In memory of James Vance Marshall (Donald Gordon Payne, 1924-2018) and Nicolas Roeg (1928-2018)
Australia. A teenage girl (Jenny Agutter) and her younger brother (Lucien John) are driven into the outback by their father (John Meillon) for a picnic. Then their father attempts to shoot them before turning the gun on himself. Stranded miles away from home, they struggle to survive. But then they meet an aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil) on his “walkabout”, his rite of passage into manhood...
While this story is familiar to many, be aware there are some plot spoilers below, for both the film and the novel it is based on.
Although it's a well-known film now, in fact one of the best known Australian films of the last half-century, Walkabout has a way of sneaking up on you at first viewing. That was the case when I saw it for the first time, on its second UK television broadcast, on BBC1 on 22 January 1979, staying up to the end, just before eleven o'clock on a school night, at the age of fourteen. Although I knew what the film was about, in plot terms anyway, and had heard the name of its director/cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, when the film started, with its montage of Sydney scenes cut to Stockhausen's Hymnen, I knew I'd never seen anything like it before. It was Roeg's second film as director, and first solo directing credit, and with his other films from the late 60s to the mid 80s, which I wasn't then old enough to have seen, it formed one of the greatest runs of any British director at any time. A critical success at the time, though not a commercial one, Walkabout is a film which has lasted.
Roeg had entered the film industry after school, following the traditional path up the ladder from making the tea to joining the camera crew. He became a cinematographer in 1961. He soon became one of the leading directors of photography in Britain at the time, particularly for his work in colour, but his career as such lasted just over a decade. His cinematography graced such films as The Masque of the Red Death, Fahrenheit 451, Far from the Madding Crowd and Petulia, the last-named, directed by Richard Lester, featuring the kind of free-associating cutting across time and space which would be a trademark of Roeg's own directing work. That chance came when he was paired with writer Donald Cammell and they both directed Performance. That film proved hugely controversial, with Warner Bros shelving it for two years before it was finally released. While it was still on the shelf, Roeg had moved on, to Walkabout, which he had been planning for some time by that point
Donald Gordon Payne wrote under pseudonyms for the sake of privacy. He wrote SF and fantasy under the name Ian Cameron, and one of these novels, The Lost Ones, later became the Disney film The Island at the Top of the World. For his second novel Walkabout, originally published as The Children in 1959, he used the name James Vance Marshall, which he borrowed with permission from an Australian outback explorer of the same name on whose works he drew heavily for his research. Reading the novel Walkabout in the wake of the film is a strange experience. It's a very short novel, a novella really by adult standards, and very much written in a tradition of children's fiction which seems more than a little paternalistic nowadays. There are a lot of differences between novel and film. The two children, unnamed in the film, are Americans rather than British and are called Mary and Peter. They are stranded in the outback due to a plane crash rather than their father's suicide. They are trying to reach their uncle, who lives in Adelaide. (Some of this survives in the film script, with the girl talking about reaching their home in Adelaide, which becomes odd when the opening scenes are clearly set in Sydney.) While attraction between Mary and the aboriginal boy is hinted at in the novel, his death comes from catching the boy's cold. As a novel, it skews a lot younger than the film does, which is not young-child-friendly.
The script was written by Edward Bond, then as now a leading if often controversial playwright but then in a shortlived career as a screenwriter. (He'd contributed English dialogue to Blow-Up and would provide additional dialogue for Nicholas and Alexandra, but his only solo film scripts are this one and his 1969 adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark.) His original script for Walkabout was a mere fourteen pages long, when the usual rule of thumb is that a conventionally-formatted script runs about one page for each minute of screentime. But then this isn't a writer's film: Roeg uses Bond's script and Marshall's novel as a launchpad for his own, rapidly developing way of telling his stories. What has sometimes made Roeg's films puzzling, and at times hard to follow for those more used to conventional filmmaking, is that he tells his stories via visual means when at all possible. Show, don't tell. For example, we don't have an explanation as to why the children's father acts as he does, but there are hints. Early on, we see him at his place of work, pushed to frame right by endless modern buildings in an Antonioniesque composition, his alienation conveyed visually. A close shot of the girl bending over in her short school uniform skirt is preceded and followed by a shot of her father in the car. Does he harbour incestuous desires for her? The hard stare she gives him shortly afterwards suggests she's aware of this. So this makes Walkabout a film where she rebuffs taboo advances from not just one but two males, both of whom then kill themselves. She doesn't seem surprised that he has gone off the deep end, and her first impulse is to protect her younger brother. This stylistic approach doesn't always come off, and some sequences remain ones to puzzle over a little. Some of Roeg's devices seem a little self conscious, such as wipes resembling turning pages as the boy tells a story. Other than the documentary Glastonbury Fayre (1973), this was Roeg's final credit as a cinematographer. With Don't Look Now, the role was taken by Anthony Richmond, who is credited with “special photography” on Walkabout.
