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Released: 14 November 1971 (UK)
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Producer: Si Litvinoff
Starring: Jenny Agutter, David Gulpilil, Luc Roeg
Screenwriters: Edward Bond, James Vance Marshall (novel)
Running Time: 100 min
Stunningly directed by Nicholas Roeg, enhanced by a retro sounding, uplifting John Barry score, the experience of watching Walkabout feels almost like being in a permanent dream state for nearly two hours, occasionally drifting into nightmare territories with its shocking opening, and an eerily strange atmosphere that holds throughout most of the movie. Not particularly dramatically engaging, but the superb photography and bizarre, warped view of storytelling by Roeg more than makes up for any dramatic character development.
Walkabout is a 1971 film set in Australia, directed by Nicolas Roeg and starring Jenny Agutter, Luc Roeg (credited as Lucien John) and David Gulpilil. Edward Bond wrote the screenplay, which is loosely based on the novel Walkabout by James Vance Marshall. Walkabout premiered in competition at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival.
A schoolgirl (Jenny Agutter) and her much younger brother (Luc Roeg) walk home across the urban landscape of Sydney, Australia. Their father, a geologist, drives them far into the outback, where they stop for a picnic. Suddenly, without warning, he begins shooting at them. When they run behind rocks for cover, he sets the car on fire and kills himself. The girl conceals what has happened from her brother. After she has salvaged what she can, the pair head out into the desert.
By dawn the next day, they are weak from exposure, and the boy can barely walk. Discovering a small pool with a fruiting tree, they spend the day playing, bathing, and resting. Next morning, the pool has dried up. A young Aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil) appears. Though the girl cannot communicate with him, her brother mimes their need for water, and the newcomer cheerfully shows them how to draw it from the drying bed of the oasis.
The three travel together for several days, with the Aborigine sharing food he has caught hunting. The boys learn to communicate, using words and mime. The Aboriginal boy and the girl notice each other’s bodies, and at one point, while he is hunting, she swims naked in a deep pool.
A change of scene shows a all-Caucasian research team in a hot desert, all the men attracted to the only woman. One of them carelessly loses a weather balloon, which is later found by the three youths. In some versions of the film, one scene depicts a Caucasian woman walking past the Aboriginal boy, speaking to him, and spotting the other children. They do not see her, however. When the boy does not reply, the woman continues walking over a ridge to a plantation. There a white man is seen roughly directing a group of Aboriginal children, who are making plaster statuettes and other things. He calls a break and enters the house, where the woman awaits him on a bed.
The older boy guides the siblings to a farm. It turns out to be deserted. As the girl explores its rooms, he becomes sullen. He discovers a paved road while collecting sticks in the forest, and excitedly shows the brother. Soon afterward, he hunts down a water buffalo and is wrestling it to the ground when two white hunters nearly run him over in a truck. He watches them shoot several buffalo with a rifle. He returns to the house, catching the girl dressing. He courts her with an intense, silent dance. Although the older boy dances outside all day and into the night until he becomes exhausted, the siblings cannot understand what he is doing.
In the morning, the brother wakes his sister and tells her the boy is gone. After they wash and dress in their school uniforms, the brother takes her to the Aborigine’s body, hanging in a mango tree. The child does not fully understand death and attempts to offer the body his pen-knife. Before leaving, the girl wipes ants from the boy’s chest.
Hiking up the road, the siblings soon find a nearly deserted mining town, where they are met by a surly white man who tells them of a place they can stay. They play at the abandoned mine-head, throwing rocks against rusty old machinery.
The last scene is set in the city and years later. A businessman arrives at the home of the now grown up sister; while he relates office gossip, she daydreams, imagining a scene in which she, her brother, and the Aboriginal boy are playing and swimming naked in the deep pool in the outback while a poem from A Shropshire Lad is read by a narrator. “This is the land of lost content…”
The film was produced from a minimal 14-page screenplay by English playwright Edward Bond. It was based loosely on the novel of the same name, in which the children are Americans stranded by a plane crash. After the indigenous boy finds and leads them to safety, he dies of a case of influenza contracted from them, as he has not been immunized.
Nicolas Roeg, a British filmmaker, brought an outsider’s eye and interpretation to the Australian setting, and improvised greatly during filming. He has commented, “We didn’t really plan anything—we just came across things by chance…filming whatever we found.” The director’s son, Luc Roeg, played the younger boy in the film.
The Criterion Collection DVD release of the film is billed as the “original, unedited director’s cut”.
The poem read at the end of the film is Poem 40 from A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad.
Jenny Agutter – “Girl”
Luc Roeg – “White Boy” (credited as Lucien John)
David Gulpilil – “Black Boy”
John Meillon – “The father”
Reception and interpretation
Walkabout fared poorly at the box office in Australia. Critics debated whether it could be considered an Australian film, and whether it was an embrace or a reaction to the country’s cultural and natural context.
The film is an example of Roeg’s well-defined directorial style, characterized by strong visual composition from his experience as a cinematographer, combined with extensive cross-cutting and the juxtaposition of events, location, or environments to build his themes. This use of intellectual montage creates symbolism by juxtaposing two shots that are not literally connected. For example, in one scene the Aboriginal boy is seen killing and dismembering a kangaroo, a passage interrupted by several brief clips of a butcher at work in his shop.
The film is interspersed with numerous images of Australian plant and animal life, along with its varied landscapes. The director often uses those images to emphasize events in the plot and set the emotional tone, most notably during the violent scene involving the rifle hunters. Though many of the events are impossible in a natural setting—in one scene a wombatwanders past the sleeping children in the middle of a desert—they create a backdrop of a populous, varied environment. In Walkabout, an analysis of the film, author Louis Nowra wrote:
“…I was stunned. The images of the Outback were of an almost hallucinogenic intensity. Instead of the desert and bush being infused with a dull monotony, everything seemed acute, shrill, and incandescent. The Outback was beautiful and haunting.”
Film critic Edward Guthmann also notes the strong use of exotic natural images, calling them a “chorus of lizards”.
Critic Roger Ebert called it “one of the great films.” He writes that it contains little moral or emotional judgment of its characters, and ultimately is a portrait of isolation in proximity:
“Is it a parable about noble savages and the crushed spirits of city dwellers? That’s what the film’s surface suggests, but I think it’s about something deeper and more elusive: the mystery of communication.”
Commenting on the film’s enduring appeal, in 1998 Roeg described the film as:
“…a simple story about life and being alive, not covered with sophistry but addressing the most basic human themes; birth, death, mutability.”
- “Home > Festival Archives > Selections > In Competition > Official Selection 1971″. Festival de Cannes website. France: Festival de Cannes. Archived from the original on 2010-08-26. Retrieved 2010-08-26. “Official Selection 1971….WALKABOUT directed by Nicolas ROEG”
- a b Fiona Harma (2001). “Walkabout”. The Oz Film Database. Murdoch University. Retrieved 2008-02-18.
- “Walkabout by Nicolas Roeg”. The Criterion Collection. Retrieved 2008-02-17.
- Chuck Kleinhans. “Nicholas Roeg–Permutations without profundity”. Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. Retrieved 2008-02-17.
- Louis Nowra (2003), Walkabout, NSW: Currency Press
- Edward Guthmann (January 3, 1997). “Intriguing `Walkabout’ in the Past”. SFGate.com. San Francisco chronicle. Retrieved 2008-02-18.
- a b Ebert, Roger. “Walkabout by Nicolas Roeg”. The Criterion Collection. Retrieved 2008-02-17.
- Danielsen, Shane (1998-03-27), Walkabout: An Outsider’s Vision Endures, The Australian (newspaper)