Why It’s Important
Walkabout is one of those Australian films that… isn’t. Made with American money by an English director and English screenwriter, it’s nonetheless one of the most important films about the Australian outback. Along with Wake in Fright – which also premiered at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival – Walkabout solidified an international perception of Australia’s outback as harsh, barren and exotic; an iconography reinforced by the likes of Men at Work and Crocodile Dundee in the years to come.
Met with mixed reviews and dismal box office returns in Australia, Walkabout has since established itself as a significant film in the cinematic canon; it boasts a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and was classified as a “Great Movie” by Roger Ebert in 1997. This experimental adaptation of James Vance Marshall’s book The Children (since retitled Walkabout) uses its simplistic story – a young boy and teenage girl stranded in the outback befriend an Aboriginal boy on walkabout – to frame a coming of age story complicated by questions of race, civilisation and sexuality.
The film launched the careers of actors Jenny Agutter and David Gulpilil, each only in their late teens during filming. Gulpilil – erroneously credited as “Gumpilil” here – would go on to become one of Australia’s finest working actors, while Agutter continues to maintain a thriving career in the likes of Call the Midwife and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Walkabout was also the first film to be solely directed by Nicolas Roeg, who’d established himself as a cinematographer on the likes of John Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd and François Truffaut’s Farenheit 451. Walkabout is Roeg’s second credit as director but his first solo feature film, having co-directed Performance with Donald Cammell. Roeg’s filmography features some 1970s arthouse classics – from Venice horror Don’t Look Now to The Man Who Fell to Earth (starring David Bowie in his most enigmatically resonant role) – but Roeg’s resolutely anti-commercial, non-linear approach to cinema has seen his star wane in the decades since, give or take a Roald Dahl adaptation.
What’s It Really About?
Tradition vs Civilisation
After an opening intertitle explaining the meaning of the term walkabout – “In Australia, when an Aborigine man-child reaches sixteen, he is sent out into the land… [t]he Aborigines call it the WALKABOUT” – added by the studio in post-production, Roeg’s film commences a montage that juxtaposes images of the outback – red rocks, dusty plains, Sidney Nolan paintings come to life – with footage of Sydney – red brick walls, rows of schoolchildren, hordes of pedestrians – overlaid with traditional didgeridoo music. This kind of juxtaposition is judiciously throughout Walkabout both to create an emotional affect and to contrast the perceptions of Western modernity and Aboriginal traditions.
While Walkabout is a story of its three children, it’s also unmistakably a story about the differences and similarities between their two cultures. Roeg regularly intercuts narratively-significant scenes with footage designed to emphasise this thematic thrust. For example, when we see Gulpilil hunt and dismember a wild kangaroo for food, his efforts are intercut with a white-clad butcher hacking at chops and wrapping up hearts for his customers. The purpose seems to be to preclude potential audience horror at Gulpilil’s character’s actions by reminding them of their own society’s complicity in butchery.
But the film doesn’t present these two cultures as equals, instead according the Aboriginal traditions with a sense of purity absent from ‘civilised’ culture. This is explicated as the film progresses; a scene involving weather balloonists stationed in the outback is overtly farcical, while footage of white hunters shooting buffalo for sport earns tears from Gulpilil’s silent observer. With a montage of abandoned buffalo corpses, Roeg positions the white man’s hunting as cruel and excessive, in contrast to the Aboriginal’s purposeful communion with nature.
The film’s regular use of montage and intercutting emphasises Roeg’s trademark “rather bizarre attitudes towards time” (his own words). As in his follow-up, Don’t Look Now, Walkabout eschews the linear conventions of commercial cinema for something ambiguous and amorphous. There’s the suggestion that Roeg’s curious atemporality is inspired by Aboriginal culture, unbound by the rigidity of clocks and schedules.
Taken in toto, this threatens to mythologise and romanticise Indigenous Australian culture. Indeed, it’s easy to regard Gulpilil’s character as the epitome of the reductive “noble savage” stereotype: pure, simple, idealised. This is tempered, somewhat, by the prominence of death within the film – suicides and burnt-out cars and abandoned towns and fields filled with buffalo bones. Walkabout expands upon the book’s comparatively simple conception of Aboriginal culture as “devoted to one purpose… the battle with death” by portraying death with unvarnished, brutal honesty.
