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The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) | Review by Pauline Kael

The great Australian film "The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith" is a dreamlike Requiem Mass for a nation’s lost honor
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith

Australians

by Pauline Kael

The great Australian film The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, which was made in 1978 and has finally opened here, has almost nothing in common with the other Australian films of recent years. All of them partake of some of the fascination of movies set in unfamiliar terrain, but this one is large-scale and serenely shocking, with the principal characters shot against vast, rolling landscapes that are like wide, wide versions of the flat, layered backgrounds in Chinese wash drawings. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was adapted from Thomas Keneally’s novel, which is based on the case of Jimmy Gover­nor, a half aborigine who went on a rampage and killed seven whites in 1900, the very year of Federation. (His hanging was delayed until after the ceremonies, so as not to embarrass the proud young nation by reminding it of what had been done to the natives.) The movie is about the cultural chasm that divides the natives and the European-spawned whites, and it’s horribly funny, because the whites are inadequate to their own cruelties. The emotional ef­fects of what these displaced Irish and Scottish and English do are much larg­er than the people themselves. The director, Fred Schepisi (pronounced Skepsee), has a gift for individualizing every one of the people on the screen; it takes him only a few licks to let us perceive how they justify themselves to themselves. Men who were at the bottom in Europe now command thou­sands of acres. Scrabbling tightwads, these white landowners got where they are by self-denial. Penny-pinching is a moral tenet to them, and they don’t regard cheating the helpless aborigines as cheating, because the aborigines don’t know how to save their money anyway. The aborigines live in the rem­nants of a tribal society with an elaborate structure of claims: men are obliged to give a share of their earnings to their kin, even if their kin are drunken and diseased and want the money only to go on a binge. And men offer their wives to visiting kin as a form of hospitality. To the whites, giving money away is unfathomable laxity, and since the black women are so easily avail­able the white men treat the aboriginal settlements as brothels. The black women don’t even have to be paid for their services, except with a bottle of cheap sherry for their husbands. The settlements are conveniently situated on the outskirts of the towns, far from the eyes of white women and children.

Jimmie Blacksmith (Tommy Lewis) is a product of one of these visits to a tin shanty, and because he learns quickly and is half white, the Reverend Mr. Neville (Jack Thompson), who runs the Methodist mission school, and Mrs. Neville (Julie Dawson) take him into their home when he’s of an age to be useful. They train him to be polite and docile and teach him how impor­tant it is to gain a good reputation for work. Jimmie goes through his tribal initiation rites, but he grows up determined to escape the debased existence of aborigines in their hovels by working hard, buying land, and, as Mrs. Nev­ille has advised him, marrying a nice white girl off a farm, so his children will be only a quarter black and the next generation scarcely black at all.

Sent out into the world, with the blessing of the Nevilles, he’s a half-caste Horatio Alger figure, determined to show that his word is his bond and that he will stick to a job until it’s done. Proper and well-mannered, he looks for work among clerks and prospective employers who call him Jacko and refer to him as a boong, a darkie, and a nigger. He doesn’t take offense: these whites don’t understand yet that he’s different from the uneducated blacks. He smiles, so that they will see how willing he is, and eventually he gets his first job—making a post-and-rail fence to mark the boundaries of a huge farm. As he digs holes in the hard, dry earth, the vistas are lonely and bare; far in the distance, delicately etched trees look pale blue. After months of back­breaking work, Jimmie finishes the job, is underpaid, and is ordered off the property; denied a letter of recommendation as well, he flares up and tells the man that he knows why—it’s because the man can’t write. Jimmie is knocked flat. He goes from one fence-building job to the next, and we see how his employers react to his eagerness to prove himself a good worker. No matter how long and hard he works or how servile his behavior is, he never wins the civility or praise he longs for. These isolated farmers are terse, close­-mouthed, as if even a little companionable chat would be profligacy, a waste. They can’t resist finding fault with Jimmie’s work and shorting him on his pay; thrift and mistrust have become second nature to them. Besides, they need to see him fail: it confirms the necessity of keeping the savages in their place. Since the aborigines have no legal rights, the farmers can feel gener­ous-hearted for paying any part of what was agreed to. When Jimmie com­plains, he looks slightly wall-eyed from terror. The farmers show their fears in their tight faces whenever there’s more than one black on their land. Jimmie has a half brother, laughing Mort (Freddy Reynolds), a teen-age aborigine who giggles with contentment. He walks enormous distances to come be with Jimmie and give him a hand on his jobs, but this additional presence upsets the bosses, who accuse Jimmie of turning their land into “a blacks’ camp.”

