Ortolan. A rare bird, fattened within dark cardboard boxes. Artificial light is shone through holes filled with grain. The bird pecks at it desperately in the hope of penetrating through to what it mistakes for the sun. This repeats for several weeks. It gorges until it can no longer stand or see, then the bird is drowned in cognac. Gourmets regard it as an exceptional delicacy, the radio informs, its audience a collection of ripe produce spread across a kitchen counter. In the pool outside, two children play in the chlorine waters, distanced from those of Sydney Harbour which lack such disinfectant. Beyond the harbour, the city moves in a flurry and whir. Modern life is fast. It is mercenary. It is suits and heels and traffic lights.
The children from the pool now sit in the car with their father. Around them, the outback stretches in all directions. They are far from Sydney. The girl unpacks the contents of a wicker basket; a picnic! Fresh oranges, segmented melon and glass bottles of lemonade. She places them upon a tablecloth held down with stones. Then the father fires a shotgun in the direction of his children. He misses, turns it on himself and falls, behind him the car burns with ferocity. For the siblings, this signals the start of their journey across the Australian outback.
In the 1970s, Australia experienced a cinematic renaissance. Over 400 films were produced between 1970 and 1985 as state funding was provided and strict censorship laws rescinded. Bound by no universal style, the works instead came to be distinguished by their bold approach and uniquely Australian touches. Walkabout and Wake in Fright were two of the first films to emerge from this boom, followed later by Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. All three traverse the landscape with its red soil and bright sun, yet where Weir takes inspiration from Australian Impressionism, the other two observe the land with a far more reproving lens.
Walkabout reveals its themes in its opening scenes: the pitfalls of modern life (sterile) and the violence of Man (impartial). Yet when the children strike up a friendship with a young Aboriginal boy on his walkabout, the film reveals an innocence too. Lacking a common language, the trio communicates through gesture. The Aboriginal boy keeps the siblings safe, he hunts for their food and soothes their sunburn. Together they hold hands, offer piggyback rides, paint murals and swim in billabongs. Beneath palm fronds they laugh in almost dreamlike sequences, passing by populations of squirrel gliders, possums, cockatoos and wombats. Magpies warble overhead as the sun, in the presence of such camaraderie, exchanges its threat of heatstroke for pleasant somnolence; the children nap side by side in the shade.
Of course, this innocence is tarnished. The hunting efforts of the Aboriginal boy are proved frugal in comparison to that of the White Man. His spearing of lizards is juxtaposed with shots of a butcher’s counter where meat is unceremoniously cleaved, cubed and minced. The cruelty inflicted upon the animal world is pondered through radio show and butchery alike. Yet the film lingers on its shots of the outback. The deserts, ranges and bushlands are rendered as exquisite as they are bountiful. Despite the cruelty of its colonisers, the scenery brims with warmth and richness. Walkabout frames beauty and menace abreast.
Wake in Fright contains no such beauty.
The film opens in Tiboonda, a godforsaken outback town. The hotel bar is so hot that even the air seems to respire. The light is yellow, soiled, clinging to the inhabitants of the room, thick with the heat. John Grant—the town’s schoolteacher—orders a middy from the barman. Despite the men, the flies and the cigarette smoke, nothing else moves. All is still, dormant as if preferring a state of suspended animation until the temperature drops. John leaves for the station platform, boards a train, and vows never to return. The seats are leather, sticky. As the scorched earth and wiry shrubs of the desert rush past his window, John dreams of the coast. Crashing waves and sea spray, water droplets on bare skin; he catches them with his beer bottle.
John opens his eyes and alights at Bundanyabba, “The Yabba”, a rural mining town he has chosen as his stopover. December—the height of summer and the town is dressed in tinsel. The RSL club is an arcade of slot machines and collapsible card tables, the house band sings to an audience of miners and secretaries at their work dos. John is greeted by Jock, the local policeman, who treats the visitor to a particularly aggressive form of hospitality. Copious quantities of beer are supplied as John quickly discovers that Yabba water’s only for washing. Inebriated and weak to the vices of the townsfolk, John bets away all his money and drifts into an antipodean nightmare of drinking, gambling and hunting.
Like Walkabout, Wake in Fright proffers a damning portrait of white Australia. “The Yabba” breeds nihilism—men drink and shout and destroy. Even the behaviour of the sun seems sadistic here. People glisten with sweat. It drips from their brow as tokens of discomfort. So palpable, the film’s audience also fails to evade this oppression; everything on-screen is pronounced in clammy, orange hues.
In its infamous hunting scene, kangaroos are shot and bludgeoned, their throats cut and bodies dismembered for dog meat. Their killers, John and his band of drunken ruffians, are gleeful and proud of such brutality—all the little devils are proud of hell. These scenes are the only depictions of Australian wildlife within the entire film.
Despite both films sharing locations, themes and even cast members, the country they portray varies. Walkabout is a hallucinatory vision of nature’s fruits. With the right custodians, Australia is shown as a land of abundance that teems with life. Yet when denied such protection, Wake in Fright reduces this Garden of Eden to a fever dream within which life is destroyed.
Cementing 1971 as the bold inauguration of the Australian New Wave, in recent decades Walkabout and Wake in Fright have come to define the genre as provocative and uncompromising, films unafraid to critique their very homeland.