Starring: David Gulpilil, Jenny Agutter, Lucien John
Director: Nicholas Roeg
“You shouldn’t walk about in the sun”, says the White Girl to her younger brother. Clearly they both have the wrong skin colour to cope with the relentless ultra violet rays beating down on them somewhere out in the remote Australian desert. A strange twist of fate has found the pair here, abandoned by their father and left to fend for themselves. They’re half dead from thirst by the time an aboriginal teenager finds them beside a dried up water hole and it’s only by tagging along with this ‘man child’, wandering the landscape on his ritual ‘walkabout’, that they are restored to health and eventually their own culture.
It’s a simple story based on a novel by British author James Vance Marshall, yet the way in which Walkabout was adapted for the screen makes it one of the most seminal cinematic statements to have emerged from this country. Directed and Photographed by Nicholas Roeg, the Englishman behind the lens of Truffaut’s Farenheit 451, Schlesinger’s Far From The Madding Crowd and Zinnermann’s Australian epic The Sundowners, this starkly stunning film reverberates with an elemental timelessness. Ghosts of explorers past ride their camels through the landscape, seen only, it seems, by the young boy (Roeg’s own son Lucien John). Gradually the girl (Jenny Agutter) returns to innocence too, shedding her inhibitions as she luxuriates in the sparkling waters of a rock pool. And all the while the black boy, played by David Gulpilil in the role that made him an international star, hunts down native fauna for their survival.
The trio’s journey is shattered at intervals by surreal scenes crashing in from the outside world such as indigenous tribes people in the employ of a white boss man making plaster casts of ‘noble savages’ to decorate suburban gardens, and sex-crazed meteorologists playing cards while sending up weather balloons from a desolate salt pan – strange elements that were to echo in Roeg’s subsequent films like The Man Who Fell To Earth.
It’s interesting to note that this film came out in the same year as Wake In Fright, which also deals with the eerie undertow of the Australian outback. Like that film, Walkabout present us with a profoundly disturbing outsider’s vision of our land that has arguably yet to be surpassed.