When Jimmie visits his tribal shantytown with Mort, a claim is made on them for money; Mort gives his little bit happily, but Jimmie flings a roll of bills down on the ground in disgust, because his inability to save money eats away at his hopes. He gets a job as a tracker and general underling with the New South Wales Mounted Police; barefoot in a thick, outsize uniform, he’s a caricature of a policeman. He thinks of the uniform very righteously, though, and when the police raid a settlement, trying to find out which of the aborigi­nes stabbed a debauching white man, Jimmie does just what his boss, Con­stable Farrell (Roy Barrett), tells him to do: he rides in smashing his club down on the head and shoulders of anyone within range. Then he proves his diligence by turning in the culprit—an old friend. It isn’t until the brutish Constable Farrell gets boozed up and tortures and kills the prisoner that Jim­mie wakes from his illusion that he is part of the master race. Barrett is so strong an actor that when the constable’s full sadism comes into play you want to cower in your seat; Jimmie is forced to understand that he is as pow­erless as the mutilated corpse.

He runs off and finds work as a sweeper and cook’s helper at a shearing contractor’s, where a dim-witted, rutting servant girl (Angela Punch), a blond waif who has been coupling with the goatish cook (played by Thomas Keneally), presents herself to him, half naked. She becomes pregnant, and so he gets himself a white wife. His next employer, Newby (Don Crosby), allows him to put up a one-room shack, where he and his bride can live while he builds a fence around the Newby domain. Beyond him, there are always the pastel hills—so remote they’re almost part of the sky—and the faint blue trees. The immensity of the plains mocks Jimmie’s hope of gaining a good reputation; trying to improve himself, he’s like a hair-raisingly foolish cross between Jude the Obscure and Gunga Din. Jimmie’s pathetic wife brings him his only chance of realizing his ambition to have a home, like a white man. Yet when he hears the first cries of his wife’s baby, his bare feet grip the earth in dance steps that suggest an atavistic rite. Unconsciously, he seems to be expressing his continuity with nature and his tribe. Mort arrives in a spirit of celebration, accompanied by a cousin and by Jimmie’s uncle Tabidgi (Steve Dodds), a tribal elder, who is worried about Jimmie’s marriage to a white woman and has brought him a talisman to keep him safe. They stay on and on, with the uncle sousing while Mort helps with the work, until Newby raises the familiar cry that the place is being turned into “a blacks’ camp.” Mrs. Newby (Ruth Cracknell) and Miss Graf (Elizabeth Alexander), a young schoolteacher who lives with the Newbys, want to save Jimmie’s wife from the fate of living among blacks anyway, and so Newby tries to get rid of Jim­mie and his black kin by starving the whole group out. Jimmie is baffled by the whites’ hatred, baffled that these people—the only ones on his travels who have ever shown him any kindness—are humiliating him by denying him money for groceries and are trying to persuade his wife to leave him and become a servant to Miss Graf, who is getting married. They represent what he wanted a white wife for—he wants to be them. And so, of course, they enrage him the most.

