Some years ago, I screened Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 film Don’t Look Now for a group of international students who were learning English. Rarely have I seen an audience more engaged by what they were watching. We discussed the film afterward, and I was delighted to discover that, despite their limited understanding of the language, these young people had not only grasped the essentials of the fragmented narrative but also picked up most of the nuances of the story. Of course, it should come as no real surprise that Roeg, who first distinguished himself as a cinematographer, would be able to convey a story in visual terms, but it was that audience’s response to the subtleties of the characters’ emotions that most underlined his achievement. The central scene of lovemaking prompted the first, hesitant remark: “It is beautiful when they try to make new baby.” It was obvious that these were not passive spectators. Where some would have seen a thriller, they had observed a tragedy.
Don’t Look Now should be proof enough that, more than any other British filmmaker of his generation, Roeg has the ability to create pure cinema. But the finest example of his gift remains Walkabout (1971), his first solo outing as a director. He had codirected and photographed Performance (1970), but it is generally accepted that, while the look and the pace of that film owe much to Roeg, its “authorship” can be more properly ascribed to its screenwriter, Roeg’s codirector, Donald Cammell. Walkabout is entirely Roeg’s own. Based on the 1959 novel The Children, by James Vance Marshall (a pseudonym for the English writer Donald G. Payne), Walkabout is, like its source material, essentially a coming-of-age story. In Marshall’s novel, the two white children are survivors of a plane crash, and the core of the tale is their journey through the Australian outback and relationship with an aboriginal boy who befriends them—as it is in the film. The book has long been regarded in Australia as a children’s classic along the lines of The Swiss Family Robinson, but Roeg and his screenwriter, Edward Bond, made small, significant changes that took the film into harsher territory.
The first of these was to eliminate the plane crash (initially, perhaps, to avoid similarities to the opening of Peter Brook’s 1963 adaptation of William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies). They replaced it with the suicide of the children’s father—thus heightening the violence of the opening and personalizing the children’s sense of abandonment. Also heightened was the children’s curiosity about one another, which took on a deeper element of sensuality and, in the case of the girl and the aboriginal boy, nascent sexuality. In a justly famous sequence, the girl swims naked in a lake, and while this can be interpreted as her need to clean and refresh herself in midjourney, it has an unmistakable element of display. Toward the film’s end, it is the turn of the young aborigine to display, by means of a sexually charged ritual dance directed at the girl. The girl’s fearful rejection of him leads to another major change from the novel. There, the native boy dies from a virus to which he would not have been exposed if not for his encounter with these outsiders; in the film, the young man takes his own life. A film with two suicides and a delicately sensual nude scene was never destined for the label of “children’s classic,” and yet one can sense that Roeg has trust in the reaction of an adolescent audience, for he is speaking the truth of adolescence to us all.
The film had a curious gestation. While working as cinematographer on François Truffaut’s only English-language film, Fahrenheit 451, in 1966, Roeg met the producer Si Litvinoff, who had recently optioned the Anthony Burgess novel A Clockwork Orange. The two met again, and became fast friends, when Roeg was photographing Richard Lester’s 1968 Petulia, and when Litvinoff discovered that Roeg was eager to turn to film direction, he started seriously considering giving him his chance with A Clockwork Orange. Soon afterward, Litvinoff went into partnership with the clothing manufacturer turned producer Max Raab, who was keen to finance A Clockwork Orange and was in favor of Roeg as director. But the new team turned first to Gerry O’Hara’s drama All the Right Noises (1969), and while Litvinoff was continuing to develop the script of A Clockwork Orange with Burgess and screenwriter Terry Southern, he discovered that Roeg had become obsessed with the James Vance Marshall novel, and had approached a writer he greatly admired, the British playwright Edward Bond, to work on a script. Litvinoff helped Roeg acquire the rights to the novel, and Raab agreed to finance Walkabout.
Bond had made his reputation at the Royal Court Theatre in London. In 1955, this small Chelsea venue had become the home of the English Stage Company, which, under the direction of the visionary actor-director George Devine, set out to challenge the dominant trend of West End theater—cozy, middle-class dramas, often set in drawing rooms and country houses—by presenting work by new writers, mostly of working-class origins, that engaged with the social truth of the time. The company had its first major success with John Osborne’s groundbreaking 1956 play Look Back in Anger. Bond began writing plays at this time, and he found encouragement from Devine and others at the Royal Court. His first produced play had the provocative title The Pope’s Wedding (1962), and although it was given only a single performance, “without decor,” on a Sunday evening, it attracted wide critical attention, leading critic Kenneth Tynan to describe Bond as “a born mood-evoker.” Bond would come to full prominence in 1965 with his play Saved, a poetic portrait of working-class London life that scandalized audiences (or, more properly, a large number of those who had not seen it) with a shocking scene in which two youths stone to death an infant in a baby carriage. Of course, it was only representation: there was no baby in the carriage and there were no stones in the actors’ hands. Nevertheless, the Royal Court was forced to turn itself into a “theater club” to escape censorship, and even seasoned theater critics—who had presumably seen Shakespeare’s grisly Titus Andronicus—expressed outrage. Among the play’s defenders was Laurence Olivier, who wrote to one newspaper: “Saved is not a play for children, but it is for grown-ups, and the grown-ups of this country should have the courage to look at it.”
