Wake in Fright, the 1971 movie directed by Ted Kotcheff, tells the chilling story of one man’s descent into hell, and his subsequent discovery of the hell within himself. A teacher named John Grant (Gary Bond), assigned to a one-room schoolhouse in the Australian outback, heads home to spend Christmas in his native Sydney. On the way, Grant, trim, blond, well dressed, and carrying a suitcase laden with books, overnights in a rural outpost known as the ’Yabba. Tempted by the possibility of winning enough money to quit teaching, he gambles away his airfare in a heads-or-tails game with a crowd of sweating, ill-kempt men. Broke, he must rely on the kindness of these strange louts, and he gets vomiting drunk and watches, with some disdain, as they brawl incessantly.
But he soon becomes an enthusiastic participant in the debauchery. He attempts to sleep with the same local woman his drinking buddies have bedded; and he joins in a nighttime hunt, where the ultimate test of courage is to face a shot-wounded kangaroo, overwhelm it, cut its throat, and finally sever its testicles.
Before then, few feature films had focused on Australia. When Wake in Fright received a screening at the Cannes Film Festival, it generated understandable excitement down under. But when Australians saw it, Kotcheff’s dark vision of their homeland largely turned them off. The film soon closed, unlamented, almost forgotten.
Now, more than forty years after its premiere, a restored version is enjoying a triumphant revival, with short runs in New York and London last fall, and wide releases in Australia four years ago and the United States late last year. The critics have fallen over themselves praising it, with Rex Reed declaring it possibly “the greatest Australian film ever made,” and the New York Times giving it credit for starting the Australian new wave—deeming it as important as better-known, less controversial later films, such as Breaker Morant and My Brilliant Career.
When he made the film, Kotcheff (who was born in Toronto and started his career at CBC in the ’50s) was living in England and working as a director. Despite Wake in Fright’s failure at the box office, the film achieved critical success. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, which he directed soon afterward in Canada, was a hit. (Mordecai Richler was a long-time friend; the two lived together in London, with Richler often doctoring ailing scripts for Kotcheff.) He landed work in Hollywood, where today he is still a going concern at eighty-one. His box office hits, Weekend at Bernie’s and First Blood (the original John Rambo movie), both spawned franchises, and he ran the TV series Law and Order: Special Victims Unit for twelve years.
With Kotcheff, there appears to be no line between highbrow and low. One moment, he’s paraphrasing Chekhov (“I am not the judge of characters, I am their best witness”), and the next he talks Hollywood shop, sounding like the title character in Robert Altman’s The Player: “The studios will try to brain-fuck you.” He might well have ended his career largely known as a versatile, give-the-people-what-they-want entertainer, if Wake in Fright had not resurfaced and provoked a global reassessment of his contribution. (And the tale of its resurfacing is remarkable. One of the editors spent thirteen years, and much of his own money, travelling from Australia to London, Dublin, New York, and finally Pittsburgh, where he found a copy of the film in a warehouse Dumpster. If he had arrived a week later, the story goes, it would have been incinerated.)
The film’s focus on men behaving badly reveals a prevalent theme in Kotcheff’s work. Whatever the genre, wherever the setting, his best movies have one true north: masculinity. He visits male-dominated spheres, including the gridiron and the locker room (in the Nick Nolte vehicle North Dallas Forty); the police station and the military (First Blood); Australian and American frontier towns (Wake in Fright and Winter People); a Jewish deli in mid-century Montreal (Duddy Kravitz). There are hunts, fist fights, and bar mitzvahs; for props, there are tightly laced cleats, roaring motorcycles, and sharp knives. Although he has worked with the formidable likes of Jane Fonda and Kelly McGillis, more typical are the credits in First Blood, which list only one named actress playing the challenging role of woman in the street.
In a sense, Kotcheff’s work feels intensely dated (many of these arenas are now more integrated), but his perspective seems somehow post-millennial. He anticipated our current cultural moment, the end of male dominance in such fields as medicine and law, and as the family breadwinner. Long before it became fashionable, he invariably found and displayed the vulnerabilities of his tough heroes. Even Rambo, the trained killing machine, breaks down in sobs at the end of the film.
