Walkabout (1971)

When it’s on: Saturday, 23 January (12.35 am, Sunday)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

I only watched Walkabout for the first time recently, which isn’t a good thing for an aspiring student of the cinematic arts to confess to. There’s no good reason for this. The film is rotated regularly amidst the BBC schedules so I’ve had plenty of opportunities to catch it, and it’s even one I thought I would enjoy (and I did). Perhaps much of the reason is that its themes have been explored fully and in public. Whenever the environmental debate is raised, images from Walkabout are never far away for obvious reasons, and then there’s its presence in the countless lists of great films. It’s really quite possible to have seen nearly all of Walkabout from the collage of clips that have been displayed over the years, whilst its message is writ large enough to make a viewing of the full picture nearly redundant. I was told recently by a friend that he first watched it as part of his GCSE English course, which made me instantly resentful as my school was nothing like as liberal-minded to screen an exotic movie of this calibre and instead we got Kes (which is very, very good, but horribly dour and has no doubt helped to contribute to the perception of northern England as a gritty, soot-covered hinterland of sadistic PE teachers and kestrel owning wastrels who will do anything to avoid going down’t pit).

Still, seen it now and I’m very glad I have, picking up a marvellous Blu-Ray version in the otherwise disappointing January sales (DVDs are so cheap anyway that there isn’t a lot of point). Whilst I’ve nothing but admiration for director Nicolas Roeg, particularly Don’t Look Now, I now have a new classic to add to the collection because this is a bloody brilliant film and I can only chastise myself for not taking it in fully sooner. Point one is that it’s narratively sublime. I get the impression that Roeg wants to move the action to the children (Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg) being adrift in the Australian Outback as quickly as possible, but this leads to a beautifully put together sequence that only hints at the reasons for their father (John Meillon) going batshit and shooting at them before killing himself. In the hands of a lesser director, the opening events might have taken longer to resolve. We could have been subjected to numerous scenes in which the father’s rising despair is played out via dialogue that writes large where he is mentally, but we get none of that. All Roeg gives us is a couple of scenes in which the father drinks heavily, cut off from his wife who’s cooking dinner, and glaring at the children as they play in the swimming pool. There could be a sexual dimension to all this – what’s behind his staring? – yet none of it’s explained, and instead in a shocking moment the father drives his children out to a remote part of the country, miles from anywhere and ostensibly for a little family picnic, before he opens fire on them, sets his car on fire and turns the gun on himself. Within minutes of the opening, these two very English children are left alone in the middle of nowhere, nothing but the school clothes on their backs and some picnic supplies to keep them going, and getting to this point is so economically done that its worthy of applause.

Pretty soon, having spent their time walking with no clear idea of their direction, the children are hitting rock bottom. Their food and drink has run out and the tiny oasis they’ve come across, offering a glimmer of hope, has dried up. The girl, instinctively protective of her little brother, begins to despair, realising what started as a bit of an adventure is now life threatening. And it’s here, as the sun sears and Roeg cuts into the main narrative with shots of nature happening around them, that salvation arrives in the form of David Gumpilil’s ‘black boy’. The boy is Aboriginal. As part of his coming of age he has to leave the tribe and fend for himself for a time, and it’s during his ‘walkabout’ that he comes across the children. Quickly, he uses his skills of living in the wilderness to save them, demonstrating how to use a hollow reed to access water from beneath the arid surface. And then together they set off, perhaps because he’s guiding them back to civilisation but possibly just somewhere, anywhere. The boy has talent as a hunter and kills for food, keeping them all alive, but otherwise they just have fun together. There’s an element of sexual awakening, both from her as she admires the boy’s barely clothed form, and from him when he drinks her in, her little school uniform, the times when she’s out of it. Their only communication comes from the six year old boy’s attempts to convey messages in rough sign language with black boy; otherwise language is a barrier. Eventually, they reach an apparently abandoned house, where the clash between the cultures of indigenous people and the ‘civilised’ becomes stark, and not in a good way.

Understanding what Walkabout is about is an elusive experience. At its purest, the film is a survival tale, a realistic depiction of the hopelessness of First World people trying to make it through an unforbidding natural environment and relying on the skills of an Aborigine to achieve it. But the deeper subtext concerns itself with the jarring of these two worlds. It’s implied that the father commits suicide because his spirit has been crushed by civilised life. The film’s closing scene hints at the girl, now a young housewife, becoming wistful of the simpler world she entered briefly during her time in the Outback. And yet Walkabout makes no judgements about either realm. It’s clear that the indigenous people have a hard time of it; black boy is constantly surrounded by flies and his efforts to communicate with the girl – culminating in his mating ritual, which is rebuffed – are rather sad and futile. Perhaps the point is that we’re all trapped, trained to survive in our environment but ultimately unhappy within it.

