Director: Fred Schepisi
Screenplay: Fred Schepisi
Based on a Novel written by: Thomas Keneally
Starring: Tommy Lewis, Freddy Reynolds, Angela Punch McGregor, Ray Barrett, Jack Thompson, Steve Dodd
Running Time: 122 min
BBFC Certificate: 18
The Australian New Wave produced a wealth of great films, from respectable classics like Picnic at Hanging Rock and Walkabout to well-loved genre movies like the Mad Max films to enjoyably trashy Ozploitation fare like The Man From Hong Kong. Released in the middle of this period, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was one of the most expensive Australian films of the time (due to the spread of its many locations rather than the size of its crew or fame of its cast) and it received great critical acclaim, winning several Australian Film Institute awards as well as being up for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. However, it flopped at the domestic box office. So much so, that its director Fred Schepisi upped sticks and started a career in Hollywood (though he made a couple of films in Australia later in life). He has done fairly well since then, making a diverse range of films such as Roxanne, A Cry in the Dark and Six Degrees of Seperation, but Jimmy Blacksmith is probably still his most acclaimed film, even if it’s one of the less well known of his filmography these days. Eureka have decided to increase its visibility with a fully-loaded dual-format home entertainment release in the UK. I’m surprised it’s coming out under their Masters of Cinema banner, given how some bigger names have failed to make the grade (I’d have liked to have seen Robert Zemeckis receive the acknowledgement when they released Used Cars recently), but I’m happy to see another lesser-known classic get well-treated and released over here.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Keneally (best known for writing ‘Schindler’s Ark’ on which Schindler’s List was based), which in turn was based on actual events during the turn of the 20th Century surrounding Jimmy Governor and the Breelong Massacre.
Jimmie Blacksmith (Tommy Lewis, a.k.a. Tom E Lewis) is the half-caste child of an Aboriginal mother and a white father. He’s raised largely by a white reverend (Jack Thompson) and his wife (Julie Dawson), who educate Jimmie and ingrain white, Christian values in him. This leads to a desire to find work, build a home and marry a white woman so that his future generations of children will become lower fractions of his half-Aboriginal ancestry. Jimmie does his best to fulfil these aspirations but every step of the way he’s pushed back by the racist white people above him. Eventually, the punishment and setbacks prove too much and he snaps, murdering the wife and family of a white man he’s working for. Jimmie flees with his loyal Aboriginal brother Mort (Jack Thompson) and the two do their best to evade the authorities who have set up a large-scale manhunt. As the pair claim a few more victims, they become ever more notorious and it’s only a matter of time before they are caught.
The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith is about institutional racism. The system portrayed, which was set up by white settlers, is completely against the indigenous population. On top of the blatant and shocking racism displayed on screen, there’s a lot of talk about the Federation of Australia which was making progress at the time (there’s even some ‘Fuck Federation’ graffiti near the end, written on a sacred rock). The Federation was a process involving the British colonies in Australia joining together to form the Commonwealth of Australia, and it’s significant here because the process left out and further weakened the rights of the Aboriginal Australians, who really should have had the most say, being the indigenous population.
Having its lead character a half-Aboriginal that murders several innocent people (including children and, in one horrific scene, a baby) might not strike you as a powerfully anti-racist message, but his white upbringing and inability to live up to its aspirations cause him to snap as much as the racist abuse he receives (though they’re linked of course). He frowns upon the Aboriginal people with their heavy drinking and seemingly primitive ways but in the white community he’s surrounded by hate and every door is shut in his face purely because of his race, which he finds particularly frustrating since he sees himself as ‘half-white’. The film therefore effectively pulls off the difficult job of allowing the audience to understand why he snapped and did what he did, without justifying it.
Schepisi said he wanted to show the “truth of violence”. He wanted to create a hero initially but show him do something you don’t want to see him do, something reprehensible. This shows violence for what it is, rather than glorify it as most action movies do, where the hero fights or even kills for ‘good’ or ‘justice’. The massacre and other murders are swift, shocking and brutal, never stylised or exciting.
