In “Wake in Fright,” How Was the Kangaroo Scene Filmed?
It’s safe to say no one enjoys watching animals suffer (not counting serial killers, anyway). In fact, it’s usually more depressing when an animal dies onscreen than when its human costar kicks the bucket. Of course, it’s much worse when we’re watching actual animal abuse. Sadly, quite a few critters have suffered in the name of art over the years. Andrei Tarkovsky killed a horse in Andrei Rublev (1966), Sam Peckinpah used explosives to blow up a few chickens in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), and during the filming of Heaven’s Gate (1980), director Michael Cimino murdered pretty much anything that moved.
Unfortunately, all these acts of barbarism pale in comparison to the kangaroo slaughter in Wake in Fright (1971). In this Australian thriller, middle-school teacher John Grant (Gary Bond) has found himself stranded in a terrifying little town known affectionately as “the Yabba.” Broke, drunk, and hanging out with some questionable characters, Grant quickly gets in touch with his dark side…his dark, dark side. Things take an especially grim turn when Grant and his drinking buddies drive into the Outback, loaded with booze and ammunition, ready to kill some kangaroos. You know, just for fun.
What follows is one of the most horrific scenes in any movie ever as multiple kangaroos are gunned down…for real. Actual bullets are hitting actual animals, and we watch them die completely pointless deaths. Cinematically speaking, it’s a punch-in-the-gut scene that proves humans are brutal, ugly monsters. Practically speaking, how on earth did they film this scene? Aren’t there rules about killing kangaroos? What was director Ted Kotcheff thinking?
Well, Kotcheff didn’t want to harm any animals for his movie, and in 2012, the director released a statement saying, “The very first thing I want to make clear that absolutely no kangaroo was injured or killed for my film, WAKE IN FRIGHT.” And that’s true…technically speaking. Instead of taking the Peckinpah/Tarkovsky route, Kotcheff tagged along with a group of licensed professional hunters who shot kangaroos for their pelts and meat (which was turned into pet food). The filmmakers were simply along for the ride, sort of acting like documentarians. The slaughter was going to happen whether the cameras were rolling or not.
In fact, the Australian Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals encouraged Kotcheff to capture as much guts and gore as possible, hoping the movie might convince the Australian government to ban kangaroo hunts (which it did many years later). But the filmmakers weren’t exactly righteous crusaders, and they weren’t completely innocent of the bloodbath about to take place. According to Peter Galvin of the Special Broadcasting Service, the filmmakers rigged up a special spotlight using an aircraft landing light. This way, the camera could clearly pick up on all the carnage. Of course, it’s also the same exact spotlight the hunters used to stun the kangaroos before they shot them down.
Before the mayhem got under way, Kotcheff instructed the hunters to go about their business as usual. He didn’t want them “showing off” for the camera. Of course, “business as usual” was a pretty grim business indeed. The head hunter asked the director if he should shoot the “roos” in the brain, heart, or kidney. When Kotcheff asked what the difference was, the hunter responded, “If it’s in the kidneys, they drop dead, shoot them in the heart, and they leap around for four or five jumps, and in the brain, they spin around for a couple of seconds and they die.”
The hunt lasted for hours, from 6:00 P.M. to 2:00 A.M. As the night wore on and the cold set in, the hunters pulled out a bottle of whiskey and soon their shots were going wild, hitting the kangaroos in non-lethal spots. There were animals with their entrails hanging out, trying to escape. “They had to chase them and put them out of their misery,” Kotcheff said. “It was a nightmare. It was a total nightmare.” In fact, the hunt was so horrible the crew eventually decided enough was enough and faked a power outage. The spotlight died, and the hunters had to call it an evening.
When Kotcheff finally reviewed the footage, he knew these images would send audiences screaming out of the theater. “I did not use 75% of what I filmed that night as it was too bloody and horrifying,” the director later explained. If you’ve seen Wake in Fright, if you remember what actually ended up in the film, then you can only imagine what else happened during that gory, whiskey-fuelled night in the Outback. On second thought, perhaps you shouldn’t imagine what happened. The onscreen carnage is bad enough.