Down-Underground: WALKABOUT, or Thirteen Ways of Making a National Epic

Down-Underground: WALKABOUT, or Thirteen Ways of Making a National Epic

1. Bring an outsider’s

Like Wake in Fright,
the only other Australian entry at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, Walkabout was directed by an Englishman,
Nicolas Roeg.  He tells the story of
Australia without sentimentality, without rancor.  The landscape is not idealized or demonized;
neither are those who dwell in it.

2. Use images to tell a


Based on a 1959 novel of the same name, about two American
children whose passenger plane crash lands in the Australian Outback, Roeg’s film
rigorously pares back and revises the story; the novel is 144 pages, the
screenplay 14.  The film begins with a
mineral surveyor driving his children to a deserted desert landscape, where he
tries to shoot them before covering himself and his car with gasoline and
lighting a match.  We don’t know
why.  His daughter stares blankly.  The fire burns fiercely.  The children walk into the desert, their
school uniforms black against the rust-colored landscape.

3. Cross-cutting
multiplies perspectives

Images of rocks, strata, broken landscapes.  A girl’s school where Australians are going
through their English elocution lessons. 
Bricks, brown and earthy.  The
Outback, sand glowing fiercely red under a cloudless sky.  Brutalist architecture, dystopian concrete
forms like an urban cage.  A butcher
grinding kangaroo meat to be packaged as pet food.  A woman preparing dinner while listening to a
radio show on proper table etiquette. 
Chitinous lizards crawling over the desert floor, unwieldy in their
armor but perfectly adapted to their environment.

4. Tell immigrant stories


Europeans don’t seem to belong to this landscape, or at
least they seem to be trying their level best to maintain the culture of their
place of origin, practicing elocution, rehearsing manners.  Ninety per cent of Australians live on the
coasts, while the Outback represents over seventy per cent of the continent’s
landmass.  A teenage girl and her younger
brother are abandoned to this landscape; their school uniforms can’t protect
them from the heat, and they burn until their skin bleeds.  They come upon an oasis; a fruit tree feeds
them; the water revives and washes them. 
By the next morning the water has burned away in the heat.  Roeg somehow manages to compress two hundred
years of immigrant history into twenty minutes.

5. Tell native stories

A lone aboriginal boy comes upon them; he shows them how to
draw water from the soil.  They join him
for his “walkabout,” the aboriginal ritual in which a sixteen year-old boy is
sent out into the Outback to see if he can survive.  He and the schoolboy communicate through sign
language, and he increasingly draws the whites to his world.  They gradually strip off their school
uniforms, the last trappings of the world they are leaving behind but also
moving inexorably towards in their errant pilgrimage.  The aboriginal boy wears their clothing, but
with a difference, the boy’s pants on his head. 
They later make a sun parasol by stringing a blouse on sticks.  The boy decorates the children’s white skin
with elaborate painted designs.

6. Everything is sexual


The film was initially rated R for a nude bathing scene that
was then pared down for a PG rating.  The
restored scene is mesmerizing in its mixture of Edenic innocence and subdued
eroticism.  Nothing overt happens between
the teenage girl and boy, but in many scenes they are shown looking hungrily at
one another.  Their coy courtship breaks
racial taboos even while it serves as a metaphor for relations between immigrants
and natives.  The boy’s desire for the
girl later becomes so intense that it drives him to distraction; he does an
elaborate mating dance but she claims not to understand what he wants.

7. Everything is

The sexual element of the story is a bold move on Roeg’s
part, considering the radical separation enforced between immigrants and
natives, the latter of whom had long been consigned to government-sponsored
reservations.  The courtship narrative
dramatizes the country’s slow evolution towards greater inclusiveness, but the
film’s troubling conclusion offers little hope of full reciprocity.  In its post-colonial setting, every element
of the film’s narrative takes on political overtones: the father’s seemingly
innocuous profession of mineral surveyor can also be seen as essential to the
continent’s commercial exploitation; every exchange between the young
characters may be read as a cultural one, rich in possibility, fraught with

8. Everything is natural


Soon after the abandoned children begin their own version of
the aboriginal walkabout, the landscape begins to transform them.  The sun burns their skin, leaving them a
darker shade of white.  They suck water
from the dry earth.  When they encounter
the vestiges of Western civilization they are as bemused as their aboriginal
escort.  A wombat waddles up to them while
they are sleeping and sniffs curiously. 
They eat raw meat, freshly killed. 
All thoughts of elocution and table manners are burnt away.

9. Nothing is natural

This is not to say that they fully assimilate to the
landscape.  The film’s genius lies in its
unwillingness to romanticize their journey. 
They eventually grow up and become conventional urbanites.  Neither is the aboriginal way of life
represented as pure and unsullied: a kangaroo spear-hunt is cross-cut with
images from a meat-processing plant; white hunters are later shown doing the
same thing with rifles.  Killing is
killing, in city or outback, a point underscored by a close-up of the kangaroo
the boy kills, its five-fingered paw raised in the air like an accusing human

10. Mix genres

Just as the line between nature and culture is blurred, so
are the conventions of genre.  Nature
documentary undercuts social satire. 
Epic looms over coming-of-age story.  
Experimental, new wave style mediates adventure narrative.  Shifting point of view undoes the falsely objective
gaze of visual anthropology.


11. Know your ruins

The Outback is not a pristine, unsullied place. The walkers
come upon abandoned mines, burnt-out cars, empty sheds, and eventually,
amazingly, an entire white community residing in the middle of the desert in
geometric, modern cottages.  Seemingly,
the only difference between civilization and the wild is time.

12. There will be blood

The story begins with an apparently motiveless attempted
murder and self-immolation.  The
unexpected violence of this scene overshadows the rest of the film, like the
colonial past haunts the present.  Every
act of killing, whether for food, sport, or otherwise, feels like a brooding
recapitulation of that inaugural baptism by fire.  The possibility of violence hovers over every
encounter between the children and the landscape’s denizens.

13. History repeats itself

The children reassimilate into urban life, yet the story ends
with flashbacks to them bathing nude together. 
Was their walkabout an idyllic escape from social burdens, or a violent
rite of passage enabling them to return as better citizens?  The final image is of their school uniforms
hanging on sticks, empty vestiges of their former selves, yet waiting to be
donned again.

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

Click here for the first installment of Jed Mayer’s “Down-Underground,” a series on the Australian New Wave.

3 thoughts on “Down-Underground: WALKABOUT, or Thirteen Ways of Making a National Epic”

  1. My Dad took me to see this (first run) as a little kid. I was 8.
    I think Dad thought it was a Disney film. It was not.
    Blew my little kid mind.


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