Walkabout, 1971, dir. Nicholas Roeg, screenplay by Edward Bond from a novel by James Vance Marshall. Sometimes a writer or a director will think they're making one movie but will end up making something quite different. On first viewing, Walkabout is a simple enough story: a brother and sister are stranded in the middle of the Australian outback; they meet an Aborigine boy who helps them find their way back to civilization. In fact, the surface story is all right, but it's very much of its time: the Aborigine is preternaturally good and noble, the opening scenes of civilization (set in Adelaide, I think), are mind-bogglingly stultifying, &c. &c. Guess which Aborigine is forever scarred and destroyed through his contact with Western society? But, as Roger Ebert has noted, the surface story is not what sticks with you; there are deeper things going on here which are more subtle.
Jenny Agutter plays the sister; she was probably 16 at the time of the shoot. In the commentary track, she says of her character, "the things that she requires are the things that her society has set up for her." I think that's very true and pretty insightful; society works by setting up needs and desires and then fulfilling them. If you have lived long enough to have gotten the jones for things like a house, a job, a spouse, it's pretty much impossible to imagine leaving the confines of the society that can provide those things for you. So when Jenny Agutter meets David Gulpilil, the Aborigine, she isn't really interested in him except to the extent he can get her back to the things she needs. Her younger brother (about 6) is more flexible, and doesn't yet have expectations. Jenny Agutter's characther isn't bad, or callous, or "the corrupting influence of modern society" or whatever; in fact, she behaves heroically in saving her brother. She is just profoundly uninterested in Gulpilil's society, and that proves to be his undoing. Strangely enough, the Aborigine does seem interested in the brother and sister. You can check out Ebert's essay for a more eloquent explanation of the failures of communication in this movie; suffice it to say that I think he's right, and the more I think about Walkabout, the righter I think he is.
A few notes and random observations about the movie:
In the opening scenes, Jenny Agutter serves fruit from a mixing bowl that my mom had: it's a bright red plastic bowl with a handle and a very broad spout. I think she threw it away years ago; it must have been a pretty common model at the time. I only mention this to note that household items like that are not important at all until you see one of them years later; then the tiniest, stupidest thing can spark all sorts of memories.
This is not a film to watch if you're squeamish about blood or dead animals. There are lots and lots of hunting scenes, all of them graphic. The most heavyhanded intercutting in the whole movie takes place during a scene where the Aborigine spears, dresses, and cooks a kangaroo: the whole (extremely bloody) process is intercut with a butcher cutting chops. It's a connection everyone in the theater can make without having it pounded into their heads. And it's one of the things in the movie that has dated; my first reaction was "A butcher! I've been looking all over LA for years for a good butcher!"
When Jenny Agutter first became interested in appearing with the film, it was going to be financed by Apple Corp. (the Beatles' company). As it turns out, she saw appearing in the movie as a necessary stepping stone to meeting the Beatles.
The movie was shot over four months, and they didn't do any location scouting or rehearsal, just went out to the desert and started filming. Try finding someone to produce a movie today under those terms. Furthermore, a wombat chewed through the wires on a bunch of the film equipment, and Jenny Agutter buried her 6-year-old co-star to his neck in the sand while on lunch break one day. The impression I got from her commentary was that she should probably have been better supervised.
The score is by John Barry, who you might remember from such stuck-in-your-head-forever pieces of music as the James Bond theme.
The last thing is something I've been wondering about for a while. On the commentary track, Nicholas Roeg says something really interesting about the way he uses flashbacks. He says he hates the term flashback, and when he shows something out of sequence, he's trying to literally show what's happening in the character's mind at the moment. As he puts it, "We don't think in pages of the written word, we think in images." Well, I don't think in images, and neither does my writing partner; my thought process involves a pretty literal internal monologue; I think in words. But some people do think in images; I have to work at it. I am pretty sure that thinking in words is an advantage if you're a novelist, but I wonder what's easier if you're writing a screenplay. Lawrence Kasdan's thing about screenwriting is that you should think of it in terms of watching the movie and "write what you see"; that sounds to me like the way to do it if you think in images. It's junior high school stuff to wonder what someone else's subjective thought process is like, but from what I've figured out informally, it seems to me that thinking in words is less common. I'd be curious to know what other people's experiences with this are like.