Walkabout (film)

Walkabout is a 1971 British-Australian survival film directed by Nicolas Roeg and starring Jenny Agutter, Luc Roeg, and David Gulpilil. Edward Bond wrote the screenplay, which is loosely based on the 1959 novel Walkabout by James Vance Marshall. Set in the Australian outback, it centres on two white schoolchildren who are left to fend for themselves in the Australian outback and who come across a teenage Aboriginal boy who helps them to survive.

US film poster
Directed byNicolas Roeg
Produced bySi Litvinoff
Screenplay byEdward Bond
Based onWalkabout
by James Vance Marshall
StarringJenny Agutter
Luc Roeg
David Gulpilil
Music byJohn Barry
CinematographyNicolas Roeg
Edited byAntony Gibbs
Alan Pattillo
Max L. Raab-Si Litvinoff Films
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
May 1971 (1971-05) (Cannes)
October 1971 (UK/Australia)
Running time
100 minutes[1]
CountryUnited Kingdom
BudgetA$1 million[2]

One of the first films in the Australian New Wave cinema movement, it received positive reviews despite being a commercial failure. Alongside Wake in Fright, it was one of two Australian films entered in competition for the Grand Prix du Festival at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival.[3] It is also held to be one of Roeg's masterpieces, along with Performance (1970), Don't Look Now (1973), and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). In 2005, the British Film Institute included it in their list of the "50 films you should see by the age of 14".


A white, city-bred teenaged schoolgirl, her younger brother and their father drive far into the Australian outback, ostensibly for a picnic. The father goes berserk and suddenly begins shooting at the children. They run behind rocks for cover, whereupon he sets the car on fire and shoots himself in the head. The girl conceals the suicide from her brother, retrieves some picnic food, and leads him away from the scene, attempting to walk home through the desert.

By the middle of the next day, they are weak and the boy can barely walk. Discovering a small water hole with a fruiting tree, they spend the day playing, bathing, and resting. By the next morning, the water has dried up. They are then discovered by an Aboriginal boy. Although the girl cannot communicate with him, due to the language barrier, her brother mimes their need for water and the newcomer cheerfully shows them how to draw it from the drying bed of the oasis. The three travel together, with the Aboriginal boy sharing food he has caught hunting. The boys learn to communicate slightly using words and sign language.

While in the vicinity of a plantation, a white woman walks past the Aboriginal boy, who simply ignores her when she speaks to him. She appears to see the other children, but they do not see her, and they continue on their journey. The children also discover a weather balloon belonging to a nearby research team working in the desert. After drawing markings of a modern-style house, the Aboriginal boy eventually leads them to an abandoned farm, and takes the small boy to a nearby road. The Aboriginal boy hunts down a water buffalo and is wrestling it to the ground when two white hunters appear in a truck and nearly run him over. He watches in shock as they shoot several buffalo with a rifle. The boy then returns to the farm, but passes by without speaking.

Later, the Aboriginal boy lies in a trance among a slew of buffalo bones, having painted himself in ceremonial markings. He returns to the farmhouse catching the undressing girl by surprise, and initiates a mating ritual by performing a courtship dance in front of her.[4] Although he dances outside all day and into the night until he becomes exhausted, she is frightened and hides from him, and tells her brother they will leave him the next day. In the morning, after they dress in their school uniforms, the brother takes her to the Aboriginal boy's body, hanging in a tree. Before leaving, the girl wipes ants from the dead boy's chest. Hiking up the road, the siblings find a nearly deserted mining town where a surly employee directs them towards nearby accommodation.

Much later, a businessman arrives home as the now grown-up girl prepares dinner; while he embraces her and relates office gossip, she imagines a scene in which she, her brother, and the Aboriginal boy are playing and swimming naked in a natural rock pool in the outback.


  • Jenny Agutter as Girl
  • Luc Roeg (credited as Lucien John) as White Boy
  • David Gulpilil (miscredited as David Gumpilil) as Black Boy
  • John Meillon as Father
  • Robert McDarra as Man
  • Pete Carver as No Hoper
  • John Illingsworth as Husband
  • Hilary Bamberger as Woman
  • Barry Donnelly as Australian Scientist
  • Noeline Brown as German Scientist
  • Carlo Manchini as Italian Scientist


Jenny Agutter regards the film as multilayered; on one hand it is a story about children lost in the outback finding their way, and on the other it is an allegorical tale about society and the loss of innocence.[5] Louis Nowra noted that biblical imagery runs through the film; in one scene there is a cut to a subliminal flashback of the father's suicide, but the scene plays in reverse and the father rises up as if he has been "resurrected". Many writers have also drawn a direct parallel between the depiction of the Outback and the Garden of Eden, with Nowra observing that this went as far as to include "portents of a snake slithering across the bare branches of the tree" above Jenny Agutter's character as she sleeps.[6] Gregory Stephens, an associate professor of English, sees the film framed as a typical "back to Eden" story, including common motifs from 1960s counterculture; he offers the skinny-dipping sequence as an example of a "symbolic shedding of the clothes of the over-civilized world".[7] By way of the girl's rejection of the Aboriginal boy and his subsequent death the film paints the Outback as "an Eden that can only ever be lost".[8] Agutter shares a similar interpretation, noting "we cannot go back and have that Garden of Eden. We cannot go back and make it innocent again." Agutter considers the ages of the two adolescents, who are on the cusp of adulthood and losing their childhood innocence, as a metaphor for the irreversible change wrought by Western civilisation.[5]


The film was the second feature directed by Nicolas Roeg, a British filmmaker. He had long planned to make a film of the novel Walkabout, in which the children are Americans stranded by a plane crash. After the indigenous boy finds and leads them to safety, he dies of influenza contracted from them, as he has not been immunised. Roeg had not been able to find a script he was happy with, until the English playwright Edward Bond did a minimal 14-page screenplay. Roeg then obtained backing from two American businessmen, Max Raab and Si Litvinoff, who incorporated a company in Australia but raised the budget entirely in the US and sold world rights to 20th Century Fox.

