Earlier this year, with little fanfare, Criterion released the Nic Roeg classic Antipodean metaphorical film Walkabout over in the States. We thought it was about time this film got some coverage here on the site.
Throughout the sixties, Roeg made quite a name for himself as a cinematographer – working on such classics as Lawrence of Arabia amongst many others. When he moved on to direction he also produced some classics – namely The Man Who Fell To Earth and Don’t Look Now. But even amongst such stellar competition, many still believe his masterpiece to be his debut, shot in 1971 from a novel by James Vance Marshall. Minimalist in tone and dialogue the film quite simply drips style and substance – it is a fantastic achievement.
The plot such as it is (and there isn’t much) is very simple. A father takes his children (known in the film simply as The Girl and The Boy) into the outback on what they think is a picnic. When he starts taking pot shots at them with a pistol, though, it is clear that something is very wrong. Hiding behind a rock, the girl keeps the boy’s head down so he doesn’t witness his father blow his brains out just after setting light to the car. The children, aged 14 (the girl) and 5 (the boy) are thus stranded alone in the middle of one of the harshest environments on earth. Within the first 24 hours it becomes clear that they are not going to survive – badly blistered with sunburn and with no sense of how to interact with the land they are finished. But just in time a native Aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil) comes across them and despite the language barrier starts to help them.
The Aboriginal boy (described in the credits as The Black Boy) is on a Walkabout – an Aboriginal custom which sees adolescent Aboriginals heading off into the bush on their own for a few months. Having to survive with their natural skills, it is considered to be a character building exercise – and when they come back out of the bush they have passed from adolescence into manhood. Of course, this whole journey is complicated by the presence of the girl in particular – as a strange chemistry begins to build between them, leading to tragic consequences.
That is basically it as far as the plot is concerned – but if you buy this film expecting a coherent narrative then you are likely to be disappointed. The film is a tone poem, more interested in hinting at major themes through image rather than telling a story in the conventional sense. The film is one of contradictions – the contrast between white and black is the obvious one, but also between cultures and civilisation. Even the contrast between male and female – all these are explored.
Having first seen Walkabout at school in my common entrance year – I had also forgotten just how sexual and how violent the film is. Now, none of the sex is explicit in anyway – but some of the shots that Roeg uses are borderline salacious. Of course, this is partly the point. One of the major themes of the film is the burgeoning sexual attraction between The Girl and The Aboriginal. Both are still children (Agutter was 17 when she made the film but was playing a 14 year old) but have been thrust prematurely into an adult world where the rules have changed and they have to fend for themselves. Thus, various camera shots (including close-ups of nudity) emphasise exactly where each character’s eyes are focussing at various times. Whereas these shots may make us as twenty first century adults, with a modern perspective, feel slightly uncomfortable of course in 1971 there was nothing considered wrong with this approach. One of the major themes of the film, whether we like it or not, is the attraction between these two characters – so these shots are necessary. The fact is, and this is one of the other themes of the film, these characters are thrust unwillingly into a world that they are not ready for yet – so when one of them decides to act on their feelings, then the consequences are horrible.
The other thing to note for those coming to the film anew is the violence that is present. The suicide of the father (and the subsequent fate of his body) are upsetting, for sure – but also many animals meet their death throughout the film. The vast majority of these are hunted by the Aboriginal but one particularly disturbing scene (which is repeated over and over again) features a buffalo being shot by a hunter. After the shooting, the animal’s neck is opened – blood cascading onto the ground. Again, all of these are necessary shots – they emphasise how man’s relationship with nature has altered over the years, from the ancient Aboriginal culture through to the modern white man hiding behind his jeep and his guns. However, those of a sensitive disposition should be warned.
The acting here is incredibly naturalistic. There is nothing that resembles a performance in the traditional sense of the word – no great emotional scenes, or interactions between characters. Indeed, there is not one moment in the film that the Aboriginal can communicate verbally with the other two children. Yet there is also not one moment in the film where you are not totally sold on the children’s predicament. We know what a great actress Agutter is, and even in this early stage of her career she was able to portray her character well. If her performance at times seems rather stilted this is because her character is meant to be this way. She is a child of the Sydney suburbs, spoilt, never having wanted for anything. This is what makes her predicament even more moving, her desire to look after her little brother vying with her burgeoning attraction to the strange boy, who represents a side of Australia she has never experienced. Lucien John (as billed, although his real name is Luc Roeg) is also superb as the White Boy. His constant chattering, and seeming matter-of-fact reactions to the tribulations that they are faced with comes across as totally realistic. The danger, at his age, is that he may seem wooden – but this is never the case.
David Gulpili as The Black Boy is an absolute revelation. Of course, he went on to become arguably one of Australia’s most successful actors, and his background as a fully trained hunter makes for a totally amazing performance. When he is playing with The Boy he seems almost child-like but when he is hunting the animals for food seeing him in action is breath-taking. Even though he only ever speaks in native aborigine, and even then rarely, you really do get a sense of how meeting the two children have affected him – and his desire for the girl is slowly but steadily revealed through his actions.
But the true star of the film is Roeg and his direction. He takes a sparse story and uses various techniques to tell it in an almost abstract way. His use of the outback landscape is beautiful, picking out almost camouflaged lizards against the rock background, or simply filling the frame with amazing vistas. He is not afraid to use unusual techniques – for example in one scene the cuts suddenly start being signified by the screen turning, as if the pages of a book. This is because The Boy has gone into story-telling mode on screen. In others, he uses reverse action, slow motion, and even freeze-frame to get his point across. Yet none of these techniques have the effect of pulling you out of the action and reminding you that it is a film you are watching. They are very cleverly integrated to enhance the film and to make points at certain moments. Considering it was his directorial debut, the confidence he shows is outstanding. It is an amazing piece of work.
Ultimately, Walkabout is a mood piece. It is beautiful and bleak, brutal and heartrending – full of naturalistic performances and never anything less than believable. It may move a little slowly for some modern audiences, and may also be a little experimental for mainstream tastes – but this is a highly recommended film that can deservedly be monikored “classic”.