Walkabout opens with a montage sequence that is individually detached from the rest of the film and comprises images that loosely connect to one another. It presents moments from an ordinary day in the lives of the family portrayed in the film and it introduces the primary themes such as communication, conformity, civilisation and survival.
The first images are a short series of close-up shots showing details of rough and uneven surfaces of brown desert rocks. The last close-up is different; it shows the smooth and orderly bricks of a wall of the same color. The camera then pans to the right to reveal a long-shot of a busy street in the city, after which the montage of distinct images starts running: close-ups of feet and legs; people crossing the street to go to work; glass-windowed facades of modern buildings. These shots stay on the screen no longer than a few seconds. In between the rhythmic cuts of these images, the female protagonist is among students doing pronunciation exercises in a classroom, her brother is in school uniform, walking among the crowds on the streets and in the school garden, and her father is getting out of a black car presumably to go to work. The characters seem insignificant as the content is overwhelmed by the photographed details of modern life and its various mechanised aspects: the systematic march of the soldiers passing by, the punctuality of the traffic, the uniformity of school children and people going to work.
Halfway through the sequence, we see the same pan to the right of the frame from behind the brick wall. This time the camera reveals the desert, suggesting its contrasting proximity to the city; they are tangential yet separate. In the following part, the father and the children are separately making their way back home. The boy passes through a dense forest; the girl climbs the road towards their house with the view of the Sydney Harbour in the background and the father is framed looking up at the tall buildings, dwarfed by their size. At home, the mother is preparing food, the children swim in the pool and the father enjoys the view of the sea from the balcony. The montage sequence ends with the third image of the brick wall; once again, the camera pans towards the right to reveal the desert, only this time there is also a car at the right side of the frame.
The opening sequence’s highly fragmented form is enhanced with the frequent use of the non-diegetic sound of an Aboriginal instrument that matches the rhythm of the movement in the images and the cuts in between them. This monotone sound is interrupted with blurred radio transmissions, traffic noise and the repetitive sound of the students’ vocal exercises.
Walkabout’s story actually begins in the next scene: the father (John Meillon) takes his children (Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg) to have a picnic in the vast desert; instead he attempts to shoot his son and then kills himself. The rest of the film is about the journey of the two abandoned children and their encounter with the Aborigine boy (David Gulpilil). Except for a few instances as abrupt inserts, the film does not return to the images in the opening sequence yet they leave a strong impression of life back in Sydney. This fragmented opening, however, does not seem excessive in the narrative; conversely, we can make more meaning out of these disconnected images than we do from the rest of the film, which resumes orderly. These images allude to the film’s story in obvious ways; for instance, the walk of the people in the crowded modern city contrasts with the long journey in the emptiness and the harshness of the desert in the following scenes. Similarly, the children’s proper clothes, obsession with listening to the radio and correct use of language, all of which remind us of the civilised life, seem pointless in the desert. In effect, the film’s themes are briefly introduced in the opening sequence before being further developed throughout.
(You can watch the opening here.)