Bond’s subsequent career has, to an extent, mirrored that of Roeg. Both artists are held in high regard by their peers and exercise a lasting influence, but both have been somewhat marginalized by the mainstream in their home territory. As the critic David Thomson writes in his entry on Roeg in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film: “It is not a kind world for visionaries.” It is easy to see how Roeg and Bond would be drawn to the idea of working together, and it is a measure of Roeg’s audacity that he did not seek out a seasoned screenwriter as his chief collaborator. Bond’s major screenplay credit was his 1968 adaptation of the Vladimir Nabokov novel Laughter in the Dark, for Tony Richardson, but he had contributed dialogue to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) and would go on to do the same for, paradoxically, the historical epic Nicholas and Alexandra (1971); Roeg, too, has had to undertake journeyman work (his television credits include a 1993 episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles). The script that Bond produced for Roeg has been described by the director as “a fourteen-page prose poem.”
If there is a word to characterize what Roeg and Bond shared in their approach to Walkabout, it must be fearlessness—and that is the attitude Roeg, with his outsider’s eye, took into the Australian outback. The novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux made just such an observation when he followed in Roeg’s footsteps, journeying through the film’s terrain, for a 1990 Observer article. Contrasting Roeg’s stance with that of the white population of the country, he observed: “Australians—the most urbanized people in the world—are full of fear, full of anxieties about the sun and the sea and the creepy crawlies and what they call the ‘bities’—snakes, spiders, box jellyfish, crocodiles, kangaroos bursting through your windscreen, wild pigs eating your lunch.”
Roeg knew the Australian landscape to some degree from his work on the camera crew of Fred Zinnemann’s epic The Sundowners (1960), but he was also familiar with its representation in the work of such Australian painters as Sir Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd, modernists who rendered surreal a terrain that needed very little help in that direction. Long before filming began, Roeg had a casting session with the fourteen-year-old Jenny Agutter; she was approaching seventeen by the time she arrived on set, on the cusp of adulthood, and so actually better suited to the demands of the role. His initial choice for Agutter’s young brother, his son Nico, had grown too old, though, and, at Litvinoff’s prompting, Roeg cast his younger son, Luc (credited on-screen as Lucien John). On a location-scouting trip to Maningrida, in Australia’s northeastern Arnhem Land, Roeg came across the sixteen-year-old David Gulpilil (credited in the film as Gumpilil). Although he was a pupil at the local mission school, Gulpilil had initially been raised by his family in a traditional tribal situation. He was a skilled hunter, having been taught by his father (who, according to an interview Gulpilil gave in 1971 to Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, once lost him in the bush for four weeks when the boy was only ten years old; he was able to sustain himself and find his way home). But Gulpilil’s major talent was as a traditional dancer, something he has maintained throughout his life.
Much has been written about the “fragmented” style that Roeg has employed in so many of his films—Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), and Bad Timing (1980) all play with linear narrative, setting subtle traps for the viewer and commanding our close attention. In Walkabout, this style serves to enhance the sense of memory that pervades the film. All coming-of-age stories are fundamentally memory stories, rooted in recollections of a time of great intensity, of growing, of puzzling, of understanding. We look back at that stage in our life and find memories of the pain we felt and the pain we inflicted, unthinkingly, because we did not understand ourselves and our burgeoning relationship to a new, strange adult world. The strangeness of that world for the girl in Walkabout is deepened by the landscape; for the aboriginal boy, it is deepened by his encounter with people for whom his lifelong training has ill prepared him.
Just as Roeg explores the sights of the landscape with the intensity he found in the work of Australian painters, so he captures the sounds of the natural world with heightened, musical clarity. This makes the careful use of music in the film all the more thrilling. The opening, disconcerting extract from Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Hymnen gives way to a didgeridoo solo, reminding us that modern classical music, like traditional tribal music, is unconcerned with melody—and linking, as in the paintings of Nolan and Boyd, modernism with an ancient past. Melody makes its appearance, jarringly, in the seemingly random songs played on the children’s radio (Rod Stewart’s “Gasoline Alley” and Warren Marley’s “Los Angeles”), and then movingly in John Barry’s score, which brilliantly integrates and points up the natural sounds of the outback. As the white children begin their journey, Barry provides a melancholic choral setting of the nursery rhyme “Who Killed Cock Robin?” (the human chorus taking over from the chorus of lizards and insects, and the phrases “Who saw him die? I, said the fly . . .” underlining the point that these animals are the only otherwitnesses to the father’s suicide). When Barry’s main theme comes in, he uses divided strings contrapuntally, allowing the music to soar and descend, arcing around the landscape in an embrace and, at the same time, introducing a hint of nostalgia (memory again). That nostalgic quality is resolved in the very last sequence, as Barry’s music plays under the reading from A. E. Houseman’s A Shropshire Lad: “The happy highways where I went / And cannot come again.”
Walkabout is an astonishing visual poem, by turns violent, innocent, and elegiac. Above all, it is truthful. That beautifully wistful look on Jenny Agutter’s face in the film’s penultimate sequence is one we can all recognize as we think back on those twin landscapes of time and place. And as we revisit Roeg’s encapsulation of a “land of lost content,” we can all say, with Houseman, “I see it shining plain.”
Paul Ryan is a writer and actor whose books include Never Apologise: The Collected Writings of Lindsay Anderson.