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October 24, 1975 in National Review

No Sex, No Bushmen

by John Greenway

Mr. Greenway, an anthropologist at the University of Colorado, is the author of “Down among the Wild Men.”

Walkabout scene with Nicolas Roeg, Jenny Agutter, and David Gulpilil
Walkabout scene with Nicolas Roeg, Jenny Agutter, and David Gulpilil (©20th Century Fox)

In 1962, the Museum of Modern Art, guided by the New York Liberal Establishment Curia on Everything, hung a Matisse gouache. Having thus ascertained the imprimatur, some 116,000 art lovers filed by dutifully, until one of them, purblind to the Emperor’s clothes, noticed it was hanging upside down.

I have here on my desk thirty reviews of the classic Australian film Walkabout, perpetually in orbit and coming around for another showing to this part of the earth (Boulder, Colorado). The earlier Matisse incident compels me to believe that these reviewers, all of them, are standing on their heads watching a film being shown right side up. Though most of these reviews come from the most influential liberal guides to life (there is one review here from the Ottawa Courier; I have no idea how it got in here), not a single one gives the least hint of what the picture is about. The less courageous or more cunning confine their remarks to the beauty of the Australian desert (which really does not appear in the film). The others, presuming upon their intellects, wind up biting the glass and listening for the flavor.

Let’s look at a few comments from some of America’s most prestigious critics. Walkabout, concludes The New Yorker, “shows representatives or a rundown English class of sophisticates [any Australians who wear their tails curled up inside their trousers] in collision with the natural elite of the Australian aborigine. It is nominally [sic] about three children two English, expensively school-trained, one a young abo, who piteously kills himself for love of the sometimes rather prim but intoxicating schoolgirl.” As expected, nearly the whole of this summary is factually wrong, but I am upset only by the sex business, since it is at least latent in the other reviews. There is no sex in this picture. The aboriginal boy is in the last stage of his test for manhood alone in the desert to prove he can make a living on a land as productive of game as an asphalt parking lot. More to the point, he has just been circumcised and, worse yet, subincised. If, in such a condition, he entertains lustful yearnings, well, he’s a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

If the New York Times had to write a summary of Hamlet, it would come up with something like this: “Diffident young man hesitates to avenge his father’s murder.” It does an equally economical job on Walkabout, thereafter hurrying back to the beautiful desert (actually not the desert, but the magnificent Macdonnell Ranges in the center or the continent). Vincent Canby concludes, “Exposition is kept at a minimum ... it is clearly not a simple movie.” Out here in the sticks we would translate that, “I don’t know what the hell the picture is about.”Jacob Brackman of Esquire, which I once admired for its editing, admits “it does not contain enough information to understand it.” With the chutzpah of most Esquire writers, Brackman then goes on to enumerate all the things he does not understand. One would think he was running for office on the Democratic ticket.

Time, short on chutzpah but long on pretentiousness, starts off by telling us again, as if we didn’t know, that (civilized) man is the only animal that kills except to get food. I’d like to slip a few weasels into Time’s henhouse some evening. So in Time the aboriginal boy becomes the Noble Savage. Arriving at last into the picture, Time’s reviewer tells us about the “unmotivated suicide,” a “bushman” (bloody bushmen are found in bloody Africa, not in bloody Australia), “mooning under a quandong tree.” Quandong are parasitic bushes, and any couple lying beneath one would have to be engaging in sexual intercourse, for there is insufficient room to do anything else.

What does the picture mean? He does not say, unless you find some meaning in his phrase “preachy, anti-intellectual Natural Mannerisms.” I cannot advise you on that, because I not only do not understand what the phrase means, I don’t know what any single word of it means.

Walkabout scene featuring Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil
Walkabout scene featuring Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil (©20th Century Fox)

In writing reviews of reviewers one always has the nagging fear Richard Schickel will be omitted, so let us quote Life’s exegete and have done with him. The director, Schickel says, “has found a unique and striking imagery to point up the contrast between primitive and civilized ways.” Of course. Schickel could have with equal truth asserted the exact opposite. We are reminded again that man is the only animal that kills animals because he cannot get his hands on Schickel. His aborigine, though his hair belt is festooned with a surfeit of lizards, “appears to waste nothing of what he kills .... The white man, by contrast, is seen as a wanton in his sport.” Apart from the ludicrous notion that when uncivilized man kills an animal he uses everything but the squeal, there are no white sportsmen in the film but there are commercial buffalo hunters, a very different breed of cat. And the native’s quietus to make, Schickel informs us that he “literally kills himself in the attempt to express his love for [the schoolgirl].” Aside from being false, this is dumb. When an aboriginal man wants a woman not specifically forbidden to him by his group’s marriage pattern, he simply takes her. He does not see any profit in hanging himself from a tree.

A SECOND review in the New York Times Book Review is written by a genuine dinkum Australian. Unfortunately, I could not find one minim of evidence that he had seen any more of Australia than Sydney’s wharfside slum, Woolloomooloo, where Errol Flynn as a young man used to fight with razor blades partly embedded in corks. There have been no aborigines there for more than a hundred years.

