(UK - 1971)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Jenny Agutter, Lucien John, David Gulpilil
Genre: Drama
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Screenplay: Edward Bond from the novel by James Vance Marshall
Cinematography: Nicolas Roeg
Composer: John Barry
Runtime: 100 minutes

What makes Nicolas Roeg's films so interesting is he takes a basic plot, but doesn't play it out in an expected way or offer any kind of conventional payoff. His movies don't bog you down with any details (here no one even has a name), they have vague characters whose actions aren't explained, but that's the fun of it. In spite of their dark exotic nature and often base in fantasy, the material is so layered and the points apply to everyday life. They just don't apply the same way to everyone because so much is left to the viewer. We many not know what order the scenes actually occurred in, or if they only occurred in the head of one of the characters, but we can bet that not being able to communicate your real feelings, needs, and desires will be a big problem.

Here a 14-year-old girl (Jenny Agutter) and her 6-year-old brother (Roeg's son Luc, who went on to be a producer, in his only screen appearance) are stranded in the outback when their father kills himself after failing to kill them. We don't know why he does this, but one interpretation would be that society failed him so he purposely misses them with his shots, burns the car, and kills himself to give them a chance to live away from civilization and all it's conventions. They finally stumble across what they probably think is a little paradise, but are not smart enough to set aside any of the fruit and water, so the animals have depleted all the oasis has to offer by the time they wake up. Luckily, the run into a teenage aborigine (David Gulpilil) on his walkabout (he has to try to survive away from the tribe for 6 months), and his knowledge of how to survive saves them.

The little boy is one of those kids who never stop asking questions. He relies on his sister for answers because she is older. She constantly lies to him about their situation because he is too young to handle it, but the film makes a point about showing he knows the score. One of the most memorable scenes in the movie is the revelation that the boy knows his father is dead, they are in isolation, and they might not survive. He relates their situation to super hero series. "You always know the super hero is gonna get away with it. That's the trouble with Batman. You always know he's gonna win all the fights in the end. That's the trouble with all these series. Even Bugs Bunny wins all the time. If we were super heroes we would definitely win. Are we super heroes?"

The boy is able to communicate with the aborigine because he's young enough not to be set on one way of life. We see how his toys become of less and less importance and he learns some of the survival tactics of the aborigine. This is not a film about conversion though. It's more a tragedy about people thinking they are so different because they can't break down the barriers to get to their similarities.

His sister, on the other hand, doesn't have any real interest in understanding the aborigine. I mean, she thinks he'd like to play with her brother's toys because he's never had any of his own. Her brother wants to go without his shirt like the aborigine, but she won't let him because she's set in her middle class ways. The film shows that older people may change their lifestyle drastically because they have to, but they'll long to return to what they were accustomed to. In the meantime, she can survive on the aborigine's food and get by on her brother's "translations."

The aborigine is as much at fault. He is sexually interested in the sister, who like him is physically budding. He doesn't try to relate to their life in any way or learn any of their language. The sister and the aborigine learn the other's word for water, but that is it. The boy can communicate to the aborigine with gestures, but the sister and the aborigine make no such effort to understand one another. The argument the film makes is older people are so programmed by their environment that they can't function outside it.

Every living creature in this movie is shown doing what they do. It's a cynical movie, but at the same time it's not slanted. Roeg sees things for what they are, and has confidence that his audience will as well. We admire the survival skills of the aborigine, but at the same time we don't want flies swarming around our private parts. The animals are beautiful, but they have to eat like everything else so they can be vicious, and to a westerner somewhat disgusting. The film uses brief series of quick edits to draw parallels between the modern and ancient techniques. We don't think we butcher things because we are not savages. Really, we just do it neater and cleaner, and waste a lot to live the way we do.

Even in spite of the exceptionally understanding performances by the three stars, all of this might not make a great film if not for Roeg really outdoing himself in his last official cinematographic effort. Roeg came up the ranks shooting second unit footage for Lawrence Of Arabia, but this almost makes that classic seem  bland looking. I'm the last person you'll find watching National Geographic kind of shows, but it's fascinating seeing all the settings and unique creatures of the Australian outback captured probably as they have never been before and will never be again. Roeg shows nature in a way that's so natural and beautiful, which really goes a long way toward getting across his point that civilized men are squandering it. At the same time, we see how it's all the aborigine knows, hell for the girl, and somewhat in between for the unindoctrinated boy. The simplistic and often haunting score by John Barry goes a long way toward backing the visuals up. Some people will think the movie is slow because it's not plot oriented, but it's stunning and spectacular on so many levels.

Roeg's films are almost all for the mature, but in spite of the violence and nudity (more than justifiable considering the setting) this one should be seen by junior high and up because more than anything else it shows the facts of life.


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