Sadly the film is still relevant. Obviously, most ‘white’ Australians aren’t as openly hostile to Aboriginal Australians now as in the film, but problems with racism and a lack of support for Aborigines still exist, or so film critic and writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas relates in her commentary. I’ve never lived there myself to comment first-hand. The fact that the film didn’t do that well in Australia originally isn’t all that surprising either, given this perspective. It was likely too shocking and close to the bone in terms of racism at the time.
Lewis, who sadly died last year, isn’t ‘technically’ perfect as Jimmy. His line delivery can be a bit stilted and his timing isn’t always spot-on, but there’s a raw quality to his performance and a great expressiveness in his face that allows him to shine and drive the film. He, like Reynolds, was a non-actor. In fact, he was discovered for the role at an airport by Schepisi and his casting director and wife at the time, Rhonda, who just saw his face and thought he looked striking and perfect for the part. Schepisi tested and worked with Lewis and Reynolds before the shoot to ensure they could do the job and it paid off. I think Reynolds is particularly good, feeling more natural and charismatic than the occasionally uncomfortable-looking Lewis. Reynolds unfortunately never acted in anything else after Jimmie Blacksmith, whereas Lewis has shown up in quite a few films and TV series, including The Proposition and Red Hill.
A slight issue I had with the film was the music. Composer Bruce Smeaton won an AFI award for his score but personally, I found it a bit over-baked, though it’s not without its effective and beautiful passages.
Overall though, it’s a tough, uncompromising and powerful film about institutional racism. It can feel like it’s hitting like a blunt instrument at times through its flashes of violence and equally disturbing displays of racism, but the film has depth on the subject and never over-simplifies the issue. It has its rough edges but it’s an undeniably important work that demands respect.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is out on 26th August on dual-format Blu-ray and DVD in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. I watched the Blu-ray version of the film (the Australian cut) and there’s a fairly heavy grain but it’s dealt with well in the digital transfer. Some of the dark scenes lack detail in the blacks, but this is likely as shot or due to the stock used. The audio is a similar story where it’s not always crystal clear but is likely down to the original recording style.
You get a lot of special features added to the package:
– LIMITED EDITION O-CARD (First 2000 copies only) – featuring newly commissioned artwork by Nathanael Marsh
– The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith Australian Version [122 mins] presented in 1080p on Blu-ray (with a progressive encode on the DVD), from a restoration completed by Umbrella Entertainment
– The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith International Version [117 mins] from a brand new restoration completed in 2019 from the original film elements (Blu-ray only)
– Uncompressed monaural soundtrack (on Blu-ray)
– Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
– Brand new and exclusive audio commentary by film critic and writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (Australian Version)
– Audio commentary by director Fred Schepisi (Australian version)
– Interview with Fred Schepisi [39 mins]
– Celluloid Gypsies: Making The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith [36 mins]
– A conversation with director Fred Schepisi and cinematographer Ian Baker [64 mins]
– The Chant of Tom Lewis interview with Tom E. Lewis [26 mins]
– Q&A session with Fred Schepisi and Geoffrey Rush, from the 2008 Melbourne International Film Festival [34 mins]
– Making us Blacksmiths Documentary on the casting of Aboriginal lead actors Tom E. Lewis and Freddy Reynolds
– Stills Gallery
– Theatrical Trailer
– Reversible sleeve
– PLUS: A collector’s booklet reprint of Pauline Kael’s original review of the film.
It’s an impressively extensive package. There’s a lot of repetition of anecdotes and such within the features, as many are led by Schepisi, but there’s a lot of interesting material here. My favourite feature is probably the commentary by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. It’s well researched and highly informative yet enjoyably and engagingly delivered. Schepisi’s commentary is decent too, but a little more dry and sees him making many of the same points made in the interviews (which I watched first). His interview alongside DOP Ian Baker stood out among Schepisi’s contributions for me. It’s relaxed and long so pretty in-depth on their careers and the production of Blacksmith. The interview with Lewis is deeply personal and touching too. The ‘Making Us Blacksmiths’ piece is also a nice inclusion, offering a look at the process of preparing non-actors Lewis and Reynolds for their roles.
Pauline Kael’s review in the booklet makes for interesting reading and there’s also a breakdown of differences between the Australian and international versions of the film.