Sometimes my favorite films are the ones I find the hardest to watch. And when I say “the hardest to watch” I don’t mean films that I have trouble staying interested in but films that literally make me want to look away from the screen. Plenty of directors make these kind of films von Trier, Haneke, and Herzog are some of the finer craftsmen but none of them have been able to produce a film that wholly disturbed me as much as Ted Kotcheff’s 1971 Wake in Fright did.
Wake in Fright is being billed as Australia’s great lost film. Originally produced in 1971 it premiered at Cannes and received spectacular praise from critics. It made a particularly deep impression on budding director Martin Scorsese “it left me speechless. Visually, dramatically, atmospherically and psychologically, it’s beautifully calibrated and it gets under your skin one encounter at a time..” Yet, despite how well it was received by critics the film performed poorly at the box office and was rejected by the Australian public. In an interview with Stack magazine Kotcheff tells an anecdote about a man standing up during the middle of a showing in Australia and shouting at the screen “That is not us!” After watching the film it’s easy to understand why it was originally rejected. Wake in Fright depicts Australians as genial yet despicable alcoholic simpletons who are steeped in a culture of meaningless and inescapable violence.
In 2009 Anthony Buckley, the film’s editor, decided to hunt down a copy of the film, restore it, and attempt to reintroduce it to the world. He finally found a usable copy in a dumpster that was labeled “to be destroyed.” Upon its re-release Wake in Fright still performed phenomenally with critics, it currently has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and has even found an audience who recognize it as a seminal piece in the Australian new wave film movement . Yet, despite the film finding an audience and a newfound sense of respectability it is still a harrowing experience to endure.
Wake in Fright tells the story of John Grant, a young schoolteacher, who on his way home to Sydney becomes marooned in a small town after losing all of his money on a coin toss game. John then becomes trapped by the overzealous hospitality of the locals who insist he forget about his problems and join them in having a drink. But of course one drink leads to more (“Yabba men don’t drink water”) and John soon finds himself being ingratiated into the local’s way of life. Every morning he wakes up sober and resistant to spending another day in the Yabba but due to the insistence of his hosts he soon finds himself drunk and falling into another vicious night of depravity.
The sordid reality of the film reaches its pinnacle during a scene where John joins the locals on a drunken Kangaroo hunt. It features four men wheeling through the outback at night with a searchlight on the top of their car. They speed around until they get a Kangaroo caught in their beam (they stop at the sight of light much like deer) and then shoot it. Once one is wounded the men hop out of the car, hug the animal from behind and slit its throat. The scene culminates when John is spurred on by the others to finish off a badly wounded Joey. Too squeamish to slit the animals throat John bludgeons the animal to death.
When I was watching the scene I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that I was actually watching animals die. It just seemed all too real. After all, there are plenty of films that will go as far as killing an animal if it makes a statement. For instance, in Jean-Luc Godard’s Week-End there are multiple on screen animal killings including a scene where a pig’s throat is slit. After some quick researching I turned out that I was correct, or at least partly.
When the film played here at the Gene Siskel Film Center the venue’s website posted this letter from Ted Kotcheff on their website:
…Well, when I was faced with the kangaroo hunt in WAKE IN FRIGHT, a climactic scene demonstrating the depths to which the school teacher had sunk, I was totally perplexed about what to do.
Then, hearing of my dilemma, a member of the crew approached and informed me that every night, hundreds of kangaroos are slaughtered in the outback. Huge refrigerator [sic] transport trucks stand by as 6 or 8 pairs of hunters go off in different directions in stake trucks in search of kangaroos. As in the film, they use a spotlight on top of their cabin controlled by them inside. The spotlight hypnotizes the kangaroos, freezing them, making them easy targets. After killing a dozen or so, they skin them and return to the refrigerator truck where the carcasses are immediately stored in the cold. Then the hunters go back out in pursuit of more animals.
This was how I got the hunt footage for my film. Repellent as some of the footage was that I obtained and used in my film, it was the least upsetting of what I shot. I did not use 75% of what I filmed that night as it was too bloody and horrifying. The Royal Australian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals kept urging me to use this footage because they wanted Australians and the world to see what was being done to the kangaroos in the outback, the wholesale slaughter and carnage being committed every night. But I used only the mildest of the documentary footage that I shot. I also used visual tricks like zooming into a close-up of a kangaroo: it would jump out of the frame leading you to think it had been struck by a bullet when, of course, it hadn’t.
Yet, here is another anecdote about that infamous scene that Kotcheff told in an interview with Monthly magazine:
The kangaroo shooting necessarily came up. Kotcheff told me about a chilling conversation he had with two of the professional hunters. They asked him, “Where do you want us to shoot them. Kidneys, brain, heart?” “Well, what’s the difference?” replied Kotcheff. The difference: “With kidneys they die immediately. They drop. If you shoot them in the brain, they take a couple of hops. The most dramatic is when you shoot them in the heart. They leap four or five or six times and then right up into air and finally die.” Completely taken aback, Kotcheff said, “Please don’t do anything for me. Just go and do your job.”
And here’s yet another anecdote told by cinematographer Brian West in an interview with Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service:
It gets cold in the desert at night. The hunters started to hit the whisky to warm themselves. “By 2AM the hunters were getting really drunk and they started to miss,” says cinematographer Brian West. Wounded kangaroos were hopping about helplessly, trailing their intestines. “It was becoming this orgy of killing and we (the crew) were getting sick of it.” West had a private word with Tony Tegg, who arranged a ‘power failure’. “I told Ted that we didn’t have enough light to continue.” The crew headed back to Broken Hill, some of them fighting back tears.
So although the Kangaroo’s were hunted in a legal manner with approval from certain animal welfare organizations the drunken brutality with which the Kangaroos are slain on film was something that occurred in actuality as well. Knowing this, it’s hard to think about revisiting the film. I even had some reserve in writing about it for this blog. It’s hard to make a recommendation for something that you can’t 100% stand behind morally. What is striking about Wake in Fright is how it presents and explores the horrors of violence. And for better or for worse the film has become involved with the themes that it so aptly presents. Wake in Fright is hard to watch but it’s such an uncompromising vision and well crafted film that it’s easy to see why we couldn’t go on ignoring it.
So what do you think? Knowing about the kangaroo hunting scene would you still watch Wake in Fright? Do you feel the filmmakers crossed a moral line in filming their scene how they did? Please leave some comments below so that we can continue our discussion on broad national stereotypes, hunting kangaroos, and great films.
-Jet Fuel Blogger, Lucas Sifuentes