Should I Watch..? 'Walkabout'
What's the big deal?
Walkabout is a adventure drama film released in 1971 and is loosely based on the novel of the same name by James Vance Marshall. Directed by Nicolas Roeg in his solo directorial debut, the film follows two siblings from an urban Australian upbringing who find themselves abandoned deep in the Outback and their relationship with a nomadic Aboriginal boy who teaches them how to survive. The film stars Jenny Agutter, Luc Roeg (the director's son, credited as Lucien John) and David Gulpilil who was miscredited as David Gumpilil. The script allowed Roeg to improvise greatly on the shoot and scenes were often composed based on what they came across in the Outback. The film was a commercial flop when it was first released but is now considered one of Roeg's finest films as well as one of Australia's most well known and iconic films. It was also nominated for the Palme d'Or at that year's Cannes Film Festival.
What's it about?
In an Australian suburb, a father gets ready to take his two young children - a teenage girl and her younger brother - out to the Outback for a picnic. However, once there, he goes beserk and begins shooting at his children. Terrified, the girl and boy run for cover while the girl sees her father set fire to their car before shooting himself in the head. Shielding her brother from the scene, the girl gathers up a few rudimentary supplies and with no way of getting home, they both start to wander into the vast rural wilderness they now find themselves trapped in.
After a day or so of walking beneath the scorching sun, they suddenly find themselves making contact with an Aboriginal boy who is clearly as wary of them as they are of him. Despite not understanding each other's language, the boy begins to communicate with the Aboriginal boy through sign language and he soon understands that the white children are hungry and thirsty. As they begin to learn more of their surroundings and their strange new friend, it appears that there are some similarities between them in spite of the vast cultural divide.
Luc Roen (a)
David Gulpilil (b)
Release Date (UK)
7th October, 1971
12A (2011 re-rating)
What's to like?
From an admittedly threadbare premise, Roeg has somehow managed to extract a story that examines cultural differences, the dangers of miscommunication and the harsh reality of white rule imposed on native populations. Walkabout is a film of rare brilliance, allowing us to see first-hand how life has become for indigenous people like the Aborigines in Australia and in a contemporary setting instead of the white-washed version shown in Hollywood's beloved westerns. And it is a life that benefits from being glimpsed, however briefly - the film feels like a safari trip through a relatively unknown landscape filled with birds, lizards, kangaroos and water buffalo and at no point does it shy away from the brutality of living in the wild. This is the sort of film that gets celebrities stripping off in support of PETA.
Despite the relative inexperience of the cast, all three youngsters deliver captivating performances in this culture-clash drama - Agutter especially. Gulpilil, who made his on-screen debut in this film, is utterly convincing as the Aboriginal hunter guiding his unusual white friends through the ins-and-outs of life in the Outback although it's worth noting that Gulpilil practically lived this life before the film anyway. But it's a testament to his skills that his inscrutable features and almost alien-like behaviour hold your attention throughout. The film's narrative might not have much to offer but you stick with the picture nonetheless, hoping to find some answers and maybe ask yourself some important questions.
- Walkabout would be the only acting credit for Lucien Roeg who would go on to become a successful movie producer. His producing credits include The Falling, We Need To Talk About Kevin and Mike Bassett: England Manager.
- The film features several scenes where animals are hunted for real such as a kangaroo being legitimately speared, beaten and killed which contravenes the law in the UK where it is illegal to show animals suffering pain or being terrified on screen. However, the censors decided that these scenes did not show this so they were left uncut in the final film.
- However, the film did receive an age-restricted certificate due to the film's graphic nudity. Agutter, who was just 16 at the time of filming, was so embarrassed by her swimming scenes that the crew was reduced to the barest minimum. She later that she was shocked at the film's explicitness but remained on good terms with Roeg.
What's not to like?
First of all, fans of the book will be dismayed to hear that the film doesn't stick to the book that closely - in fact, the script was only 14 pages long and most of the movie was improvised. But the film does dwell on the communication difficulties between the children and the Aboriginal boy as well as the sexual misunderstandings between the Aborigine and the girl. The film has a cold, almost documentary feel to it which makes the scenes of animal killing all the more disturbing. We are not used to seeing such things in our society, these scenes feeling more horrific than natural. But they are natural - the laws of the jungle and all that - and the film challenges us to view them in a new way. After all, is it any worse to kill an animal in order to survive or mindlessly hunt them for sport?
Any film that has the skill to hold a mirror up to our own lives and make us reflect is a winner in my book, however difficult the experience can be. Walkabout is stark and brutal in its simplicity, its skeleton cast working hard to fill in the blanks. The film makes good use of silence as well, eschewing the typical Hollywood tropes to show us this unfathomable landscape that is both bewitching and bewildering. It's not an easy watch by anyone's standards and I know plenty of people who will be put off by the lack of anything exciting happening. This film isn't for them - it's for people who like to be challenged and opened up to new ideas and new perspectives.
Should I watch it?
Despite its age, Walkabout remains an intriguing and almost unique picture that shows us the side of Australia not often seen on screen. But more importantly, it points out that our society doesn't have to be exclusive and that it is possible for us to coexist with others, given time and patience. It has become so popular and so heavily associated with the country that it has lent its name to a chain of Aussie-themed pubs in the UK and it's hard to disagree. It's not for everybody and is very disturbing at times but it's far more Down Under than Crocodile Dundee.
Great For: Aussie audiences, men of a certain age, the liberally minded
Not So Great For: animal rights activists, fans of the book, racists
What else should I watch?
The only other film I can think of that depicts Aboriginal culture and identity in a positive way is Rabbit-Proof Fence, a drama about three Aborigine girls who have been relocated and begin to make their way through the Outback in order to return to their people. The fact that these people are still under-represented in Australian cinema outside of documentary films is frankly shameful - Australian cinema has produced some genuinely brilliant films like Mad Max, Picnic At Hanging Rock and Dead Calm but few seem to shine a light in the same way Roeg did here.
However, it was the Nineties that proved to be one of the most successful periods for Australian cinema with such diverse films as flamboyant rom-com Strictly Ballroom, hard-hitting drama Romper Stomper, period comedy The Dish and the hugely successful Muriel's Wedding. Nowadays, Australia is becoming a popular to shoot movies as well with the latest Star Wars movies and The Matrix taking advantage of some greatly reduced production costs and tax incentives.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox