The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith | Review by Stephen Schiff

Based on a novel by Thomas Keneally, which in turn is based on a true story, "The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith" is about a rampage.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith

Directed and written by Fred Schepisi, from the novel by Thomas Keneally. Starring Tommy Lewis. Freddy Reynolds, and Jack Thompson.

by Stephen Schiff

During the last five or six years, the Australians have been making movies in a ritualistic fever. Like shamans conjuring up some lost tribal identity, they drum up the beauties and terrors of the Australian past, prodding and poking at them until they spill meaning. It’s never really worked. The formulas that filmmakers like Peter Weir and Gillian Armstrong and Bruce Beresford mumble over their subjects have always sounded rather hollow, like the attempts of European — or Europeanized — minds to impose a pattern on random bones and streaks of blood. In films like My Brilliant Career, The Getting of Wisdom, and Picnic at Hanging Rock, for instance, Armstrong, Beresford, and Weir have told us of schoolgirls straining against the fetters of the English-style boarding school; the metaphor for an Australia struggling to break its colonial bonds was all too pat. In Hanging Rock and The Last Wave, Weir peered into the aboriginal soul, but there, where real mystery lay, he found only voodoo and the gleaming grin of the noble savage. One began to wonder whether the vaunted Australian cinema had anything to offer besides landscape photography — the disquieting portraits of brooding hills perpetually veiled in blue mists and the whirring of cicadas.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, made in 1978 but arriving here only now, is full of those strangely solemn vistas, and of cicadas and aborig­ines and girls in starchy white frocks. But the writer-director, Fred Schepisi (pronounced SKEPsee), has found something new and ter­ribly disturbing in that down-under iconography. Somehow, he has tapped the ferocious mystery of the Australian past, and the secrets he disgorges tumble out with an overwhelming force, because they impli­cate us, too. Based on a novel by Thomas Keneally, which in turn is based on a true story, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is about a rampage. In 1900, just before Australia is to become a federation independent of England, a young, educated half-aborigine finds he can neither enter the world of whites nor return to the spooky primitivism of the aborigine culture; suddenly, to his own astonishment, he explodes, murdering seven whites — five of them women. Schepisi tells his story without preaching and without melodrama. His images are spare and clean and imbued with a quiet, sorrowing fatalism. Things move forward calmly, at an unemphatic pace suitable to legend. The mea­sured gait, the assurance and quietude, create an almost Brechtian distance, and yet the story Schepisi tells is so frightening that it knocks the wind out of you. I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite as powerful since The Deer Hunter, and I can’t recall another film that conveys so much of the passions that brew when two races share the same ground.

It’s hard to imagine an American producing such a movie, because The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith inhabits a realm of moral turmoil that Americans seem afraid to enter. Like 19th-century America, 19th-century Australia was a wilderness slowly being settled by immigrant whites, most of them outcasts in their native England who suddenly found themselves rulers of a vast, rich domain. Their treatment of the aborigines — slaughter, subjugation, sexual abuse — parallels our own treatment of Indians and blacks, and indeed, if colonial brutality were all that The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith were about, I would have no doubts of its success in the land of Roots and remorse. But this movie is stronger than that. It plunges beyond the protocol of social criticism toward high tragedy. As much as we sympathize with Jimmie’s plight, his killing spree is utterly appalling — a blood-revenge motivated by a series of gnat-stings. We cannot condone it, cannot even rationalize it, and were we not to experience it in this movie, we might well find it impossible to envisage. The wonder of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is that it forces us to feel the outburst of madness and rage that occurs when two uprooted, identity-less cultures collide. We’ve witnessed such explosions on these shores, of course — in places like Watts, Detroit, and Miami, and in any number of personal vendettas. And yet Jimmie Blacksmith is probably too unsettling to be a hit here; its depiction of a black’s slaughtering of innocent whites may even strike some well­-meaning liberal sorts as reprehensible. That would be a shame. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is one of the greatest pieces of political filmmaking I know, because it doesn’t impose rhetorical nobility on its characters or twist their lives into social statement. Schepisi approaches politics through ritual; the ritual re-enactment of the crimes of Jimmie Blacksmith forces us to feel the dread and regret that surrounded them. And the social statement lies in our response.

Caught between cultures, half native and half settler (his father had been white, his mother aborigine), Jimmie Blacksmith (Tommy Lewis) represents Australia itself. And though Jimmie is never less than a full­-bodied character, it’s clear that Schepisi wants us to view him sym­bolically, for he intends nothing less than a national epic. Right from the start, Schepisi makes us aware of the divisions in Jimmie’s world. We see the boy undergoing his tribal initiation rites, but we also see him being tutored by the Reverend Mr. Neville (Jack Thompson), who runs a Methodist missionary school in one of the squalid “black camps” that sprawl outside the towns. And though Jimmie is accepted among the aborigines, he yearns to escape into the world of whiteness, yearns to follow Mrs. Neville’s advice and marry a white girl, so that his children will be only a quarter black; in a few generations, perhaps, the blackness will be nearly eradicated from his bloodline. But when he leaves to seek his fortune, the world is not as he expects it to be. Polite, articulate, and dependable though he is, he’s always mistreated and underpaid. Skilled as a fence builder, he drifts from one farm to another, always certain that his intelligence and eagerness to please will eventually win him acceptance. Actually, of course, intelligence and eagerness are the very reasons for his mistreatment. These tough white landowners have gotten where they are without education and social graces. Many of them can’t read or write, and Jimmie’s polish and his sycophantic smile seem a sort of rebuke to them. Schepisi sketches the farmers in such deft, economical strokes that you feel as though you were watching a great Japanese calligrapher at work. From the very poses these pale, tight-lipped actors strike in front of their little houses and rude wooden corrals, from the tense way they hold their mouths and clench the muscles around their eyes, you can feel the staunchness and fright within them, the refusal to indulge generosity or humor, lest something in the balance of things be overthrown and their hard-won dominion shattered.

The first half of the movie abounds in the sort of rich wide-screen imagery we associate with Westerns: ominous expanses of land; soft hills that disappear into a milky haze; close-ups of animals and insects, and of men working or talking against the unfeeling immensity of the backdrop. The emptiness is at once beautiful and spooky, and when Schepisi brings his camera in on Jimmie pounding at the earth with a post-hole digger, you can feel a violence in him that seems a sort of response to that emptiness. Struggling with the land, dwarfed by it, the people here change; a howl rises in them, a howl of terror and awe, not unlike the imprecation of a tribal shaman trying to impose his magic on an unfathomable universe. Schepisi introduces scenes with little por­traits of the way his people respond to emptiness. When we enter the world of the whites, the scenes begin with close-ups of food and drink, of crystal decanters and china plates — the artifacts of civility and abun­dance that the settlers cling to. Scenes that involve the aborigines — Jimmie, his Uncle Tabidgi (Steve Dodds), or his giggly half-brother, Mort (Freddy Reynolds) — begin with shots of legs and feet: evocations of tribal dances, and later, after Jimmie’s crimes, of flight. Throughout the movie, the compositions crane upward. Schepisi often places his characters near the bottom of the frame, where they struggle amid dark greens and browns, and then he lightens the colors as he ascends, finally letting them melt into a pallid sky. It’s as though Schepisi were trying to locate his story in some grand cosmic scheme — as if he were keeping us mindful of the omnipresent heavens.

Tommy Lewis, who plays Jimmie, is not a very good actor. A 19-year-old half-caste, and a college student, he was discovered in an airport, and though his brightness and energy are appealing, he’s a little too stolid, too opaque to move us. Lewis might sink another movie, and yet he works well here, because his remoteness intensifies the stately, Brechtian tone. And we do sympathize with him. When Jimmie takes a job as a police deputy, he’s forced to join in some black-bashing and, at the behest of his white boss (played with hideous gusto by Ray Barrett), he even turns in an old friend. Here we sorrow for Jimmie, and we know he’ll eventually quit in disgust. He finds a new employer, Newby, who is unusually kind and accepting, and unlike the other whites Jimmie’s encountered, he’s someone Jimmie can admire. To Jimmie, the Newby family is a white ideal, and brushing against that ideal electrifies him. And so, when the Newbys, too, insult him, and make it clear to him that his blackness is irredeemable, the fear and pain and rage that have been smoldering inside him ignite.

Jimmie’s murderous outburst is very different from the violence we might see in a humanitarian American study of race relations, or even in a war movie or a Western; never for a moment does it seem justifiable. And yet we understand it — the depth of our understanding, in fact, is part of the horror. Schepisi stages the explosion with unflinch­ing authority. In one shot, Jimmie rushes at the camera, and our sympathies, which have been so steadfastly with him, are thrown into confusion. Like the Newbys, we have felt for him. and now he has turned on us; as he hurtles out of the darkness, it seems that it’s us he’s attacking. Then Schepisi pulls the camera way back, and watching the first, irrevocable assault from afar, we are thrust into an eerie objectivity. Our identification with Jimmie shatters, but the fragments still seem to blow about in our heads like dead leaves, and just then Schepisi plunges back into the massacre, his camera whirling vertiginously — the scene may not be gory or explicit, but we can smell the blood. The way this sequence divides our loyalties is startling; it’s as if we were committing the atrocities, and at the same time being repulsed by them. In effect, we’re at war with ourselves, and when Jimmie announces later that he’s declared war, we know what that war is. It’s the battle that’s been raging inside him and inside the divided Australia we’ve been watching, the battle between races and religions and aspirations, the battle for identity, and for sex and land and manhood.

Later, Uncle Tabidgi, who’s been drawn into the murders, tells a jury, “You’d think it would take a good while to make up your mind to kill someone and then kill them. But take my word for it, it only takes a second.” Watching the first slaughter, we can feel that dreadful loss of control, but gradually, as Jimmie roams the forests and countryside, avenging each slight he’s suffered at white hands, he comes to seem a distant, almost inhuman figure. And Schepisi draws us instead toward the two men who accompany him: Mort, the full-blooded aborigine whose joyful innocence becomes a casualty of Jimmie’s war, and Mac-Readie (well played by Peter Carroll), a white schoolteacher whom Jimmie takes hostage. MacReadie is perhaps too schematic a figure. Frail and liberal and a bit preachy, he emblemizes white sympathies toward the blacks. He and Mort get along beautifully, and MacReadie tells Jimmie, “You must leave Mort. . . . There’s too much Christian in you. It’ll bugger him up, like it’s buggered you.” And it’s true that we can see something in Mort that Jimmie’s never had, a sweetness and contentment that comes from having no ambition, no assertiveness, no self-image, perhaps no concept of time. Mort’s growing sadness is what we fix on in the last part of the movie, and it sweeps us along a sort of tragic arc, away from Jimmie, whom we sense is doomed, and back to the images of earth and sky that have sustained the film. In the end, when a flock of white birds explodes from the darkness of the forest where Jimmie has hidden, you feel as though you were watching the ascent of angels, as though the movie’s horrors were being released into the air. It’s the sort of image that might seem too easy, too prettily symbolic in a film that had not so powerfully moved us. Coming at the end of Jimmie Blacksmith, it has the grandeur of a cadence.

Boston Phoenix, October 14.1980


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