An English teenage girl (Jenny Agutter) and her younger brother (Luc Roeg) live in the Australian city of Adelaide with their parents, but their father is more troubled than he lets on. One day he drives them, without their mother, onto a remote road in the Outback and stops, ostensibly so they can enjoy a picnic in the warm, open air. However, as the girl is setting out the food on the tablecloth and the boy is playing with his water pistol their father produces a real pistol and begins to shoot at them. The girl grabs her brother and they dive for cover...
Walkabout was the first film Nicolas Roeg directed on his own after Performance, on which he had shared those duties with Donald Cammell. Roeg would go onto be blessed with a far more successful career than his creative partner, and thanks to this, which set out his particular style clearer than ever, the seventies would be braced for a decade of cult classics in a similar vein. This film also announced to the world that Australian films could be both valid as entertainment and art, taking like so many films to follow a mysterious view of its landscape, whether they were highbrow or simple exploitation.
This could have been a simple adventure story of survival, but Roeg, who also acted as his own cinematographer, brings out a mysticism in the visuals, as if nature was a presence here more powerful than any god; therefore when the girl and the boy are stranded after their father (John Meillon) fails to shoot them so resorts to shooting himself after setting fire to the car, leaving his children to perish at the mercy of the elements, there is an ambiguous feeling to how they are treated by their environment. At first the story seems to be setting them up to die for lack of food and water, yet nature isn't going to be so callous.
First, as the pair wander the desert in search of any kind of human contact, they find an oasis which has a fruit-bearing tree in the middle of it, thus prolonging their lives a little longer. That won't be enough of course, but soon they have their own saviour in the person of an Aborigine boy on walkabout, which the caption that opens the proceedings has informed us means a rite of passage for native young men where they travel alone through the country, drawing on the resources they find to prevail against their surroundings. This boy was played by David Gulpilil, here making his mark as possibly the most famous Aborigine actor internationally.
Neither the white characters or the black character can understand what the other is saying, but they do reach a kind of communication where the native helps them through this hostile territory, providing food and water for them and tending to their misfortunes such as sunburn. The contrast between the natural world and the civilised one judges civilisation as coming up short, as the Aborigine is far better suited to life than the less canny whites. Yet there is a connection between them, and even a sexual tension between him and the girl which culminates in a tragedy that seems unnecessarily cruel: couldn't their inability to see eye to eye have ended up with a simple, regretful parting of the ways? It does make the ending, where the older girl recalls her adventure and what she might have lost without realising it at the time, all the more poignant, but gives what is an otherwise beautiful and thought-provoking film a layer of unfairness that rankles somewhat. Music by John Barry.