“When I first arrived, the outback struck me as not that dissimilar to northern Canada,” Kotcheff explains over the phone from his retreat in Mexico, “with the same vast, empty spaces that, paradoxically, are not liberating but claustrophobic. In both, you had the same kind of hyper-masculine societies. The men outnumbered the women three to one, but there were no brothels, because it was quite puritanical.”
Kotcheff landed in Australia sporting the regalia of ’60s bohemian London, a handlebar moustache and hair down to there. Locals often challenged the visiting hippie to fights. “But they didn’t want to hit me; they wanted me to hit them. They were desperate for human touch, going crazy without it.” And the fighting in the film is more brother-on-brother roughhousing than man-on-man grudge match.
In the background of Kotcheff’s films, set as they are in these mostly male domains, lurks the phantom of same-sex attraction, but it never materializes—not even close. Oddly, given his obsession with male bonding, his work never suggests that sublimated homosexual urges might be at play. His cameras seldom worship the male form; the gratuitous bare chest scenes you get in many action or sports films are mostly absent from his. What his male characters seek from one another is approval, not affection.
Take Duddy, who, like John Grant, discovers how far he’ll go to impress other men. Both the book and the film are almost entirely populated by males. Duddy’s mother is dead, and he is weaned by his taxi driver father at Wilensky’s on stories of the Boy Wonder, a legendary gangster-businessman. From the men around him, Duddy (played with scratching, twitching élan by a young Richard Dreyfuss) learns that the world is an ultra-competitive place, and a man, a real man, must do what it takes to support himself and those close to him—even if that means trampling on others.
He breaks the heart of the Québécoise Catholic girl who loves him, and indirectly causes a friend’s paralysis. Adding insult to injury, he forges that friend’s signature on a cheque to buy some land, a sharp deal that brings him financial independence at the cost of his soul. But Duddy is interesting, because he knows he has done this. If he’s happy to be flush with cash, the fact that he has betrayed his lover and a friend to get it leaves an open wound in him.
In the third film on which Kotcheff’s claim to respect rests, North Dallas Forty, Nick Nolte’s agreeable pro football player, Phil Elliott, so loves the game that he’s prepared to sacrifice his body, and take whatever performance-enhancing drugs and painkillers he needs to keep at it. His surroundings are as Hobbesian as the world around Duddy—indeed, “nasty, brutish and short” is an apt way to describe a football career.
Attached to the project early on, Nolte is said to have approved the selection of Kotcheff, because of the director’s deft hand at both comedy and drama, which the film, and the book on which it is based, mixes in equal parts. As with his outback film, Kotcheff proved a quick study, lovingly—and convincingly—documenting the strong friendships and rivalries within a team, the weight room, the field and locker room rituals, the often harsh discipline exercised by the coach, and the capricious machinations of the corporate ownership. In a climactic scene, Elliott thumbs his nose at management, telling the coach that he and the other players are just the equipment in a game played between the various teams’ owners. He exits with dignity, giving up on his sport to delve deeper into a relationship with a well-rounded, interesting woman, a rarity in Kotcheff’s best films.
For all that his films obsess over what it means to be a man, they aren’t celebrations of masculinity. What interests Kotcheff are the weaknesses, not the strengths, of his men. For Phil Elliott, that weakness is literal. His body is about to let him down, and but for the drugs would have done so already. For Duddy, it’s spiritual. A natural egotist, he underestimates the pain others will experience because of his actions. For John Grant, the hero who kicked off this career-long fascination for Kotcheff, his frailty is that he does not sufficiently know himself. He downplays his propensity for violence, drunkenness, and illicit sex, and almost commits suicide when forced to face the shadow within. “I have always been fascinated,” Kotcheff says, “by men who don’t know what drives them.”
Forty years later, with its stark take on the limitations and even destructiveness of traditional masculinity, Wake in Fright seems prescient. Today, as some writers have it, the end of millennia of male dominance is nigh. (The title of Hanna Rosin’s buzzed-about recent book, The End of Men, says it all.) But Kotcheff, with his rogues’ gallery of rugged and fatally flawed guys, predicted the fall of man long ago.
This appeared in the March 2013 issue.
Alec Scott contributes regularly to the San Francisco Chronicle and Report on Business.
Radek Drutis has designed album art for All City Records and Stones Throw Records.