The Difficulty of Communicating
Walkabout’s screenplay, written by English playwright Edward Bond, is famously spare; Roeg described it as a “fourteen-page prose poem.” With such a slender script, the production thus relied on improvisation. Consequentially, the final product tends to rely more on images than dialogue to tell its story (a familiar feature of Roeg’s filmography). This suits the way the film emphasises on the difficulty of authentic communication throughout, whether in the trappings of ‘civilised’ society or in the Australian wilderness – as discussed in Ebert’s aforementioned review, where he argues that Walkabout is about the “mystery of communication,” noting that “the crucial detail is that the two teenagers never find a way to communicate, not even by using sign language.”
This is where Walkabout resists the simplicity of the noble savage stereotype; rather than emerging ennobled and edified by her weeks in the bush, Agutter’s character – credited only as “Girl” – retains her trappings of colonialism. Her school uniform, her implicit racism remain. Eroded, perhaps, but there is no epiphany, no transformation, no fundamental connection with her guide. Bond’s interpretation of Marshall’s novel trends away from the book’s explicitly thematic, comparatively simplistic approach, de-emphasising the characters’ racism (originally linked to their American background, modified here) and fear of nudity alongside the mystical, pseudo-Christian overtones.
In Marshall’s novel, the Aboriginal boy is a Christ-figure, at once self-sacrificing and doomed. His death is attributed to an immune system insufficiently prepared for Western illnesses and a spirit ill-prepared for Western insecurities. Roeg’s film develops these ideas to include the rough complexities of reality, instead concluding with Gulpilil’s character’s suicide after his mating dance is misinterpreted as an act of aggression by the girl. The challenges of communication – married with the carnality of youth – provide a richer, more ambiguous portrait than Marshall’s parable.
The Complexities of Coming of Age
The failed courtship between Gulpilil and Agutter’s characters is another significant departure from the source material, which imagines the girl as 13. By shifting the story towards the teenage years, the movie’s form assumes the familiar shape of a rite of passage; an ordeal that carries Agutter’s character from a naïve schoolgirl to – in the film’s final scene – a married housewife looking overlooking Sydney Harbour.
This scene is an important refutation to interpretations of the film that reduce it to a paternalistic take on Aboriginal culture. While Walkabout undeniably romanticises Indigenous Australian culture, it does so with a critical eye. In the final scene, the girl’s conversation with her husband is interrupted with a syrupy reminiscence of her time in the bush, where the three children frolic naked in a waterhole. But the scene is not a memory, but a reconstructed daydream – an idealised, fictionalised memory of something that never occurred.
In reality, the girl’s discomfort with the Aboriginal boy’s traditions and nudity contributed to his suicide. The film’s controversial representation of her nudity was not idyllic, but unmistakably erotic. But the girl’s daydream is a reminder that the stories we tell of our pasts – whether our personal growth from youth to maturity or our colonialist history, a past of death and exploitation – are glossed over to provide a sunny, simplified portrait of a time that never was.
What to Watch Next
Walkabout is the rare film of its era to include an Aboriginal actor in a leading role. The first film to do so was Charles Chauvel’s last film, Jedda, starring Robert Tudawali and Ngarla Kunoth. Eligible for a Palme d’Or in the award’s first year – 1955 – Jedda is an Australian take on Romeo and Juliet that remains an important milestone in Australian cinema. Like Walkabout – and films of the era such as The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith – it concludes in tragedy for its Aboriginal characters; whether the persistent victimhood of Indigenous Australians in these films is a reflection of their real-life tragedy at the hands of the white government, or a trite example of white filmmakers failing their characters depends entirely on your perspective.
Those entranced by Walkabout’s disregard for linear time and exploitation of disorienting editing would do well to investigate Roeg’s early filmography. The likes of Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to the Earth and the controversial thriller Bad Timing demonstrate the unique ambiguity that made Roeg an important arthouse director.
The best film to partner with the film is perhaps the aforementioned Wake in Fright. The films share a release date and setting, while offering similarly robust perspectives on the outback. While Wake in Fright eschews the Indigenous perspective to consider the white man’s corruption in the Australian wilderness – kangaroo hunting and gambling and brawling and far, far too many beers. Taken in concert with Walkabout, the two films offer a complex and complete – if not entirely complimentary – portrait of Australia’s outskirts as it was perceived some 45 years ago.