[20] Robert Helpmann was initially hired to play the role of Doc Tydon, but he was replaced with Donald Pleasence due to scheduling conflicts.[11] Actor Michael York stated in a 1980 interview that he turned down a role in the film due to being offended by the kangaroo hunting scene.[11]

The shooting of Wake in Fright began in January 1970 in the mining town of Broken Hill, New South Wales (the area which had inspired Cook for the setting of his novel), with interiors shot the next month at Ajax Studios in the Sydney beach-side suburb of Bondi. It was the last film to feature the veteran character actor Chips Rafferty, who died of a heart attack prior to Wake in Fright's release, and the first film with Jack Thompson, a future Australian cinema star, among its cast members.[11]


The world premiere of Wake in Fright (as Outback) occurred on opening night of the 1971 Cannes Film Festival on 13 May.[2] Ted Kotcheff was nominated for a Golden Palm Award.[21] Internationally, the film opened commercially in the United Kingdom on 29 October 1971 and the United States on 20 February 1972.[6]

When the film was re-released in Australia on 25 June 2009, it grossed $62,393 in its opening weekend,[22] and eventually earned $321,323.[7] The film made $50,394 during a 2012 re-release in the United States.[8] It was also screened in Japan, among other revival markets.


Wake in Fright found a favourable public response in France, where it ran for five months, and in the United Kingdom. However, despite receiving such critical support at Cannes and in Australia, Wake in Fright suffered poor domestic box-office returns. Although there were complaints that the film's distributor, United Artists, had failed to promote the film successfully, it was also thought that the film was "perhaps too uncomfortably direct and uncompromising to draw large Australian audiences".[23] During an early Australian screening, one man stood up, pointed at the screen and protested "That's not us!", to which Jack Thompson yelled back "Sit down, mate. It is us."[24]

In his 1972 review for The New York Times, Roger Greenspun praised the film for its atmosphere "of general foreboding that crystalizes often enough into particular terror and that is not quite like anything else I can remember feeling at the movies. Certain science-fiction films come closest to it, especially those in which some evil alien presence has taken over a community that to all outward appearances remains normal—with only the slightest most fugitive hint that something somehow is hideously wrong"; he also admitted to finding the memorial service at the RSL club to be more disturbing than the kangaroo hunting sequences, and praised the performances of the cast, particularly Kay and Thomas.[25] A review of the Cannes premiere in Variety called it "a creditable effort" from the Australian film industry, "even allowing for the fact that key technical and acting credits are British. The end result is a forceful glimpse of little-known territory in which the emphasis is on booze and violence, with a touch of sex for good measure."[26] Gillian Hanson of The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote, "Canadian director Ted Kotcheff has captured the mindless brutality of life in the outback with extraordinary felicity ... Yet, despite its unmistakable competence, the film's bite is blunted by the script's shallow and largely unmotivated characterisation of John Grant, and by the loosely-knit and over-melodramatic story line which never achieves thematic coherence."[27]

The unrestored version of Wake in Fright received a three stars (out of four) rating from the American film reviewer Leonard Maltin in his 2006 Movie Guide, while Brian McFarlane, writing in 1999 in The Oxford Companion to Australian Film, said that it was "almost uniquely unsettling in the history of new Australian Cinema". Askmen.com echoed these sentiments, citing that "it's not hard to see why the dusty savagery and clown-faced surrealism of Ted Kotcheff's fourth feature was never shown on telly at the time."[28]

Following the film's restoration, Wake in Fright screened at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival on 15 May 2009 when it was selected as a Cannes Classic title by the head of the department, Martin Scorsese.[29] Wake in Fright is one of only two films ever to screen twice in the history of the festival.[30] Scorsese said, "Wake in Fright is a deeply -- and I mean deeply -- unsettling and disturbing movie. I saw it when it premiered at Cannes in 1971, and it left me speechless. Visually, dramatically, atmospherically and psychologically, it's beautifully calibrated and it gets under your skin one encounter at a time, right along with the protagonist played by Gary Bond. I'm excited that Wake in Fright has been preserved and restored and that it is finally getting the exposure it deserves."[31]

