“We’re lost, aren’t we?” (Roeg) is a sentiment that resonated with me, a pre-medical student interested by PTSD and trauma, in director Nicholas Roeg’s multifaceted, intricate film. Walkabout is a wonderful piece of cinematography that follows the journey of two unnamed children who are forced to adapt to the enigmatic lifestyle of the Australian Outback in order to return to their previous mundane lifestyles. Roeg explores a clear juxtaposition that demonstrates a distinct divide between civilization and uncivilized life. While humans of civilization are portrayed as structured, monotonous, and unfulfilling, humans living in nature are depicted as adventurous, uncertain, and grateful for the resources supplied. However, when the children and some other civilized people are there, without even realizing it, they take uncivilized life for granted, exploit its assets, and use it as if it were disposable. The contrast between the disparate worlds in Walkabout is explored through the theme of civilization being the enemy to nature, the characters disrupting the balance of nature, the rich use of symbolism, and the biochemistry of trauma.
Walkabout suggests that civilized humanity will always destroy nature. The young siblings are left in the desert by their suicided father and only learn to adapt when they encounter an Aboriginal boy who is on his own “walkabout.” The Aboriginal is a symbol of life in nature, as he had never been exposed to technology, white culture, or the English language. On the other hand, the two children are symbols for civilization, as they grew up in a world where they learned proper etiquette, were taught to get educated to ensure future employment, and were given food instead of having to hunt for it. In this film, it is evident that the Aboriginal boy became aware of the differences and lack of culture in civilized life. When he met the children, he saw the difference in their clothing and behaviors. The children wear matching, lifeless, dismal school uniforms while the Aboriginals wear little to no clothing. As Norman Holland says, “Clothing is a barrier, but culture is what makes clothing a barrier” (par. 12). The dreary colors of these uniforms are in direct contrast to the bright paint and the lively red colors of the rocks in the Aboriginal society, so it is evident that the children brought lifelessness into a beautiful place that reigns with brilliant colors.
In addition, technology is brought into the Outback that disrupts the quiet balance and harmony of Aboriginal life. First, the children flaunt their use of the radio to the Aboriginal boy. The fact that the radio is a piece of technology never viewed by the Aboriginal and that it is in a different language makes this object foreign and confusing to him. This technology does not belong in nature, and neither do the children. Moreover, the meteorologists with their weather balloons brought technology into an environment that solely relies on the resources provided by the plants and animals. They seem to be playing with these balloons, like children, which demonstrates that these civilized men believe they need material objects to secure their future in the Outback. They are unable and unwilling to assimilate to the culture of the uncivilized territory, and this further exposes the fraudulence of civilization. Roeg adds both the radio and the men playing with the weather balloons to show how unnecessary technology is to Aboriginal culture. The radio seems to always be sprouting unintelligible, inconsequential news, such as the argument that children should learn to, “tell a fish knife from a meat knife” (Roeg). These mind-numbing statements are reiterated throughout the film. The children cling onto the radio because it is their only tie to civilized life, but in the end, the girl must consider if she is better off living a free life in the Outback than a confined life in civilization. It is apparent that the children and the meteorologists have transported trivial news and material objects into Aboriginal society, a place that has a rich and interesting culture that does not pay attention to such insignificant ideas. There is a direct contrast between the disparate worlds and it emphasizes how unnecessary civilized society is in indigenous life, and how civilization ruins what it cannot appreciate.
Conjointly, some secondary characters play a role in disrupting the homeostasis of Aboriginal culture and expose them to civilized life. As the three children are on their journey back to civilization, the audience views a white man exploiting the Aboriginals by forcing them to construct plaster figurines of themselves for his own money-making pursuit. He mistreats “his slaves” by saying, “Move on. Go on. Quicker. Move it” (Roeg). This demonstrates how indifferent the civilized culture is to "savage" life. All civilization cares about is its lucrative immediate profit, while the Aboriginals care about culture and long term survival. It serves as a direct contrast between civilization and spiritual life and how the civilized life disturbs the balance of Aboriginal society.
