Walkabout (1971)

In a world that is becoming progressively more and more civilized, it’s become fashionable to romanticize the idea of the savage. One needs to look no further than the epic blockbuster Avatar to find an entire film built around the superiority of the tribal commune over the mechanization of civilization and progress. And after all, in a world so tedious and systematic, wouldn’t it be grand to have an adventure out in the wild?

For the children in Walkabout, there adventure is out of necessity. The Girl (Jenny Agutter) and The White Boy (Luc Roeg) are abandoned in the Australian Outback and begin a trek through the harsh land on a quest to return to civilization. Along the way, they meet a Black Boy (David Gulpilil) who is on his walkabout, a rite of passage for his tribe where he must survive the Outback on his own.

As the three travel together, director Nicolas Roeg plays with the juxtaposition of the civilized and the savage. While the Girl and the White Boy scrape for their survival, abandoned in the rocky countryside, the Girl attentively listens to the radio which imparts frivolous information given the dire circumstances of their predicament. The attachment to the radio becomes the absurd infatuation the girl still has with civilization.

Likewise, she spends portions of the movie worried about their appearance, scolding the White Boy for jumping in the mud or ripping his blazer. The White Boy doesn’t understand, after all, who is there to see them out in the outback? And when the Black Boy shows up, he doesn’t even see the need to wear clothes (until he ends up with a nasty sunburn). He’s enthralled by the idea of the savage, a heroic image like the toy soldiers he plays with.

But the savage is no glorious figure. A film spends a good portion of the film showing him hunt down and brutally hack up a number of animals. And unless the film somehow had an amazing effects team, I’m fairly certain that most of the animal killings in the film are real. Some will find these killings too brutal to bear, a clear mark of a heartless and savage monster.

But Roeg complicates this feeling by intercutting the brutal hacking of the Black Boy’s prey with the methodical slicing of prime meat cuts in a butcher shop. Here, the ideological tie is that in many ways, civilization has not moved beyond the necessity of the savage, it’s only made it a more cleaner and detached affair, placed in cold white rooms performed by people dressed up like doctors.

Throughout the film, Roeg finds ways to suggest and infer things through the editing, a collision of ideas, conflicts and images that suggest something more when brought into proximity of one another. Some of these messages are crystal clear, but others are so complicated and ambiguous that the film practically demands a second viewing.

Some will probably be bothered by all the ambiguity. This is a film where things unfold and the more confusing elements of the film are simply never spelled out. Some are easy to infer, but others remain so inexplicable and unexpected that the audience has no idea how to process it. And one gets the feeling as the film progresses that it was Roeg’s intention to leave the audience, baffled, conflicted and compromised by the time the credits rolled.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing