Often cited as one of the most important Australian films ever made and a key text in the Aussie New Wave movement of the 1970s, Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is a beautifully shot yet heart wrenching and savage account of institutionalised racism in colonial Australia at the turn of the last century. An adaptation of the 1972 Booker Prize nominated novel of the same name by Thomas Keneally (author of Schindler’s Ark, which won the Booker Prize in 1982 and went on to form the basis of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar winning 1993 epic, Schindler’s List), the story is based on the exploits of Jimmy Governor, an Indigenous Australian whose killing spree in the summer of 1900 led to a date with the gallows and an enduring notoriety.
Tom E. Lewis (who sadly passed away last year) stars as Jimmie Blacksmith, a half-Aboriginal, half-white young man attempting to make his way in the world. Encouraged by Jack Thompson’s clergyman that integration with the wider white society is possible (he remarks with pride to his wife that, should Jimmie marry a white woman and have children who, in turn, will have children of their own, then that generation would hardly be black at all) Jimmie sets out to work as a farmhand building fences for an Irish settler and his family, but his illusions take something of a knock when his employer refuses to pay him a fair wage or even write him a reference, despite the good work he has done. Amused, Jimmie realises that his refusal of the latter is because this supposedly more civilised white man is actually illiterate. Undeterred, Jimmie accepts employment with the local constabulary as a police tracker, but is horrified when a fellow Aborigine, captured for the murder of a white man, is sexually molested and murdered by his superior whilst in custody. Having been manipulated into covering up the death as suicide, Jimmie returns to labouring at the Newby farm alongside his ‘full-caste’ brother Mort (Freddy Reynolds) and his uncle Tabidgi (Steve Dodd). Around this time, he falls in love with a white girl, Gilda (Angela Punch McGregor) and marries her when she falls pregnant. When Gilda eventually gives birth to an all-white child that is obviously not Jimmie’s, he bears the brunt of public humiliation and ridicule from his employers who, just like those before them, have taken to denying him and his family their rightful wages and provisions. One fateful night, Jimmie’s long-suppressed rage explodes – entering the house, he viciously slays the Newby women and schoolteacher Miss Graf with hatches before going on the run and pursuing a murderous vendetta against all those who had exploited him.
Schepisi’s film parallels that of Jimmy Governor’s story. Just as in the film, the half-white, half-Aboriginal really did snap as a result of the mistreatment and jeers both he and his family received at the hands of their employer, the Mawbeys. Upon confronting Mrs Sarah Mawbey with his fellow farmhand, a lame Aborigine called Jack Underwood, the family governess Miss Kerz is alleged to have said that Governor was ‘black rubbish’ who wanted ‘shooting for marrying a white woman’. Incensed, Governor murdered both women, along with Mawbey’s three daughters – aged 16, 14 and 11 – with a tomahawk and an Aboriginal war club known as a nullah-nullah. Fleeing the scene, Governor, his brother Joe and (briefly) Jack continued their killing spree of premeditated attacks to avenge previous slights, triggering an ‘atmosphere of terror’ which gripped the nation, producing Australia’s biggest manhunt with up to 2,000 police and volunteers across 3,000 km of country. In total, Jimmy Governor claimed the lives of nine white Australians, four of whom were children, the youngest being just eighteen months old. Whilst the crippled Underwood was caught just days after the Mawbey murders, the brothers managed to evade capture until late October, meaning they were on the run for some three months. Whilst Joe was shot dead, Jimmy was taken into custody, tried and eventually hanged at Darlinghurst Gaol on 18th January 1901, four days after Underwood met the same fate at Dubbo Gaol. It is said that their death sentences were delayed until after the process of the Federation of Australia; the union of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, and Western Australia that led to the formation of the Commonwealth of the nation and which dismissed the rights and even the existence of the indigenous population, excluding them from census until the referendum of 1967.
