While mainly manufactured in Australia, the film was entered into Cannes as the official British entry, and is usually considered a British film, though the finance is American. Because it's a rare thing - an interesting film made in Australia in 1970 - many are willing to claim it as at least a part-Australian film.
Production company: Max L. Raab - Si Litvinoff Films
Budget: c. A$1,000,000 +
Locations: Sydney, then central Australia, with Alice Springs as the production base. Lake Eyre, where it rained for two weeks. Glen Helen Gorge waterhole. Arnhem Land.
Filmed: began in Sydney August 1969. According to Jenny Agutter, shooting lasted three and a half to four months.
Australian distributor: Twentieth Century Fox
Theatrical release: June 1971 in the United States, and October 1971 in Australia
Rating: Not Suitable for Children
Running time: 100 mins (Oxford)
DVD copy region four: 1'40"17
Box office: the film did not do well in its initial run in Australia or North America.
The Oxford discreetly proposes it did "not fare well commercially", a kind way of saying the film was a flop.
It was re-released in 1998 in Australia, and did A$68,720 in business, equivalent to A$95,507 in 2009 A$, according to the Film Victoria report on Australian box office.
Walkabout was one of the twenty five Official Selections for the 1971 24th Cannes Film Festival, and therefore a contender for the Palme d'Or, alongside Wake in Fright (which was entered under its European title Outback). Neither film won.
After a restored theatrical version began to do the rounds in 1997 and 1998, Walkabout began a new life on DVD in the USA with the release of the Criterion special edition, which featured an audio commentary by director Nicolas Roeg and Jenny Augutter. This edition also contained a brief essay by Roger Ebert.
This version was released in region four by Madman, dressed up as a thirtieth anniversary DVD. It recycled the commentary by director Nicholas Roeg and star Jenny Agutter, and would seem to have also recycled the print. Either version is good, despite some typical (minor) film artefacts such as sparkle and dirt ...
Roeg and Agutter were in separate locations when their contribution to the commentary was recorded, but each offer insights into the film and the making of it, and their thoughts chime together reasonably well.
Criterion has since released the film on Blu-ray, retaining the same extras, and adding a few more, and this is one of the few times - for a show part-manufactured in Australia - that a step-up to high definition is value for money. It is available in regions 1 and 2, which is to say the world.
While some reviewers have complained about a certain softness in the Blu-ray image, the film is basically a tone poem (in 1.78:1 Nicholas Roeg approved format), and seeing the textures in detail adds to the lyricism.
The soundtrack is monaural, as it should be when being true to the period presentation.
The Blu-ray edition also provides the documentary Gulpilil: One Red Blood (56 mins), a 21 minute interview with Luc Roeg, and a 20 minute interview with Jenny Agutter. It is the preferred version.
The idea for the film - the eventual script started at a reputed fourteen or so pages, and in the end ran no longer than fifty eight or sixty pages - came from the novel by James Vance Marshall, first published in 1959.
Roeg says that the production manager asked him on his arrival in Australia whether they were making a short or a feature, and in the commentary track notes that it was a spare script, because children in that situation wouldn't be given to discussions about Baudelaire.
(Below: Walkabout first US edition)
The film significantly deviates from Marshall's story, as can be seen at the wiki about the novel here. Marshall was a pseudonymn and there is a short wiki under the author's real name Donald G. Payne here.
Roeg had been thinking about the film for several years before he got the chance to make it.
British playwright Edward Bond re-wrote director Roeg's short screenplay outline, and that attracted investment from two American businessmen, Raab and Litvinoff.
Bond didn't want to go to Australia to check out locations, and instead talked about writing about a journey, a journey through life, a journey across country, a journey of the emotions, fitting in with Roeg's own desire to make something allegorical and beautiful out of the work, able to be translated to anywhere. "They were lost, not only in terms of physically, but they were becoming like they were in danger of being emotionally lost."
Bond's wiki is here.