Before ending this with The New Republic, we must look at part of a sentence in the Winston-Salem Journal, whose man thinks the picture is about “ecological sanity.” I spent years with the desert aborigines, and can attest with my hand on the Bible that they are the most destructive people alive, tame or wild, apart from some children whom, for my sins, I have the misfortune of knowing, and those underprivileged militants who have promised to “boin” dawn our cities. When aborigines finish stripping a game area of edibles, they deliberately “boin” off the entire area.

Well, to The New Republic. In this prestigious journal we find the picture condemned as “homiletic and gooey ... Obvious contrasts are drawn between decadent civilization and healthful simplicity.” Ratsass. And the reviewer’s conclusion: “I wish Bond had found a way to explain walkabout in the film itself” As Ole Dizzy Dean once announced in an open message to Stalin from the broadcaster’s booth during a lull in a baseball game, “Why don’t he give up that work and sell peanuts?”

Awright: so what is the picture about? The cyclical nature of life. A man takes his two children, a girl of 16 and a boy of six, to open country west of Sydney for a picnic. No matter that he could not have got there from Sydney by the route we see on his map; and even if we overlook the presence of the obstacle, a thousand-mile-long Australian Grand Canyon, he couldn’t have made it to where the tragedy takes place in less than a day’s drive rather far out for a picnic. But his intention is otherwise. As soon as the children lay out the blanket for the picnic some little distance from the automobile, the father takes a gun and fires at them. They escape up a dry gully; he pours gasoline over the car and puts a bullet through his brain.

The children wander to the northwest for a conveniently undisclosed time conveniently, since they encounter their next crisis 600 miles away. By now they are both hungry and thirsty but at the point of giving up, they meet an adolescent aborigine boy. Where he came from is also conveniently undisclosed, for he is supposed to be a desert aborigine, but he is racially a Carpentarian, again 600 miles from his homeland. He is not on “walkabout” as the word is used in Australia, but in the last stage of his probation as a man. There are many errors in the picture like animals whose habitats are up to 1,500 miles apart but they mean little to the theme. Wandering north again, the children come upon one of those bio-geographical impossibilities found only in Australia tiny pockets of faunal life unchanged for tens of millions of years. We see plants that exist in other parts of the world only as Cretaceous fossils. But so far as the story is concerned, we see water much exaggerated in extent by the photography, but enough to have an idyll in. It is lovely, though it worries the audience, who rightly think Central Australia waterless.

Ultimately, after another 600 miles of walking, they find a long-abandoned cottage and mine. Several reviewers took this opportunity to give us a disquisition on the white man’s despoliation of the wilderness. More normal people will think of the family who tried to make a go of prospecting-homesteading, but who trailed and left, their photographs flapping heartbreakingly on the walls.

In this abandoned cottage the final tragedy takes place. The boy finds a road running south to Brisbane and Sydney, and on his last night paints his coal-black skin with a skeleton, a ritual I know as the Dead Man’s Dance. All night he dances, peeping at the girl, who in the morning finds him hanging from a tree. Why? Well, in looking for the road he sees a group of desert vehicles loaded with hunters, killing imported buffalo at the rate of two or three a minute. This is his tragedy: he realizes all the suffering and training he endured to be a man was useless; white technology has killed the hunting life. Not many people kill themselves because their culture is terminal ... or else there would be none left to bury us, not even Khrushchev’s Russians.

The scene shifts to a point appreciably later in time. The girl is preparing dinner in a beautiful apartment overlooking the world’s loveliest harbor, at Sydney. Her mind flips from this beauty to the wilder beauty of Ormiston Gorge. Suddenly her handsome and ambitious young husband comes in and excitedly tells her he received that promotion he had so long sought. “Of course,” he says, “old so-and-so had to go.”And there it is. Old so-and-so is the father who, after losing his job, kills himself as the aboriginal boy kills himself when he finds his culture suddenly dead. Jonathan Swift versified old Thomas Hobbes three hundred years ago:

... every creature
Lives in a state of war by nature...
So, Nat’ralists observe, a Flea
Hath smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite ’em
And so proceed ad infinitum.

I saw this tragedy several times in Central and Western Australia; but I remember during the Depression my father master of five trades and speaker of seven languages grubbing for our food in garbage cans.

Still, I look back with the same irrational longing one of our natives expressed in his poor English, hundreds of miles from his barren but native country “I am heartcryin’ alonga dat country.” Walkabout’s filmmakers understood the crazy but beautiful paradox by letting A. E. Housman’s lines drift through the picture’s last frames.

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain;
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

Details at the Internet Movie Database
"Walkabout" movie on BluRay at ScreenMusings
Even more details at Wikipedia


Greenway’s humorous take on plagiarism.

Also, Manfred Helfert says a folk music recording by Dr. Greenway was the inspiration for a Bob Dylan song.