Broken Hill is a silver mining town some 500km north east of Adelaide, the capital of South Australia. It is in the middle of the outback. It is where Mad Max 2 aka The Road Warrior was shot back in the early 1980s.
As a young journalist in the early 1990s, I caught the “Pokies Train” there as a story for the newspaper I wrote for. The Pokies Train was some sort of tourist trap to take gamblers on the more than several hours trip to Broken Hill – where you could gamble some more at the local Returned Serviceman’s League club.
I remember during the train journey there, I made my way up to the driver, as you could do that back then, and watched with him that dead straight line of track disappear into the distance ahead as it stretched through what was almost barren desert. Were we entering or exiting? It seemed like a never ending in between. It could drive you to drink!
While Broken Hill is in New South Wales, Adelaide in South Australia is the closest city. And South Australia is the driest state in the driest continent on Earth.
As soon as we made Broken Hill the photographer and I hit the pub. We’d already had a free bar tab on the train. Our job on the train done, all we had to do was have dinner with the tourist people with Australian Rail and retire to the motel to catch the train back the next day. We ate at some Chinese restaurant and continued to drink at the local RSL where the pokies were running hot with big crowds of generally middle-aged people.
Nice and drunk, I struck up a conversation with a bouncer. He said he knew someone who had the actual “green door” that was at the entrance of the illegal two-up game in the 1971 Australian and Broken Hill shot movie Wake in Fright.
Having seen the film as a kid on television and being impressed, I took a number the guy gave me and drunkenly dialled it. Nothing should get in the way of a good story and a good picture too. Whether that picture was a movie made in 1970 or taken tomorrow. I set up a time with the guy at the other end to meet him at his warehouse somewhere in the burbs of Broken Hill the next day. How I remembered I even made the appointment? I don’t know…
The night progressed back to the motel and the photographer retired to his room. We had told the owners that one of us was a gay so we could get separate rooms! I wanted to kick on. I walked through the town near midnight. It seemed like there was a pub on every corner, many of them now closed for good – for this once boomtown was now a dying town. There were several groups of people walking round and I could hear music. I followed my ear to a large building which was probably the town hall, or some sort of large hall. It was full of young people, the ones who were missing from the RSL. This is where it was happening in Broken Hill that Saturday night! The band playing there was called No Exit, emblazoned on the sign behind them.
No Exit is the name of a play by Jean Paul Sartre and that came to mind as it was set in private – behind a green door, if you like. No Exit is also an early album by legendary South Australian band The Angels that spawned the song Shadow Boxer. I had seen them one night standing at the front of the stage with a wild-eyed Doc Neeson (1947-2014 brain tumour) at full throttle…
Anyway, seeing Broken Hill’s youth milling around with a giant No Exit sign on it seemed almost ironic. Trapped in this dead end town with no car, the airport and rail closed… there really was no exit. Perhaps no irony at all. And like Sartre’s play with the dead trapped together seemingly forever in a waiting room… it also related to Wake in Fright. The movie Wake in Fright is where a young teacher on his way back to the city from his country job is seemingly trapped in a town nicknamed the Yabba by the hospitality of the locals. Really Broken Hill. There he gets increasingly drunk with the inhabitants until…
Wake in Fright was thought to be a lost film for many years with the only worn out television prints existing. Panned and scanned. There was a search worldwide and fortunately a negative was discovered in 2004 in Pittsburgh, USA inside a shipping container that was labelled “for destruction”.
It has since been restored and re-released by the Australian Film and Sound Archive and is already on Blu-ray.
Based on a 1961 novel by hard drinking Kenneth Cook (1929-87 heart attack), Wake in Fright’s depiction of Australia’s drinking culture, particularly its dark side, ensured it was a box office failure in Oz.
English actor Gary Bond’s (1940-1995 AIDS) intellectual schoolteacher engages with the local male population of the Yabba, getting drunker and drunker on beer.