(Below: Edward Bond)
However director Roeg continued to improvise throughout what was a relatively lengthy shooting period.
A film tie-in edition was published by Penguin in 1971. The original novel and the film tie-in have been through a number of editions.
The production company (an Australian pty. ltd. company) was incorporated with an address in Australia, but the finance for the production largely came from the United States. According to Jenny Agutter, there was talk of the Beatles' company Apple financing the show, and so she was keen to participate so she could meet the fab four.
Twentieth Century Fox picked up the show.
Roeg first cast Jenny Agutter in the role when she was fourteen, but by the time financing was in place she had turned sixteen.
Roeg set up something of a family atmosphere on the shoot, helped by having his son, Lucien John, play Agutter's young brother (he didn't use Luc Roeg's family name for fear of drawning unwanted attention to the casting of his son in a lead role).
Roeg wanted have a light-hearted set, to avoid any sense of self-fulfilling importance, and thereby lose random and chance factors. (His son was six, or six and a half at the time of shooting, according to Roeg).
it was also helped by his use of improvisation, and reluctance to rehearse, or do run-throughs or use storyboards. He liked the random nature of things. According to Agutter, he would set the scene, and explain the situation to the actors, and then ask them to carry out an action - get this, do that - in a way that meant that just like a John Wayne movie, "No Acting" was required. It was the "doing of things" that mattered.
There were also no rehearsals, but rather some discussions or working at dialogue at night, while living and travelling to the next location, where the day's work would be filmed.
Agutter claims in the commentary that Roeg rarely used lights in the shoot, relying on natural light and reflectors. This would account for the lack of light on faces in some scenes.
Roeg also did a certain amount of day for night filming, which he notes made it easier not to worry about explaining light sources at dead of night in the outback.
Roeg claims not to have done conventional location scouting, but instead relied on local knowledge, map reading, and asking about with locals to find appropriate locations.
The film was aboriginal actor David Gulpilil's first role in a feature film.
"We'd done a lot of casting, but no one seemed right. David was on a mission station up in Queensland, and he just looked so magnificent - that was the first thing I noticed. This incredible face, this extraordinary presence. And he brought to the film so much of his own character and background.
"But then," he adds, "I think everyone was at just the right age. Jenny [Agutter] was just coming into young womanhood, and she completely understood the deeper themes of the movie, the sexual subtext. Whereas Luc was just six at the time, and David became a much older brother to him. And in many ways, the film became their own journey." (interview by Shane Danielsen, The Australian, 27th March 1998)
Gulpilil, born in 1953, had appeared in Aboriginal dance troupes, and went on to a long career in Australian film and television roles. He is credited as Gumpilil.
According to Roeg, Gulpilil gave his own mating dance to the film, but became a little depressed about it afterwards because it became something of an embarrassing love scene, a declaration of love which perhaps should have only been done in real life.
Roeg used professional hunters for the water buffalo killing scene (a scene which would be echoed and expanded upon in the 'roo hunting scene in Wake in Fright).
Roeg explains in the commentary track how he wanted to show over-killing, and the casual cruelty of the killing (in contrast to Gulpilil's method of killing to eat), and the need to show the results of the killing in the film, or else allow squeamishness to censor the results of the hunters' work. He suggests that earlier hunting wasn't cruel or wasteful:
The early hunters that hunted for food, native people, they didn't have a sense of cruelty about it ...and I wanted to show that, it comes over to me, always when I see them washing, I don't know why the washing of the knife is ... when you put it back in the sheaf ... it's bloody, it's about some enjoyment from it you know, you don't get a sense that David when he kills has a sense of enjoyment ... it's excitement, danger or hopeful, but not 'I've enjoyed killing it', 'I had to do it' ... a different ...
