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Film / Walkabout

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Walkabout is a 1971 British film set in Australia, directed by Nicolas Roeg and starring Jenny Agutter, Luc Roeg (Nicolas' son, who is credited here as Lucien John), and David Gulpilil. It is based off the book of the same name by Donald G. Payne.

An Australian man (John Meillon) takes his teenage daughter and much younger son (Agutter and Luc Roeg) out into the Australian outback for a picnic. He drives until his car runs out of gas. As the little boy is playing with his toys and the girl is setting up the picnic blanket, the father, who has been reading work papers, suddenly pulls out a pistol and starts shooting at his kids. After the daughter takes the little boy and hides behind some rocks, the father sets the car on fire and then kills himself.

The girl leads her little brother on a hike through the desert. In short order they are in desperate straits, with the girl forced to carry her little brother while both suffer from dehydration. They find a small watering hole and drink, but the next morning the water has dried up. Unable to think of anything else, the girl elects to wait at the watering hole. They appear to be doomed to die of thirst until they are met by a teenage Aborigine boy (Gulpilil) on a walkabout. The boy saves their lives, drawing water from under the ground with a reed, and then takes them along with him for his walkabout through the outback.

The movie gets even weirder from there. Has a place on the Roger Ebert Great Movies List.


  • Adaptational Nationality: The brother and sister are American (from South Carolina) in the novel.
  • Axe-Crazy: The father takes his daughter and son out into the outback, ostensibly for a picnic meal. Without warning, he pulls a gun and attempts to shoot them to death. He then calmly tells them to come back, within visual range, so he can shoot them both. When the kids evade him, he pulls a can of gas out of the VW Beetle, douses the beetle, torches it, and kills himself, stranding them to face a potentially worse death from exposure in the Australian outback.
  • Bilingual Bonus: The film is bookended with lines in untranslated French.
  • Blade-of-Grass Cut: Used many times in closeups of the lizards and insects of the outback.
  • Book Ends:
    • Early in the film the mother is seen preparing lunch for the family in the apartment. In the last scene the girl, who is older and now married, is preparing a meal in the same apartment.
    • The first line of dialogue is, oddly enough, in French: "Faitex vos jeux, messieurs, 'dames, s'il vous plait"—a roulette croupier saying "Ladies, gentlemen, place your bets please." Then at the very end of the film, after the credits have rolled, the phrase "rien ne va plus"—"no more bets"—pops up on the screen.
  • Bowdlerise: The original American release removed Jenny Agutter's nude scenes.
  • Call-Back: Many over the course of the film, some obvious (the butcher cutting the kangaroo meat), some subtle (the girl's skinny dipping echoing the early scene where she's swimming in the pool at her apartment).
  • Contrast Montage: The film's central motif. The very first shot shows a natural rock wall, and then cuts to a shot of a brick wall. The scene where the Aborigine boy butchers his kill is intercut with a white butcher cutting up some meat. The scene where the boy and girl climb the tree is intercut with a group of Aborigines climbing over the father's burnt-out car.
  • Culture Clash: Many; the siblings and the Aborigine value dancing, clothing, and bathing very differently from one another.
  • Disposable Pilot: In the book, the siblings are stranded because their plane crashes in the Outback. While the kids only suffer a few scrapes, the pilot and the navigator are killed in the crash.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: When the girl and boy are playing in the tree, several shots show forks in the branches of the tree that strongly resemble a woman's private area.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • The father kills himself for no obvious reason, although the Thousand-Yard Stare he often displays hints at some disturbance in his life. Even worse, he attempts to make it a murder/suicide by trying to shoot the kids before dousing the VW Beetle they traveled in with gas and torching it, essentially stranding them in the outback to face a worse death from potential exposure.
    • The Aborigine boy hangs himself. Whether that's due to the girl rejecting his courtship dance, or the sight of the white hunters killing the buffalo, or both, is not clear.
      • It is notable that neither one of these two characters commit suicide in the book. The father simply isn't present; the Aborigine boy dies from the flu.
  • Dull Surprise: The girl is quick to hide but otherwise seems unaffected when her father whips out a gun and starts shooting. She is similarly unmoved when she finds the Aborigine boy hanging from a tree.
