CAPSULE: WALKABOUT (1971)

DIRECTED BY: Nicolas Roeg

FEATURING: Jenny Agutter, David Gulpilil, Luc Roeg

PLOT:  A father drives his two children out into the Australian outback for a “picnic.”  While

Still from Walkabout (1971)

there, he commits suicide, leaving the children to struggle for survival in an unfamiliar and harsh natural world.  Eventually they cross paths with an adolescent aborigine who is partaking in his “walkabout”; a rite of passage that entails journeying into the wilderness alone to achieve manhood.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With the exception of a few odd camera shots, it is not a weird film.  It is certainly a thought-provoking and undeniably beautiful film, but depictions of cultural differences and anthropocentricism are easily attainable on the Discovery channel or—to a much higher degree of weirdness—the National Geographic program “Taboo”.

COMMENTS: Most critiques of this film assert that it simply contrasts the natural world vs. the trappings of modern civilization and its unnecessary conveniences.  I think that’s too obvious.  To me, the underlying theme of budding sexuality and the transition to man/womanhood takes precedence.

The beautiful Jenny Agutter plays the girl (no names are given to the lead roles).  We assume she is around the age of sixteen and living a privileged life of private schooling and residing in a luxury home with all the modern amenities she could need.  An early shot of the girl swimming with her much younger brother in a crystal clear pool right next to an enormous, vast ocean is a personal favorite.  We don’t know anything about the family dynamics or how they interact with each other.  We can only guess the parent-child relationships are cold and impersonal.  The mother listens to cooking recipes on the kitchen radio, and any disturbance from his offspring only annoys the father.

Once we get to the outback things become even more unclear.  Why is the father trying to kill his kids?  Why is he such a bad shot?  Who knows?  He then offs himself, leaving the kids to fend for themselves.  Right away the viewer is treated to close-ups of reptiles, insects and other strange creatures to convey that the youngsters are definitely out of their element.  There is a really nice juxtaposition of the young 6-year-old boy (Luc Roeg—the director’s son) fading into the landscape: a melding of human and nature.

Nicolas Roeg is an amazing director.  Lovers of weird cinema know him through classics such as Bad Timing, The Man Who Fell To Earth, and the certified weird Don’t Look Now.  Alas, there is no dwarf in a red-hooded raincoat chasing the lads around the outback.  If there were, he would easily be picked off with a spear by David Gulpilil, the actor who portrays the aborigine with such authenticity that I originally thought he was the real deal.

The emergence of the aborigine is crucial to the two lost children’s existence.  Now they have hope for survival.  Here is an expert hunter and someone who can show them how to live off the land.  The trio become closer as their journey progresses, even though they never break through the communication barrier.  As a result, the dialogue is kept sparse throughout the film, with the exception of some ramblings of a 6-year-old.

My first viewing of this movie many years ago on VHS included an introductory preview describing this as a family film.  I guess it could be, for open-minded adults allowing their children to witness slaughtering of animals, suicides, and full frontal nudity.  I’m cool with it, but others may find it hard to watch.  The film exudes sexuality, but it is always done very tastefully.  Roeg is such a masterful director that his visuals become much more sensual than outright sexual (at least in this film).

As the young girl gets to be more familiar with the aborigine, sexuality becomes more prominent.  The innocence transitions to lust and longing.  Shots of white birch trees overtly begin resembling female genitalia.  When Agutter skinny dips fully nude, it does not seem exploitative at all.  It represents freedom in the natural world.

The one key scene that could be construed as weird is the mating ritual dance performed by the aborigine towards the end of the film. It is an exhausting day-long event to attract the young girl’s affections.  It is a beautiful and strange performance by a ritually-painted Gulpilil, but unfortunately it only freaks out his potential mate, and the rejection ends in tragedy.

As I stated previously, I could ramble on about how this film is an allegory about the evils of modern civilization.  There are some effective scenes of the aborigine hunting, intercut with a butcher chopping meat in his shop and big game hunters killing for sport.  But more importantly, it is a beautiful film about emerging adulthood and fearfulness of change.  This was made in 1971 and I don’t think it has dated badly at all.  In fact, I think there is a universal message that transcends time.  People of the modern world are constantly changing, but the natural world remains relatively the same, as does the natural human emotion of acceptance.

The new Criterion special edition disc includes a drab commentary by director Roeg and star Agutter and a relatively boring interview with Agutter and Luc Roeg (interesting only for seeing how they have aged).  More interesting is the hour long documentary on David Gulpilil, the person and the actor.  And I don’t need to stress the beauty of Criterion’s transfer; absolute perfection.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the “civilized” characters and the aborigine exist in a wilderness that isn’t really a wilderness but more of an indefinite place for the story to be told. Roeg’s desert in ‘Walkabout’ is like Beckett’s stage for Waiting for Godot. That is, it’s nowhere in particular, and everywhere… [Roeg’s] cinematography (and John Barry’s otherworldly music) make the desert seem a mystical place, a place for visions. So that the whole film becomes mystical, a dream, and the suicides which frame it set the boundaries of reality.”–Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Robert Jones.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

3 thoughts on “CAPSULE: WALKABOUT (1971)”

  1. Great review, thank you Eric. It’s made me decide to go back and revisit Walkabout. When I saw it all the way through for the first time I was left with the feeling that I’d just been whacked on the nose with the rolled up newspaper of political correctness by some of the scenes; the butcher/hunting scene comes to mind.
    It did make me think though and I like that in a film. As you say, the dad was a terrible shot. Did he really mean to kill the children, or was he just taking pot shots to scare them off so they didn’t see him shoot himself? Maybe he assumed they’d just double back the way they’d come.
    I sometimes think the girl’s character gets a bit of a hard time from critics; after all she’s just seen her father kill himself and now she’s out in the middle of nowhere with a little boy to look after. Not to mention that she’s English; she’s never seen so much sand that didn’t have a donkey in a straw hat on it.
    I agree though, not really weird; but time to go and take another look at it.

  2. David Gulpilil, the actor who portrays the aborigine with such authenticity that I originally thought he was the real deal

    Oh, but he is the real deal: David is a Yolŋu indigenous Australian.

    This is a great movie (and superbly reviewed here, BTW), although I have the nagging feeling that nothing Roeg does will ever match the magnificent Man who fell to Earth.

  3. Thanks for the compliment Alon. I’m glad you liked the review. It truly is a beautifully film. I feel I should clear up the Gulpilil issue. When I intially saw the film many years ago, I originally thought he was an authentic aborigine hand-picked solely for this film. As years went by, I saw him in other films playing similar aborigine roles and I figured he was just an actor being typecast for his appearance. I now realise he is both the real deal and an actor. His performance in this film with body language alone is exceptional.

    I also share your sentiments concerning Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth. It is his weird masterpiece and a personal favorite. It was finally suggested in the reader suggested queue recently. It has to be a deadlock in making the final list of the 366 weirdest films of all time. Are you hearing me 366? Of course you are…you already know it has made the list. Just a matter of time now…………………….

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