johnlink ranks WALKABOUT (1971)

While everyone else is talking Oscars, I am missing out on the fun and instead stumbling on forty year old films set in Australia. Would I rather have watched WOLF OF WALL STREET? Perhaps. But I’m glad to have finally seen this film that I’ve only ever heard of through Ebert’s Great Movies series.


I watched WALKABOUT (1971) on 1.18.14. It was my first viewing of the film.

A family trip takes an unexpected turn. Two kids, a young girl of maybe 17 or 18 (Jenny Agutter) and her much younger brother Luc Roeg) end up stranded in the Australian Outback. The sister has some good sense, but nothing in the way of survival training. All seems close to lost when they are stumbled upon by an Aborigine (David Gulpilil) on ‘walkabout’, a lonesome survival journey which (it is explained to us in a title card) all Aboriginal boys must take when coming of age.

Nicolas Roeg had a pedigree before coming to this film as a Director. He had served as Truffaut’s Director of Photography for FAHRENHEIT 451. He was a second unit photographer for Lean’s LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, and also did some uncredited cinematography on Lean’s DOCTOR ZHIVAGO.

WALKABOUT is, then, a film carefully shot. The cinematography is haunting, beautiful, and intimidating. The thought that these small specs of children could survive, walking deep in a frame of expanding desert, seems unfathomable. We see animals and insects as much as we see humans. We see imminent danger from a snake which proves to be a non-threat.

The editing recalls the earliest experiments of Eisenstein, as Roeg uses the juxtaposition of images to focus our attention. The opening scene shows the Girl in a classroom without sound, the forming of vowels seeming almost a sexual exercise. The film then adds sound to demonstrate how silly our assumptions were.

Also in that opening montage we see a bit of kangaroo meat in a meat shop. This appears for less than three seconds. Later, the Aborigine boy kills and begins to butcher a wild kangaroo. This seems cruel and savage until Roeg cuts back to the butcher in the shop doing the same thing. What we consider savage when we see it performed in the ‘wild’ is mundane in ‘civilized’ society. An opposing moment investigates the difference between hunting an animal for food and killing an animal for sport. Roeg is neither subtle nor gentle with his disdain for the latter.

Much of this movie is without dialogue. When there is dialogue it is often between two people who do not speak the same language. This is a film about visuals, about status, about survival, and about humanness. It is also a film which strongly challenges traditional concepts of civilization and ‘uncivilized’ worlds.

This movie was to be rated R , if only for the full frontal nudity of 18 year old Agutter. Yet on appeal the MPAA dropped it to a PG rating (PG-13 did not exist at the time). Today, the naked images would certainly garner an automatic R. Yet Roeg goes to great pains to desexualize the girl. He cuts between a band of naked Aboriginal women (of all sizes) to Agutter’s petite frame to her brother’s innocent face. His face dissolves slowly and shares the screen for a moment with the body of his naked sister. The nudity here is not about sexualizing the girl or exploiting the girl, but rather about questioning the norms of a society. Indeed, the scene of Agutter swimming in the water is the most carefree and safe manner in which we see her up to that point in the film.

A challenge to this theory might point to the casting of an 18 year old rather than someone older. Yet it holds that Roeg was not looking to create a sex symbol here. To strengthen this argument one needs only look at the scene before. A team of scientists are setting up weather balloons, but no one can do their job because a small bit of cleavage is peaking out of a woman’s shirt. These folks aren’t seen otherwise, and their weather balloons have only tangential effect on our protagonists. This scene is there only to portray the difference between lustful sexuality and innocent nudity. A scene late in the film involving a dance ritual and the film’s final scene both also reinforce this reading of the film, but to discuss those would be to ruin the climax and resolution of the film.

WALKABOUT is an art film with a loose narrative. Its title references all three lead characters in the film, and suggests that what is ritual for the Aborigines is equally as life altering for the Australians. This is, beginning to end, interesting and quality filmmaking. If you need narrative structure and linear editing, don’t come here. If you enjoy visuals and abstract storytelling, seek this out.



The bonus is absolutely for the beautiful cinematography. This is a movie who’s images are a joy to behold.




~ by johnlink00 on January 18, 2014.

One Response to “johnlink ranks WALKABOUT (1971)”

  1. Great review, I’ve been meaning to check this one out for a while.

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