“It’s a friendly place. Nobody worries who you are, where you’re from. If you’re a good bloke, you’re all right. You know what I mean?” These friendly words offered upon arrival in the outback backwater of Bundanyabba serve as an introduction to hell in Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright, an Australian film that despite receiving overwhelmingly positive critical reception when it premiered at the 1971 Cannes film festival has been all but impossible to see for the last forty years. Now, a new restoration by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia offers an opportunity to see this long-lost gem of Australian cinema.
In true Conradian fashion, the supposedly sophisticated John Grant arrives in town full of contempt for its yokel inhabitants—whose life seems to consist exclusively of binge drinking, gambling and fighting—only to be seduced by their savagery and readily turn into as depraved a beast as the worst of them. With stunning cinematography and truly remarkable performances, the film offers an unsparing portrayal of the Yabba, as the residents affectionately call the town, as well as the darkest recesses of the human soul. Though superficially comparable to the ‘hicksploitation’ wave of the 1970s —from Deliverance to The Hills Have Eyes — it offers a far more nuanced and terrifying study of its protagonists than these films with which it is regularly grouped. In fact, if there is one blessing from its disappearance, it’s that — by being re-released now — it transcends and subverts this established genre that the film actually preceded.
Ted Kotcheff went on to direct other, more immediately successful films, such as the first installment of the Rambo series, First Blood. I met with him on the evening that the restored version of Wake in Fright celebrated its American premiere at New York’s Film Forum. In a genial mood and not without manifest pride, he recounted the film’s incredible four-decade journey from distributors’ pariah to reinstated classic before discussing the themes and style that make his film as trenchant and haunting today as it was at the time of its original release.
I wanted to ask about the history of the film. There are various accounts of why it disappeared for so long. What is your take?
Well, you know, when a film fails at the box office—which it did—the people who distribute who are only interested in profit lose interest. The film didn’t do well in Australia, which is where it was made. I think the Australians perhaps took affront to the way Aussie males were depicted in the film. It did well, because of the Cannes festival, in France, but that’s the only country in the world where it did any business. And then they opened it here, but the distributor, United Artists, didn’t believe in the film at all. They said to me, “Americans aren’t going to come see this film. They’re gonna be repulsed by the kangaroo hunt.” And they opened it in New York, at a small cinema in the East Side, without any publicity whatsoever, on a Sunday night, in a heavy blizzard. Nobody came. They were right. They told me, “See, we told you nobody would come.” (laughter) So everybody just lost interest.
This is an excerpt of my interview published on BOMB magazine’s blog, BOMBlog. You can read the full interview here.