The hunters also disrupt Aboriginal life. Towards the end of the movie, the Aboriginal boy is hunting a cow with a spear, but two hunters interrupt him by driving in quickly with a car and shooting many cattle with a rifle. Cars and guns are two pieces of technology that are foreign to Aboriginal culture. The Aboriginal boy stood there speechless and lugubrious when he saw the animals being treated as objects and profitable entities. The hunters also disrupted his practice of using every part of the animal for food and warmth. After nearly running the young Aboriginal over with their car and killing his food supply, the hunters took away the young Aboriginal’s will to live. He realized that no matter what, the corruptions of civilization will always win over alleged savage life. The Aboriginals are just slaves and resources to them. This, along with the girl’s rejection at the end, led to his subsequent suicide.
Throughout the movie, the three children acted as a family unit and truly learned what it was like to “live the savage life.” They loved each other and the white children were eternally grateful that the Aboriginal boy was guiding them back to civilization. In biblical terms, he was “their Jesus who redeemed them and showed them the way” (Gordon). However, when civilized life was only a day away, the girl completely rejected the Aboriginal boy. Instead of being the girl who was attracted to him and appreciative of all he did for them, she demonstrated that she never lost her conventional behavior and was the typical white, civilized girl who looked at Aboriginals as slaves or animals. She demanded, “Water. Water” (Roeg), just like he was her slave who was only there to serve her needs. She remembered all her civilized behaviors and the prejudice that exists behind the cultures. In addition, she sees that the boy is sitting on the floor seemingly very upset, but she walks past him disinterested. This total rejection leads to the suicide of the Aboriginal because he realized that “he failed the walkabout, he is not a man, and must die” (Holland, par. 24). However, the young girl is still indifferent as to the effect she had on the Aboriginal; she decides to continue on to find civilization with her brother without showing any emotion towards the boy who saved her and her brother’s life. This girl, along with the hunters, indirectly killed the Aboriginal, so it is definitely evident that civilized life has disrupted indigenous culture in an unforgettable, irreversible way. Civilization trying to mold to the conditions of nature backfired and led to the destruction of the Aboriginal boy.
There are many examples of symbolism that relates to the theme of civilization vs. life in nature. The first is the cracked rock vs. the brick wall. The cracked rock represents life in the Outback and is the first image seen by the audience in the movie. In this first scene, viewers can hear the radio, but it is quite distant and full of static. This symbolizes how distant and foreign the voices of civilization are in the Outback and how, throughout the movie, they will try to infiltrate the uncivilized world. In contrast, the brick wall marks a “chasm between the urban and the Outback” (Holland). It represents civilized society and is accompanied by images of crowds of business people, office buildings, technology, and soldiers. In fact, the crowds of business people directly contrasts with the Aboriginal boy being alone on top of a mountain towards the end of the movie. There are so many civilized people, but there is only one Aboriginal standing alone who cannot seem to overcome their presence in his life. Another symbol that supports the theme of civilization vs. life in nature is the picnic blanket that the girl places on the Outback’s dirty ground before sitting to eat with her brother. This is her attempt to “tame the unspoiled Earth” (Holland). She was so civilized and programmed to express proper etiquette at all times that she felt obliged to impose order to a place that is full of disorder, adventure, and no rules. Roeg even zooms in on different lizards and small animals that are clearly oblivious to her attempt to tame the desert and enforce her civilized behavior on it (Holland). This is Roeg’s way of showing the audience that civilization will always try to impose its control on nature, but nature will try like hell to avoid the control. There is a direct contrast between the two incongruent worlds.
Furthermore, additional examples of symbolism include the abandoned mining town and the irritated man that “welcomed” the children back to civilization. The mining town is in the middle of the Outback is a symbol for how civilized people have no regard for nature. It is apparent that man left behind scrap metal, old trucks, and garbage all jumbled together in nature. This technology is out of place and because man left it there, it illustrates that civilization destroyed yet another piece of nature. Roeg, by allowing the children to play on the machines, showed that they really do not have any aversion to this happening. In addition, the radio seemed to be the girl’s security blanked throughout the film, but the boy’s security blanket was his toys. When the wheel on the toy car came off at the beginning of the movie, he complained to his apathetic father. This directly paralleled the wheels coming off of the car in the mining town at the end of the film. This was Roeg’s way of mocking the civilized world. He exemplified that in order to feel comfortable in the naturalized world, the children needed to be playing with their toys to still feel connected to their previous world. He made this clear by allowing the young boy to play in the mining town.