It’s beautifully photographed, transforming the Outback into a place both lovely and hostile, some of the insects filmed as though alien creatures, which of course only emphasis its sense of ‘difference’ to the two English children. Considering the tender ages of the actors, they’re very good, especially Agutter who never loses sight of her middle class upbringing and has this as a barrier stopping her from engaging more completely with black boy. John Barry’s score is also fine, with indigenous instruments used often, though it’s worth noting that the music is quite unobtrusive, the focus always on what’s happening on the screen. It’s a great picture and it rightly raises as many questions as it answers.

Walkabout: *****

Apologies for FOTB being on a mini-hiatus recently, an entirely unplanned one that’s down to illness (since recovered), a job interview (unsuccessful, their loss) and various other bits and pieces. January should be the perfect time for updating the site. The weather outside is frightful so it’s ideal for watching films and then writing about them, and I’ve managed the first part beautifully, just not the second.

I’d like to take a moment to plug a podcast that has become my favourite, the kind of show for which I’ll instantly clear my queue. Attaboy Clarence has always been a great listen for classic film fans, but its presenter, Adam Roche, has branched out increasingly into lengthier profiles. These are collected into a series called The Secret History of Hollywood. This week, we got episode one of Bullets and Blood, a look into the origins of Warner Brothers and its most shining light, James Cagney. As with other Secret Histories, the attention to detail is astonishing; I love the time it takes to set the scene for what’s to come, steadily introducing us to the Warner family, from their impoverished Polish origins and into the unlikely Hollywood moguls they became. I would also heap praise on the production values, which just get higher and higher. If you like this one, I’d also recommend the three-part Alfred Hitchcock biography, a sprawling and massive achievement that takes in the man, his family, his work, actors he worked with and attempts to answer the deeper psychological drivers that surround Hitch to this day. Genuinely, it’s the kind of effort that puts most of us to shame.

7 Replies to “Walkabout (1971)”

    1. Thanks Colin – one of those instances of not seeing something that I’d know would be good and perhaps investing in a nice copy of it is the key. I bought the BFI Blu of THE SEVEN SAMURAI also in the hope that it will compel me to finally sit down and enjoy the thing.

  1. Watched this during the Christmas break (happy new year Mike, belatedly) as I was heading off to Australia in January. I watched it with my folks as I was visiting for the hols and they had forgotten how dark and strange the latter parts of the film were so it was a bit of a shock – like the Agutter character at the end, they mainly remembered the beauty of the pre-lapsarian scenes that Agutter’s character recalls in the coda – great review Mike and thanks for the info about the podcast – shall investigate!

    1. Thanks Sergio, and Happy New Year to you also – hope the Australia trip was amazing! The film certainly does take a dark twist but then it feels logical and fits within the narrative; all the same a shocking tonal shift. I really liked this one.

  2. Great write-up. Add me to the “never seen it” club, though. In fact, it’s made me realise that I’ve never seen any of Nicolas Roeg’s films… with the possible exception of the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles episode he directed. (Some people have funny old careers.)

    It’s kinda shameful that I’ve never got round to even one of Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, or The Man Who Fell to Earth, but we all have our gaps. I have all three either on DVD or nabbed off iPlayer, so my only excuse is forgetfulness.

    1. Thanks so much and I’m really pleased you liked it and yes, I noticed too he’d directed an episode of YOUNG INDIANA JONES (never seen any of them, well maybe part of one once and unimpressed enough to give the rest a miss). It isn’t hard to see why these films haven’t been seen. They aren’t easily accessible and there’s a reliance on the part of the viewer to *shudder* think, as though we have to up our games if we’re going to get anything out of these films. Sometimes, you just want to relax while watching a film and Roeg isn’t the man to do that for you… Still, the end result more than justifies the investment. If I can suggest a starting point then it would be DON’T LOOK NOW, more an unsettling, melancholic tale than an outright horror, but Sutherland and Christie put in riveting work as the heartbroken leads, and Venice is filmed as a labyrinth of countless tunnels and back alley bridges. Despite what happens there it makes me want to pay Venice a visit so badly.

      1. I loved Young Indiana Jones when I was a kid, no idea what I’d make of it now (I bought it all on DVD a couple of years ago but haven’t got round to it). One episode featured a character explaining how World War 1 came about, using condiments to illustrate the way so many countries ended up involved. It’s stuck in my mind as a kind of go-to explanation for the start of WW1!

        Thanks for the Don’t Look Now recommendation. I have it on DVD somewhere, so will have to dig it out.

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