In the 1971 movie Wake in Fright, based on the eponymous novel by Kenneth Cook, a young teacher on his way from Tiboonda to Sydney sees all his plans of spending the holidays with his fiancée ruined by an apparent basic coin flipping game. Called “Two-Up”, it has been popularised by Australian and New Zealand soldiers during World War One and is now considered an important part in the country’s culture.
For the uninitiated, the gambling game that costs John Grant all his money in Ted Kotchneff’s Wake in Fright can seem a little insignificant. Only a ‘nice simple-minded game’ as the main character himself scornfully describes it before getting sucked into this local pastime. The game carries in fact a great symbolic importance in the Australian consciousness because Two-Up is strongly linked with the Anzac legend and takes part in the annual commemorations of the Gallipoli Campaign. Over the years, the game has acquired a certain importance and now contributes to the Australian national myth.
‘Spinner’, ‘Odds’ and ‘Fair go’
At first glance, there is nothing particularly Australian in flipping coins. Everyone has done it at one time or another. However surely not in this institutionalised way. For it is obvious when watching Wake in Fright that Two-Up cannot be played randomly. As stated in the official rules and displayed in the movie, players have to be placed in circle and bet if the coins will either reveal two heads, two tails, or one of each (called ‘odds’). The coins are thrown by the ‘Spinner’, performed by the players who take turns, after a call for a ‘Fair go’, that is to say an equitable chance for everyone. This expression is in fact widespread in Australia and reflects the importance of equal opportunities in the national tradition1.
But what the film does not clearly show is that this two-up ‘school’, as such a reunion is usually named2, is not really legal.
Though it has been legal for a long time, the end of the nineteenth century witnessed a governmental restriction which made many gambling games, including Two-Up3, illegal in Australia. At the time, the blame was notably put on the risks for the players of losing very important amounts of money, and on the atmosphere of drinking and violence associated with the game that was, and is still today, mainly played in pubs4.
Two-Up is now only tolerated each 25th of April, on Anzac Day5, which is of course not the case in Wake in Fright as the whole movie takes place during the Christmas holidays. The NSW Gambling (Two-Up) Act of 1998 has moreover reduced the restriction and Two-Up can also be played in New South Wales on Victory in the Pacific Day, on each 15th of August and on Remembrance Day, on each 11th of November.
The Two-Up Sequence in Wake in Fright
Without knowing about the historical tradition that lies behind this game, such association may seem puzzling. What indeed does Two-Up have to do with remembering the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) who fought during World War One ?
Lest we forget playing Two-Up
In fact, what makes Two-Up so culturally important for Australians is mostly that it is embedded in the Anzac legend, a national myth highly central to Australia’s identity6. Although the game existed prior to the war, the conflict, and especially the Gallipoli Campaign, in 1915, really played an significant role in popularising Two-Up. As noted by Charles Bean in his Official history of Australia, the game was largely played by the Australian soldiers and was even often considered to be “the universal pastime of the men”7 at that time. A pastime so important that it quickly became indissociable from the figures of the soldiers who landed at Gallipoli on the 25th of April, 1915, and fought against the Ottoman Empire.
« Unlike their French and British comrades (…) the Anzacs had no
tradition to rely on or defend. They did something greater – they created one.
A new story for a new nation . »
According to Graham Seal, these soldiers, also called ‘diggers’, embody the very essence of the Anzac legend which is ‘at the core of Australian national identity’8. A feeling shared by many Australians, if not all, including the former Prime Minister of the country, Julia Gillard, who said in a speech at Gallipoli on Anzac day 2012 that “Unlike their French and British comrades, the Anzacs had no tradition to rely on or defend. They did something greater – they created one. A new story for a new nation”9.
Playing Two-Up has therefore become fully a part of this national legend and is now officially seen as a way to commemorate Anzacs and the tragic fights of Gallipoli. For this reason, and arguing that the game participates in the creation of a feeling of Australianess, it has been called a ‘national game’ as early as 1919 in the columns of the Brisbane Courier10. And the fact that it is now representative of such an important date as Anzac Day seems to confirm this use of term.
1 Wierzbicka, Anna. Understanding Cultures Through Their Key Words : English, Russian, Polish, German, and Japanese: English, Russian, Polish, German, and Japanese. Oxford University Press (1997) : 201.
3 Kapferer, Bruce . Legends Of People, Myths Of State: Violence, Intolerance, and Political Culture in Sri Lanka and Australia. Berghahn Books (2013) : 353.
4 Graham Seal, Inventing Anzac: The Digger and National Mythology (Univ. of Queensland Press, 2004).
5 Graham Seal, Inventing Anzac: The Digger and National Mythology (Univ. of Queensland Press, 2004), p128.
6 Cameron, David Wayne. Shadows of Anzac: An Intimate History of Gallipoli. Big Sky Publishing (2013) : 1.
7 Bean, Charles Edwin Woodrow. The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 . Angus & Robertson Ltd. (1943) : Vol 6, p 15 .
8 Seal, Inventing Anzac, p vii.
9 Shanahan, Dennis. « Anzac Day includes all Australians, Julia Gillard tells crowd at Gallipoli », TheAustralian, 25 April 2012, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/in-depth/anzac-day/anzac-day-includes-all-australians-julia-gillard-tells-crowd-at-gallipoli/story-e6frgdaf-1226337968501.
10 Moore, Bruce . « The language of Two up », OZWORDS. http://andc.anu.edu.au/sites/default/files/Ozwords%20October%202010.pdf, (2010): 1.