Roger Ebert reviewed the re-release and said "It's not dated. It is powerful, genuinely shocking and rather amazing. It comes billed as a 'horror film' and contains a great deal of horror, but all of the horror is human and brutally realistic."[32] Don Groves of SBS gave the film four stars out of five, claiming that "Wake in Fright deserves to rank as an Australian classic as it packs enormous emotional force, was bravely and inventively directed, and features superb performances."[33] American critic Rex Reed, an early advocate of Wake in Fright, praised the film's restoration as "the best movie news of the year", and said it "may be the greatest Australian film ever made".[34] According to Australian musician and screenwriter Nick Cave, it is "the best and most terrifying film about Australia in existence."[35]

The film has an approval rating of 96% and a rating average score of 8.71/10 on the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 56 reviews. The site's consensus states: "A disquieting classic of Australian cinema, Wake in Fright surveys a landscape both sun-drenched and ruthlessly dark."[14] On Metacritic, the film holds a score of 85 out of 100 based on reviews from 21 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".[36] Wake in Fright is also listed in the 2015 edition of the film reference book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.[37]


In addition to the film's atmosphere of sordid realism, the kangaroo hunting scene contains graphic footage of kangaroos actually being shot.[38] A disclaimer at the conclusion of the movie states:


The hunting scenes depicted in this film were taken during an actual kangaroo hunt by professional licensed hunters.

For this reason and because the survival of the Australian kangaroo is seriously threatened, these scenes were shown uncut after consultation with the leading animal welfare organisations in Australia and the United Kingdom.

— Quoted from the movie credits.

The hunt lasted several hours, and gradually wore down the filmmakers. According to cinematographer Brian West, "the hunters were getting really drunk and they started to miss, ... It was becoming this orgy of killing and we [the crew] were getting sick of it." Kangaroos hopped about helplessly with gun wounds and trailing intestines. Producer George Willoughby fainted after seeing a kangaroo "splattered in a particularly spectacular fashion". The crew orchestrated a power failure in order to end the hunt.[39]

At the 2009 Cannes Classic screening of Wake in Fright, 12 people walked out during the kangaroo hunt.[40]

Kotcheff, a vegetarian,[41] has defended his use of the hunting footage in the film.[42]

Restoration and home-media releases[edit]

For many years, the only known print of Wake in Fright, found in Dublin, was considered of insufficient quality for transfer to DVD or videotape for commercial release. In response to this situation, Wake in Fright's editor, Anthony Buckley, began to search in 1994 for a better-preserved copy of the film in an uncut state. Eight years later, in Pittsburgh, Buckley found the negatives of Wake in Fright in a shipping container labelled "For Destruction". He rescued the material, which formed the basis for the film's painstaking 2009 restoration.[43] Evidently a 35mm print in excellent condition had also survived in the collection of the Library of Congress, which screened it in the library's Mary Pickford Theater in 2008, although its reported running time of only 96 minutes suggests this was an edited version.[44]

Wake in Fright was released on DVD and Blu-ray formats by Madman Entertainment on 4 November 2009,[45] based on a digital restoration completed earlier that year. This restoration was shown to the general public for the first time at the Sydney Film Festival in June 2009, and in re-release has been called "a classic Australian film which has achieved cult status".[46]

Network Ten premiered a two-part miniseries based on the novel on 8 October 2017.[47]


  1. ^ Throughout principal photography, Kotcheff reworked parts of the script without receiving a credit.[1]


