“Walkabout” - Nicolas Roeg (1971)

Walkabout (1971) is a haunting story whose themes are associated with but extend well beyond the basic issue presented upfront to the viewer – survival in the wilderness.  That is what makes the film linger in the memory long after viewing it.  The particular story here concerns what happens to a teenage girl and her considerably younger brother who find themselves cast alone in a desolate region of the Australian Outback.  

Because the film so vividly evokes the unique natural wonders of the Outback, it has come to be considered a classic of Australian cinema; but actually the production origins of the film are almost entirely British.  The film was directed and photographed by British filmmaker Nicolas Roeg, was edited by English professionals Antony Gibbs and Alan Pattillo, and it was scripted by English writer Edward Bond, based on the 1959 novel The Children (aka Walkabout) by English writer James Vance Marshal.  Well-known English composer John Barry was responsible for the music, and English actors Jenny Agutter and Lucien John (Roeg’s young son) had starring roles.  Nevertheless, the Australian location of the film is thematically important in several ways.  

First of all, the pristine Outback environment is relatively unknown to most viewers and has an almost mystical quality to it.  This feeling is enhanced by Roeg’s remarkable and evocative cinematography of native wildlife of the region.  Although Walkabout was Roeg’s first solo directorial outing, he was already an esteemed and highly proficient cinematographer at this time.  In addition, the indigenous people of Australia, known as the Aborigines, have an intimate and special relationship with their native environment in the Outback, and this aspect is thematically significant in the film.

In particular, the Aborigines have a strenuous coming-of-age ritual for young Aboriginal men, called a “walkabout”, that plays a key role in this story.  A brief overview of this walkabout rite-of-passage is provided for the viewer in textual form at the outset of the film:
“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.”
Overall and in this environmental and social context, I would say there are three major, interrelated themes of philosophical substance in Walkabout:
  1. Cultural Contrast
    In this case it is the contrast between two societies:
    • Modern – exploitative Western society that consists of people seeking to objectivize and manipulate for material gain everything encountered.
    • Aboriginal (Natural) – a society that seeks integration with the natural world.

  2. The Difficulty of Essential Communication
    Given cultural conventions and encumbrances, how is it possible to interact truly authentically?

  3. The Mystery of Life
    For all of our accumulated scientific understanding and knowledge, there is still much about life that remains a mystery.
The story of Walkabout goes through roughly six stages.

1.  Contrasting Environments
The opening sequences show contrasting images of big-city life and the nearby natural world.  I would guess that the city is Adelaide.  There are  also images of two schoolchildren – a girl of about 16-years-of age (played by Jenny Agutter) and her younger brother (Lucien John), who is about 6-years-old.  Their father (John Meillon), an English geologist, is shown staring off into space as if he is troubled about something.  Since these characters are unnamed, I will refer to them as the Girl, the Boy, and the Father.  They live together with the mother in a high-rise condominium near the coast.

2.  A Picnic in the Outback
The scene now shifts to one showing the taciturn Father driving the family car with the two kids far out into the Outback in order to have a picnic and perhaps for the geologist Father to study the landscape.  The Father stops somewhere in the barren terrain, and the Girl unloads a basket from the car and begins arranging a picnic setting nearby.  When she turns around to look back at the car, she sees that her Father has pulled out a gun and is shooting at them, trying for some reason to kill them.  She quickly grabs her brother’s hand, and they scamper for cover behind a nearby rock.  When she looks out again, she sees that her Father has set fire to the car and has killed himself.

The Father’s suicide, or what his motivations were, is one of the many things left unexplained in this film.  For us, it’s just a further inexplicable mystery of life.  All we know is what the Girl knows – she and her brother are now stranded alone out in the Outback wilderness.  

The visuals here emphasize their vulnerability in a strange, savage world by juxtaposing images of the kids, still dressed in their school uniforms, with closeups of ants and lizards.  And when the camera spies on the Girl and the Boy from high above, they look like ants, too.

3.  Alone in the Outback
The Girl, with the Boy in tow, now spends her time climbing hills to lookout from and see if she can spot some towns or signs of civilization.  But all she can see is wilderness.  They find themselves lost and scorched in the desert with no food or water.  

Finally and now at the limits of their physical endurance, they stumble upon a small waterhole, where there is water and a fruit tree.  They gorge themselves and then blissfully fall asleep, not even noticing the wombat and snakes who come to share in the bounty.  However, when they wake up, they discover that the waterhole has dried up.  So their situation is still as desperate as ever.

4.  A Stranger Arrives
Now exhausted and dehydrated, they look out from their dried-up waterhole and see a figure on the distant horizon.  It is a young Aborigine (David Gulpilil) wandering on his walkabout in the wild.  When he approaches the waterhole, they can see that the Aborigine is almost naked, except for a tiny loincloth to which he has attached some hunted animal skins.  He is a very different sort of person.

The Aborigine speaks no English, and the Girl is unable to communicate to him their desperate need for water.  But the young Boy manages to convey their need to the Aborigine by metaphorical gestures, in what is one of the most memorable scenes of the film.  This is a reminder that humans share basic notions that are more fundamental than the linguistic elements we use in languages.  The Aborigine then shows them how to suck buried water out of the waterhole by using a reed.

Soon the Aborigine and the Girl and the Boy become friends.  As they now wander together in the Outback, the Aborigine goes out to hunt and kill animals and cook them for their food.  Their growing friendship is facilitated by the exuberant nature of the 6-year-old-boy.  While the Girl seems instinctively reserved, the Boy loves to play imaginary games with his model toys, and he loudly tells remembered fairytales to the uncomprehending Aborigine.  But although the Girl is relatively reserved, the Aborigine shows himself to be hesitantly attracted to her.  And although the comely Girl doesn’t explicitly encourage anything, the natural surroundings perhaps encourage her to let down her guard and swim naked in a pond they have found.

