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Walkabout (1970)


After a setback in Sydney, a man drives into the outback with his two English children, a girl of 16 (Jenny Agutter) and her younger brother (Lucien John). The father (John Meillon) tries to shoot them; when he fails, he sets the car on fire and shoots himself. The young woman and her brother begin to walk, unsure of where to go. Without much food and water, they are soon in desperate trouble, unable to read the landscape or find help. A stranger appears – a young Aboriginal hunter (David Gulpilil). He shows them how to find water and shares his food – a succession of lizards, kangaroo meat and birds. The boy and the young black man bond instantly, though neither can speak the other’s language. The young woman is more cautious, both fascinated and repelled by the man’s nudity and his graceful body.

They walk for many days, growing ever closer. The black man leads them eventually to a deserted farmhouse. He goes to hunt buffalo and is almost run down by a professional shooter, who kills many buffalo, leaving their corpses fouling the waterholes. The black man paints his body like a skeleton and returns to the farmhouse. His appearance frightens the young woman, who is caught half-dressed. She hides, as he begins to dance outside the house. He dances through the night. In the morning, they find him dead, hanging on a mango tree. The two children, now bathed and with clothes washed, find a road that takes them to a mining camp. A few years later, the young woman is married and living in the city. She realises too late that she never understood the young black man’s intentions.

Curator’s notes

Nicolas Roeg was an experienced cinematographer in Britain in the 1960s, and Walkabout was his first film as sole director. He both shot and directed it, an unusual combination, but the look is part of what has made this such an influential film.

Walkabout is a classic film about Australia, if not a classic Australian film. It was made with American money, from a script and a novel by English writers, by an English director using mostly English actors, but it is intensely engaged with the Australian landscape and a metaphysical idea of what Australia is – or was. The film’s influence on aspiring Australian filmmakers was immense, but it is probably fair to say that it was largely in visual terms. No-one had quite shown Australia this way on film before, as a primordial, original landscape, a place where it was (according to the film) still possible to touch the primitive and the pure. Roeg depicted the desert as an arid Garden of Eden, except that it was also a place of danger, especially to those who came ill-equipped. For the young black man, it is full of life, food and water, but to two English schoolchildren, it is terrifying and utterly unforgiving. These are two distinct ways of seeing and that is partly Roeg’s subject – seeing and not seeing.

Early English artists in Australia took many years to find a way of painting the Australian landscape so that it didn’t look like a variation on England. Walkabout was one of the first films of the modern era to see the Australian desert as some modern Australian painters pictured it, as a beautiful abstraction. Sidney Nolan’s mythological landscapes depicting the early Australian explorers Burke and Wills were a direct influence on Roeg. The small boy even has an hallucination of bearded explorers riding camels across the desert, in a direct reference to Nolan’s Burke and Wills paintings. Like Nolan, Roeg depicted the desert as almost a dream state, a place removed from normal time. It was barren, forbidding, but far from dead, although death was never far away. This place overflows with wildlife – scorpions, grubs, lizards, snakes, ants, and especially birds. The beauty is staggering – the russet brown of the Flinders Ranges, the brilliant green of the desert oasis, the glow of the rocks under moonlight. The early scenes are often overlaid with choral music from John Barry’s ‘Who Killed Cock Robin’, a reference to the ending, but also as a way of helping us to recognise the beauty.

The children’s journey begins in flames and progresses to a form of paradise, only to have that sense of purity destroyed by the rediscovery of white ‘civilisation’. The young woman rejects the young black man’s love without perhaps recognising it has even been offered; he is broken by that, and grief for the land and animals destroyed by the hunters. These were a variation on themes that have often been present in films about Australia, a kind of romanticised European projection in which Aborigines are a form of noble savage. In Walkabout, Gulpilil’s character is about the same age as Jenny Agutter’s character, but he is ill-equipped to deal with her world. He helps her and her brother to survive in his world; she experiences a kind of rebirth in the scene where she swims, but she can’t – or won’t – give herself to him, or even acknowledge her own desire.

The book on which the film is loosely based was credited to James Vance Marshall, a pseudonym for Donald Gordon Payne, an English writer born in 1924. The book was published in 1959 under the title The Children, and republished in 1961 as Walkabout. Roeg asked experimental English playwright Edward Bond to adapt it, but the film was made largely by improvisation on location. Roeg has said, ‘We didn’t really plan anything – we just came across things by chance … filming whatever we found’. The book differs considerably – the children in it are Americans who survive a plane crash in the desert. The girl Mary is only 13, the Aboriginal boy is 16 and he dies partly as a result of catching the small boy’s cold. Mary’s inability to connect with him stems partly from the racism with which she had been raised in South Carolina. That idea is still present in the film but not as explicitly. What is stronger in the film is the theme of budding sexuality, partly because the girl was 16 – a young woman. Roeg makes the sexual tension very clear with some strident metaphors, but not the resolution. Some writers, particularly Louis Nowra in his book on the film, have seen the young woman’s rejection of the young black man as clearly stated, but it’s far from it. Roeg worked almost entirely in images rather than dialogue and the scenes in the house, where the young black man and the young woman are clearly thinking about the same thing, do not show a clear rejection on her part. Much clearer is his distress at the killing of the buffalo at the waterhole.

The film’s ambiguity is part of what has engaged viewers ever since. Walkabout doesn’t give up its meanings easily, and that is probably why it still has such strong emotional resonance. It is not a film to be read literally, but symbolically and visually. Walkabout is not a particularly accurate depiction of Aboriginal men, nor of schoolgirl sexuality. It’s more like mythological allegory, and a great introduction to the transforming power of photography.

