What an incredible film. I picked up Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971, Criterion Spine #10) after doing a recent binge on David Bowie media that brought me to The Man Who Fell To Earth – another of Roeg’s films. I decided to watch some of the other pieces he directed that I hadn’t seen. Walkabout was one of the most notable appearing as a Criterion, the 1001 list, the BFI’s top films to see before fourteen, and a variety of others. I watched Walkabout with my two oldest sons; if there is one recommendation I would make about the experience of watching this film, I would tell you to watch it with some children if you have the chance. Between my eight- and fourteen-year-old, we had free, eye-opening, honest conversations about the film and life, existence, what they would do in the situations depicted in the film, and how they understand the world. They had some interesting perspectives and understanding about the piece I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t watched it alongside them.
The story is very simple – a young boy and his teenage sister are driven out into the Australian bush by their father until they run out of gas. In the desert-like atmosphere, the children have a picnic while their father kills himself, leaving them completely marooned in the middle of nowhere with little survival tactics or resources. Nearing complete desperation, an indigenous Australian young man begins to follow them and help care for them as they wander in search of any kind of civilization. The only thing they share is our shared humanity – a familial bond without words that builds as the children overcome challenges. That is the entire plot of the film: learning from one another, indulging in the natural world’s freedoms and abundance even in the brutal reckoning of Australia’s animals and climate.
There are some amazing shots here, many of which involve a contrast between the wildness of the wilderness and the geometry of modern civilization. Intimate questions arise in the silence of this film. We question our modern values as they wander and find solace in the simplicity of their new lives. They toy with a transistor radio while the batteries still work, but a long sequence of hunting and bathing together in a lush hidden lagoon magnifies the internal questioning of what freedom and true living can potentially be. The end of the film is a melancholy mirror of the beginning, notably the main girl stepping back into her life in the city and moving on with what is expected of our existence rather than what is necessary – and I feel like that isn’t entirely giving anything away (or at least one of the more shocking moments, anyway) about the plot – I expected it and we are teased a few times with the possibility that the kids would be saved or find helpers in civilization. This is not the point of the piece, however. It is a tragic film, with the discovery of a naturalist and tribal life that goes on just at the boundaries of our bourgeois lives of creature comforts, jobs, promotions, and anxieties, and how this unexpected and traumatic experience for the children was a gift of awakening that they wouldn’t have experienced otherwise… A series of experiences that they will look back on as the last time they were truly happy, truly free, truly loved. And in case it wasn’t entirely clear, the film contains interlineations of small vignettes that present adults in situations metaphorically representing some of the thematic elements of the quiet, often understated visual conveyance of the children’s story.
I loved this film. Roeg’s style and direction is unmistakable when watching this piece alongside Man Who Fell To Earth. A budget of just under a million dollars brought the beauty of the landscape and the simplicity of youth and curiosity to the screen. There are big questions in this film that aren’t answered, which led us to have so many rewarding conversations after we finished watching it. Of course, this can be viewed alone, but watching it with my children really amplified its messages that only a child would consider through their eyes (much like I did about some elements for them; the youngest didn’t completely understand the ending, however, he was mesmerized for the entirety of it, and I might even suggest many other kids would find it boring). There is some extended non-sexual nudity that ends up being a cornerstone to the film in some ways, and the suicide scene at the beginning is gruesome and shocking, however, it doesn’t stoop to showing exactly what happened (in this sense, as well, the eight-year-old wasn’t entirely sure what happened in the two instances of it and it deserved a little discussion). Considering I see violence as way more concerning to expose to my children compared to nudity, that was really the only thing that needed some explanation. An excellent piece that is a gorgeous work of art – one that brought our minds together and strengthened our bond.