Going on Walk-Walk: An American Walkabout in STAND BY ME
9 September 2012
In all parts of the world, from the beginning of time, but perhaps best known in Australian culture, a walkabout is a physical, mental, and spiritual journey during which time a young man wanders away from his community and into the wilderness to perform rituals and survive the elements. The walkabout is a rite of passage which challenges the individual to practice the wisdom imparted to him by his ancestors and strengthens his connections to heritage, land, and culture. In spite of the terrific dangers, the journey is necessary for entering adulthood.
In 1986 Rob Reiner directed an adaptation of Stephen King’s novella, The Body. For this adaptation the title changed; the film became Stand by Me. Briefly, the plot follows four young friends over the Labor Day weekend before they begin middle school, a new beginning which each boy knows will mark a change in their lives and friendships with one another. Moreover, each of these friends is struggling with fears and challenges in his own life: Gordie’s (Wil Wheaton) older and much beloved brother was recently killed; Chris’(River Phoenix) resentment toward being stereotyped a town troublemaker reaches its boiling point; Teddy (Corey Feldman) battles with early childhood trauma stemming from a father who was once savagely abusive and is now absent from his life; and Vern (Jerry O’Connell) fights with the fears and anxieties crippling his life and stunting his maturity.
Thanks in large part to Reiner’s direction, Stand by Me is unquestionably an American walkabout in which four boys wander away from their community into the wilderness, perform rituals, and certainly embark on their rites of passage into adulthood, as they define what they want from their own lives while journeying toward death.
Like any walkabout scenario, the boys must leave society and wander into the woods, where they must blaze their own trails and survive the elements. Gordie, Chris, Teddy, and Vern all do just that; the boys devise a plan to leave their dull Oregon town without warning and without revealing where they are going to their parents. Furthermore, and following the established rituals, the boys bring with them only what they can carry, survive the dangers of wild animals (such as the not-so-ferocious Chopper and the blood-sucking leeches), and find food to maintain their strength and endurance.
Moreover, Stand by Me highlights breathtaking northwestern American landscape. Juxtaposed with some of the film’s early shots, which are of confined interiors, the exterior scenes spotlight how vast and untouched the wilderness is. When Reiner’s films this landscape in extreme long shots, which occurs frequently, he puts into perspective, for viewers, how small the boys (and, by extension, all people) are in the grand scheme of Nature, therefore how epic, timeless, and significant a journey these boys are on.
Also, one of the intents of walkabout is to face challenges that force growth, realization, and a deeper understandings of life. Along the way each boy is personally challenged by a situation or circumstance, and this challenge inspires that boy to grow mentally and emotionally, inching him closer to adulthood. A store clerk confronts Gordie, essentially telling him he is not as talented or driven as his dead brother, Denny (John Cusack). This is particularly difficult for Gordie because he fears his father would agree with the store clerk, and even believes his father wishes Gordie had been the one to die, not Denny.
Chris’ challenges also begin early on, while he and Gordie are on their way out-of-town. Ace (Kiefer Sutherland), the town’s true resident delinquent, steals Gordie’s baseball cap and Chris tells Ace exactly what he thinks of his cruel, bullying behavior. Ace lashes back and pins Chris to the round, threatening to burn him with a cigarette butt unless Chris “takes back” his unfavorable comments about Ace. Chris “takes back” what was said and Ace lets him go, but Chris often assumes the role of Gordie’s protector, and Gordie’s lost cap bothers Chris.
One of Teddy’s challenges happens when Chopper’s owner, Milo Pressman (William Bronder), mocks Teddy’s father. Although Teddy’s father was severely abusive toward him, Teddy loves his father unconditionally and becomes infuriated at the old man’s spiteful remarks. Teddy’s true challenge is the displaced anger his confrontation with Milo highlights. Unable to be mad at his father, Teddy’s challenge is in his own bouts of anger, erupting when someone references his father in a negative light.
Lastly, Vern’s challenges occur throughout the film, but are all physical challenges. Vern fears the train tracks which run over a bridge, so he crawls on them; however, when the train comes, Vern must get up and run. Vern is also afraid to venture away from the tracks when the other boys propose taking a shortcut through a more densely wooded area. Eventually, Vern concedes and explores the deeply wooded areas with his friends, but faced his own fears and anxieties while doing so.
All of these challenges converge in the film’s climax when Vern discovers Ray Brower’s body and each boy comes face to face with death. In Ray, the boys each see their challenges: fathers, brothers, fears, judgments. And, through the discovery of this missing boy’s body three of the foursome can put to rest many of the challenges of their youth and rejoin their community with a new-found maturity and perspective. Teddy continues to struggle, and the struggle overpowers him. However, Gordie says upon the boys’ return, the town is now smaller than it was when they left two-days prior, symbolizing the walkabout’s successful completion for Gordie, Chris, and Vern, and these boys’ ability to reenter society with a clearer vision of the future.
What separates the walkabout in Stand by Me from a more traditional walkabout is that these boys go off into the wilderness together, not individually. In the American culture there is a reversal of roles between independence and comradery in terms of timing. In the traditional sense walkabouts are independently taken, and then when the individual returns to the community a sense of unbreakable comradery forms between the individual and community. Conversely, and as suggested in Stand by Me, the American ideal is that adolescents should unit with peers to survive their rites of passage. Later in life, in adulthood, these bonds are often broken and a stronger sense of independence is required.
Ray Brower went on his walkabout alone, and as a result he died. The foursome went on walkabout together and as a result they all survived and returned to the community changed young men. Upon that return they began to separate. Even the closest of the two friends, Chris and Gordie, severed ties with one another as adults, evident in the film’s conclusion when the adult Gordie (Richard Dreyfuss) discloses that he had not seen or talked to Chris in the last ten years.
Without question Reiner’s Stand by Me captures the walkabout of Gordie, Chris, Teddy, and Vern. Literally they embark on a once in a lifetime journey toward death (Ray Brower), and spiritually they embark on a rite of passage, with each other, that takes most of them from childhood and welcomes them into adulthood. What the film also emphasizes are the differences in the American perspective on walkabout from its traditional sense. The film strongly highlights the value of togetherness among adolescents for survival, and then the saddening but inevitable break from these bonds once in adulthood.