The commentary track offers various solutions to the ending:
Agutter says Gulpilil's death in the film could perhaps be seen as physical (an ailment) or as an emotional point in the story ... the boy is rejected and he dies ... or as strictly spiritual and allegorical ... the boy sees his death, and he dies ... a death he foresaw and is inevitable, and results in a crucifix pose where he's lifted above the ground, in keeping with tradition and the need to be off the earth.
Agutter suggests everyone looks for easy explanations, but that there aren't any.
Roeg on the ending: Nothing is without regret, totally without regret. You know, I don't believe anything is totally without regret ... You must not dwell on it, certainly not a wonderful experience, not a great experience. Should build from it ...
In his commentary Roeg disclaims putting up the opening title explaining the 'walkabout', suggesting either Twentieth Century Fox did it, or someone else did it on their behalf. He says he dislikes that kind of explanatory device.
When completed, the show was picked up by Fox acquired world rights, without perhaps understanding what they acquired or how they might market it.
In the commentary track, Roeg tells a nice story of a French representative of the distributor worrying about David Gulpilil coming to Cannes - in mock French accent, proposing that he was a "sauvage".
Roeg recalls that Gulpilil donned a tux for the opening night and looked marvellous, and never put a foot wrong in terms of manners and attitude because it all came naturally. The manners of life are very different from the manners of society.
The American version was given an R rating, reduced to PG on appeal, but it was also cut, with five minutes lost to ensure no one saw any full front nudity, and it was only on the re-release on DVD that many people were able to see the film as Roeg first conceived it.
The film was a box office flop in Australia, but did respectable business internationally, and has had a good ancillary life.
After the film was restored, it was given a new theatrical life in Australia, Europe and the United States, and received a number of new reviews - for example, the film only arrived in San Francisco in 1997, and received a review here.
5. The final lines:
The final lines in the film are from a poem by A. E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad, stanza 40:
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
The film is commonly dated to 1971 by the Oxford and other databases. However the copyright notice is for 1970, and this site uses the date of copyright, where available, as the best indication of year of manufacture.
For a film made in Australia at the time, the soundtrack is relatively advanced, with the sound effects, and the effects-laden music, and the radio, contributing to the sense of a tone poem.
It was Roeg's idea to use Stockhausen - he liked the phrase that is used at the opening, asking if madame and monsieur were ready to play, if they pleased (in French).
8. Subsequent opinion:
After the initial mixed and muddled box office reception, the film has gone on to attract all kinds of critical attention, and been accepted into the canon of Australian-manufactured films.
The Roger Ebert essay that accompanied the DVD release is available on the Criterion website (at time of writing) here, while Paul Ryan takes a lengthier look on the same website under the header Walkabout: Landscapes of Memory.
Playwright, scriptwriter and novelist Louis Nowra wrote an eighty page study of the film for Currency Press in 2003.
By this time, it would seem that any question as to the Australian-ness of the film - with an English director/DOP, a screenplay written by an English playwright based on a novel by an English author, and with two of the three leads English - had been resolved, such that the film could be included in a series on Australian screen classics.
Nowra is an enthusiast, recalling the impact of the film when he saw it in the 1970s:
The images of the Outback were of an almost hallucinogenic intensity. Instead of the desert and bush being infused with a dull monotony, everything seemed acute, shrill and incandescent. The Outback was beautiful and haunting. It didn’t matter that some of the animals were incongruous to the location, and the countryside was at times absurdly out of sync with the actual terrain traversed. The setting sun was a richer red than I ever thought possible, the solitary quandong tree in the middle of the desert had the mysterious visual potency of a Byzantine icon, the animals had a fairytale brightness, and the Aboriginal boy’s dance seemed one of the strangest yet beautiful expressions of yearning I had ever seen. The visual splendour mocked my stereotype of the Outback. Never before had I entertained the notion that our landscape could be so romantic, so glorious both in its potent dangers and beauty.
Others who saw it on its initial release will share those memories, but at the same time, some have raised questions about Nowra's views on the film.
These questions willl strike a familiar chord as they are the same ones that have been chasing their tail since the film's release.
