Walkabout was Nicolas Roeg’s first solo film as a director after sharing the directing duties on lysergic gangster film Performance with Donald Cammell, which famously starred Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg. It would also end up being the last film he would be the cinematographer on: he made his name as a cinematographer on many key films of the ’60s, such as The Masque of the Red Death, Fahrenheit 451, Far from the Madding Crowd and Petulia. In his next act, Roeg would become probably the best British director of the ’70s, with the run that starts with Performance (although that was shot in ’68 though), Walkabout, Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth. He would go on to make some very memorable films in the ’80s, like Bad Timing and Eureka, but while these were fascinating films in their own right, they are not quite up the four masterpieces he made in the ’70s.
Roeg was keen to adapt the James Vance Marshall source novel for many years, but never could get a script he liked until Edward Bond, who is an extremely controversial playwright, wrote a puny 14-page treatment. Even the finished script ended up being just 65 pages. It’s an incredibly simple story about these two English siblings—Peter (Luc Roeg) and Mary (Jenny Agutter)—who get stranded in the Australian outback when their father has a mental breakdown and commits suicide. The rest of the film is what happens to them when they try to survive out there, and the clash of cultures when they stumble onto a Aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil) who is on his walkabout—the Aborigine rite of passage for boys where they live in the wilderness for up to six months before being seen by their community as men.
The film is typical of Roeg in that it has a very fractured, cut-up editing style (which I think came out of him reading William Burroughs a bit). It’s a very violent film, with a nude scene that has been seen as controversial at times. It made stars of Agutter and Gulipilil (even though his name was misspelled in the credits). There’s been a debate over whether it counts as an “Australian” film due to the English cast, director and funding. It was not a successful film in Australia, in any case.
Walkabout is one of the great Roeg movies, showing what he could do at the height of his powers. It’s beautifully filmed, a simple story with complex themes for a movie that in some ways is a kids’ film (albeit a messed-up one)—it was downgraded to a PG in the US on appeal. It was also one of the first films to go exploring the Aborigine concept of Dreamtime before films like Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave, and remains respectful of Aboriginal culture, something that was rare in 1971, when it came out. If you haven’t seen it before it a must but a lot of replay value due to how much is going on visually. It’s also that rare film that’s better than the book.
The disc includes a copy of the book, a copy of the first-draft script, another book containing essays on the film, a commentary by Luc Roeg and critic David Thomson, and interviews with producer Si Litvinoff, Luc Roeg and Jenny Agutter. There’s also a 2011 BFI Q&A with both Roegs and Agutter, and an old introduction by Nicolas Roeg. This disc is a good UK equivalent for the Criterion release that came out ten years ago in the US.