In addition, the irritated man at the end of the film is a symbol of civilization as well. He is the first person that the children encounter as they journey back to civilization. This man is obviously very annoyed that the children ruined the quiet homeostatic balance of his day and he becomes irate when he notices that the little boy is touching his property. This demonstrates that civilization is preoccupied with such inconsequential things and they are only concerned about their own problems. It contrasts indigenous life because the Aboriginals have a rich culture and care about their ancestors, and the animals and resources provided to them. Inconsequential things are irrelevant to the Aboriginals. Civilized people are trained to not pay attention to other people’s problem as they require a balance in their own lives. He was not even phased when he heard that two young children were lost and were in desperate need of guidance. It is disgraceful that he was so indifferent to their issue, when they all three of them are civilized, white, and seemingly no prejudice exists between them. Here, Roeg challenges the audience with the question of who is the devil and who is Jesus in the film. The civilized, aggravated man (civilized life) is the devil and the Aboriginal boy (indigenous life) is Jesus.
Lastly, the man being undaunted after hearing about the children’s traumatic experience leads to an explanation of the biochemistry of trauma that illustrates how the young girl learns that life in the Outback is better than living a tedious, monotonous life in the civilized world. In the beginning, the girl truly despised of the Outback because she had to endure dehydration (which led to hallucination and depravity) and overexposure to heat. She did not know how she would make it out of this very unfortunate situation, and this trauma affected her biochemistry as she suffered high cortisol levels, hypervigilance, and psychological impediments. The sister desperately tried to hold onto the last vestiges of her previous life by clutching the radio and maintaining her position in the conventional stage of moral development (McLeod). She wanted to maintain homeostasis both physically and mentally, but it was difficult to challenge her innate desire to enjoy indigenous life. She began to appreciate what nature had offer and enjoyed the pure beauty of nature. She was lost physically, but mentally and emotionally, she found her inner nirvana in an uncivilized, acquiescent paradise. This is exemplified through the scene where she was swimming through the pond, just taking in the magnificence of her surroundings. However, at the end, it is evident that she contemplates living in the Outback, a place of uncertainty and adventure. Her civilized life is monotonous, dreary, and predictable—the same life that her mother and father lived in the beginning of the movie. The now older and wiser girl seems depressed and disconnected from the life that she tried to get back to before, and she is burdened by her precious memories. There is a scientific reason as to why she is depressed and detached from her new life. Trauma survivors experience swings in their biochemistry that bring upon intrusive memories. In fact, “Should these symptoms become chronic over several years, the survivor runs the paradoxical risk of then chronically under producing Cortisol…Suppressed Cortisol is usually associated with depression, numbness, joylessness, emotional flatness…and disconnection” (Naparstek, par. 11). It is apparent that she does not produce enough Cortisol. That leads to depression, and if she continues having these flashbacks, she will become unable to steer her biochemistry back into homeostasis. These memories will always be with her, and it is evident that civilization needs nature more than nature needs civilization.
In conclusion, when the young boy said, “We’re lost, aren’t we?” (Roeg), he was correct that they were lost physically, but they were never lost emotionally. Both children learned that life in the Outback is preferable over civilized life because they will never be able to experience that adventure and excitement again. The end of the movie was very depressing and tragic. The girl is hopeless and defeated, which symbolizes a loss of innocence. The theme of civilization vs. indigenous life is evident throughout the movie and Roeg uses examples of symbolism to drive home his point that civilization is an enemy to nature, but in the battle between the two incongruent worlds, civilization always wins. By the end, a character analysis of the young girl and her disturbed biochemistry allows the audience to understand her hopelessness and death of innocence that makes her yearn for civilized life.
Gordon, Paul Kirpal. 24 Feb. 2016. Lecture.
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McLeod, Saul. "Kohlberg - Moral Development." Simply Psychology, 2011. Web. 07 Mar.
Naparstek, Belleruth. "Trauma: The Right-Brain Connection." Trauma: The Right-Brain
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Walkabout. Dir. Nicholas Roeg. Perf. Jenny Agutter, Jean-Luc Roeg, and David Gumpilil. 1971.