They include the notion that the film is as much about Britain and the decadent west, and question Roeg's relentless use of iconic Australian imagery:
Nowra’s lack of interest in the questions of race raised by the film also places him in a weak position when he considers the charges of thematic banality that have been levelled against Walkabout since its release. Describing a sequence in which footage of Gulpilil cutting up a kangaroo is inter-cut with a butcher chopping up a chicken, Nowra states: “Roeg’s comment on the brutal commercialisation of an Australian icon is too obvious. The symbolism grates.” (p. 41) In fact the sequence is more ambiguous than Nowra implies, but having characterised this part of the film as overtly obvious in meaning, he goes on to note: “Moments like these led some reviewers to belittle the film as a series of cliches comparing the corruption of European civilisation to the innocence of a Noble Savage’s life.” (p. 41) Rather than productively responding to these allegations of thematic banality, Nowra falls back on Roeg’s imaginative visual style as a defence. He quotes a review from Jan Dawson in Monthly Film Bulletin: “If the film plays with some familiar antitheses (noble savage and corrupt society, paradise lost and urban hell) it gains in power from the fact that these are presented as images rather than ideas.” (p. 70) Nowra leaves this quote hanging as if it contains a self-evident rebuke to the film’s critics, without ever explaining why a hackneyed theme is any less hackneyed when presented as an image rather than a written or verbal discourse. (here)
To which some might feel inclined to respond, an image is an image is an image, and why is anyone still reviewing a book about a film over thirty years after its release ... if its merely a hackneyed visual discourse ...
An indigenous perspective on Nowra's book is provided here, and it too questions the film and Nowra's interpretation of it.
But it should be noted that up to this time no Australian feature film had captured with such imagination or beauty aboriginal dance, as displayed by Gulpilil in his courtship dance. Whatever else might be said about it, the film expanded the imagination and understanding of those who would take part in the Australian feature film revival.
9. The final word:
Roeg's vision of the film and his method of working has remained consistent.
Many of the themes he outlines in his DVD commentary were also on view in an interview he gave to Shane Danielsen in The Australian on 27th March 1998 to mark the re-release of the director's cut, with restored scenes and re-mastered soundtrack:
Speaking from London, the 70-year-old film-maker is unsurprised that the film has aged so well, citing the essential timelessness of the story: "What interests me is always the same thing: a simple story about life and being alive, not covered with sophistry, but addressing the most basic human themes: birth, death, mutability."
"The freedom we had was quite extraordinary. We didn't really plan anything - we just came across things by chance, as it were - this little group of Land Rovers driving around the outback, filming whatever we found. And also, the movie was privately financed, which was amazing. It was like having a patron, in the classical sense of the word."
Aside from Roeg's visual genius, it enjoyed the distinction of a script by the great British playwright Edward Bond (Saved, The Fool), though the original screenplay, Roeg notes, was just 14 pages long. "There were no flowery, descriptive passages: it was almost entirely a dialogue exchange between the girl and her brother. When Edward approached the project - and he didn't do a lot of screenplays - he said something which really struck me: he said, `you know, I've been thinking about doing something about a journey'. And that openness seemed so perfect ... With that one sentence, he showed that he was as open to the essence of it as the rest of us." This willingness to experiment, Roeg claims, was essential to the entire undertaking, part of that 60s notion of improvisatory latitude, of an art crafted simply with whatever happened to be at hand...
... contemporary audiences are left to ponder the irony that one of the most powerful and enduring visions of the Australian landscape was made by an Englishman, barely six weeks into his first visit. "I suppose I simply viewed it without preconceptions," says Roeg. "But then, it's always the way, isn't it ... an outsider's eye is always the most acute."
BAFTA gave a tribute to Nicolas Roeg in April 2009, along with a special award for an outstanding creative contribution to cinema, with further details available here.
It often takes a time, but movies with special merit survive, and aggregate new meanings for new viewers.