Take a Walkabout Through the Stark, Hypnotic History of Outback Cinema

Movies Lists Australia
Take a Walkabout Through the Stark, Hypnotic History of Outback Cinema

When Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout was first released in the United States, 50 years ago this summer, its dreamlike, highly allegorical depiction of the Australian Outback captivated international audiences and helped kick off the Australian New Wave.

At the center of Roeg’s story were two white children (Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg, the director’s son) who become stranded in the Outback and must find their way back to the city with the help of an Aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil) on his “walkabout,” a rite of passage during which he separates from his people to live off the land for a period of months. Infusing his aimless and ultimately devastating narrative with all the hypnotic force of a vision quest, Roeg captured Australia’s vast interior as a kind of oasis away from civilization, primordial in its scorch and sprawl. As the trio wander its sands and sojourn in its lagoons, Roeg’s picture is filled with the sounds and sights of ancient and modern forces—Aboriginal instruments and radio static—coexisting but not flowing. The film’s ultimate tragedy is born of a failure to communicate, as Westernized children cannot sense the rhythms of the land they navigate, an indigenous man cannot comprehend inner-city race relations, nor can either party bridge the linguistic and emotional gulf between their cultures.

Roeg’s treatment of Aboriginal spirituality in Walkabout was particularly unusual in 1971, at which time Australia’s cultural memory largely excluded the experience of its Aboriginal peoples as part of what was referred to by anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner as “the Great Australian Silence.” An outsider to Australian culture and to this “cult of forgetfulness,” the director had visualized a uniquely rich and mystical view of the Outback and its Aboriginal people. Neither had been seen on screen since Westerns had utilized the setting as a location two decades earlier. Launching the career of Gulpilil, who’d become a pivotal figure in Australian cinema, while mesmerizing international audiences with its depiction of the Outback, Walkabout renewed international interest in Australia’s cultural and geographic identity.

In hindsight, Walkabout was an early harbinger of what would become known as the Australian New Wave, a 15-year boom in which more than 400 films were produced in the country. Following World War II, the local film industry had been experiencing a drought, but by the early ‘70s (though not early enough for Walkabout to take advantage) increased commonwealth and state government funding had coupled together with new tax breaks and a tide of rising nationalism to fuel the concept of an Australian cinema. Out of this period rose directors like Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave), Bruce Beresford (Money Movers, Puberty Blues), Phillip Noyce (Heatwave, Rabbit-Proof Fence), Fred Schepisi (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Evil Angels), and Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career), whose films were vivid and distinct, yet reflected a shared appreciation for Australia’s natural beauty and the fierce human dramas often playing out within its vast expanse.

Key to many of the best Australian productions is an appreciation for the Outback in all its latent menace and imposing majesty. In honor of Walkabout, here are nine other films, some in the Australian New Wave and others more recent, that draw their dramatic power from the same collision of civilization and wilderness that makes Roeg’s film such an enduring masterpiece.

Wake in Fright (1971)


In a curious twist of fate, Walkabout competed at Cannes the same year as Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright, which centers on middle-class schoolteacher John Grant (Gary Bond), who becomes marooned in an Outback mining town known as “The Yabba” and is swept up by the vicious, hard-drinking locals. Opening with a 360-degree pan around the Australian desert, at once a limitless space and a punishing psychological prison for anyone stranded within it, Wake in Fright treats its setting as a crucible in which humankind’s genteel instincts are stripped away in favor of more base impulses. Essentially an Australian answer to (and inversion of) Deliverance, Wake in Fright charts its protagonist’s moral degradation as he accompanies the local men on a booze-soaked night of revelry and horror. The film’s perhaps remembered most for its violent kangaroo hunting sequences, for which Kotcheff and his crew accompanied licensed professional hunters out on an evening-long excursion to document real-life slaughter. But even outside of those retina-searing scenes, Wake in Fright calls upon the full, oppressive power of the Outback. Its foreboding atmosphere only grows more nightmarish and suffocating as the film suggests the line between inner-city and rural Australian life is one between civilization and savagery, maintained only by the word of law and insulation from the elements. Unlike Walkabout, which found success soon after its premiere, Wake in Fright was poorly handled by its distributor and subsequently lost for decades. Its editor, Anthony Bickley, eventually rescued the film negatives from a Pittsburgh warehouse in 2004, and it received a restoration five years later.


Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)


The beauty and terror of the Australian landscape has never felt so exquisitely unknowable on screen as in Peter Weir’s 1975 masterpiece Picnic at Hanging Rock, a key film in the Australian New Wave about the disappearance of several schoolgirls and their teacher during a St. Valentine’s Day outing to the titular volcanic rock formation. As the community searches in vain for answers, Weir’s film offers few, allowing the audience to fill in their interpretations of what might have happened. As members of a colonial outpost in Australia, were the girls vanished into thin air in a retributive act of nature itself? Empowered by their emerging sexuality, did they somehow slip free of a society constructed to repress them? In its absence of explanation, Weir’s uncanny film—like the book that inspired it, by Australian novelist Joan Lindsay—seems to mock the inevitable failures of colonialism and other systems predicated upon subjugation and control. A metaphysical conundrum, a striking Victorian melodrama and an elegant reckoning with mankind’s failure to tame the uncanny, Picnic endures as a work of transcendent ambiguity—even as it also realizes, through its unresolved central mystery, a kind of ambiguous transcendence.


Mad Max (1979)


Though the gloriously adrenalized action operatics of Mad Max: Fury Road announce it as director George Miller’s magnum opus, the original Mad Max also warrants mention in any discussion of cinema based in Australia’s remote interior. Soaked in blood, sweat and gasoline, this action thriller launched the careers of both Miller and star Mel Gibson while introducing a grittier, grislier post-apocalypse than most any that existed in American cinema at the time. Visualizing the Outback’s arid deserts and heat-cracked highways as a wasteland roamed by barbaric drifters and governed by a ethos of mad-eyed male rage, the original Mad Max exuded a savage poetry that spoke to a warped, rotten future for exaggerated Australian machismo. At the same time, it delivered a high level of vehicular carnage that similarly twisted the country’s ingrained car culture into a vision of society long since broken down and boiled away along the open road.


The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)


Stephan Elliott’s fondly remembered, unquestionably dated road comedy offered Australian audiences a triumphant alternative to more traditional forms of masculinity down under. Centering on three Sydney drag queens—Tick (Hugo Weaving), Adam (Guy Pearce) and Bernadette (Terence Stamp)—who travel through the Outback en route to perform at a casino in Alice Springs, Priscilla openly revels in the sight of its elaborately costumed leads upending norms in the middle of Australia’s Northern Territory. There’s something delightfully strange about seeing such colorful excess flourish within the stark, vast expanses of the Outback, as if their outlandish attire has been scaled to rival the landscape. After their bus breaks down, the drag queens are rescued by a young Indigenous man named Jimmy (Alan Dargin), who brings them back to his remote community. Around a fire, the trio perform to Gloria Gaynor’s disco anthem “I Will Survive,” accompanied by a didgeridoo and other Aboriginal instruments. Fascinatingly, these cultures cohere where you’d expect them to clash, surfacing and celebrating a shared rhythm between marginalized groups who impose their own sense of order through song and dance.


The Proposition (2005)


As mystical and vast as the Outback can often feel on screen, its unsettled expanses lend themselves equally well to visceral, pulverizing tales of violence and control. The Proposition stands as the best and most brutal work to date by Australian-Canadian director John Hillcoat, positioning an archetypal dissection of masculinity within the larger context of Australia’s dark colonial history. A bush Western, the story follows an outlaw (Guy Pearce) instructed by a hard-edged lawman (Ray Winstone) to track down and kill his older brother (Danny Huston), who’s wanted for rape and murder. Otherwise, his younger brother (Richard Wilson), the baby of the family, will hang for their crimes. In its sun-scorched badlands, with flies swarming and dirt stained red by the blood of both Aborigines and white colonizers, The Proposition feels inexorably hell-bound, a sensation heightened by the fire-and-brimstone poetry of its central tensions—between order and chaos, family and honor, justice and vengeance. Together with screenwriter Nick Cave (yes, he co-composed the score as well), Hillcoat delivers something stark and elemental, a story of moral decay and ties that bind, as uncompromising as it is raw and bloody. The actors, too—especially an eerily grand and tragic Huston—work in a primordial, bone-deep vein that only elevates the film’s mythic import.