Walkabout premiered at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, along with Wake in Fright (1971), another seminal offshore production about Australia. Both films had a major impact on aspiring filmmakers in Australia, although Walkabout was controversial with Australian critics. Neither film was particularly successful at the local box office. The reputations of both films have grown considerably, at least in Australia, since then.

Secondary curator’s notes

by Liz McNiven

This weird, whimsical and worrying 1970 Australian film states in the opening text that, ‘In Australia, when an Aboriginal man-child reaches 16, he is sent out into the land. For months he must live from it. Sleep on it. Eat of its fruits and flesh. Stay alive. Even if it means killing his fellow creatures. The Aborigines call it the Walkabout. This is the story of a Walkabout.’

Walkabout breathes life back into the white Australian construct of the Aboriginal ‘walkabout’ and in doing so it misappropriates, misconstrues and falsely mythologises Aboriginal culture. The film represents the maintenance of white superiority in the face of black Australia. It superimposes a white storyline over a supposedly Aboriginal cultural practice, and in doing so misrepresents Aboriginality. Interrogation of the formation and use of the word ‘man-child’ within this text indicates the subliminal intention of the filmmaker Nicolas Roeg to reframe Aboriginality within the racialised construct of blackness.

In David Gulpilil’s character, the film portrays the ripening of the generically black Mandingo archetype: oozing with an animalistic sexuality coupled by an unrequited desire for a white female. In the same vein as the 1933 film King Kong, Walkabout juxtaposes the sexuality of the primitive and the civilized.

The film flirts with the notion of miscegenation between the two leading characters but comes to the conclusion that the cultural differences create too vast a divide. The film’s poster states, ‘the aborigine and the girl 30,000 years apart’ – David Gulpilil’s character represents the Aborigine and Jenny Agutter’s character represents the girl. What if the roles were reversed, would the poster read 'the European and the boy 30,000 years apart’? I don’t think so! White people rarely racialise themselves and white males don’t see themselves as just a gender, they see themselves as the epitome of what it means to be human.

The film highlights its maker’s limited understanding of Aboriginal cultural practices. It tells us more about the filmmaker’s cultural background and eccentricities than anything to do with Aboriginal peoples or cultures. Walkabout reflects the struggle of white Anglos to come to terms with themselves, their identity and their sexuality. Like many of its predecessors, this film uses Aboriginality as a point of reference.

Walkabout may appear to recast the frame in challenging white sensibilities but by retaining a focus on the body it reinforces the colonial framework. In the 1970s white cultures perceived nakedness as a sign of primitivism and the use of clothing, to cover the body, as a sign of superiority. This white mythology stems back to the biblical story of Adam and Eve, foretelling the evils of the body and its unclothed desire.

The film draws attention to the girl’s care for her own and her brother’s clothing, to the point where they walk out of the bush in the same neat and tidy dress in which they entered. This metaphor highlights the girl’s maintenance of civility of whiteness and, therefore, superiority. Juxtaposed against the Aboriginal boy’s nakedness, this signifies the primitivism and, therefore, inferiority of Aboriginal people. The film’s flirtation with taboos such as interracial relations and pubescent sexuality frolics along the borderline of soft porn. It projects an undercurrent of repressed white sexuality onto an unsuspecting young Aboriginal boy and, in one lengthy scene, onto an entire Aboriginal extended family.

Walkabout descends into a voyeuristic peep show in the form of a frenzied montage of the naked bodies of the Aboriginal family, interlaced with an exposé of the young white girl’s burgeoning sexuality, as she hangs upside down in the tree showing her underwear. It misinterprets Indigenous nakedness by reframing it in a sexually charged manner to support the portrayal of the white female’s sexuality as expressed through her body. As I watched this sequence unfold between the dry creek bed and the burnt-out car, I gasped at how far-fetched the whole film seemed. By 1970 Aboriginal people across Australia were in contact with clothing, motor cars and the car radio. The only place where Aboriginal people still lived a traditional life was in the Australian Western Desert and there is no way the children could have walked from Sydney to Western Australia. With Christian missionaries following settlers into remote parts of Australia, most Aboriginal people knew the story of Adam and Eve and its association with Christian morality. Freezing Aboriginal culture in time, while acknowledging the development of the dominant culture, renders this film completely implausible on every level.

Walkabout employs trite noble savage imagery of the Aboriginal boy, spear held vertically beside his silhouetted body, and balancing one foot on his knee to accentuate the Aboriginal primitive. This stereotypically romanticised view of Aboriginality continues throughout the film.

To demonstrate the sexual tension between the black boy and white girl, the camera turns to the white gum tree shining in the moonlight and highlights angles within the trunk and branches to suggest the naked white girl’s body and limbs. This lurid projection of the boy’s desires onto a tree suggests the filmmaker saw the natural world as a vehicle for sexual expression.

The film jumps to a strange, quirky scene set in the desert with a group of meteorologists. It features edits of an attractive white woman, a pack of naked lady cards, the woman’s legs, a packet of cigarettes, and the woman’s breasts. The only point of this hot and sweaty scene must be to set the mood for the next sequence – the erotic portrayal of the white girl swimming in a beautiful waterhole with her naked body swirling around in the water. This scene reflects the works of British photographer David Hamilton. Both Roeg and Hamilton, at the height of their careers in the early 1970s, pursued imagery of white teenage female sexuality as expressed through their bodies.

This bizarre film ends with a shot of the three children swimming together naked in the waterhole, supposably children of nature. Walkabout left its mark as a twisted piece of iconic naïve erotica, not as a story about the rites of passage.