WALKABOUT (1971)

  • Director: Nicolas Roeg
  • Writers: Edward Bond, based on the novel by James Vance Marshall
  • Starring: Jenny Agutter, Lucien John, and David Gulpilil
  • Accolades: Shown at 1971 Cannes Film Festival
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming (with cable subscription) on TCM App, stream with subscription on The Criterion Channel, buy or rent with Amazon Video or Apple TV

We have done several films recently, and plan to do several more before the end of the year, that tie into current events in some way. This is partly because there’s a particular glut of prestige films being released in a handful of weeks, even moreso than we usually get at the end of the year, because of delays caused by the COVID pandemic. Unfortunately, there have also been several recent deaths of major figures with some relation to the movie business, which have caused me to want to highlight some of those individuals’ work. By far the least likely of these luminaries, in terms of their origins, is definitely David Gulpilil. He was born in 1953 in Australia’s Northern Territory, in an Aboriginal Australian community so isolated that he was essentially free of “White” cultural influences before he was eventually sent to missionary school. As an adolescent, he became known as perhaps his tribe’s most accomplished ceremonial dancer, and while location scouting in the area for Walkabout the director Nicolas Roeg happened to see Gulpilil dance and immediately decided he would be great as the main Aboriginal character in the movie. Gulpilil later recounted that he spoke so little English at the time that when Roeg came up to him and asked, “What’s your name?” Gulpilil just responded, “Yes.”

David Gulpilil went on to become by far the best known and acclaimed Aboriginal actor for many decades. Walkabout was popular worldwide (moreso than in Australia, in fact), and Gulpilil went on a worldwide tour where he was presented to various heads of state and partied with John Lennon. He went on to appear as Aboriginal characters in numerous other major films, including Storm Boy, The Last Wave, and Rabbit-Proof Fence, and even Crocodile Dundee. In the latter, he tells the camera-wielding female lead “You can’t take my picture.” “Are you worried it will steal your soul?” she asks. “No, your lens cap is still on.” Even during his career, he continued to live primarily in a small Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory, where the only way to get to the outside world involved swimming across a crocodile-infested river. Despite a long-running battle with alcoholism, he was considered one of the greatest ambassadors of his culture. Gulpilil passed away last week of lung cancer at (approximately) age 67. 

One side note, as many Australian readers are likely already aware, Many groups of Australian aborigines have a custom against “naming the dead” (that is, saying the actual name of someone who has died) for an extended period, both out of respect for the deceased and in attempt to reduce the grief of their family. For this reason, Gulpilil’s family publicly requested he be referred to as “David Dalaithngu” after his passing, and that is how he is referred to in some of the obituaries, particularly in Australian publications. However, recognizing that he had “walked between two worlds,” Gulpilil’s family and community posted a statement on Facebook a few days after his death, giving permission for Gulpilil to be referred to going forward by the name for which he had become known, on the basis that they believed it to be what he would have wanted. That is why I am using his name here.

On to Walkabout itself, which is honestly a remarkable movie, and is likely on most short lists of the “greatest” Australian movies ever made. In fact, it seems like a movie that no Australian at the time could have actually made, as it is very much the product of an outsider’s eye, that of the English director Nicolas Roeg. Australian themselves did not seem, at this point in their national history, much interested in assessing the national relationship to the Aborigines or really remembering that they existed at all. Even up to just prior to Walkabout’s release, if an Aboriginal character did appear in an Australian film, they were usually played by a white actor wearing Blackface makeup. Most of these roles were, in any case,  are as an “other” in the context of historical Australian movies, a bit like the role of the Native American in the American Western. Certainly the implication of any possibility of a sexual relationship between a white girl and Aboriginal boy (as it is hard to come away from Walkabout without) would have been strictly verboten in an Australian movie at this time. But Walkabout made David Gulpilil the first Aborigine movie star, and it is as much his story as that of the white characters.

The first sentence of the Wikipedia entry on Walkabout describes the movie as a “survival film,” but it is clearly meant to be taken more as a parable or metaphor than as a literal story of these people trying to survive in the wilderness. One indication that this is the intent of the filmmakers is that none of the characters in the movie have actual names. Jenny Agutter, 17 years old at the time of filming, plays Girl, while the director’s six year old son Luc plays her younger brother, the Boy. After a brief prologue in Sydney, the two of them are driven out into the Australian Outback by their father (John Meillon), ostensibly for a picnic, until the father suddenly pulls out a gun and starts shooting at them. The Boy thinks it’s all a game, but the Girl understands something is seriously wrong and pulls him behind some rocks, only peeking out long enough to see her father set the car on fire and shoot himself. No explanation for his actions is given (Roger Ebert’s Great Movies essay opines only: “It seems modern civilization has failed him”). The Girl and the Boy are left to try and find their own way back to “civilization,” but seem peculiarly unsuited to the task (it never seems to occur to her that maybe they don’t need to keep wearing full school uniforms, for example). They stumble on a watering hole with a fruiting tree, but the next morning they wake up to find the pond is entirely dry and birds have eaten all the fruit.