  • Egomaniac Hunter: Two white men in a jeep nearly run over the Aborigine, before they use a high-powered rifle to shoot a buffalo. They then leave the buffalo there to rot.
  • Eiffel Tower Effect: Possibly the first film the use the Sydney Opera House (which was still under construction at the time) this way. It's glimpsed in the distance as the girl walks home from school at the start of the film.
  • Foreshadowing: Very little. Literally the only clues the audience gets that the father is planning to hurt the kids is his thousand-yard stare, and a quick shot of the VW Beetle's gas gauge, which shows that the car is nearly out of fuel.
  • Going Native: The girl is seemingly tempted to do this, but she winds up turning her back on the Aborigine boy. In the last scene, when she is back home years later and her husband is blabbering about work, she remembers an innocent swim with her brother and the Aborigine.
  • Growing Up Sucks: One of the broad themes of the story.
  • Le Film Artistique: Roeg fills his movie with symbolism and allegory.
    • One scene shows a group of scientists setting up some weather balloons in the desert. The male crewmembers gawk at the one female scientist. Nothing else happens, other than the girl and boy later stumbling across the weather balloon, which has no impact on their story at all.
    • Another scene shows a little shop in the outback where whites and aboriginals are making cheesy plaster statues, presumably for tourists. This also has no impact on the rest of the story.
    • When the boy is yammering on telling some story, the screen shows pages turning in a book.
    • At one point when the boy is staring off into space, the film superimposes a closeup—of his face as he stares off into space.
    • Many close-ups of the reptiles and bugs that populate the outback. The closeup of the dead lizards the Aborigine boy has tied to his loincloth, covered in flies, stands out.
    • Why are the boy and girl still wearing their school uniforms when they go out for a picnic?
      • The picnic seems to have been impromptu - with a possible excuse being to have the kids along on a work-related excursion. The evening supper was therefore put a into a hamper: mother's careful prep and finicky presentation indicate it was intended to be eaten in the family's sterile-looking dining room. The scene where the girl carefully lays out the dishes on the cloth like a little housewife shows her automatically assuming her mother's conventionally domestic role. An activity that seems to irritate her father....
  • Male Gaze: The scientists fixing the weather balloons steal glances up the skirt and down the shirt of the female scientist.
  • Match Cut: From a pair of hunters draining the blood from a buffalo to the girl taking water from a faucet.
  • Mating Dance: A literal example, apparently, in which the Aborigine boy takes off his loincloth, elaborately paints himself, and dances for the girl, who is inside an abandoned house. When she rejects him, by shutting the door and hiding within the house, he kills himself.
  • Mood Whiplash: Enough whiplash to almost break your neck. In the opening, we cut between the boy playing with his toys on the rocks, the girl setting out the picnic meal and calling everyone ever, and the father calmly sitting in the Volkswagen Beetle. The sequence couldn't be more mundane. Then we cut back to the boy on the rocks and out of nowhere, some of his toys are obliterated by a bullet as we cut back to the father and see that he's got a gun in his hand and is ACTIVELY TRYING TO MURDER HIS CHILDREN. Even worse, the boy thinks dad is playing and starts shooting back at him with his squirt gun before the sister intervenes to save his life.
  • Motifs: Many shots of the flora and fauna of the desert. Many shots of walls and doors, likely symbolizing the communication barrier between the Aborigine boy and the girl.
  • Nameless Narrative: No names given for any of the characters in the film. The siblings are named Mary and Peter in the novel.
  • National Geographic Nudity: When a group of Aborigines finds the burnt-out car, and when the Aborigine boy does his courtship dance. Agutter's nude scenes may also be viewed as this.
  • Noble Savage:
    • The Aborigine boy is largely shown as this, although there is one scene that hints at a different interpretation. At one point during their trek through the desert, the three are within short walking distance of a white settlement. The Aborigine boy even greets a white woman, who sees the girl and boy on the other side of the ridge. The girl and boy never see either the white woman or the settlement, and the boy does not show it to them. This scene is subverted later, however, when the Aborigine shows the boy the paved road that eventually leads the girl and boy to civilization.
