(1971) dir. Nicolas Roeg
After seeing the brilliant Wake in Fright (1971) in re-release in Sydney while visiting Australia, I was inspired to see Nicolas Roeg’s film Walkabout, which bested Wake in Fright in 1971 at Cannes. Two great films about Australia released the same year, two films made by English directors. Whereas Wake in Fright disappeared to near oblivion until recently restruck and re-released and celebrated, Walkabout has long been a film of note, made during director Nicolas Roeg’s finest period, in which he also directed Performance (1970), Don’t Look Now (1973), and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). And that said, I don’t think I’d ever seen it.
Walkabout is the story of two English children, a 14 year old girl and her 7 year old (or so) brother, who become stranded in the outback in a strange and shocking way and are forced to walk in search of a return to civilization, surviving as best they can. They are met by an Aboriginal boy who is doing a “walkabout”, which according to an intertitle at the beginning of the film, is a ritual that Aboriginal boys perform at the age of 16, going out into the outback on their own and hunting to survive, living off the land. He befriends them and helps them along.
Roeg’s narrative style is effective and interesting, not giving a huge amount of background information, telling the story through the events, projecting ideas through juxtapositions and imagry. There is a massive contrast between civilization and the purity of the Australian natural landscapes. Roeg films just about every Australian animal you can possibly think of, representing the weirdness, the beauty, the danger, and freedom of the wild.
The “black boy”, played by the ubiquitous David Gulpilil, appears barely clad, but with numerous lizards hooked to his belt. He hunts with a spear or a boomerang, he is a man at one with nature, teaching the two lost children how to literally drink water from the earth with a straw. They quickly take to him, admiring the simplicity and purity of the natural world, stripping naked and swimming, becoming more and more at one with nature. All this bridges a language barrier since Gulpilil speaks and understands no English and they understand none of his words. Though eventually they learn a small amount, symbolizing an understanding of one another’s cultures and what those represent.
The film has a tragic, transformative quality, because as idealized and beautiful as the way of the Aboriginals are represented, the English/Australian culture is viewed as violent, artificial, and corrupting. And while this point is made clearly, Roeg manages to evoke great power from his storytelling and the images of the children in the wild.
My one complaint would be the use of sound and music, which seems more steeped in the technology and tonality of the time of the film. Roeg uses contrasts and jump-cut-like juxtapositions, visually and aurally, but for some reason the visuals seemed more powerful and timeless. Some of the noises associated with the animals, meant, I think, to be representative rather than natural seem more contrived.
This is a nit to pick, clearly, in a brilliant, fascinating film. It’s so different from Wake in Fright that it’s hard to imagine how one measures one film against another for “greatness” or “significance”. Wake in Fright is much more about the character of the people, a scathing depiction, metaphorical of hell, whereas Walkabout is much more an ode to the Edenic quality of the natural world and humankind’s ability to be at one with that. The religious symbology isn’t too pervassive, but it’s there. The two films are both brilliant, excellent visions, and it’s an interesting thing that they came out the same year.