Vanities Spawned by Fear: Wake in Fright

I hate to admit it, but my favorite onscreen characters have long leaned towards the stoic, the macho. Kenshiro from First of the North Star (written by Buronson, art by Tetsuo Hara, 1983), Max from Mad Max (George Miller, 1979), Guts from Berserk (Kentarou Miura, 1989), even Danila Bagrov from the Brat films (Aleksey Balabanov, 1997-2000). I’ve come to realize my attraction to these characters is because they all embodied what I’d thought of as the ideals of masculinity. I encourage scrutiny of this term in myself now, but I can never really shake the effect it has had on me, and how I wish I was, to some degree, like these characters. I never get tired of them — the drama of the reserved antihero who tries to stay out of trouble until he’s sucked in and has to fight. But what makes them more than vessels for action is that the writers never shy away from their emotions, they process them, and continue to fight on despite their limits. The strength of these properties isn’t  the ever-present violence, but instead how each series interrogates this content in relation to the character. Because the alternative, of a wholly violent man, without this focus on emotion, can so frighteningly bend these “masculine” traits out of shape. This is the underbelly of that word, and any positive terms we may connect to it can warp into a character capable of the most heinous acts. A misuse of raw strength, stoicism, and violence (especially devoid of proper questioning and processing), can result in the men featured in a film like Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971). 

Mentalities don’t materialize overnight, they form like diamonds over generations of people that change and evolve to conditions. In Wake in Fright, the ugly form that men take is a generational hazard. The film’s small town setting, Bundanyabba, is a mining center with virtually nothing to do but hunt animals, drink, and kick each other into the dirt. The Yabba, as it’s referred to by the locals, isn’t a young town. Clues are peppered throughout that the citizens revere their own history, including monuments, strictly-adhered-to rituals honoring the first world war, and buildings that haven’t been changed since the town’s inception. The town of Broken Hill, Bundanyabba’s basis for the original novel written by Kenneth Cook, and the principal shooting location of the film, was founded in 1883 as a valuable source for minerals and silver—mirrored in the film by the sea of workers in pubs, fresh off their shift, some still wearing their hardhats. The sort of admiration the citizens of the Yabba have for it is reflected in the fact that they have never known, or cared to know, more than the outback for nearly 100 years. The so-called “greatest town in Australia,” to most who live here, is always introduced the same way: “New to the Yabba?”, accompanied by a smile or an offer for a beer. This mantra is repeated, time and time again, as a way to ease into conversation, but it only seems to aggravate John Grant, the British school teacher stopping into town for a night, with its repetition. Though it may seem like hospitality, it isn’t. It becomes a corrosive welcome that communicates to newcomers that they must learn to love this place just as much as the rest.

The township itself has a cult of personality to the degree that residents of the outback are bothered by the very notion of leaving for “the city,” meaning Sydney, where John Grant is trying to get back to. Doc Tydon, a doctor who takes him in and becomes something of a comrade (they both have a sharp education and are apt to criticise their surroundings), only finds the Yabba to his liking because of their indifference to his alcoholism, which would’ve gotten him barred from working: “But out here it’s scarcely noticeable…certainly doesn’t stop people from coming to see me.” There are laws…supposedly. Jock Crawford, the town’s police chief, is evidence of this. But he admits nothing ever happens —nothing but a few suicides he shrugs off. He ignores the illegal after-hours bars and the gambling dens that every citizen seems blatantly aware of. You won’t find him trying to stop the brutal animal hunts and fistfights between mates that go on every night. One gets the impression very quickly that those who live here like it because of the freedom to do whatever they want. The city represents rules, limitations, and civility: things John Grant is desperate to get back to, but can’t. The Yabba makes its own rules, and the rules are made by the men that run it. 

This is where the town’s attraction begins to get its claws into Grant. As he spends more days drinking himself to a stupor, the more he understands its appeal. Even if it runs counter to his goals, he is willing to push himself farther into being a member of the ultra-masculine community. This culminates into his taking part in an animal slaughter, a climax which peaks when he is pressured into finishing a wounded baby kangaroo with nothing but a knife. This is the breaking point for him, and while his macho friends cheer, Doc Tydon smiles at what he’s created inside of Grant. He’s delighted with himself for corrupting a city-dweller like he had been. Men have ruled over this corner of the outback for almost a century, and it has given them a god complex that is, in reality, more akin to an invasive species. The township is a blight on the desert landscape. The cars, the ones that run, are used to run over wildlife and trees. The quiet plains are always interrupted with wailings of gunshots and screams. John Grant mistakes this angry energy for strength, and when he’s given a choice to be like the women, living in exhausting monotony or abuse, or the excitement of sitting atop the food chain, it takes him one night to fall under the spell. He chooses to be one of the animals, killing and fighting and drinking. It’s better to be the hunter than to be the hunted. 

Friendliness and violence are so closely tied that it becomes a language through which the men communicate. In his director’s commentary, Kotcheff mentions that what he saw in the real-life brawls between men on location was, in reality, a machismo attempt at showing love between friends, a desperate attempt at intimacy. This realization informs every scene of fist fighting in the film because, though it is brutal, it includes an intensely physical touch that would usually be conveyed through more tender means. This wedge is driven deeper when it is implied that Doc Tydon forces himself on Grant on his third, and last, night in Bundanyabba. This secures the unshakeable bond between violence and human connection, even attraction. With the lack of intimacy, or any way to process these feelings, the men are incapable of imagining closeness without violation. Every clap on the back feels like a threat. By that same token, a strike to the face is intended as a handshake between friends.

Generations of living against harsh conditions, a history built from mining silver, a boredom that could only be treated with shooting and drinking, has led Bundanyabba to become a place where mentality doesn’t grow: it mutates. It’s given men a god complex more intoxicating than any booze they could drink. Even an outsider, educated and patronizing to this lifestyle, can’t help himself from being seduced by it. The horror of Wake in Fright is the realism of the situation, how none of John Grant’s mistakes are without reason or motivation. We are, in effect, watching a man shorn down to his basest impulses, and impulse void of responsibility and emotion can be, and usually is, an ugly thing.