Cinema: Natural Mannerisms

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Ever since Rousseau's Social Contract, the Noble Savage has been neither noble nor savage. Instead he has become a symbol, a stick with which "civilized" man beats himself. Has the city become a jungle? The Noble Savage's jungle is a city in the peaceable kingdom of man and nature. Does civilized man murder for sport? The native, like a lion, kills only what he needs. Is the intellect responsible for evil? The natural man does not think with his brain but with his glands—and by his actions exhibits a moral vigor.

Lost Souls. This imaginary fraudulent creature has animated a great deal of escape fiction, from Robinson Crusoe to Little Big Man. Taken lightly, he is an object of literary curiosity. Written about seriously, he is preposterous. Walkabout makes the disastrous mistake of treating an aborigine not as a man but as a god.

An Australian father takes his two children for a picnic in the country. Minutes later he commits a lurid and unmotivated suicide. The teen-age girl (Jenny Agutter) and her little brother (Lucien John) abruptly find themselves at the mercy of the outback, their only companion a sputtering portable radio. Ironies thereupon crowd the air like static: the instrument crackles with irrelevant news of the world while the two urbanized refugees fight elemental dread.

Meantime, a bushman (an authentic one named David Gumpilil) fearlessly traverses the country—the sky his ceiling, the air his blanket—boomeranging lizards and kangaroos in order to eat. Stumbling upon the lost souls, this natural man guides them through his Eden. Walkabout suddenly becomes a lyric travelogue, assaulting the harsh Flinders mountain ranges, trailing the little camels of the red desert near Alice Springs, mooning under the blooming quandong tree. Director Nicolas Roeg, who made his reputation as a cinematographer (Fahrenheit 451, Far from the Madding Crowd. Petulia), shows a precise and delicate Down Understanding. But give him anything human, and he seems as naive as a third former.

Aim and Misfire. The camera cannot confront a grown Caucasian without making him a rapacious stock villain, nor can it present the savage as anything but an improbably heroic amalgam of Friday, Chingachgook and St. Francis. A pity. The cast are an attractive lot and, as some lyrically nude bathing scenes demonstrate, Miss Agutter possesses one of the lithest, blithest young bodies on public view. Were the eye the only judge, Walkabout might be considered a treat. But no, Roeg and his scenarist Edward Bond (BlowUp) aim for the mind and miss wildly. Their preachy, anti-intellectual Natural Mannerisms are neither convincing nor new.

Stefan Kanfer