The local Yabba policeman is played by stalwart Australian actor, and local movie icon, Chips Rafferty. He is the first person Bond ‘befriends’. There is something ominous about Rafferty in this movie and it is one of his best performances, although pot-bellied and with emphysema by this stage. His policeman is not quite straight and not quite crooked.
“We’re so isolated, there’s nowhere to go,” says Rafferty about any criminals, who are quickly caught.
Wake in Fright is Rafferty’s final film appearance and he was in fact born in Broken Hill. He died of a sudden heart attack shortly after in Sydney as he made his way to a dinner party with friends a few steps from a taxi he had just paid off. He had just agreed the previous day to make a film appearance with visiting American actor Jerry Lewis who described his death as a major tragedy.
Rafferty had become a star in 1940 in the Aussie ‘epic’ Forty Thousand Horsemen, which was set among the Australian Light Horsemen who were cavalry that fought in the Middle East during World War One.
When I interviewed Bud Tingwell (1923-2009 prostate cancer) several years before he died, he told me an anecdote about Rafferty. The pair had acted together in the movie Bitter Springs (1950) and had also appeared together in the Hollywood film The Desert Rats (1953). Apparently, when Rafferty started out his journey in life, it was in South Australia as an opal miner. It was early on when he found a rather substantial and beautiful triangular opal stone. He always thought of this stone as his “fare home” should he ever be far from home and needed the money. So from the very beginning he carried this stone with him wherever he went.
By the early 1960s, Australia was a desert in terms of television and film productions and Rafferty went to Britain where he appeared in Emergency Ward 10 with Tingwell, who had a large role in the series. Tingwell was about to make his film appearances opposite Margaret Rutherford (1892-1972 complications of Alzheimer’s) as a police inspector in the Agatha Christie Miss Marple movies. It always amazed me as a kid that an Australian could star in a major overseas movie. My how things have changed!
It was while Rafferty was in London in September 1962 that he went to the Kangaroo Club to drink with fellow actors including the alcoholic John Meillon. Rafferty was approached in the toilets by a man who accused him of forgetting his old mates when Rafferty said he didn’t know who he was. Later, he was followed outside and beaten, leaving him battered and bruised. Apart from costing him film work, Rafferty was taken to hospital where he had several heart attacks in a small space of time. Tingwell and his wife Audrey invited Rafferty to stay with them and their kids while he recovered. He stayed there almost a fortnight after which Rafferty told them to fetch a small matchbox from his belongings.
It was his “fare home” and he insisted the Tingwells take it as a gift for looking after him. He even drew a design for it to be mounted on as a brooch. Audrey would wear it proudly on special occasions over the years and Tingwell, widowed when I spoke to him, said it was in a safe and would go to his daughter upon his own demise. It was lovely to hear from the horse’s mouth and Tingwell and his family obviously adored Rafferty. Back to Wake in Fright…
“Of course we do have a few suicides… They reckon it’s the heat,” says Rafferty’s copper.
“That’s one way of getting out of town,” says Bond jokingly, something which will echo at the end of the movie.
Bond is taken by Rafferty to a two-up game, illegal that they were back then, and there was no sign of the green door with its Judas-hole, which I had heard so much about from the bouncer and indeed the person who owned it. There Bond gets so drunk that he spends all his money on betting on two-up, leaving him more or less trapped in the Yabba – watching a plane fly off for the city as he checks out of his motel room totally broke in the morning. Soon he is offered a drink by a local and another and another before he links up with an alcoholic doctor played by Donald Pleasance of Halloween fame doing a pretty good Aussie accent.
He tags along with Pleasance and his rough and tumble mates on a kangaroo shooting expedition while getting drunker and drunker once again. This intellectual is getting a lesson in brawling and swearing and killing, as the female population seems to be laying low. In fact, Bond does get laid though by a bored and obviously pained housewife in the bushes while her husband tends to his mates.
