Wake in Fright Akubra: The Tale of a Hat

A brown Akubra hat with a beer-can ringpull hat band worn in the film Wake in Fright
Wake in Fright Akubra: The Tale of a Hat
Peter Whittle
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The Akubra hat – with beer-can ringpull hatband – worn by Peter Whittle (Joe) in Wake in Fright (1971).

In September 2009, Peter Whittle recalled the origin of the hat he wore in the film:

The Tale of a Hat by Peter Whittle

In deference to the heat and dust of the outback setting, it was decided Dick and Joe should wear hats in the Wake in Fright daytime 'roo chase' sequence and Wardrobe dutifully came up with a pair of brand new Akubras.

One looked about right – fawn-coloured with a rustic hatband – in the cattleman’s style that could be bashed into fair shape by the wearer. It was Jack Thompson’s size and he accepted it graciously. 

Jack’s satisfaction with his hat derived at least somewhat from the fact that the other hat on offer was cloth-trimmed and dark grey in the man-of-substance 'squatter' style that years later would come to be favoured for country electioneering by Prime Minister John Howard. 

What appeal it might have to a miner yahoo-ing around the outback in a V8 was a mystery. With the admonition: 'You can fix it up a bit if you want', it was placed in my hands.

During a previous Christmas Gold Coast sabbatical with my brother and his army mates (he had just finished his Nashos [National Service] in Queensland at the time), I had noted one of the cohort sporting a hat with a hatband made of beer-can ring-pulls linked together. Along with short hair and ubiquitous tinny, this stood as a sort of alky [alcoholic] counter to the counterculture – a reactionary home truth to confront the beaded and bearded adherents of pot, peace and love.

At the time of making Wake in Fright, I lived across from Bondi Beach and a short hunt around the known drinking spots there garnered a generous fistful of ring-pulls which I fashioned into a chain. It replaced the cloth hatband and after rolling up the hat’s flat sides and indenting its top into a narrow crown, I had a pork-pie-style titfer [rhyming slang: tit for tat = hat] with a bush tweak. (The French Connection’s Popeye Doyle with omnipresent pork-pie hat would appear on screens at about the same time as Wake in Fright adding further credence to the hat’s place in the zeitgeist.)

Ted Kotcheff quickly latched onto the idea of the alky ring-pull chain as a Christmas decoration and he worked a shot into the film of Dick and Joe festooning Tim Hynes’ Christmas tree with a long chain supposedly garnered from an afternoon’s drinking at Tim’s place. 

When we eventually got to the Yindee location, my hat was 'broken-down' some more with glycerine and red dust to become the hat you see on screen. The interior lining eventually gave way (thanks, not least, to [the kangaroo] Nelson’s frenetic pawing – the hat did sterling duty in our 'fight' scene) and was replaced by sewn-in foam which has since deteriorated.

A couple of ring-pulls have broken and been replaced over the years, but most are still the originals picked up at Bondi in 1970.

Peter Whittle kindly donated the hat to the NFSA in 2009.