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Walkabout was released in 1971 to excellent reviews and then disappeared for more than 25 years. It was not given a DVD release until 1998 but that's not very surprising given that DVDs were still a relatively new technology in the late nineties. What's surprising is that it was not even given a proper VHS release until 2000. Nicolas Roeg, the film's director, went on to direct two films that stand as icons of seventies cinema, Don't Look Now (1973) and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), but Walkabout fell off the cinema map, shown on campuses and at small revival houses, until the late nineties DVD release when it finally got its due. Good thing, too: Walkabout is one of the best movies of 1971 and one of the great visual experiences of the decade.
The basic outline of the plot of Walkabout makes it seem like an innocuous children's adventure movie rather than the deeply dark study of humanity that it is. The story could be simply related as one of innocents lost in nature, helped out by a mysterious aboriginal boy on a walkabout and connecting with nature in the process. In fact, such a simple reading is encouraged by the opening credits of the film which state:
"In Australia when an Aborigine man-child reaches sixteen, he is sent out into the land. For months he must live from it. Sleep on it. Eat of its fruit and flesh. Stay alive. Even if it means killing his fellow creatures. The Aborigines call it the Walkabout. This is the story of a Walkabout."
But this doesn't begin to truly describe the underpinnings of culture-clash that are at the heart of Walkabout. Roger Ebert described it as "deeply pessimistic" and he has a point. Walkabout portrays nature as brutal and harsh, communication between cultures as an obstacle (possibly insurmountable) and the world as uncaring.
The film begins with shots of the Australian urban environment, surrounded by trees and ocean but ignorant of the nature that consumes it. There are exotic trees, but they are conveniently labeled, and there is a beautiful ocean but the children swim in a pool instead. Outside of work, their father sits alone on a bench and then, at home, stares at his children in the pool without emotion.
Before we can get to know the man and his children, we see them in the family car, parked on a desert plain in the middle of the outback. The father has brought them here, presumably for a picnic, but when the daughter begins setting up the blanket and food something happens that is so inexplicable and shocking, any idea that this might be a cheery family adventure movie is quickly run out the door. Reacting on only her survival instincts, the girl (Jenny Agutter) leads the boy (Lucien John, aka Luc Roeg, the director's son) into the outback in a last ditch hope for rescue.
The girl and boy (the children's names are never given) wander aimlessly, coming upon a small gully of water only to have it dry up by morning. With no survival skills at hand to back up their instincts, death seems certain. Fortunately, they find an aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil) on a walkabout. After unsuccessful attempts by the girl, the boy conveys to the aboriginal boy their need for water and he shows them how to get water from a dry bed. At this point the plot, or what little there is of it, begins. But the real story of Walkabout is how they survive and wander, how Roeg films their actions and how both come together to make a trenchant commentary on the western civilization clashing with the aboriginal natives of Australia.
Nicolas Roeg had worked as a cinematographer on films as varied as The Masque of the Red Death (1964), The Caretaker (1963) and Fahrenheit 451 (1966) eventually taking on co-directing duties with Performance in 1970 before finding the perfect vehicle for his first solo outing as a director, Walkabout. It was a film Roeg had long wanted to make since reading the book (the book the film was based upon was published in 1959 by author Donald G. Payne, writing under the pseudonym James Vance Marshall) but not until British playwright Edward Bond did a treatment for him was he convinced it could work. The problem was that previous attempts to translate it to film resulted in long, dialogue-filled screenplays that worked against the simple beauty of the work. Bond took on the task of adapting the book and knowing his audience, Nicolas Roeg himself, turned in a screenplay decidedly succinct: Fourteen pages. Roeg loved it. A short outline of a screenplay like that meant that Roeg could employ visuals to tell almost the entire story. In fact, the dialogue in Walkabout is almost as superfluous as that found in a Jacques Tati film, used for only the barest of details that the visuals cannot express. And the visuals are a mix of the beautiful and the horrifying.
The outback is filled with a real sense of vitality and liveliness as animals and people, shadows and clouds, and plants and watering holes play off of each other and dance in and out of a dizzying collection of dissolves, cross-cuts and freeze-frames to make the images before our eyes become the narrator in our heads. But there is also brutality including very real violence against animals in which kangaroos and buffalos are beaten and pierced and shot only to be skinned and gutted and eaten. This is not a movie for viewers queasy with the idea of watching actual footage of animal slaughter as there is plenty such footage and it is graphically detailed.
Throughout the film Roeg's eye is concerned with the communication, or lack thereof, of the two cultures. The girl and boy communicate well enough with the aboriginal boy to stay alive but never understand who he is or why he is there. Actions late in the film only compound the confusion between the two cultures as the aboriginal boy misses as many signals from his wards as they do from their guide. Roeg shows children alone in the world, at risk and fighting for their own survival but never gives in to cheap sentiment or empty victories of overcoming the odds. They survive as best they can and Roeg observes it, succeeding admirably in visually detailing a harsh and brutal environment with no emotion and no sentimentality. The real triumph of the film is that Roeg is content to let the observation be enough.
Producer: Si Litvinoff, Max L. Raab, Anthony J. Hope
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Screenplay: Edward Bond
Cinematography: Nicolas Roeg
Art Direction: Terry Gough
Music: John Barry
Film Editor: Antony Gibbs, Alan Pattillo
Cast: Jenny Agutter (Girl), Lucien John (White Boy), David Gulpilil (Black Boy), John Meillon (Man), Robert McDara (Man), Pete Carver (No Hoper), John Illingsworth (Young Man), Hilary Bamberger (Woman).
by Greg Ferrara