Watching the movie Wake in Fright nearly 40 years after its release – 1971 – brought back one good memory for Kate Jennings of life in the Bush. Canvas water bags. Writing in The Monthly, she says there’s nothing like the taste of water from those bags: sweet and earthy. One hangs on the back of a door in the shambles of a mining shack occupied by Doc Tydon, the movie’s supposed villain. Not that anyone in the movie drinks water. Heaven forbid. Instead they neck beer and, in the case of Doc Tydon, glug down whiskey in the legendary quantities typical of men on a weekend bender in the Outback.
Typical, I should also emphasise, of men the world over who work in isolated areas under punishing conditions, although the pursuit of the Holy Grail of alcoholic oblivion in the Outback is undertaken with an inexorable determination, not so much blunting pain as getting their due. Cracking a few cold ones with your mates – legacy, birthright, entitlement.
The plot of Wake in Fright is as old as an outcropping west of Menindee. As old as Virgil:
The way downward is easy from Avernus.
Black Dis’s door stands open night and day.
But to retrace your steps to heaven’s air,
There is the trouble, there is the toil.
Aeneas is warned of the dangers of the Underworld by the Cumaean Sibyl. No such warning is given to Wake in Fright’s Aeneas: John Grant, a gormless young schoolteacher, circa the 1960s, fulfilling his bond to the education department with a posting in a one-room school at Tiboonda, which consists of said school, a pub and a railway siding, with mile upon mile of flat, scrubby plain stretching in every direction. Grant is full of himself, a fathead from Sydney who has a copy of Plato’s dialogues in his suitcase, quotes Omar Khayyam when he’s trying to impress, and dreams of a life in London; he wouldn’t have listened to any Sibyl.
Grant descends into hell sharpish when Jock Crawford, a friendly policeman in the mining town of Bundanyabba – the movie was filmed in and around Broken Hill – takes him to a two-up game. “A nice simple-minded game,” sneers Grant, who has stopped overnight to catch a plane to Sydney for the Christmas holidays, and proceeds to lose his entire pay on the flip of two coins.
Instead of six blessed weeks of golden sand, frothy waves and the company of his university girlfriend, he’s stranded in “the Yabba” with its sweltering heat, choking dust, swarming flies and back-slapping local yokels. The very definition of hell, an inferno, to John Grant, although the inhabitants think that the Yabba is “the best little town in the world” because, as a taxi driver tells Grant, “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?”