Friday, June 22, 2018


Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg, 1971) The clash of civilizations has long been a staple of film-drama, and many of the most thoughtful films on the subject have come out of the Australian wave of the 1970's and such film-makers as Peter Weir, Philip Noyce and George Miller. But, anticipating the emergence of "Aussinema" to the world-screens was this Australian-set fable of children stranded in the outback, and their rescue and immersion into the aboriginal, directed by radical cinematographer Nicolas Roeg (adapted from the 1959 novel by James Vance Marshall originally entitled "The Children"). Told mostly without a narrative thread, with circumspect dialogue in a frequently non-linear manner, the film is a lushly photographed quilt of styles and methods, flashing forward and back, seemingly made up of fantasy and memory; indeed, one can't be sure after the film is over, that the whole thing isn't a dream...or a wish...a false memory...or an act of contrition.
Two children (Jenny Agutter and Lucien John--son of the director), never named, are picked up by their brooding father after school. She is in middle grades, and he in grade school. Father drives them outside of Sydney, far out to the desert interior of Australia, and as the kids sit up a picnic, he pulls out a gun and attempts to kill them. They flee for their lives, and the man, stricken with inexplicable self-destruction, douses his VW bug in gasoline, sets it ablaze and shoots himself
The children are stranded in the desert, in their school-clothes, with no shelter, food or water. Worse still, they're city-children in the wild with no survival skills to fall back on. The only thing they can do is walk, and keep walking. Eventually, hopefully, they'll reach civilization.

But Civilization may not be what they need.
Nearly at the end of their ability to survive, they come across an aborigine (David Gulpilil) on a walkabout as a rite of passage, and the three children form an alliance of sorts for survival in the desert. The native provides water, and food and keeps them alive. The stranded kids can merely follow and comply: The younger child is "okay" with everything, the closest to nature and accepting of everything. The girl is a teenager caught between innocence and societal regimentation, sexually curious of the aborigine but already mindful of her place in the strata of society. The aborigine simply is. As provider for the children, his intentions become conflicting as his relationship to the two grows. It may be that he never intends to take the boy and girl back to civilization.
As one can expect with Roeg, there are distractions from the main story: a sequence with a team of desert climatologists plays like a rudely-placed combination of Fellini and Keystone Cops; shots of the native boy killing for meat are inter-cut with scenes from a butcher shop (okay, point made); a group of aborigine's forced to make kitsch art by a brutal overseer; a hunting scene is interspersed with an extended skinny-dipping swim by Agutter. The images transition from majestic nature-scapes to 8 millimeter scratchiness and back again. John Barry's lush score supports it all with over-arching brass and mixed choirs.
Roeg has never been a meek film-maker. His films are charged with adult themes and subject matter, brutality and sexuality, and unblinking presentations of that material. Compared to such diverse films of Roeg's as PerformanceThe Man Who Fell to Earth, and Eureka, though, Walkabout is pretty tame. But it is, at times, brutal. When I first saw it in its original theater run, soon after its premiere in 1972, I did not know that there had been sections stripped out of it in order to give it a PG rating (or GP, as it was known back then) in America. Those sequences involved the killing and cleaning of animals by aborigines, shot in a grainy, washed out, home-movie-ish style. 
Those sensitive to those images would do well to stay clear...or hide your eyes. But its part of the make-up of the film and the story. Roeg could have left them out, as the original distributing company did, but it would have eliminated an essential element of the brutal circumstances the kids are surviving, and how it contrasts with the plastic-packaged meat departments their parents travel through in the cities far removed from the more severe Australian interior. 
Still, despite the grit, and the parts I never knew were missing when I first saw it, Walkabout still struck me as one of the most beautiful, intriguing, and challenging films I had ever seen. In its expanded, uncensored form, it still does. It could be a children's film, if it wasn't so "adult." It could be a fantasy, if it weren't so unflinchingly harsh. Instead, it's a rather clear-eyed vision of the wonders of the world, both in terms of beauty and ugliness, the two part and parcel of Nature and life. And the ending is properly ambiguous with a culmination both positive and tragic. And it is quite damning in its portrayal of civilization's ability to sin by omission and still feel good about itself. True to its nature, but not to the natural, we are left at the end, presented with an idealized version of events—a romanticized dream, a false memory, and these final words spoken on the soundtrack.

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.

"A Shropshire Lad" (Part 40) by A.E. Houseman

The film's original British "quad" poster

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