australian films

Australian Movie Month: The Chant Of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978)

Starring: Tommy Lewis, Freddy Reynolds, Angela Punch McGregor

Director: Fred Schepisi

Jimmie Blacksmith (Lewis) is half Indigenous Australian and half white, and is raised by a clergyman and his wife to be “civilised”. To them, he’s the poster child for their ideas of assimilation and how the life of the Indigenous Australian can be improved. Because of this, he only has one foot in the world of his own culture, and is taught to reject it. But his upbringing brings him trouble when he starts to get work making fences. He sees that the men who employ him are not as smart as he is, some of them can’t read, and yet they still look down on him and try to cheat him. Things come to a head when he marries a white woman which angers and offends the local whites, and soon Jimmie’s frustration turns to rage and violence.

Adapted from the book by Thomas Keneally, the story is based on a man called Jimmie Governer whose circumstances are like Blacksmith’s. He went on a vengeful killing spree in 1900, and shocked and terrorised the Breelong area of New South Wales. The film shows the bigotry and blatant racism of the era, and newspapers at the time whipped up a frenzy around the case, but no one then seemed to care what motivated the crimes.

This film shows how impossible Jimmie’s situation was and it’s clever in that it makes you feel sympathetic towards him and fleshes him out as a human being, which was something you rarely saw in films of this era. He’s determined not to be a victim, as well, and doesn’t want anyone to get away with insulting him. The white people around him are pretty awful people and you want to see them get their come uppance. They’re so smug and ignorant, and really quite hateful.

And then, in the final third of the film, Jimmie loses his calm and takes revenge.

By today’s standards it’s really not that violent but it still is pretty shocking. It’s not a film that’s violent for violence’s sake, but it also doesn’t shy away from going there either. For that reason it was a bit controversial at the time, and I think it was actually banned in the UK. In this era, Australian films were still in a fledgling stage, a time when Australians hadn’t seen themselves on screen a lot. They were more enamoured with films that talked about their mythology, themes of mateship, the little Aussie battler, man and the landscape (women are generally sidelined in these narratives, but not always). They weren’t ready for a film that pointed out the other side of the story and foregrounded the story of the Indigenous Australian. It was kind of ahead of it’s time in that sense, and has often been sidelined or rejected. But it’s well worth a rediscovery.

See It If: you like your history with a little bite. This is a bit of a dark film and one that’s quite eye opening, even by modern standards, but I think it has a good plot and shows the other side of Australian stories and films.

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