A BOY AND A GIRL FACE THE CHALLENGE OF THE WORLD’S LAST FRONTIER. DANGERS THEY HAD NEVER KNOWN BEFORE… A PEOPLE THEY HAD NEVER SEEN BEFORE…
When this film was released, it apparently spoke to some critics in a language not all of us understands. In his original review of the film, Roger Ebert writes about an “additional dimension” that really can’t be explained with words. Actually, I get the sentiment that he’s trying to describe; I’m sure most people have seen films that spoke to them in ways not easily grasped. In his first film as an independent director (he previously co-directed Performance (1970)), Nicolas Roeg seems to have made Walkabout with the intention of stirring up deep emotions in his audience.
The story begins with a teenage girl (Jenny Agutter) and her young brother (Lucien John) being driven by their father into the Australian outback for a picnic. The family lives in Sydney and the wilderness is alien to them. When the girl starts arranging the picnic the father suddenly snaps, produces a gun and starts shooting at his children who jump into cover. He subsequently torches the car and kills himself. Stranded in the outback, the children start walking, hoping to be rescued at some point. The heat is almost too much to bear and the girl eventually has to carry the boy when he’s too tired to walk on his own. They find an oasis and gather strength there thanks to the water and berries growing from a tree. An Aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil) comes to the oasis and the two children join him on his walkabout.
An integral part of Aboriginal culture
A clash of civilizations it is, indeed. The concept of “walkabout” is an integral part of Aboriginal culture, the crucial moment in a teenager’s life when he leaves the comfort of his home for six months and learns how to survive on his own in the outback. All three kids in the film are on a walkabout, voluntarily or not, but they come from two very different cultures and civilizations and are unable to break the barriers between them, which ultimately leads to tragedy in an eerie, sad scene.
The senseless, wasteful and cruel way of life that our Western civilization is depicted as here is a recurring theme throughout the film and director Roeg effectively contrasts examples of that with the beauty of the outback and the necessity of hunting as part of the Aborigine culture. A former cinematographer, Roeg experiments a lot with crosscutting and original ways of capturing the Australian wilderness, lending the film a haunting sense, almost like fragments of a dream or a memory – which fits perfectly with the final scene of the film that takes place a few years into the future.
This effect is reinforced by John Barry’s music score that tends to stay in your mind. The three kids are terrific together, including Agutter whose nude scenes were a point of controversy because of her age.
I don’t really feel the “additional dimension”. The movie literally opens with a bang, but it took time for me to get engaged in the children’s plight after that, regardless of the film’s qualities. Those who agree with me will also be unable to completely disregard the fact that the visual tricks, the seductive score, the lush environs and the hypnotic feeling all work to make a rather tired theme, the excesses of Western civilization, seem fresher than it is.
Walkabout 1971-Australia. 95 min. Color. Produced by Si Litvinoff. Directed and photographed by Nicolas Roeg. Screenplay: Edward Bond. Novel: James Vance Marshall. Music: John Barry. Cast: Jenny Agutter (The White Girl), Lucien John (The White Boy), David Gulpilil (The Aboriginal Boy), John Meillon.
Trivia: John is Roeg’s son and would later work as a producer under the name Luc Roeg.
Last word: “Shooting in Australia was extraordinary, though some people were terrified. They thought everything in the outback was trying to kill them, which it was, particularly the snakes. But I was never scared. There was a motel that had these draught-excluders on the bottom of its doors. I said: ‘Why in the world would you have draught-excluders? It’s so hot at night, I just leave my door open.’ Someone said: ‘They’re not draught-excluders. They’re to keep the snakes out. They like to get into bed with you. The king browns are quite poisonous.’ I said: ‘In that case, I’ll close the door.'” (Agutter, The Guardian)