When Jimmie explodes, you may feel a sudden chill that is quite unlike what you have felt at other films, because his actions don’t come out of con­scious militancy or a demand for political justice. They come out of helpless­ness and frustration. The speed of Jimmie’s first, irrevocable action makes the image seem like something happening in a delirium; his motion is so fast you replay it, in your head and it stays with you—an insane ritual. It’s as if he had let his unconscious take over. Jimmie acts on the level on which he has been experiencing the insults and the condescension. After the first explosion, he says he has declared war. But even then he doesn’t wage war directly against the men: he attacks the men’s most prized possessions—their robust, well-fed women, their pink-and-white children. His prime target—though only semi-consciously—is the supercilious schoolie, Miss Graf. She is everything plump and prissy that Jimmie has aspired to. Her immaculate, high-toned respect­ability represents sexuality to him, just as the “gins”—the unpaid black prosti­tutes lying on the dirt floors of their hovels—represent it to the ranchers. His war is race war, sex war—a freakish parody of textbook war which is proba­bly an accurate reflection of the forces let loose in colonial uprisings. It’s a conflict between two debased, threatened cultures—one individualistic, one tribal—and it’s Jimmie, rather than a full-blooded aborigine, who explodes because he has tried the individualistic white way and has been rejected. He and Mort go back over the hundreds of miles he has covered; he retraces his steps to take revenge for each humiliation he has suffered.

If the film has a hero, it’s Mort, who loses his happy laugh when he is drawn into Jimmie’s war, and never fully regains it. We feel for Jimmie, but we don’t love him as we love Mort, who is instinctively kind and selfless. Mort is something like the noble Indians and Negroes of American literature, but he’s not a warrior or a mighty hunter. There’s nothing overtly heroic about him; he’s essentially passive and relaxed—a loyal, easy-going bum in ragged tweeds. This bum makes us see what the Europeans have destroyed; he’s the simplest yet the most civilized person in the movie. The tribalism he accepts means that he doesn’t have to prove himself, like the tormented Jim­mie: he is part of everything. Jimmie suffers from the perils of Christian individualism; he wants respect, property, whiteness, and his failure rots him and twists him. Mort has nothing yet feels rich. We understand Jimmie and his divided soul only too well, but we don’t understand Mort—he’s both trans­parent to us and totally mysterious. People in ethnographic documentaries sometimes combine these qualities, but this is just about the only time I have ever seen primitive mystery made flesh in an acted movie. It couldn’t have simply happened this way through a lucky accident of casting, because, of course, the past eighty years have taken their toll of tribalism. (Now it is hav­ing a conscious resurgence, and it’s no more simple or instinctive than re­awakened tribal consciousness among American Indians or the neo-African movements among American blacks.) Mort became a Methodist, but it rolled right off him. Jimmie was so flagrantly naïve that he believed what the white missionaries taught the blacks; he’s their patsy. The Reverend Mr. Neville comes to understand this, in horror and confusion: he has been giving his life to destroying the blacks. Yet how could Jimmie have improved his lot except by being the good native grateful to work for the whites? The alternative was drunkenness, and death at an early age from consumption or pneumonia.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is a triumph of casting and of coaching. With a shooting schedule of only fifteen weeks, and locations requiring that the crew travel five thousand miles, Schepisi had the job of blending a large company of the finest (white) stage and screen performers with aborigines—most of them nonprofessionals who were trained while the film was being made. (The star, Tommy Lewis, was a nineteen-year-old half-caste college stu­dent.) The professionals had to be really skillful, so as not to dominate their scenes with the amateurs; there are fine shadings in the work of actors such as Brian Anderson, who plays the objective-minded butcher and hangman, and Peter Carroll, who plays the wheezing red-haired McCreadie, an intelli­gent, neurasthenic schoolteacher who is taken hostage by Jimmie and is then carried piggyback to safety by Mort. The aboriginal performers—the men, particularly—come through vividly. They have the advantage of their unusual (to us) physiognomies. At times, Freddy Reynolds (Mort) and some of the others—whose features are not African, yet whose skins are dark—look like the actors in blackface who played Negroes in The Birth of a Nation and oth­er early American films; they seem so different from American blacks that it sometimes throws you off when they’re referred to by the same epithets. Two professionals among them are wonderful as sots: Jack Charles as the mur­dered prisoner, and Steve Dodds as the dazed Tabidgi, who is tried for mur­der and simply says, “You’d think it would take a good while to make up your mind to kill someone and then to kill them, but take my word for it, it only takes a second.” (Of all the turn-of-the-century locations, only one arouses suspicion: the graffiti in a deserted sacred place are disconcertingly bright and much too legible—the four-letter desecrations spell irony.)