The Rover (2014)


There’s a slow-gathering force and psychological gravity to all the films of David Michôd, from his magisterial Aussie crime saga Animal Kingdom to grimly grandiose medieval epic The King, and it’s this element of his filmmaking that made him a natural choice to helm post-apocalyptic road picture The Rover. Michôd’s dystopian Outback is caked in rust and oil, a strip of twisted metal and charred flesh; one senses the economy of this place collapsed first, and civilization followed. For the lone wanderer (Guy Pearce) at its core, there’s little left to care about; but when a group of robbers steal his car, he follows them across the wasteland. Accompanying him is the simple-minded young man (Robert Pattinson) those robbers left for dead. An alliance is formed between the two, followed by a gradual friendship of sorts. The Rover burns with the kind of existential anger one would hope for in the last days of humanity, but there’s gallows humor too. The night before their final, deadly confrontation with the robbers, our heroes make their way through the bush and Keri Hilson’s “Pretty Girl Rock” blasts through the speakers of a rusted-out vehicle, giving the film its most affecting moment.


Sweet Country (2017)


Set in Australia’s vast Northern Territory, Warwick Thornton’s masterful, almost Biblically scaled Sweet Country fiercely dismantles the concept of “frontier justice” by confronting the bedrock of racism and savagery upon which it was always predicated. Focusing on an Aboriginal farm worker (Hamilton Morris) who shoots a white settler (Ewen Leslie) in self-defense, fleeing across the outback as a posse—including a peaceful preacher (Sam Neill)—gathers to pursue him, Sweet Country is far from a simple chase picture. There’s a solemn, aching quality to its narrative, and a humbling grandeur to the surrounding Outback that at once honors the stunning, almost hallucinatory power of the landscape and accounts honestly for the battle scars and moral turpitude of those laying claim to it. Sweet Country is distinguished as well by its sudden, provocative editing, which dislocates the narrative through a series of flash forwards and flashbacks, creating a sense that time itself is becoming unstuck as civilized structure gives way to more lasting, elemental truths.


The Nightingale (2018)


Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to The Babadook is a different kind of horror story, trading in supernatural scares for the deeper, harder-to-shake brutalities of colonial oppression. Set in 1820s Tasmania, this revenge odyssey focuses on Irish convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi), who flees into the territory’s rugged forests and mountains in order to survive the barbaric lieutenant (Sam Claflin) who’s slaughtered her family. In contrast to the arid desert of Australia’s outback, the film’s Tasmanian backdrop is an austere, solemn wilderness, weighted with the sorrow and rage of its characters. Once believing this corner of the world an inescapable hell, “civilizing” British forces turned it into exactly that, establishing penal colonies and exterminating Indigenous Australians until the landscape’s very soul was broken. Coldly incensed by the horrors of Australia’s colonial history, The Nightingale soon brings Clare into contact with Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), who agrees to guide her north through the bush. It’s through their dynamic that the film draws a jagged parallel between Clare’s journey and Billy’s traumatic lifelong oppression at the hands of callous British soldiers. Particularly in its studied treatment of Aboriginal culture—the film cast many Aboriginal actors and claims to be the first to use Palawa kani, a composite language developed by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre using records of original, lost languages—The Nightingale feels like a modern corrective to Walkabout, aiming to authentically portray a culture more often deemed “mystical” by outsiders for whom its painful inner realities are out of reach.


True History of the Kelly Gang (2020)


Aussie auteur Justin Kurzel’s feverish portrait of bushranger Ned Kelly isn’t the most grounded—or, despite its title, truthful—portrait of Australia’s most notorious outlaw. Instead, True History of the Kelly Gang tangles with the idea Kelly would become a folkloric fixture down under after his death at 25 in a shootout with police. Reimagining the renegade (played by 1917’s George MacKay) as a young man haunted by the knowledge of a dark, fast-approaching destiny, True History feels less rooted in its 1870s time period than gliding ominously over it with the benefit of foresight. Expressionistic in the extreme, Kurzel’s film transforms Australia’s wildlands into an inhospitable landscape of charred trees and scorched red earth. With an array of slow-moving aerial shots, Kurzel treats this setting as a haunting, almost alien terrain in a way that complements the central crew of marauding, wild-eyed outlaws. True History also calls attention to the exaggeratedly bellicose vision of masculinity its characters represent and in some instances subvert, deepening the film’s depiction of outlaw mythology and the enigmatic, curiously heightened vision of the Outback such legendary figures tend to inhabit.

Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Chicago, who’s been writing professionally for seven years and hopes to stay at it for a few years more. Frequently over-excited and under-caffeinated, he sits down to surf the Criterion Channel but ends up, inevitably, on Shudder. You can find him on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.

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