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One of the most strangest and peculiar films I've seen is Nicholas Roeg's Walkabout, from 1971. Only now, in the past few years, has it found itself on the video store racks; even though the film was a 20th Century Fox release, the video is from Home Vision Cinema, an outfit devoted to the re-release of classic and foreign films. Certainly, the reason for the long delay may be in part because Fox would not have known how to sell the film. Walkabout is strange and baffling. I thought that after watching it twice, I`d understand it better, get with its flow. But I didn't. In fact, I think I find it stranger than before. This doesn't mean that I dislike the film, but I can't give it full marks just yet.

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The title is a reference to the aboriginals of Australia. A young man, in order to make the ascent into manhood, I suppose, goes out into the wilderness to survive on his own; he is a "walkabout". The story is what happens when this walkabout encounters two white children, a teenage girl and her young brother, lost in the outback. Their suicidal father drove them out there, before attempting to shoot them, then dousing his car with gasoline before turning the gun on himself. The children are now completely and utterly lost, and the camera shows us the grand, uncaring landscape, seemingly untouched by civilization. Everything looks wonderful through Roeg's lenses, but that doesn't mean I`d want to go here on vacation alone; every place is fraught with danger, mainly of the purely practical kind, where the two kids walk for miles and miles without water, and where nature, uncaring, plays funny tricks on these city dwellers.

They soon meet the aboriginal, hunting for food, killing animals with his spear. The two kids immediately cling to him, no doubt because he is useful for the short term. They keep travelling and travelling without seeming to find any glimpse of civilization, and they travel together without much understanding of each other. Most communication is done in vain. The whites speak English and the aboriginal speaks his language as if the others should naturally understand each other. They don't, of course, and this fact calls attention to itself during a strange sequence in which the little boy tells a story about, from what I can remember, a mute woman, and the man who attempts to prove that she talks when alone at her home. He soon discovers that she just moves her mouth, speaks to no one, and no sounds come out. All of these people speak, but they might as well just talk without sound, because they cannot relate very much to each other. The climax is even more troubling, as something more than mere language comes in to play, resulting in tragedy.

The personality of the girl weighs heavily on the proceedings. She is so cool and disinterested, even when it comes to death. She scarcely bats an eye when her father dies, and rarely talks about it, and definitely not in emotional or empathetic terms. She is like a blank slate. I don't know if it is because she can't act, or because Roeg made her behave this way. In any case, her attitude adds to the theme of broken communication, especially at the end, where it approaches something chilling.

Walkabout is fraught with problems and oddities which I'll never fully understand. For one, many non-sequiturs litter the narrative. I really didn't understand why certain moments were included, like the one where a bunch of scientists goof off (mainly by trying to peek down a female colleague's blouse (?)), and the sequence where a white couple attempts to push out what they see as annoying aborigines while at the same time attempting to pawn off aboriginal artifacts and replicas for money. Maybe these scenes are just meant to be intrusions by the big bad world, I don`t know. But they don't seem to fit. And the filmmaking style itself can be intoxicating for some, and pretentious for others. The first time I watched this, I was fairly intrigued, and this time, I still am, although it is all still very strange. The first-time viewer may be startled by some of the imagery and the juxtapositions. The most noticeable is an unexplained montage of the aboriginal's killing of his prey and shots of a butcher cutting up meat. I`m not sure what this is all about, but you will most assuredly think about it.

Oddly, this is like an R-rated children's/nature film, if that makes any sense to you. The film is about youth, we see pretty pictures of nature and wild animals, there are a number of cutesy scenes, and the classical score makes it sound like some old-fashioned Disney nature flick (the original theatrical trailer, included in the tape, includes a recommendation from Parent's Magazine). But then we get shockingly graphic animal killings, some nudity, and much ambiguous sexual suggestion between the girl and the aboriginal (most of which was cut in 1971, which may mean that version may very well have been marketed to families, a probable cause for the Parent's approval).

Walkabout is most definitely an experience, although in my opinion, it is not a classic film. It is too strange, and too disjointed, to be a complete success.

David Macdonald

David Macdonald's Movie Reviews

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