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Walkabout 4K

by Glenn Erickson Sep 23, 2023

A filmmaker with a genuine vision: Nicolas Roeg’s first solo directing effort is a masterpiece of images and montage, excellent storytelling with intimations of natural forces at work. Abandoned with her brother, Jenny Agutter’s Sydney schoolgirl is helped in survival by David Gulpilil’s aboriginal youth on a wilderness rite of passage. It’s a credible loss-of-innocence story, told with a time-shifting editorial finesse that would become Roeg’s signature narrative grammar. It’s a visual odyssey, in 4K Ultra HD.


Walkabout 4K
4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray
The Criterion Collection 10
1971 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 100 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date September 12, 2023 / 49.95
Starring: Jenny Agutter, Luc Roeg, David Gulpilil, John Meillon.
Cinematography: Nicolas Roeg
Production Designer: Brian Eatwell
Art Director: Terry Gough
Film Editors: Antony Gibbs, Alan Pattillo
Original Music: John Barry
Screenplay by Edward Bond story by Nicolas Roeg from the novel by James Vance Marshall
Produced by Si Litvinoff, Max Raab
Directed by
Nicolas Roeg

This takes us back: The first DVD of Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout was Criterion’s 10th numbered release, back in 1998, I believe.

The disc also takes this reviewer back to student days — I was working a Westwood parking lot when Walkabout opened, and remember it being a big hit with the well-heeled hipsters that came through in sports cars wearing leather and smelling like weed. Nicolas Roeg’s name was instantly equated with biz insiders’ notion of good anti-Hollywood values. The film was sexy and somewhat dangerous — its underage leading actress really looks like she’s being set up for a genuine sexual initiation, out in the wild Australian outback. Roeg’s visuals reminded us of National Geographic but with a different agenda.

Roeg had been an ace cinematographer for a decade. He had just made an auspicious transition to directing with 1970’s Performance, a bizarre part-musical drama about a ‘Secret Sharer’ relationship between James Fox’s gangster on the lam and Mick Jagger’s reclusive, eccentric rock star. The movie’s edgy adult content earned Roeg and his co-director Donald Cammell reputations as potential geniuses, talents to be watched.

 

As the Easy Rider wave of youth rebellion was just beginning to subside, Nicolas Roeg offered up as his first solo directing effort Walkabout, a delicate art house adventure filmed on a distant location. In place of drugs, crime and revolution, the movie deals with the sexual awakening of an odd pair of teenagers. Jenny Agutter is an innocent Sydney schoolgirl lost with her brother in the desert. The interesting David Gulpilil is a young aborigine undergoing his ‘Walkabout’ manhood ritual, in which young men are simply sent into the wild to fend for themselves for several months. Nicholas Roeg tells much of the story non-verbally, frequently experimenting with creative editing patterns. Laden with lyrical and poetic images, Walkabout carries the constant tension of underage sensuality. Billed as the White Girl and the Black Boy, the adolescents are eventually attracted to each other, creating an unspoken conflict that neither is prepared to deal with.

Edward Bond’s screenplay, from a book by James Vance Marshall, places small children in jeopardy in a cruel landscape. The Girl and her younger Brother (the director’s son Luc Roeg, billed as Lucien John) are abandoned in the outback by their Father (John Meillon), who has apparently lost his mind. Meillon is memorable in Stanley Kamer’s On the Beach, playing a different kind of suicidal character.

The Girl may be inexperienced, but she has excellent instincts. She has just enough maturity to shield her brother from what has happened, and engages him in a calm game of walking out of the desert. They climb hills, avoid animals and pause by a water hole, which mysteriously dries up not long after they arrive. The situation looks hopeless until they meet the Black Boy. Apparently doing quite well on his Walkabout, the Boy uses spears to kill monitor lizards for food and shows his new companions how to obtain water from a muddy gulley.

 

The Girl is cautious but impressed by the Boy’s skills. Curiously, it’s little brother who learns a few words of the aboriginal language, to ask for water. The aboriginal Boy is both gentle and respectful. He intuits what the children want, and accompanies them in the direction of the nearest white settlement. But when the trio reaches an abandoned house, the Boy’s interest in the Girl finally finds expression.

Acting as his own cinematographer, Nicolas Roeg’s artistic response to the desert’s colorful rocks, odd plant life and strange animals edges beyond strict realism. But no fantasy elements enter, as in some movies by Peter Weir that constantly suggest supernatural forces at work.

The landscape and animals here are naturally fantastic. Roeg’s lizards display wide frills around their necks, and stalk the sand like miniature dinosaurs. Odd insects look for food and a cute little hedgehog-like mammal sniffs around the children as they sleep. The Boy is fully adapted to this cruel landscape. All he seems to require is his fistful of hand-fashioned spears. The Girl keeps her clothes as neat as she can and observes proper rules of behavior, partly not to upset her brother. The little boy doesn’t fully comprehend that his life is in danger. He accepts things as they come, and trusts his sister’s judgment without question. If she says they’re not really lost, then he won’t worry about it.

With its focus on children drifting through a dangerous situation, Walkabout is somewhat similar to Alexander Mackendrick’s A High Wind in Jamaica. Roeg keeps us focused on very specific relationships. With no verbal communication possible, the Girl learns just enough about the Boy to decide that he’s not a threat. The Boy is experienced in survival techniques yet is still an adolescent. The three often play like ordinary kids. The trio’s natural companionship becomes precarious only when they make contact with civilization. The first white man they meet is an annoying caretaker oblivious to their emergency. He slams his door in their faces and orders them to stay off company property.

