I had heard this movie praised from the moment it was released, but somehow, I never got around to seeing it. Now, 42 years later, I find it was well worth the wait.
I fell deeply in love with Australia during the couple of weeks I was able to visit as Guest of Honor at the Australian National SF Convention, in Perth, quite a while ago now. Partly it was the Aussies who were my hosts and showed me a wonderful time. And partly it was the outrageous island continent itself. You can only see so much in two weeks, and what I saw was mostly Sydney, a great city, and the land along the railroad across the continent—some of the most barren I had ever seen—and a bit driving around Western Australia. There is so much left to see. I yearn to go back.
When an aboriginal boy reaches the age of 16, he “goes walkabout,” surviving on his own in the brutal outback, applying the lessons he has learned. In this story, two young white Aussies, a 14-year-old girl (Jenny Agutter) and her 5-year-old brother (Luc Roeg, son of the director, Nicholas), go walkabout, but not by choice. Their father takes them for a picnic far in the outback, and then … well, it happens ten minutes into the film, so I don’t think a spoiler warning is needed … tries to kill them. This was a shock to me. I knew they were going to be stranded and alone, but had no idea why. Failing after taking several potshots at them, he sets their VW bug afire and then offs himself.
The movie constantly defied my expectations like that. I expected a survival story, a sort of How to Survive in the Bush thing. Not really. The best advice it offers is to grow up an aboriginal and learn all this stuff at your father’s knee. They set out, dressed in their neat school uniforms. They forgot to bring a canteen, or anything else very useful except a radio. They luck into finding a little pool of water under a tree, but when that dries up they would surely have been a pile of bleached bones in short order except for the arrival of an aboriginal boy who may himself be on his walkabout. None of that is explained, as are so many details here. We must puzzle it all out, just as the children do.
He speaks no English. We never learn his name. (He is played by David Gulpilil, who went on to a memorable career in movies like The Last Wave, The Right Stuff,and Crocodile Dundee, and who is considered to be the best performer of aboriginal dance in Australia. I thought he looked familiar.) He takes them on, and keeps them alive as they walk through some of the most gorgeously photographed scenery I’ve ever beheld. That, and the most alive scenery. It looks like nothing could live in most of these places, but it is the domain of the reptiles. We keep discovering them, one Jurassic refugee dragon after another, as well as wombats, water buffalo, wallabies, marmosets. Kangaroos, of course. And birds. The glorious birds of Down Under. That was one of the most memorable things about Australia to me. The flocks of brightly colored birds that sell in American pet stores for thousands of dollars. Just out there, wild and free: parrots, cockatoos, budgies. Even in Perth I saw them, and outback? All over the place.
It’s hard to fathom just how primitive the aboriginals were, as far as tools go. You can’t even say Stone Age, really. The boy didn’t use a stone for anything. The only tools he had were a clutch of long, sharp, pointy sticks, and a couple of sticks to rub together to make a fire. Cuisine consisted of killing just about anything (we see a lot of animals killed here; it’s not for the queasy) and tossing it onto the fire. No grill, so spit, no hot rocks.
They wander. The kid is 5, totally absorbed in the moment. If he’s not actually dying of thirst, he couldn’t be bothered by anything except his toys. The girl is feeling a sexual vibe from the boy. Near the end, he performs an odd dance, far into the night, that I came to believe was some sort of courting ritual (and the summary at Wiki agrees with me). She doesn’t understand it, with tragic results.
I kept waiting for the expected scenes. None of them ever came. Surely there would be a tearful reunion with the mother. Nope. Never happened. Surely there would be signs that someone was looking for them. I’m sure they were, at first, but we never see it. Well, then, when they finally show up in a town, they’ll get a big welcome, right? Not even that. This movie never once went where I expected it to go. It’s a truly great one.