It is at this point that they realize they are being watched by an Aboriginal boy (Gulpilil), who saves them. They, in turn, start following him, assuming he is leading them somewhere. He speaks no English and they speak none of his language. The Girl never makes any real attempt at communication beyond repeating words slower and louder with increasing frustration. It is her little brother who manages to use basic signs to get at least a few things across. The Aboriginal boy hunts food for them and brings them water, but doesn’t seem to understand what they want from him. At one point they pass close to a farm of some kind, but he views it impassively and makes no attempt to communicate to the others what he has found, and they continue. Eventually she draws a picture of a house for him, and he leads them to an abandoned farmhouse, but no one is there, and they are still not rescued.

Though no one says anything out loud (at least not in English), it is clear that the Aboriginal boy and the girl are at an age where they have a lot of feelings that they don’t know what to do with. Shots that communicate to us the Girl’s gaze emphasize that she is not oblivious to the fact that he is nearly naked and in good shape. She wears a school uniform that is sexualizing in a way that ambiguous early shots seem to tell us her own father is not oblivious to. In one scene she bathes naked in a pool, and we realize the Aboriginal boy is watching. At the farm house, the Aboriginal boy disappears for a bit to paint his face and body, then returns to perform a ceremonial courtship dance for the Girl. He comes upon her just as she is undressing to wash her clothes, and she is thoroughly startled and upset. He continues to dance well into the night until he is exhausted, while she tries to ignore him and tells her little brother that they have to keep going on their own. The movie does not tell us what she really thinks about this, though there is one moment where, when the little brother asks her why they can’t stay with the Aborigine, she replies, “What if he tried to…” then trails off. We can only imagine what she was going to say.

The next morning, the white children happen upon the Aboriginal boy hanging, dead, from a tree in the yard. She brushes the ants off of him, but leaves him hanging there. They then continue until finding a mining settlement, where the only man around seems upset that they’re bothering him. The final sequence of the movie is back in the City, some time later, where we see that the Girl is now grown up. A businessman we assume is her significant other appears and embraces her, telling her about a promotion, but we see she is thinking about something else. The final several minutes of the film show an idyllic scene of the three children swimming nude together in a pool in the Outback.

The description of what happens in Walkabout doesn’t really succeed in giving you a great sense of what the movie is actually like to watch. It sort of feels like a dream. It regards these characters dispassionately, and seems to understand that there is no end game here where things do not end in tragedy. If we bring our own priors about the “Noble Savage,” we can read the Aboriginal boy as somehow a better, happier person than his white counterparts, but that’s not actually in the text of the movie, and it is really the boy himself, who falls in love with a girl from another culture but cannot express that love in any way other than the rituals of his people, who brings about his own tragic end. Certainly he is hardly idealized, and at multiple points the movie emphasizes, in close-up, how he has flies buzzing around him at all times. On the other hand, are we to root for him to come back to their world with them, the same world with the father who tries to kill his own kids in a murder/suicide? Or for these kids, who are clearly not suited for life in the wild, to stay there with him and somehow “commune” with nature? The gap is unbridgeable.

Another reading of the film (particularly the use of clothing and nudity) is as, not just a story about the clash between different cultures, but also as parable about how we can never return to the Garden of Eden. Agutter herself said that her own interpretation of the movie was along these lines, stating that she thought the movie was about being unable to recapture innocence after it’s lost. She also has gone on to a long and successful career, primarily in the UK, winning a BAFTA Award for Equus and appearing in movies like Logan’s Run and An American Werewolf in London. In more recent years she has appeared as a regular on the popular TV series Call the Midwife and even had a recurring Marvel role as a shadowy council member in multiple movies.

Agutter’s frank nudity in Walkabout, at only 17 years old, has been a source of controversy since its release, especially since it seems to lie so close to the heart of what the movie is trying to say at some key points in the movie. The movie’s initial release in the US, for example, was rated “R,” though this was later appealed and reduced to “PG.” In Britain, it was at first thought to be fine but later laws raised the age under which distribution of nude media was illegal to 18. The relevant government board eventually decided to allow the movie to continue to be distributed without any cuts, on the basis that the relevant scenes were not indecent or sexual in nature. Today the film is available pretty much everywhere, and you can come to your own conclusions. I will say that Agutter herself seems to be fine with things, though she does, in Criterion special features, bemusedly describe being yelled at by a middle-aged man on a far-off cliff (where the camera sat for wide shots of the pond) at the top of his lungs: “Take your clothes off now!”

There is a lot more I could talk about with this movie, which I think is a mark that I found it pretty interesting. There is the way Roeg intersperses shots of the Outback’s fauna throughout, or his weird, quick cuts to seemingly obtusely-related subject matter, or the way the film’s composer, John Barry, would essentially steal much of his own work on the score here wholesale for Out of Africa, then win an Oscar for that movie. But I’ll leave it here for now, and say I think Walkabout is still worth watching today.

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