A common criticism of some films is that they are often a tale of two halves, in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith‘s case however, this split is necessary as their needs to be a line in the sand around the halfway mark that clearly demarcates the central character’s life before and after his violent breaking point. In the first half, Schepisi delivers an episodic and, in keeping with the era, somewhat aimless narrative that depicts Jimmie’s travails and presents him as a character the audience can invest much empathy in. He is shown to be a positive and upbeat personality, quick to smile and laugh. He is shown to be a hard worker who takes pride in what he does and possesses an innate intelligence that often sees him head and shoulders above the white community who demean him and prevent his access into their supposedly civilised ways. Their harsh and unfair opinions of him ( he is frequently referred to as a ‘savage’ or dismissed with racial slurs common for the time but deeply offensive now) are wholly incorrect as Jimmie is shown to not only have ambition to set himself up and put down roots, he also possesses a strong moral code of basic family values, as evinced in his admirable intentions towards the pregnant Gilda.
Following the murder of the Newby family, the film takes a much harsher and necessarily darker turn. The violence is unflinching and unsettling. The fleeing Jimmie stands atop a mountain rage and quite literally declares war on all those supposed social ‘betters’ who have wronged him in the past, his words echoing with anger and passion. It is from this moment on that we witness a man who is arguably not a fugitive from justice, but is in fact one from injustice. His murderous violence is impossible to condone but, taking into account every slight that has brought him to this critical moment, it is perhaps easy to understand. The rebellion Jimmie undertakes from this point on is devastating, but it is arguably just the ripple effects from the moment of homicidal madness at the Newby farm as Jimmie appreciates that for him, there is no turning back and that the life he was encouraged to carve out for himself was one that could never have been possible. From the white Australian point of view the ‘savage’ has shown his – for want of a better phrase – true colours, but for the audience we can perhaps understand that if you’re called something by such people long enough, you’ll eventually give them what they have always believed. It’s a tragedy for all concerned.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is said to be one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite films and an inspiration for his 2012 western Django Unchained. However, whilst Tarantino’s film is all fireworks and flair, Schepisi’s tale of revenge is far removed from such brash exhibitionism and stands closer in spirit to the wealth of Australian New Wave movies that were being made at the time, such as Mad Dog Morgan, Picnic at Hanging Rock and Walkabout, which would later influence such work as John Hillcoat’s 2005 film The Proposition. Schepisi crafts a contemplative and thought provoking meditation on notions of civilisation within a country that was then in its infancy, and I was particularly struck by how he uses visual motifs; Jimmie is often shown after a series of close-up images of insects, suggesting life, vitality and a sense of freedom. In contrast, the hangman who awaits Jimmie’s capture has a day job as a butcher and his scenes are naturally introduced alongside similarly up close images of slabs of literal dead meat being manhandled and cut up. Visually it’s a very striking film, with the wide natural vistas and impressive landscapes of Australia beautifully captured by cinematographer Ian Baker. The performances however are mixed, but this is to expected as there arguably wasn’t a great talent pool to draw from at this point in time (Lewis himself secured the starring role after having been spotted by Schepisi’s wife standing in line at Melbourne airport!) and in any case some of the more naive acting moments actually help to sell the impulsiveness of the characters.
Despite awards from the Australian Film Institute and a nomination for the Palme d’or at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith failed to find an audience on its initial release. Making just $1,021,000 at the Australian box office, Schepisi lost his investment and subsequently turned his back on Australian cinema, relocating to America. Its initial release to UK home media was also disastrous as it was seized and confiscated under Section 3 of the Obscene Publications Act during the ‘video nasty’ panic of the early 1980s. Whilst it avoided prosecution for obscenity (a fate that befall the likes of Cannibal Holocaust, I Spit on Your Grave and The Driller Killer) it did unfairly place the film into an obscurity that it has spent the last thirty or so years climbing out from. This release from Eureka Entertainment ought to bolster this resurgence even further, boasting as it does an impressive new restoration of both the original Australian cut (122 minutes) and the international version (117 minutes), two audio commentaries and several documentaries and interviews.