  1. ^ Wake in Fright (Audio commentary with Ted Kotcheff and Anthony Buckley) (DVD). Richmond, Victoria: Madman Entertainment. 1971.
  2. ^ a b "One UA, 3 Columbia Films Are Exhibited at Cannes". BoxOffice. May 31, 1971. E-2. "The Cannes Film Festival, which ended Thursday (27) got under way on May 13 with an opening night presentation of 'Outback,' a United Artists release which was the official Australian entry."
  3. ^ a b c "Wake in Fright". Ozmovies. Retrieved 2 September 2017.
  4. ^ Greenwood, Pepita (2006). "Wake in Fright (a.k.a) Outback". Oz Film Database. Murdoch University. Retrieved 4 September 2017.
  5. ^ "Wake in Fright (1971)". BFI. Retrieved 20 May 2021.
  6. ^ a b "Wake in Fright: 2009 Restoration". National Film and Sound Archive. Retrieved 3 December 2020.
  7. ^ a b "Australian Films At the Australian Box office" (PDF). Film Victoria. Archived from the original (PDF) on 20 March 2012. Retrieved 12 September 2012.
  8. ^ a b "Wake in Fright (2012)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 13 October 2017.
  9. ^ "Wake in Fright (1971)". BFI. Retrieved 20 May 2021.
  10. ^ "Wake in Fright (1971) - Overview". AllMovie. Retrieved 29 September 2020.
  11. ^ a b c d e "AFI Catalog - Outback". American Film Institute. Retrieved 29 September 2020.
  12. ^ Rapold, Nicolas (4 October 2012). "'Wake in Fright' and Australian New Wave", The New York Times. Retrieved 12 January 2012.
  13. ^ Buckmaster, Luke (14 February 2022). "The 17 greatest Ozploitation movies – sorted". The Guardian. Retrieved 20 March 2012.
  14. ^ a b "Wake in Fright Movie Reviews". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 23 December 2012.
  15. ^ "Wake in Fright", Radio National review by Julie Rigg, 26 June 2009
  16. ^ "Home truths: Revisiting 'Wake in Fright'". The Monthly. 3 July 2009. Retrieved 29 November 2017.
  17. ^ "Wake in Fright (1971) | BFI". British Film Institute. Retrieved 29 September 2020.
  18. ^ Godfrey, Nicholas (April 2017). "National nightmare: Mob Mentality and Colonial Failure in Wake in Fright". Screen Education. Australian Teachers of Media (85): 116.
  19. ^ Byrnes, Paul (30 June 2009). "Wake In Fright". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 29 September 2020.
  20. ^ "Ted Kotcheff Filmography". AllMovie. Retrieved 29 September 2020.
  21. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Wake in Fright". festival-cannes.com. Retrieved 13 April 2009.
  22. ^ Buckmaster, Luke (3 July 2009). "Big box office for Wake in Fright". Crikey. Retrieved 3 December 2020.
  23. ^ Scott, Matthew (12 December 2009). "Film (1971)". South China Morning Post. Hong Kong. Archived from the original on 4 November 2013. Retrieved 3 November 2013.
  24. ^ Burton, Al (25 December 2014). "Wake in Fright". WorldCinemaGuide.com. Archived from the original on 5 November 2016.
  25. ^ Greenspun, Roger (February 21, 1972). "Screen: 'Outback' Opens". The New York Times. 37.
  26. ^ "Film Reviews: Outback". Variety. May 26, 1971. 22.
  27. ^ Hanson, Gillian (December 1971). "Outback". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 38 (455): 244.
  28. ^ McCasker, Toby (n.d.). "Top 10: Weirdest Aussie Movies > No.4 Wake In Fright, 1971l". AskMen.com. Archived from the original on 2 October 2011.
  29. ^ Breznican, Anthony (18 May 2009). "At Cannes, Martin Scorsese has his eyes on films long unseen". USA Today. Archived from the original on 26 July 2013. Retrieved 8 January 2012.
  30. ^ "Australian National Film & Sound Archive Annual Report 2008-09" (PDF). National Film & Sound Archive Australia. Retrieved 8 January 2012.
  31. ^ Peary, Danny (5 October 2012). "Ted Kotcheff on Wake in Fright". Retrieved 7 May 2013.
  32. ^ Ebert, Roger (31 October 2012). "Wake in Fright". movie reviews. Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 1 November 2012.
  33. ^ Groves, Don. "Wake in Fright (review)". SBS. Retrieved 14 February 2013.
  34. ^ Reed, Rex (2 October 2012). "A Beautiful Nightmare", The New York Observer. Retrieved 14 December 2012.
  35. ^ Cave, Nick. "Wake in Fright (brand-new 35mm print!)", The Cinefamily. Retrieved 7 May 2013.
  36. ^ "Wake in Fright (1971) Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved 29 September 2020.
  37. ^ Schneider, Steven Jay; Smith, Ian Haydn (2015). 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Murdoch Books Pty Limited. 9781743366165.
  38. ^ "Wake in Fright - BBFC Insight". British Board of Film Classification. 28 January 2014. Retrieved 28 December 2014.
  39. ^ Galvin, Peter (22 March 2010). "The Making of Wake in Fright (Part Three)", SBS. Retrieved 7 January 2013.
  40. ^ "Wake in Fright interview", At the Movies. Retrieved 7 January 2013
  41. ^ Skinner, Craig (24 March 2014). "Ted Kotcheff discusses Wake in Fright, kangaroo slaughter and existentialism". Film Divider. Archived from the original on 27 December 2014. Retrieved 27 December 2014.
  42. ^ Kotcheff, Ted (12 August 2012). "Wake in Fright - Director's Statement". Gene Siskel Film Center. Archived from the original on 21 December 2014. Retrieved 21 December 2014.
  43. ^ "Wake in Fright: Recovery and restoration". National Film & Sound Library Australia. Retrieved 26 September 2013.
  44. ^ "Past Screenings: Friday, June 27, 2008". Mary Pickford Theater. Library of Congress. Archived from the original on 29 July 2014. Retrieved 27 December 2014.
  45. ^ "Wake in Fright (aka Outback)". Archived from the original on 2 February 2011.
  46. ^ Baillie, Rebecca (22 April 2009). "'Wake in Fright' restored for re-release". The 7:30 Report. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Archived from the original on 26 April 2009. Retrieved 22 April 2009.
  47. ^ Idato, Michael (8 September 2016). "Wake in Fright joins TV's new wave of literary adaptations and film reboots", The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 6 November 2016.

