by Patricia Perry
At first glance, Walkabout would seem to belong to that most classic of story tropes: in which a young person leaves home – to escape danger or to seek his/her fortune – and, after an arduous journey with setbacks and side trips, emerges on the other side a transformed and wiser young adult.
But the journey made through the Australian Outback by the three youngsters in Nicholas Roeg’s 1971 film has different consequences. Roeg subverts this familiar trope to show children who cannot escape their cultural conditioning and cannot bridge the chasm between their own experience and that of another young person from a wildly different life. For at least one, the journey the ends in tragedy; for another it is not a transforming experience, but one that sends her reeling back to a more familiar life of comfort and conformity. An enigmatic, impressionistic film that occasionally nods to conventional expectations, but more often demolishes them, Walkabout offers cold-eyed observations of the worlds its characters inhabit, but no easy judgments.
It opens with scenes of a an upper-middle-class life in Sydney: students in a girl’s school practicing their elocution lessons; ground kangaroo meat for sale in a sterile, white butcher shop; a woman slicing fruit in her high-rise condominium kitchen while watching her children (Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg) swimming below in a chlorinated pool that lies mere steps from the edge of the ocean.
Whatever comfort level these early scenes may give us is soon destroyed. We see the children and their father driving together into the wilderness. After they make a stop, the girl lays out an elaborate picnic on a blanket, while her little brother plays with his water gun. Without warning or explanation, their father emerges from the car with a gun and begins shooting at the children. As the girl and boy go running further into the bush to escape, their father sets the car on fire, then shoots himself in the head. It’s a horrifying scene which is presented with no clear context, and the children react to it without exhibiting a single, plausible emotion. They don’t cry, don’t express fear, and never speak of it again for entire duration of the film. They just run
After a day or so of wandering alone – filthy, sunburned and out of both food and water – they discover an oasis with a fruit tree. But they soon exhaust that water supply as well, with the girl using much of the water to launder their clothes because “We can’t have people thinking we’re tramps!” (To which her little brother reasonably replies, “What people?”) Fortuitously at this point, they are approached by a young aboriginal boy (David Gulipil) who is on his ‘walkabout,” a rite of passage in which he must spend time in the wilderness learning to hunt and survive. The aboriginal boy helps them find water, kills and cooks animals to feed them and travels with them, though he never grasps that they are looking for a town or city and other white people to bring them back to their home.
For a time, a sort of idyllic friendship develops among the trio. But while the little boy genuinely seeks to emulate the older one and finds a way to communicate with him that transcends their language barrier, the girl remains rooted in her own comfort zone of white imperialist privilege. Sure, she swings playfully from a tree branch with him and allows him to give her a piggy back ride. But when a sexual tension inevitably develops between these two adolescents, she will be the one to cruelly shut it down. In the final act of the film, when the group discovers a small abandoned house, she reverts quickly to “Lady of the Manor” behaviors, ordering the aboriginal boy to fetch water and recoiling in horror when he attempts to woo her with an exuberant mating dance (resulting in his humiliation and apparent suicide.) It’s instructive that a montage of Agutter enjoying a luxurious naked swim in a lush pool is intercut with scenes of Gulipil graphically killing and cooking animals for the group’s dinner; that idyllic swim is a conventional woman’s idea of nature, while the blood and gore involved in turning one’s prey into dinner is a more realistic approximation of what nature entails.
Only in the film’s coda – a brief scene of the girl, now grown-up with her own high-rise condominium and corporate drone husband – will we see how her time in the wilderness really meant to her and her regret that she will never so happy again. We never learn how or if her brother was affected.
Roeg brings both a cinematographer’s and an outsider’s eye to the story. He films the wilderness as if discovering it with his camera. Close-ups of various lizards, snakes, insects and other wildlife are interspersed throughout the story, as if in a nature documentary. But Walkabout is no mere testament to the glories of the untamed landscape. In addition to the previously mentioned scenes of Gulipil killing, gutting and cooking various types of animals, Roeg allows his camera to occasionally linger on such unappealing details as the flies buzzing around Gulipil and the lizard skins he wears around this waist. If Roeg takes civilized society to task for its hollowness and hypocrisy in scenes of Sydney life archly intercut with those shot in the bush, he also rejects any notion that the aboriginal boy is a ‘noble savage.’
In the words of Roger Ebert (whose assessment of Walkabout is most perceptive I have read): “The movie is not the heartwarming story of how the girl and her brother are lost in the outback and survive because of the knowledge of the resourceful aborigine. It is about how all three are still lost at the end of the film–more lost than before, because now they are lost inside themselves instead of merely adrift in the world.”