“In Australia when an Aborigine man-child reaches sixteen, he is sent out into the land. For months he must live from it. Sleep on it. Eat of its fruit and flesh. Stay alive. Even if it means killing his fellow creatures. The Aborigines call it the Walkabout. This is the story of a Walkabout”.
While on a family picnic in the Australian outback with their father, a 16-year-old English girl (Jenny Agutter) is left stranded with her 6-year-old brother (Luc Roeg, the director’s own son) when their father (John Meillon) inexplicably shoots himself.
The pair are left to fend for themselves in a hostile environment with little hope of making their way back to civilisation. The discovery of a spring provides brief respite, but the following morning the water has dried up.
Their salvation unexpectedly arrives in the form of a young Aborigine boy (David Gulpilil) who is off on ‘walkabout’ – a journey on his own to prove his manhood.
The aborigine shows them how to find water and shares his food – a succession of lizards, kangaroo meat and birds – and guides the English children back to civilisation.
They walk for many days and the black man leads them eventually to a deserted farmhouse. He goes to hunt buffalo and is almost run down by a professional shooter, who kills many buffalo, leaving their corpses fouling the waterholes.
The aboriginal paints his body like a skeleton and returns to the farmhouse where his appearance frightens the young girl, who is caught half-dressed. She hides, as he begins to dance outside the house.
He dances through the night and in the morning, they find him dead, hanging on a mango tree.
The two children, now bathed and with clothes washed, find a road that takes them to a mining camp.
A few years later, the young woman is married and living in the city. She realises too late that she never understood the young black man’s intentions.
This is primarily a film about a clash of cultures. There is a strong sexual attraction between the girl and the aborigine but she resists, treating him as a servant rather than a prospective lover.
The eerie quality of the film is intensified by minimal dialogue and director Nic Roeg’s visually stunning desert imagery, which constructs a haunting visual and psychological morality tale on the exploitation of the natural world and ignorance of native cultures.
Walkabout premiered at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, along with Wake in Fright (1971), another seminal offshore production about Australia. Both films had a major impact on aspiring filmmakers in Australia, although Walkabout was controversial with Australian critics.
Neither film was particularly successful at the local box office. The reputations of both films have grown considerably, at least in Australia, since then.