Genuine un-exploitative screen liberation.

The idyllic Girl-Boy relationship was new subject matter for 1971 screens. After two years under the new Rating System, Walkabout seemed an excellent example of worthwhile ‘adult content.’ Audiences accepted the movie’s innocent vision of under-aged children swimming together naked, beyond the oversight of society.

Today we have a completely different cultural climate. If released today, would the film’s underage semi-sexual context elicit a protest of of exploitation?  The same thoughts came to mind with the recent disc remaster of Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby. Earlier this year, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of the underage actors in Franco Zeffierelli’s Romeo and Juliet, claiming that they were sexually exploited. It became a big news item.

When the Boy realizes that they’ll soon be separated, he paints himself in ceremonial colors to perform a ritual dance, which we soon realize is a courtship dance. The Girl feels threatened by this and avoids him. The Boy has lost his heart to his new friend, and is doubly saddened when his magic dance doesn’t bridge the cultural boundary. Walkabout presents a credible version of the ‘innocent wilderness’ fantasy found in stories like The Blue Lagoon.

 

A Roeg-sploration of the characters’ memory process.

Nicolas Roeg’s cinematography is traditional but his editing philosophy is experiemental. He adds interest through brief memory flashbacks (and forwards) and overlays of associative imagery. His movie begins with scenes of the Girl and the Brother at school, and at play in the pool of their parents’ luxury apartment. Later on, Roeg occasionally interrupts their desert trek with glimpses of life back in the concrete anthills of the city. The Girl recalls the spectacle of her father’s violent actions when the abandoned them. Seeing some camels, the little brother imagines an early explorer riding one across the desert. That visual ties in with Roeg’s later The Man Who Fell to Earth, when a time-travel vision of a hundred year-old wagon train magically appears in the present.

Again, the visuals here are not tasked to suggest the presence of mystical forces, as in Peter Weir’s The Last Wave. The trio’s first contact with the ‘normal’ world is an abandoned mine, a ruin that defiles the landscape with rusted metal. Instead of the expected ecological reaction, the kids treat the ugly sight as just another shared adventure. Not yet worldly enough to frame their situation in an ironic context, their reactions seem entirely honest.

 

The only sidebar scene that feels a bit unnecessary involves a female researcher and her Italian helpers working at a different location in the desert. The men spend their time ogling her neckline and legs. Possibly meant as comic relief, the scene seems a strained attempt to provide a contrast to the idyllic relationship forming between the Girl and the Boy. But Roeg doesn’t preach that primitive ways are superior to modern society. An aboriginal family that discovers the burned car is not touted as an ideal human living unit, simply a different one. Following a burial custom, they perch the father’s corpse up in a tree.

Walkabout was filmed on location late in 1969. Nineteen year-old Jenny Agutter already had six years of film experience; her talent had recently attracted attention in Lionel Jeffries’ The Railway Children, which was released first but filmed after this Australian film.

The graceful and expressive Ms. Agutter carries Walkabout with ease. The Girl’s calm endurance of adversity never seems forced, and her later intuition of a connection with The Boy is beautifully understated. First-time actor David Gulpilil is a gifted performer as well. We don’t understand the Boy’s language but we can tell that he’s both good-hearted and decent. It’s natural that he’d develop a crush on the Girl. The tragedy of their relationship is that his tribal upbringing affords him only one way of showing his admiration.

 


 

The Criterion Collection’s 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray of Walkabout 4K is a new item entirely, with a new 4K digital master. The combo set contains one 4K disc with the feature, and one Blu-ray with the feature and the video extras. John Barry’s music score weaves between natural sounds and snippets of pop tunes from the Girl’s portable radio. Barry also frames some children’s songs in a wistful choral context.

The movie appears to have reverted to its original producers, but still carries a 20th-Fox logo.

The extras are identical to those of the older Blu-ray. Director Roeg and Jenny Agutter offer their observations on a full-length commentary track. Roeg generously explains some of his visual motifs, as when he uses a brick wall as a transition piece between the outback and the city. He also recalls asking his son to pose and point while standing at the brink of a steep cliff, and hearing the boy’s tiny, inquiring voice through his walkie-talkie: “What does he want me to do now? ” Ms. Agutter says that she was fourteen when first approached about this film, and remembers wanting the role because she might get to meet the Beatles. She’s expresses well how Roeg’s picture is much more cinematic than the average movie.

Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg are also present for individual video interviews. Each has strong memories of the filming, forty years later. Actor-dancer David Gulpilil is represented in Gulpilil – One Red Blood, an engaging 2002 documentary about his life and career. Roeg discovered Gulpilil at age 16 in a missionary school; the actor went on to give impressive performances in movies by Peter Weir, Philip Kaufman, and Philippe Mora, and is a happy addition to Wim Wenders’ epic Until the End of the World.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Walkabout 4K
4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
Audio commentary with Nicolas Roeg and actor Jenny Agutter
Interviews with Agutter and actor Luc Roeg
2002 documentary Gulpilil — One Red Blood on the life and career of actor David Gulpilil
Trailer
22-page illustrated pamphlet with an essay by author Paul Ryan.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
September 20, 2023
(6996walk)
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Text © Copyright 2023 Glenn Erickson

Here’s Larry Karaszewski on Walkabout:

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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Kenneth Henderson

David died in Nov 2021. May have been born in 1953. Says he took to booze in this film location which has a very serious effect on our native population who I see daily in my city’s downtown. I lied Jenny very much. The Eagle Has Landed was a good adult film she was a co-star. Ken

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