50 films: #1. Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg, 1971)

My cinematic survey begins here, somewhere in the middle.

Like other directors who feature in my list, Nicolas Roeg started out as a cameraman. That a director has a background in cinematography may be little more than a piece of trivia in most cases, but Roeg’s apprenticeship behind the camera is plainly obvious in his films from the early ’70s, not least in Walkabout, his solo directorial debut, which he also photographed. It opens with the following title card:

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.

This is the story of a “WALKABOUT”.

A brother and sister (Jenny Agutter and Lucien John, Roeg’s own son) – the principal characters are not given names, and are only identified as ‘girl’, ‘white boy’ and ‘black boy’ – are taken from their suburban home into the outback by their father, ostensibly for a picnic. The father then produces a pistol and starts taking potshots at them. The children take cover. The father then commits suicide. With their car a burnt-out wreck and no idea of their location, the children are forced to go on their own walkabout, meeting on their travels an Aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil, credited as Gumpilil) who shows them how to live off the land.

I don’t think Walkabout should necessarily be viewed as a didactic film, although its frequent juxtapositions of modern industrial life and the life of the indigenous people of Australia may seem to invite moral analyses. The divide is illustrated in the very first shots of the film, where the pairings of image and sound are jarring. Over the cracked earth of the outback is heard the sound of a radio being tuned. (The radio is the one vestige of civilisation that stays with the children until almost the end of their walkabout, and is used on one occasion by the black boy who finds a radio station broadcasting in his own language.) Then we see the streets of Sydney (referred to as Adelaide in the film) bustling with businessmen and women, accompanied by the drone of the didgeridoo.

There are other films that approach it, but I can think of none that surpasses Walkabout in terms of sheer intoxication of image and sound. The score, by John Barry, is surely his most sensuous. The period of the walkabout incorporates a number of idyllic musical montages, most famously the one where Jenny Agutter goes swimming. These sequences often have a narrative purpose – the one just mentioned shows the boys establishing a relationship and learning to communicate despite the language barrier – but they are also paeans to the landscape and indigenous wildlife of Australia. Roeg’s photography of animals draws parallels between the two children, cut off from everything they know, and the creatures themselves, small and vulnerable. It recalls the fantasy sequence in Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter where two children drift downriver in a boat, while the nocturnal creatures by the bank appear to watch over them.

Although the animals are photographed with great tenderness, their existence is not sentimentalised. We see animals killed, first by the black boy with a spear of his own making, and later by armed hunters. The boy’s chopping up of a kangaroo is cross-cut with a butcher hacking up meat and disembowelling poultry, again inviting comparisons between the two cultures. At the same time as the three children play innocently in the trees, a group of Aborigines is shown finding the gutted car and appropriating it for play of their own.

The brother and sister are led to the road, and so their walkabout ends, but not before a tragic occurrence which arises directly from the impossibility of reconciling the two cultures, one which would not have come about but for the white children’s entry into the outback.

A flash-forward: the girl is older now, and married. Her husband returns home to tell her of his latest promotion, but her thoughts are far away. She remembers this episode from her youth, the innocence of her play with her brother and the boy they met. A Housman poem is read before the credits roll:

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.

What are we meant to feel about this sudden burst of nostalgia? The girl now lives once again the comfortable life she had before her walkabout, but laments the loss of something she found when she was temporarily dispossessed. Rewatching this, it feels like an oversimplistic romanticisation of the ‘uncivilised’, and an inaccurate memory of an experience that was harrowing when she underwent it. So the girl feels nostalgia, but should the viewer? Is there a bitter irony in the use of the poem? Like the film as a whole, it is open to interpretation and reinterpretation.

I recommend the excellent Roger Ebert’s ‘Great Movies’ essay on the film, and also this beautifully assembled montage from YouTube. The viewer should be warned that it reveals aspects of the plot I have skirted around.

IMDb | Buy from Amazon.co.uk

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2 Responses to “50 films: #1. Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg, 1971)”

  1. Mike A Says:

    Long time since I last saw it, but it strikes me reading your summary – particularly of the opening – just how Ballardian it is. It occupies that disturbing space at the interface between the man-made world and the wilderness – and apparently also the place in the psychological landscape where reason gives way to irrational violence.

    It’s very difficult to convey the strangely compelling, harsh, poetic beauty of this film – though I think you’ve made a pretty good fist of it here.

  2. Gareth Says:

    That’s a nice way of describing it, Mike, as being set at the interface where the two cultures meet, and they encroach on each other – father drives car into outback; indigenous people move in after his death and play with car, and so on. There are many examples of this kind of encroachment and exchange throughout the film.

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