Also juxtaposed with these scenes involving our three main characters are two barely-linked  sequences showing some unconnected white Australians engaged in their own activities in the Outback.  One of the sequences concerns an Australian man and his wife who run their own shop of Aborigine workers (who are unconnected with our main Aborigine boy on his walkabout) who make crude tourist artefacts that the Australian man sells.  The other sequence shows a multinational (European) environmental research team working in the Outback.  In both of these sequences, the white people are all psychologically isolated from the world around them, and they look at other people as objects of lust or utilitarian value. 
 
5.  A Farm is Found
After having fun wandering around together for some time, the Aborigine boy eventually leads the Girl and the Boy to a farmhouse.  But much to the Girl’s disappointment, the farmhouse turns out to be abandoned.  Still, there are old photos and other artefacts in the farmhouse that she finds that remind her of the modern culture she has been away from and that draw her mind away from the adventure in nature that she has been having with the Aborigine.  So she decides that she and the Boy will use the farmhouse temporarily as a shelter.

Meanwhile the Aborigine goes out with his self-fashioned spears to try to hunt a water buffalo.  But he is nearly run over by two white hunters driving by in a jeep.  The Aborigine is astonished and horrified to see how the men use a rifle to shoot and kill many buffaloes with ease.  Again we see the contrast between two cultural views of the natural world.  And since the Aborigine’s tentative approaches for more intimacy wirh the Girl have so-far been ignored, he seems now dazed by what he has seen of her white world.  So, he, too, withdraws from their adventurous engagement and retreats into the customs of his native culture.  

He paints his face and body with white paint and seems to go into a trance.  When he emerges from the trance, the Aborigine goes into some sort of silent mating ritual dance in front of the Girl.  The Girl is scared of what she sees is happening and closes the door of the farmhouse.  So the Aborigine continues his silent courtship dance outside the house all day long and all through the night.

6.  Return
Early the next morning, the Girl tells the Boy to get ready to leave the farmhouse without their Aborigine friend.  When they go outside, though, they see that the Aborigine has hanged himself from a tree.  This is the second unexplained suicide in the film.  

The Girl and the Boy eventually find a highway that the Aborigine had told the boy about, and after a long walk down the road, they come to a mostly abandoned mining town.  Again, when they encounter a white person there, they are met with alienation and selfishness.

The scene now shifts to some years later.  The Girl is now married to a young office worker and living in the same kind of big-city condo that she grew up in.  When he comes home and embraces her, she dreamily remembers to herself those idyllic days when she, her brother, and the Aborigine swam naked in the pond in the Outback.  That was her walkabout.  As the film ends with this scene, there is a voiceover recitation of the 40th stanza of A. E. Houseman’s “A Shropshire Lad”:

            “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 again.”

As with life, itself, there are many unexplained mysteries in Walkabout     – the two suicides, the circumstances behind the alienated white people encountered, the Aborigine’s courtship ritual, and even what might be an authentic attitude toward the killing of animals.  As critic Roger Ebert remarked in 1971 [1]:
“the whole film becomes mystical, a dream, and the suicides which frame it set the boundaries of reality.”
What amazes me is how masterfully director Nicolas Roeg constructed this mystical dream out of the various disparate pieces he encountered during his shooting in Australia, given his reported improvisational production style ("We didn’t really plan anything—we just came across things by chance…filming whatever we found." [2]).  

What Roeg put together was a work of art that was very well-received internationally [1,3,4,5,6], though, interestingly, less so in Australia [7].  This lesser reception in Australia is perhaps connected with the ongoing problematic and sometimes sensitive nature of racism in Australia, both towards Aborigines and Asians [8,9].  

But Walkabout is not fundamentally a film about racial relations.  Its underlying themes are more concerned with deeper issues like the three I listed above.  Roger Ebert, reflecting on these deeper planes more than twenty-five years after first seeing the film, had this to say [4]:
 “The film is deeply pessimistic. It suggests that we all develop specific skills and talents in response to our environment, but cannot easily function across a broader range. It is not that the girl cannot appreciate nature or that the boy cannot function outside his training. It is that all of us are the captives of environment and programming: That there is a wide range of experiment and experience that remains forever invisible to us, because it falls in a spectrum we simply cannot see.”
However, I do not quite see Walkabout in such a pessimistic light.  To me the film is more about the rich complexity of nature and the wondrous, almost limitless possibilities open to us for the seemingly magical interactions that we can have with the beings that we encounter on our life journeys.
 
The Girl and the Aborigine boy had their interactions in a completely natural world, unencumbered by social conventions and restrictions.  And this provided them with the opportunity for the authentic engagement of their inner selves.  Unfortunately, their timidity and social habits left them unable to take this opportunity for a more complete connection – and we must learn from that.  
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Roger Ebert, “Walkabout”, RogerEbert.com, (1 January 1971).  
  2. “Walkabout (film)”, Production, Wikipedia, (1 February 2021).    
  3. Kenneth Geist, “Cinematic poem Down Under”, The Village Voice, (20 May 1971).   
  4. Roger Ebert, “Walkabout”, RogerEbert.com, (13 April 1997).   
  5. Roger Ebert, “Walkabout”, Criterion Collection Film Essays, (5 May 1998).  
  6. Dennis Schwartz, “Walkabout”, Dennis Schwartz Movie Reviews, (6 January 2010).   
  7.  “Walkabout (film)”, Reception, Wikipedia, (1 February 2021).     
  8. “Racism in Australia”, Wikipedia, (23 January 2021).   
  9. Jack Latimore, “Australia is deplorably racist, as people of colour are reminded when they speak up”, The Guardian, (9 August 2018). 

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