Schepisi, who was born in Melbourne on December 26, 1939 (his grand­father was an immigrant from a small island north of Sicily), began working in advertising at fifteen and went on to TV commercials and government doc­umentaries. In 1970, he made a half-hour short called The Priest, which was part of the omnibus film Libido, and five years later he completed an autobio­graphical feature, The Devil’s Playground, about his early-teen years in a Catholic seminary. (Keneally, a friend of his, played a priest.) An epic is not easily made, especially one that deals with the queasy emotions that attend the creation of a society built on racial oppression, yet Jimmie Blacksmith is only Schepisi’s second feature; it’s a highly sophisticated production, made in Panavision (the cinematographer was Ian Baker), and one of the rare movies in which a wide screen is integral to the conception. Schepisi has trimmed fourteen minutes since the film was shown at Cannes in 1978, and though wide-screen imagery is difficult to edit for speed, he has achieved a glancing, leaping emotional progression that’s very calm, very even. The score, by Bruce Smeaton, never crowds the viewer’s emotions but is right there when it’s needed. Schepisi picked great material, and in mapping out the screenplay he took much of the dialogue right from the book. This is generally a mis­take, but not with Keneally, who is a dramatist as well as a novelist. He writes dialogue that jumps up from the page, bites you on the nose, and makes you laugh.

Published here in 1972, Thomas Keneally’s novel is no longer in print; the library copy that I read hadn’t been checked out since January, 1973. How did this book slip into neglect? Was it because the literary-publicity machine was in its modernist phase, when the most highly honored novels were intri­cate literary puzzles? Or did the thought “arid,” so closely associated with Pat­rick White, smudge the wrong Australian? I began the novel around one in the morning, intending to read only a few chapters before going to bed. Al­though it’s a short book (just a hundred and seventy-eight pages), I stayed up until five, reading it slowly, because I didn’t want to diminish the pleasure by going too fast. The book is like Nat Turner’s story as a great lusty ironist—an Irish Nabokov, perhaps—might have written it. I didn’t want to lose the full shape of the story by interrupting it until the next day; anyway, I had to read it in one sitting, because the rhythms propel you forward. They’re oral rhythms—not just in the dialogue but in the prose cadences. The book itself is the chant, and it’s inexorable. The novel and the movie add to each other. Keneally’s passion comes out in barbaric, pixillated humor; Schepisi’s vision is less comic, but his work is visually impassioned, and it, too, seems inexora­ble. The smooth, high-strung tone is set right at the start, and I don’t think there’s an inexpressive frame of film in the entire movie. Schepisi’s chant has a different rhythm: Keneally writes spiccato, Schepisi’s moviemaking is lega­to. Keneally writes with the comic virulence of an Irish-Australian observing the stingy Scots, who can’t open their fists even when they’re the lords of a great land; Schepisi sees the meanness set against the expanses, sees the pat­terns of dark to light, with the people at the dark bottom of the image and the birds flying from the pastels to the whiteness at the top. Each, in his way, makes you feel that he has captured a nation’s rhythm.

In recent years, the movies with the clearest social vision appear to be those rooted in a particular time and place: in the Sardinia of the Taviani brothers’ Padre Padrone, with its patriarchal system; in Francesco Rosi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli (which gave you the feeling that the camera arrived in the remote, mountainous peasant village with Carlo Levi in the thirties and left with him, and that the land and the people returned to darkness). Maybe it’s because movies spouted so much humanitarian ideology in the past, and Hollywood showed us so many faceless throngs, that these exact, personal visions bringing us up close to their subjects have special, ecstatic force. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is a dreamlike Requiem Mass for a nation’s lost honor; that Schepisi should have financed it partly by his work in TV com­mercials is a joke that all moviemakers can appreciate. Keneally’s book is full of jokes. A sample: “Press cartoonists sketched the nascent motherland…. In one hand she held perhaps a tome with a title such as ‘British Civilization,’ in the other a blank parchment entitled ‘The Fresh New Page of Democracy.’ She rather resembed Miss Graf.”

The New Yorker, September 15, 1980

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