Director: Nicolas Roeg
Production: Twentieth Century-Fox; Eastmancolor, 35mm; running time: 95 mins. Released 1 July 1971, New York. Filmed in Australia.
Producer: Si Litvinoff; executive producer: Max L. Raab; screenplay: Edward Bond, from the novel by James Vance Marshall; photography: Nicolas Roeg; editors: Anthony Gibbs and Alan Patillo; production designer: Brian Eatwell; music: John Barry.
Cast: Jenny Agutter (Girl); Lucien John (Brother); David Gumpilil (Aborigine); John Mellon (Father); Peter Carver (No Hoper); John Ilingsworth (Husband).
Feineman, Neil, Nicolas Roeg, Boston, 1978.
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Canby, Vincent, in New York Times, 2 July 1971.
McGregor, Craig, "Walkabout: Beautiful But Fake?," in New YorkTimes, 18 July 1971.
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Millar, Gavin, in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1971–72.
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Gow, Gordon, "Identity: An Interview with Nicolas Roeg," in Filmsand Filming (London), January 1972.
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* * *
Whilst exploring the cultural clash between black and white Australia embodied in three children, Nicolas Roeg, in his first solo directorial film, inadvertently perpetuates 1960s Western thought about the death of Aboriginal culture. It was only two years prior to the making of Walkabout that the 1967 Referendum (necessary to make any Constitutional changes) empowered the Australian federal government to legislate on Aboriginal affairs. Suffrage was granted to Aboriginals in 1962, and whilst it is undoubtedly true that they had suffered through the imposition of an imported white culture, it is not true that Aboriginal culture is dying. David Gulpilil, a tribal man from Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, at 16 years old, was chosen by Roeg to play the lead role in Walkabout. He went on to appear in numerous films, television programmes, and dance performances around the world, was awarded the Australia Medal in 1987, yet continues to live in Arnhem Land.
As a white Englishman, Roeg cannot escape a European viewpoint when looking at Australia. Linear reason is eschewed for the qualities embodied by Romanticism, a movement in European art, music, and literature in the late-18th and early-19th centuries, current in England at the time of colonizing Australia. Romanticism was characterized by "an emphasis on feeling and content rather than order and form, on the sublime, supernatural, and exotic." These things, along with Roeg's interest in colour, emotion, adventure, and fantasy, reflect the Romantic qualities found in this beautifully photographed film. Roeg's extensive experience behind the camera is evident here.
The film starts with a premise "explaining" what a walkabout is:
In Australia when an Aborigine man-child reaches 16, 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.
The construction is reminiscent of an opera plot—inspired by real countries or situations, but actually a total fantasy. I long for an Ed McBain-like disclaimer at the beginning of his novels: Any similarity to real people and places is entirely unintentional. Yet the statement places the audience firmly in a real country. Where is this Australia?
The erroneous statement which suggests that walkabout is only done by boys undergoing initiation, reflects the impossibility of white culture being able to really understand Aboriginal culture. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Aboriginal Life describes walkabout as being:
The English equivalent of an expressive word which describes the nomadic habits of the large number of tribes inhabiting the drier parts of Australia. It was not a compulsive urge but dire necessity which forced them to spend the dry season wandering from one waterhole to another in search of game, vegetable, food, and water. They sometimes established scores of camps and travelled hundreds of miles; and it must be remembered that each group included elderly people, pregnant mothers, young children, and babies born on the journey, as well as young men and women and full-grown hunters, and that they had to carry all their possessions with them.
However, we must accept that film is a construction, and not a document of place. If a statement is presented as fact though, it should be correct. The desire for verisimilitude cannot be satisfied here, in this complex and fantastic film.
Three children, the unnamed protagonists, are thrown together as a result of far away colonising history. England needed a solution to overcrowded prisons. In 1788, the first British invaded Australia. British prisoners were deported to the unimaginable other side of the world, peopled by hundreds of distinct Aboriginal nations. Less than 200 years later, an Englishman makes an exploration on film of the friction and interchange between the indigenous and imported cultures. It is an account of their long walk together: the white siblings, near victims of a murderous father, are abandoned like the prisoners of the Crown, in a land that they do not understand and that almost kills them. They are saved by an Aboriginal boy who is undergoing his initiation into manhood. He must survive alone in the bush, as one of the conditions of his initiation. Just by being with him, they destroy him. By helping the white children, he breaks tribal law. However grateful they are to their black saviour, they cannot help but kill him, just through contact, just by misunderstanding.
The great beauty and indifference of the land unfolds as the children escape from their father. Roeg repeats the motif of animals throughout this film (predating Peter Greenaway) and capitalizes on the brilliant colour and light of the country they travel through. The young brother and older sister's school clothes are put away, and the vestiges of their culture diminish the further they walk. Eventually their guide paints them in ochres, yet he begins to turn on the transistor radio they have with them. His indigenous knowledge is contrasted with the commanding male radio voice which interrogates the audience with mathematical problems. The white boy responds with enthusiasm. He wants to take his shirt off, as his new friend has no shirt. He wants to give him his, but his sister comments that it would not fit him, and that he should keep it. She cannot help but admire the Aboriginal boy's "nakedness," and an adolescent awareness of their bodies grows. The further they walk together, the more influenced by each other they become. Their friendship develops outside white society, and outside tribal culture.
The use of freeze frame, montage, almost subliminal imagery, combined with the soundtrack and music by John Barry, present a sequence of remembered fragments, like trying to recall a dream. This hauntingly moving film, despite flaws that fix it in the era of its production, allows the audience to "complete" it themselves. Like any successful work of art, the audience participates, freeing themselves of passivity.
The pessimism of the conclusion may be inappropriate to Australia, and particularly to Aboriginal life today, but perhaps we can see Walkabout as a memorial representation of all those indigenous peoples who have died in the colonising process.
The sigh of regret we hear in A. E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad is spoken over the memory the girl has of the three children swimming in an exquisite waterhole. It looks like Eden before awareness.
Into my heart an air that kills From yon far country blows: What are those blue remembered hills, What spires, what farms are those? That is the land of lost content, I see it shining plain, The happy highways where I went And cannot come home again.
Finally, we are reminded that we can never go back: change is irreversible, rien ne va plus.
Walkabout ★★★½ 1971 (PG)
Beautifully told and filmed story (by Roeg in his debut) about a nameless young brother (John, Roeg's six-year-old son) and sister (Agutter), who are abandoned in the Australian outback when their father kills himself. The children wander, with little chance of survival, until a young aborigine (Gumpilil) finds them. He interrupts his own “walkabout,” a rite of passage, to teach them to survive, leading to betrayal and tragedy. Based on a novel by James Vance Marshall. 100m/C VHS, DVD . AU Jenny Agutter, Lucien John, David Gulpilil, John Meillon; D: Nicolas Roeg; W: Edward Bond; C: Nicolas Roeg; M: John Barry.