Walkabout (United Kingdom, 1971)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Originally distributed in 1971, Walkabout has become director Nicolas Roeg's "lost work". The film, which had five minutes of Jenny Agutter's frontal nudity cut from its original U.S. release, was never transferred to video. As a result, this is the first opportunity for the under-30 crowd to experience the film, and the first chance for North American movie-goers of any age to see the entire, uncensored version. (Incidentally, by today's standards, the nude scenes of Agutter wouldn't earn anything more sensational than an "R".)

Walkabout is the story of two children -- a teenage girl (Agutter) and her 7-year old brother (Roeg's real-life son, Lucien John) -- stranded in the Australian wilderness. They become trapped there when their father drives them out in the middle of nowhere, lights the car on fire, then shoots himself in the head. Lost and alone, the two must attempt to find their way back to civilization. Just when their provisions have run out, an Aboriginal man-child (David Gumpilil) finds them and guides them through the bush. He's on his "walkabout" -- a several months' journey across Australia where he must survive off the land -- but the end of his odyssey is something that neither he nor his two white charges could have anticipated.

Walkabout is about the never-ending conflict between civilization and nature, and how the two constantly work to destroy one another. Man is continually tearing down the wilderness to build concrete fortresses that, left unattended, are reclaimed by the land. It's clear here, as it was in many '70s pictures, that civilized humanity is the enemy -- the scourge and rapist of nature. By today's standards, the film's message may seem a little naive, but that by no means renders it invalid. There are Biblical allusions as well, such as snakes in a tiny desert oasis, but the real serpent in this Eden is the industrialized society.

For the most part, Walkabout is an involving, occasionally hypnotic, motion picture. Some of the photography, including images of the outback and its denizens, is spectacular. There are also several effective visual contrasts between man and nature, such as the sequence where Agutter's character, a child of civilization, is enjoying a quiet swim in a natural pool while a group of Aborigines, children of the wilderness, are curiously exploring the burnt-out shell of a car. All throughout the film, the differences between man and his world are highlighted, and the ending, which, while tragic, seems almost inevitable.

Not every aspect of Walkabout is successful, however. Roeg occasionally resorts to intrusive camera tricks to get his point across, and, without exception, these work to the film's detriment. The use of still frames, hand-held shots, and bizarre inserts interferes with the simple beauty of the film, temporarily distancing the viewer from what's transpiring. These supposedly-artistic riffs are uniformly more distracting than effective.

Certainly, the most fascinating aspect of Walkabout is the relationship between the white children and their black guide. The Aborigine is comfortable with the land and his body. Not so for Agutter's character, a wild flower wilting under the relentless sun. There's a subtle element of sexual tension in their relationship, but it's kept in the subtext. I doubt any film made today would be as oblique about this. There's also an aspect of disdain (and, occasionally, fear) in the way Agutter deals with the Aborigine. This is offset by the attitude of John's character, who treats the guide as his sister's equal. The climactic moment, and the different ways the three characters face it, says more about the contrast between the "civilized" and "uncivilized" than anything else in the film.

It's difficult for me, reviewing Walkabout more than a quarter century after its initial release, to get a sense of what the movie meant then, when its method and approach were fresher and more unique than they appear now. By 1997, we've seen innumerable films with the same message, and that makes parts of Walkabout appear outdated. Nevertheless, even considering that this motion picture has not aged as well as some other landmark '70s movies, certain aspects of the film -- notably its lush, evocative photography and forceful emotional component -- make it a worthwhile experience for a '90s audience.

Walkabout (United Kingdom, 1971)

Director: Nicolas Roeg
Cast: Jenny Agutter, Lucien John, David Gumpilil
Screenplay: Edward Bond from the novel by James Vance Marshall
Cinematography: Nicolas Roeg
Music: John Barry
U.S. Distributor: Films Inc.
Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Nudity, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1