Further reading[edit]

  • Adams, B & Shirley, G. (1983) Australian Cinema: The First Eighty Years, Angus and Robertson, ISBN 0-312-06126-9
  • Buckley, Anthony (2009) Behind a Velvet Light Trap: A Filmmaker's Journey from Cinesound to Cannes. Prahran: Hardie Grant Books. ISBN 978-1-74066-7906
  • Caterson, S., (2006) "The Best Australian Film You've Never Seen", Quadrant, pp. 86–88, Jan–Feb 2006.
  • Greenwood, P. (2006). Wake in Fright. Perth: Murdoch University. Accessed 15 January 2007.
  • Kaufman, Tina (2010) Wake in Fright: Australian Screen Classics. Sydney: Currency Press. ISBN 978-0-86819-864-4
  • McFarlane, B. (1999) The Oxford Companion to Australian Film, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, Melbourne. ISBN 978-0-19-553797-0
  • Maddox, G. (2004) "Treasure, not trash: classic found in US", The Sydney Morning Herald, p 13, 16 October 2004.
  • Maltin, L. (2006) Leonard Maltin's 2006 Movie Guide, Signet, ISBN 0-451-21609-1.
  • Pike, A. & Cooper, R. (1998) Australian Film 1900–1977, Oxford University Press, Melbourne. ISBN 0-19-550784-3
  • Williamson, G. (2006) "The Forum", The Australian, p. 5, 30 December 2006.
  • Zion, L. (2006) "DVD Letterbox", The Australian, p. 25, 29 July 2006.
  • Hoey. Gregory [2012] "Wake in Fright:by an elephant in the room" a book of personal memoirs.

External links[edit]