The roo shoot was controversial at the time and, even now, if you are an animal lover, I would avoid the movie altogether. But I once had a housemate cook kangaroo lasagne and it tasted great. And medium rare roo steak goes great with a red wine!
Apparently, while filming the roo shoot, the hired shooters got increasingly drunk and their aim became worse and worse – maiming rather than killing their prey. No wonder the film has a disclaimer about the scenes at the end!
The Wake in Fright title comes from the moment when Bond awakes from what was a blinder of a night alone with the doctor at his tin shed of a home in the middle of nowhere, not knowing whether he had been buggered by the doctor the previous evening. In some ways it really is a horror movie and one ahead of its time. This eventually leads Bond’s character to further degradation in the form of a suicide attempt with a rifle given to him by his new roo shooting mates. He misses his temple and recovers in the local hospital where Rafferty visits him with a statement for him to sign saying it was all an accident. You see, back then, it was still illegal to even try and kill yourself. So shady Rafferty does his mate a favour…
I didn’t engage with anyone at that No Exit concert and stayed as the band finished. I still can’t remember what they played, they could have been an Angel’s cover band for all I knew at the time. In some ways the younger crowd at the hall were far more relaxed and chilled than the older population among the bells and whistles of the poker machines.
As the crowd broke up and I made my way back to the motel, to this day I don’t know how I found it, I felt no sense of danger. There was no one out for a drunken fight and skylarking was at a minimum. Maybe it was having seen Wake in Fright as a kid which kept me at arms length from the population? Perhaps it was just the existentialist inside me? Maybe I was just too sozzled!
The next morning I kept my appointment at the warehouse, ignoring the bacon and eggs on the plate on the motel doorstep. Hung over. It was there I was shown the “green door”. Well there you go, and you say it was actually used in the movie Wake in Fright? We took the photo of me peering through a Judas-hole so large that the door itself looked like a jail door. I thanked the guy and he seemed pleased the whole thing, which woke him up late at night, wasn’t a prank.
And so for 20 years I thought I had seen the actual relic, until I saw the film when it was rereleased in the cinema. Not one green door in sight! They were alluded to but not shown. In fact, the two-up scenes changed from the outdoor of Broken Hill to the indoor scenes which were shot in Sydney! All in a fade to black.
But for me, the green door in Broken Hill still symbolised No Exit. Even if it was just an old prison door! And it could be Folsom Prison’s door because I have just found out No Exit are still a much loved Broken Hill band who still play Johnny Cash songs in their repertoire today. The door meant no exit as opposed to no entry. While in terms of Wake in Fright and Sartre’s play – that play coined the oft-misunderstood phrase “Hell is other people” – Gary Bond’s character tries suicide as an escape from the Yabba and its endless rounds of West End beer.
West End is seen as second only to Southwark or “the green death” as the state’s worst beer. Just before he tries to kill himself, he tries to escape but is unwittingly brought back on the back of a truck when he hitches a lift to Adelaide. The first thing he sees is the Yabba town hall where I possibly saw No Exit. All I saw in Broken Hill was civilization and acceptance – and a green door. Whether I would have seen and survived the same thing 20 years earlier in that once rowdy mining town is another question.
Wake in Fright is a classic engagement but just don’t lose your ring. With its mixture of the educated and uneducated bonding with alcohol, men can be uncivilised despite an education, especially after a few too many. Something of the one punch attack about it all. Or a bit of buggery! Be careful whom and where you drink with is the possible moral. If you drink at all!
Because when Sartre said “hell is other people” he meant the dilemma of something like seeing yourself as other people see you in their presence. Broken Hill didn’t appear have or care about that dilemma, then or now. But I escaped after one night! “Green door, what’s that secret you’re keeping?” to quote the song. If it relates to the pornographic Marilyn Chambers (1952-2009 cerebral haemorrhage and aneurysm) movie Behind the Green Door of 1972, she was safely at home in Adelaide in bed with her husband. I had to wait for weekdays. The joke, like the drinks, are, otherwise, on me. Hell, mate, have another beer!