Vintage Movies: “Walkabout”

MAGNET contributing editor Jud Cost is sharing some of the wealth of classic films he’s been lucky enough to see over the past 40 years. Trolling the backwaters of cinema, he has worked up a list of more than 100 titles—from the ’30s through the ’70s—that you may have missed. A new selection, all currently available on DVD, appears every Friday.

Walkabout (1971, 100 minutes)

You may have seen Breaking Away, The Graduate, American Graffiti and Juno, and you may well have read J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye or Carson McCullers’ The Member Of The Wedding. But if you’ve missed Nicolas Roeg’s enthralling 1971 directorial debut, Walkabout, you’ve never encountered a coming-of-age story quite like this one. It strips the concept down to its bare bones.

After work one day, a father drives his teenage daughter and young son deep into the rugged Australian outback for a picnic, then, without warning, opens fire on the kids with a pistol as they scramble to safety. “Come out now and bring him with you,” he bellows at the girl before setting fire to the car and shooting himself in the head.

The girl, played by 16-year-old Jenny Agutter, still dressed in her school uniform of short skirt and wide-brimmed hat, immediately takes charge as if she’d practiced for this event all her life. She scoops up the picnic supplies and sets off with her six-year-old brother (played by Luc Roeg, the director’s son) on the grueling trek back to their home in faraway Adelaide. “I tore my blazer,” confesses the boy after falling. “It doesn’t matter,” says the girl, comfortingly. By the third day, they stumble upon an oasis with a fruit tree and a pool of water. But that only prolongs the inevitable. A few days later, under the broiling sun, she accepts defeat and goes to sleep as the buzzards circle overhead.

The girl wakes up, blinking hard, to find a young aborigine (David Gulpilil, also 16) with two dead lizards hanging from the belt of his loin cloth, trying to spear a kangaroo. He’s on his “walkabout,” a tribal rite of passage that requires a teenage boy to survive in the wild for six months. Although he speaks no English, he shares his simple dinner with the girl and her brother and shows them how to suck water from the ground. He also offers to help them find their way home, never a sure thing. Just as uncertain is the changing relationship between the two teenagers as they wander this untamed land.

Roeg, who’d previously co-directed Mick Jagger in 1970’s Performance and was director of photography for Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 in 1966, made Walkabout on the fly. He got tips on wilderness shooting locations from locals and intercut menacing shots of wombats, spiked reptiles and frenzied insects as he found them. “No acting was required,” said Agutter, decades later, of the direction Roeg gave her. The soundtrack by the prolific John Barry (James Bond, Born Free, The Ipcress File) makes eerie use of the girl’s former schoolgirl chorale, which helps give Walkabout a melancholy rather than heroic veneer.