Back in 1971, when Walkabout made its original theatrical run, some of the advertisements claimed it was unlike any other film you’ve ever seen. While that kind of overstatement was (and still is) often used in movie trailers, in the case of Walkabout, it’s probably true. There really is no other film quite like it.
Sure, there are elements of Walkabout that we’ve seen in other films. The film’s premise is one we’ve seen many times. Two youths lost in the wilderness must face the elements and somehow find their way back to civilization. They struggle to survive though the odds are against them and they are clearly unprepared to face the demands of the land. Then, at the moment of their greatest desperation, someone who knows the land arrives and saves them. That pretty much sums up the plot of Walkabout, but the film’s appeal comes not so much from the plot as from how the story is told and the themes that arise in the telling.
The first thing that sets Walkabout apart is its setting in the Australian Outback. A confusing tragedy results in a teenage girl and her young brother (who are never named) being removed from their natural habitat in the concrete jungle of Sydney and stranded in the wilderness. This gives director Nicolas Roeg a chance to show breathtaking desert vistas that do not show up on movie screens as often as they once did.
And Roeg is clearly fascinated with the natural world. Fans of filmmakers like Terrance Malick will appreciate how Roeg’s camera lingers on puddles, ants, scorpions, spiny lizards, and other plants and animals found in the Australian Outback. Roeg also gives more attention to textures than most filmmakers. Whether it is a brick wall, the protective spikes on a lizard, or the murky water in a desert oasis, nearly every scene provides images that evoke tactile sensations for the viewer.
In light of these things, the images of the film provide some of its greatest delights. But the images are not employed merely for their own sake. They are here to aid the telling a story. It is the story of a white teenage girl, her young brother, and a teenage Aboriginal boy on a ritual walkabout and the formation of their unlikely family in the wilderness. As the film progresses and the makeshift family bond strengthens, the youths seem to return to an Eden-esque innocence as seen in the idyllic images of them frolicking and swimming nude in natural pools. This raises intriguing questions about humanity’s connection to the untamed wilderness and provides a fascinating contrast between Aboriginal life and the so-called “civilized” society.
As always, the good people at the Criterion Collection provide some worthwhile special features on the DVD. Disc 1 contains a new high-definition transfer of the film approved by director Nicolas Roeg as well as commentary by Roeg and actress Jenny Agutter (recorded separately). Disc 2 includes a 2002 documentary, Gulpilil—One Red Blood, on actor David Gulpilil. Also included are video interviews of actress Jenny Agutter and actor Luc Roeg and the original theatrical trailer. Author Paul Ryan contributed a thoughtful essay about the film, which appears in the DVD’s beautiful booklet.