As with most of Roeg’s film, time is elastic, and so, it implies, is memory. As the film ends, the girl is back home in Sydney, seemingly in the home she lived in with her parents. (What happened to her mother, whom we glimpse near the start, played by an actress with no lines so uncredited, is unknown.) She’s still played by Agutter, though is clearly older, wearing makeup. As her husband (played by John Illingworth, who was part of the camera crew) talks about his day at work, she remembers the days in the desert, with her brother and the aboriginal boy. With a reading from A.E. Housman’s poem “A Shropshire Lad” on the soundtrack, it’s a romanticised memory of what had been an ordeal, and a past which, in the words of the poem, a land of lost content we cannot revisit. It’s a bleak ending.
It may have a production company with a Sydney address, but Walkabout was funded from the US. Principal photography took place between August and December 1969. (At one point, the children's radio announces that “today” is Armistice Day, that is 11 November. This may have been a live broadcast at the time of shooting.) Jenny Agutter turned seventeen during the shoot. Playing her brother was Roeg's son Luc, now a film producer (who would hire his own father more than once), billed as “Lucien John”, aged seven at the time of filming. David Gulpilil (misspelled “Gumpilil” in the credits) was sixteen and had never acted before. Roeg was taken by his ability as a tribal dancer while scouting locations, and cast him, so beginning Gulpilil's distinguished career which continues to this day. He barely spoke English at the time of the film's production.
Walkabout opened in the USA (in a version cut by some five minutes) in July 1971 and in October of the same year in Australia and the UK. Although you could say that the Australian Film revival of the 1970s began with the March 1969 release of Tim Burstall's 2000 Weeks (the first Australian film commercially released there for over ten years coincidentally the day after the release of an overseas production shot in the country, Age of Consent), Walkabout stands at the beginning of the resurgence with another film with a foreign director, the US/Australian coproduction Wake in Fright (retitled Outback overseas). In fact, the two films were in British cinemas at the same time, being released three weeks apart in the same month. In another link, three actors are in both films: John Meillon, Robert McDarra (spelled McDara in the Walkabout credits) and Carlo Manchini. Both films played at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival but neither won, the Palme d'Or going to The Go-Between.
Not a commercial success – in the cinema of its day it probably seemed a little too strange and hard to approach, but like many of Roeg's films Walkabout soon gained a cult following and has grown in people's estimation over the years.
Walkabout is released on Region B Blu-ray in Australia by Umbrella. The disc has the Australian advisory M rating. In the UK, it was originally passed AA, restricting audiences to fourteen and over, and is now a 12. The hunting sequences – footage of real hunters – are not for the squeamish, with some shots almost as graphic as those in the kangaroo-hunt sequence which gave Wake in Fright its 18 certificate. This is another of Umbrella's discs, particularly their DVDs but also this Blu-ray, which are barebones to the extent of not even having a menu.
The Blu-ray transfer is in a ratio of 1.78:1, partway between the 1.75:1 or 1.85:1 the film would have been shown at in cinemas. It looks fine, pretty much as I remember from previous viewings including two in HD (35mm print and television showing), and grain is natural and film-like.
The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as DTS-HD MA 2.0 and it’s clear and well-balanced. However, Umbrella have not provided any hard-of-hearing subtitles. Walkabout is not the most verbal of films, to say the least, but this does put the hard of hearing and non-native English speakers at a disadvantage.
There is, as mentioned above, no menu, but there is one extra, which you can access via the audio selection on your remote. This is the commentary track featuring Nicolas Roeg and Jenny Agutter, recorded in the mid 1990s and available on previous DVD and Blu-ray editions of Walkabout. Both were recorded separately and edited together, and it’s a frank and informative discussion from both of them.