In his great essay On Racine, the French theorist Roland Barthes observed that the most ancient of tragedies arose in the arid and sundrenched landscapes of the Mediterranean, under merciless skies and aside great oceans. It would have been no accident that a sense of cosmic isolation and the exigencies of survival posed a dramatic challenge to human wants, needs, and aspirations, both high and low. One could reasonably ask why other comparably forbidding landscapes might not have given rise to the tragic, but it is true that those of sun and sky hold a special place in its history.
It was from something like this tragic complex, it seems to me, that the monotheistic dramas of the Middle East arose, and also the perdurability of the American western, in both its homegrown and its spaghetti varieties. And then there is Australia. Ted Kotcheff’s WAKE IN FRIGHT, newly restored and re-released, is not a western, although it shares some of the genre’s characteristics, but it is decidedly tragic, and its tragedy is tied to landscape and its effect on human beings. The protagonist, played by an extremely interesting Gary Bond, is John Grant, a provincial schoolteacher trying to get home to his girlfriend in Sydney for the Christmas holidays, but failing time after time to do so, like a boomerang returning to its point of departure.
WAKE IN FRIGHT is not quite an Outback No Exit or Exterminating Angel, but it has the sort of surreality that comes from going right to the edge of realistic probability. The isolation of the setting is belied by the immense crowds that Grant encounters anytime he enters a bar. It is the height of the Australian summer, and inappropriately dressed Santas sidle up the walls while the population swelters. One thing after another thwarts Grant from leaving the strange, miserable place. He loses his money; or mislays his luggage; or has a misunderstanding with a trucker. But most of all he is sucked into a strange and addictive culture of masculinity that maddens him with alcohol, greed, blood lust, testosterone, and gunfire. All that is familiar melts into phantasmagoria, and whether he will live or die, it will be in the sweaty violence of the interior and not in Sydney. If he had only followed his instincts as a square and introverted scholar, he would have quit after a beer or two, avoided meeting a local odd duck played by Donald Pleasence, and been on the beach with his girlfriend the next morning.
This is a shocking film, and not only because of the hard-to-bear kangaroo hunting scene – a hunt that would have happened with or without the filming and which was included in consultation with animal welfare organizations. Grant’s descent is one into sadism and self-hatred, each of which he initially resists, and neither of which he would have embraced but for the paradox of being hemmed in by vastness and trapped by a sense of limitless possibility.
Check listings for viewing options. There will be a showing of WAKE IN FRIGHT at 7pm on May 1, 2017, at Film Forum in New York: info.