Filming began in Sydney in August 1969 and later moved to Alice Springs,[2] and Roeg's son, Luc, played the younger boy in the film. Roeg brought an outsider's eye and interpretation to the Australian setting, and improvised greatly during filming. He commented, "We didn’t really plan anything—we just came across things by chance…filming whatever we found."[9] The film is an example of Roeg's well-defined directorial style, characterised by strong visual composition from his experience as a cinematographer, combined with extensive cross-cutting and the juxtaposition of events, location, or environments to build his themes.[10] The music was composed and conducted by John Barry, and produced by Phil Ramone, and the poem read at the end of the film is Poem 40 from A.E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad.


Walkabout fared poorly at the box office in Australia. Critics debated whether it could be considered an Australian film, and whether it was an embrace of or a reaction to the country's cultural and natural context.[9] In the US, the film was originally rated R by the MPAA due to nudity, but was reduced to a GP-rating (PG) on appeal.

Critic Roger Ebert called it "one of the great films".[11][12] He writes that it contains little moral or emotional judgement of its characters, and ultimately is a portrait of isolation in proximity. At the time, he stated: "Is it a parable about noble savages and the crushed spirits of city dwellers? That's what the film's surface suggests, but I think it's about something deeper and more elusive: the mystery of communication."[12] Film critic Edward Guthmann also notes the strong use of exotic natural images, calling them a "chorus of lizards".[13] In Walkabout, an analysis of the film, author Louis Nowra wrote: "I was stunned. 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."[14]

Walkabout features several scenes of animal hunting and killing, such as a kangaroo being speared and bludgeoned to death. The Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act 1937 makes it illegal in the United Kingdom to distribute or exhibit material where the production involved inflicting pain or terror on an animal. Since the animals did not appear to suffer or be in distress the film was deemed to not contravene the Act.

The film includes scenes of nudity featuring Jenny Agutter, who the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) surmised was 17 years old at the time of filming. The scenes did not pose a problem when submitted to the BBFC in 1971 and later in 1998. The Protection of Children Act 1978 prohibited distribution and possession of indecent images of people under the age of 16 so the issue of potential indecency had not been considered on previous occasions. However, the Sexual Offences Act 2003 raised the age threshold to 18 which meant the BBFC was required to consider the scenes of nudity in the context of the new law when the film was re-submitted in 2011. The BBFC reviewed the scenes and considered them not to be indecent and passed the film uncut.[1]


Commenting on the film's enduring appeal, Roeg described the film in 1998 as "a simple story about life and being alive, not covered with sophistry but addressing the most basic human themes; birth, death, mutability."[15]

More than 40 years after its release, on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a score of 84% based on reviews from 32 critics, with an average rating of 8.2 out of 10.[16]


  1. "Walkabout". British Board of Film Classification. Retrieved 11 June 2014.
  2. Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper, Australian Film 1900–1977: A Guide to Feature Film Production, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1998 p258
  3. "Official Selection 1971". Festival de Cannes. France. Archived from the original on 2 December 2010. Official Selection 1971....WALKABOUT directed by Nicolas ROEG
  4. Nicolas Roeg (1998). Walkabout (DVD commentary) (1998 ed.). United States: The Criterion Collection. Event occurs at 1 hour 20 minutes. ISBN 0780020847.
  5. Jenny Agutter. "Jenny Agutter on Walkabout" (Interview). The Criterion Collection. Retrieved 13 November 2019. It has to be that particular age [adolescence of the European girl and the aboriginal boy] where the innocence is just going. Because of course what Nick Roeg... Nick Roeg is talking about many things - the film has lots of layers to it. There is the story about children lost in the outback, finding their way. There is a story about society and the loss of innocence. And the film is about losing one's innocence and not being able to go back, once you have gone to a certain stage. And that is our Western society: we go to a certain place, and then we are spoiled, we are changed. Whatever it is, we cannot go back and have that Garden of Eden. We cannot go back and make it innocent again. We cannot go back once we have got to a certain stage..
  6. Nowra, Louis (2003). Walkabout. Australian Screen Classics. Currency Press. p. 36. ISBN 0 86819 700 9.
  7. Stephens, Gregory (2018). Trilogies as Cultural Analysis: Literary Re-imaginings of Sea Crossings, Animals, and Fathering. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. p. 142. ISBN 9781527519114.
  8. Goldsmith, Ben; Lealand, Geoffrey, eds. (2010). Australia and New Zealand. Directory of world cinema. Intellect Books. p. 210. ISBN 9781841503738.
  9. Fiona Harma (2001). "Walkabout". The Oz Film Database. Murdoch University. Retrieved 18 February 2008.
  10. Chuck Kleinhans. "Nicholas Roeg—Permutations without profundity". Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. Retrieved 17 February 2008.
  11. Ebert, Roger (13 April 1997). "Walkabout (1971)". RogerEbert.com. Retrieved 18 November 2018.
  12. Ebert, Roger. "Walkabout by Nicolas Roeg". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved 17 February 2008.
  13. Edward Guthmann (3 January 1997). "Intriguing 'Walkabout' in the Past". SFGate.com. San Francisco chronicle. Retrieved 18 February 2008.
  14. Louis Nowra (2003), Walkabout, NSW: Currency Press
  15. Danielsen, Shane (27 March 1998), Walkabout: An Outsider’s Vision Endures, The Australian (newspaper)
  16. "Walkabout". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 31 January 2013.
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