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Walkabout [N. Roeg]


Very few films achieve a kind of subliminal greatness with cross-cultural impact, but Walkabout is one of those: a visual tone poem that functions more as an allegory than a conventionally plotted adventure.

Considered a cult favorite for years, Nicolas Roeg‘s 1971 film is about two British children who are rescued in the Australian outback by a young Aboriginal man played by David Gulpilil.

←  Click pic to see their first encounter

The film is an adaptation from James Vance Marshall‘s book. PLOT below.

Two American youngsters, Mary and her brother Peter were on their trip to visit their Uncle Keith, who lived in the city of Adelaide in Australia. The plane was flying over Australia desert when  one of the engines went on fire. Seconds later, the plane made a crash landing in the middle of the desert. They were now all alone in the middle of the Australian desert, where they spent the night with only a stick of barley sugar.

The next day they finished their sticks and they went looking for food until they found some fruit. Then Peter saw a young boy, and from that day, they followed the Bushboy and learned about where to find water, how to get food and make a fire.

One day, the Bushboy put on Mary’s clothes, which made her furious…

Later on, they asked the Bushboy what he was doing all alone for the desert, but they never learned why  (The why is very simple: he was doing the WALKABOUT. Walkabout is a test for Aborigine boys of thirteen or fourteen. They must walk all alone from one water hole to another. They must search for food alone. The journey lasts six to eight months. Only the strongest boys will survive. Only the strongest boys will become fathers of children. So far, the brush boy had done very well.)

But the days went on and the Bushboy didn’t sleep or eat, and  he got weaker and weaker until he died. They had to keep their walkabout on their own…

 → James Vance Marshall:  WALKABOUT ← [read]
It is the fate of certain novels only to become classics after they become movies, and then to be eclipsed by the movie that made them a classic. James Vance Marshall’s enchanting short novel Walkabout was published in Britain in 1959. Yet it was not until Nicolas Roeg turned it into a film twelve years later that the book acquired an aura of wide renown, despite the fact that relatively few people had read it. This is an ironic enough fate for a work of literature, but in fact the movie is so strikingly different from Marshall’s lovely parable as to verge on travesty. It is a brilliant travesty, though, one that adds a curious urgency to the book’s very different, apparently old-fashioned pleasures, which, as it turns out, have a good deal to tell us now.
[Lee Siegel]

Though the edge had gone from his hunger, Peter wasn’t altogether at ease. He kept looking nervously at the surrounding bush. He had a strange sort of feeling: a feeling of being watched. Several times he looked up quickly, certain there was someone there; but the bush slept on in the heat of the sun: silent, motionless, apparently deserted. Unconvinced, he sidled back to his sister.

‘Mary!’ he whispered. ‘I think there’s someone here!’

‘Someone here! Where?’

Disbelieving she swung round. The quondong fell to the grass. Only by snapping her teeth together did she stifle a scream of fear. For there, less than four feet away, so close that she could have stretched out an arm and touched him, was a boy. And he was ebony black and quite naked.


The girl’s first impulse was to grab Peter and run; but as her eyes swept over the stranger, her fear died slowly away. The boy was young — certainly no older than she was; he was unarmed, and his attitude was more inquisitive than threatening: more puzzled than hostile.

He wasn’t the least bit like an African Negro. His skin was certainly black, but beneath it was a curious hint of undersurface bronze, and it was fine-grained: glossy, satiny, almost silk-like. His hair wasn’t crinkly but nearly straight; and his eyes were blue-black: big, soft and inquiring. In his hand was a baby rock wallaby, its eyes, unclosed in death, staring vacantly above a tiny pointed snout.

All this Mary noted and accepted. The thing that she couldn’t accept, the thing that seemed to her shockingly and indecently wrong, was the fact that the boy was naked.

The three children stood looking at each other in the middle of the Australian desert. Motionless as the outcrops of granite they stared, and stared, and stared. Between them the distance was lessthan the spread of an outstretched arm, but more than a hundred thousand years. Brother and sister were products of the highest strata of humanity’s evolution. In them the primitive had long ago been swept aside, been submerged by mechanization, been swamped by scientific development, been nullified by the standardized pattern of the white man’s way of life.

They had climbed a long way up the ladder of progress; they had climbed so far, in fact, that they had forgotten how their climb had started. Coddled in babyhood, psycho-analysed in childhood, nourished on predigested patent foods, provided with continuous push-button entertainment, the basic realities of life were something they’d never had to face.

It was very different with the Aboriginal. He knew what reality was. He led a way of life that was already old when Tut-ankh-amen started to build his tomb; a way of life that had been tried and proved before the white man’s continents were even lifted out of the sea. Among the secret water-holes of the Australian desert his people had lived and died, unchanged and unchanging, for twenty thousand years. Their lives were unbelievably simple. They had no homes, no crops, no clothes, no possessions. The few things they had, they shared: food and wives; children and laughter; tears and hunger and thirst. They walked from one water-hole to the next; they exhausted one supply of food, then moved on to another. Their lives were utterly uncomplicated because they were devoted to one purpose, dedicated in their entirety to the waging of one battle: the battle with death. Death was their ever-present enemy. He sought them out from every dried-up salt pan, from the flames of every bush fire. He was never far away. Keeping him at bay was the Aboriginals’ full-time job: the job they’d been doing for twenty thousand years: the job they were good at.

The desert sun streamed down. The children stared and stared.

Mary had decided not to move. To move would be a sign of weakness. She remembered being told about the man who’d come face to face with a lion, and had stared it out, had caused it to slink discomfited away. That was what she’d do to the black boy; she’d stare at him until he felt the shame of his nakedness and slunk away. She thrust out her chin, and glared.

Peter had decided to take his cue from his sister. Clutching her hand he stood waiting: waiting for something to happen.


The Aboriginal was in no hurry. Time had little value to him. His next meal — the rock wallaby — was assured. Water was near. Tomorrow was also a day. For the moment he was content to examine these strange creatures at his leisure. Their clumsy, lumbering movements intrigued him; their lack of weapons indicated their harmlessness. His eyes moved slowly, methodically from one to another: examining them from head to foot. They were the first white people a member of his tribe had ever seen.

Mary, beginning to resent this scrutiny, intensified her glare. But the bush boy seemed in no way perturbed; his appraisal went methodically on. After a while Peter started to fidget. The delay was fraying his nerves. He wished someone would do something: wished something would happen. Then, quite involuntarily, he himself started a new train of events. His head began to waggle; his nose tilted skywards; he spluttered and choked; he tried to hold his breath; but all in vain. It had to come. He sneezed . . .

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