    • As one might expect with a film like this, when Western civilization is compared to Aboriginal life, the former comes off worse. It is worth noting that while the Aborigine boy saves the lives of the brother and sister and takes them with him across the desert, the first white person they finally find (a watchman at an abandoned mine) is completely uninterested in helping them.
  • Not So Remote: The girl and her little brother believe themselves to be truly lost for most of the movie, but one scene with their young Aborigine guide shows that they pass within sight of a white settlement just out of view over a ridge.
  • Pater Familicide: The father drives himself and his two children into the desert, where he pulls a gun and attempts to shoot the kids. When they escape, he sets fire to the car and then shoots himself. By destroying the car, he probably believed he was killing them anyway, as they would have been stranded in the desert with no way out. Even if he hadn't torched the car, a shot of the car's dashboard shows they're on reserve fuel, and even with the gas can (And the fact that they drove out in a VW Beetle, notable for its gas milage,) they'd have been hard pressed to get too many places with so little fuel, and in an unfamiliar area.
  • Poor Communication Kills: In the book, it's a victory dance instead of a mating dance. When the girl is shocked by the Aborigine's... display... he believes she's actually seeing the Spirit of Death cursing his journey. He understandably freaks out about this, and her continued refusal to interact with him afterwards only further cements this idea in his mind. It's implied that the stress from these events is what weakens his immune system enough to catch the cold that quickly kills him.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Luc Roeg really did get a bad sunburn on his back during shooting, and David Gulpilil suggested using fat from a nearby dead animal to soothe it. This got incorporated into the film.invoked
  • Reality Has No Subtitles: The Aborigine is quite talkative, but we don't know what he's saying (apart from the one English word he picks up, "water").
  • Repeat Cut: The shot where the father shoots himself is shown three times from three different angles. Later, the shot where the hunters kill the buffalo is shot multiple times, including once in reverse.
  • Riddle for the Ages:
    • What drove the father to do what he did? The only semi-explanation we get is the mine the siblings visit at the end of the film. Before the suicide/attempted murder, we see the father looking at paperwork about minerals, suggesting he had some involvement with the failure of the mine.
    • Much more clearly set up, but still not formally explained: why did the Aborigine kill himself?
  • Scenery Porn: In a very odd way. The Outback is harsh and forbidding, but it's portrayed in a way that emphasizes the uniqueness of the landscape. Australian writer Louis Nowra celebrated the way the film makes it look "beautiful and haunting".
  • Shout-Out: At the end, a narrator reads Poem 40 from A. E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad, which is about remembering a pastoral scene from one's youth that one can't return to.
  • Skinny Dipping: Jenny Agutter's character has quite a long scene in which she goes swimming nude. The last shot of the film is the girl's memory (or fantasy?) of her, her brother, and the Aborigine boy all skinny dipping together.
  • Single Tear: The Aborigine boy after seeing the killing of the buffalo.
  • Source Music: Rod Stewart's "Gasoline Alley" playing on a portable radio during the picnic scene, which might also cross over into Suspiciously Apropos Music, considering the song's opening line ("I think I'm goin' mad and it's makin' me sad") describes the father quite well.
  • The Stinger: At the very end of the film, after the credits have rolled, the phrase "rien ne va plus" ("no more bets" note ) pops up on the screen, bookending the "faitex vos jeux" ("place your bets") from the beginning.
  • Thirsty Desert: The Australian outback. Not a good place to be stranded.
  • Those Two Guys: Both the father (John Meillon) and the Aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil) later co-starred together in an entirely different genre, as allies of Mick Dundee in the "Crocodile Dundee" films.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: The woman at the settlement where the plaster souvenirs are being made doesn't bat an eye when she sees two white children in school uniforms walking with a nearly-naked Aborigine.
  • Wise Beyond Their Years: The brother is seven years old and has that level of maturity, but also seems quite perceptive and often comprehends things much faster than his sister, as famously illustrated when they first meet the Aborigine. She tries to talk to him in English and is thrown for a loss when he doesn't understand her. The brother realizes that they can break the Language Barrier with Body Language and mimes drinking water, which the Aborigine picks up on immediately. As they go along the brother and the Aborigine develop a whole series of nonverbal cues to communicate with each other.