Wake in Fright; Quest for Fire (Netflix Canada picks)

Wake in Fright – Ted Kotcheff, Australia/USA, 1971, 109 minutes

Quest for Fire – Jean-Jacques Annaud, Canada/France/USA, 1981, 100 minutes

Wake in Fright, summarized by the distributor as “the nightmarish story of a schoolteacher’s descent into personal demoralization at the hands of drunken, deranged derelicts while stranded in a small town in outback Australia,” is a unique fragment of movie history. It has moments of paranoia and confusion that feel like the best science-fiction, horrifyingly real scenes of a cruel nighttime kangaroo hunt, and an awkward detour into homosexuality that in contemporary terms is in some kind of grey zone between memory repression and date rape. So a “quintessential Australian exploitation film,” yes, but one that, in the social identity questions that it opens, evokes shades of its unlikely cinematic cousin Lawrence of Arabia, complete with a protagonist played by Gary Bond, more than convincing as a poor man’s Peter O’Toole. Genuine film classics of the ’70s are few and far between on Netflix, which makes this all the more essential as an add to your watch-list. Netflix is streaming a pristine transfer of the recent meticulous restoration.

Speaking of awkwardness, and shades of science fiction, how about the Canadian-financed and filmed Quest for Fire, which Roger Ebert memorably introduced in his review as “either (a) the moving story of how scattered tribes of very early men developed some of the traits that made them human, or (b) a laughable caveman picture in which a lot of lantern-jawed actors jump around in animal skins, snarling and swinging clubs at one another.” He was surprised at how the film went from “b” to “a” for him, as it pulled him into its world—and so was I. This is a story that seems like it shouldn’t work, and looks like it isn’t going to—and then does. The image quality is not the greatest, with some visible artifacting and damage that mostly settles down after the opening minutes.  It’s more than watchable—probably the same transfer that was used for the 2003 DVD—but here is a film that deserves and could use some restoration work and a high-def release. In the meantime I recommend Netflix (or Shomi—same transfer) as your best viewing option.

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