Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978)


          Proving that violence, like sex, is a narrative commodity that cuts across cultural borders, some of the widest international releases afforded to Australian films in the ’70s went to brutal tales of righteously indignant outlaws. Yet while Ned Kelly (1970) and Mad Dog Morgan (1976) dramatized the exploits of real historical figures (both white) who raged against the oppressive machine of 19th-century Australian government, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is a fictional story inspired by the murderous actions of a 19th-century Aborigine named Jimmy Governor.
          Writer Thomas Keneally, the Australian scribe who later penned Schindler’s List, used the basics of Governor’s story as the spine for his 1972 book The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, which writer-director Fred Schepisi adapted into this movie. In 1900, Governor killed an entire white family, then several more people, before getting captured and hanged. His fictional doppelganger, Jimmie Blacksmith (Tom E. Lewis), is a sweet-tempered young man willing to suffer indignities while making his way in the white-dominated world as a wandering laborer.
          In fact, Blacksmith is so determined to assimilate that he adopts Christianity and courts a white woman, Gilda (Angela Punch McGregor). Despite getting swindled by a string of employers, Jimmie patiently builds a life for himself, Gilda, and his slow-witted brother, Mort (Freddy Reynolds). However, when Gilda gives birth to a white child, proving her infidelity, Jimmie snaps and seeks out his past abusers for lethal revenge. Mort is his accomplice until realizing Jimmie’s bloodlust has become insatiable—but by that point, Jimmie’s actions have doomed both men.
          The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith has a complex texture, because while the filmmakers clearly feel kinship with their oppressed protagonist, they don’t shy away from depicting the reckless brutality of his actions. And to the filmmakers’ credit, they mostly avoid the trap of including saintly white characters for moral contrastwhite Australia ends up with as much blood on its hands, metaphorically speaking, as Jimmie has on his. At one point, when Jimmie abducts a frail teacher for a hostage, the teacher acknowledges the impact European whites have had on Australia: “You can’t say we haven’t given you anything. We’ve introduced you to alcohol, religion, influenza, measles, syphilis, school—a whole host of improvements.” Preachy, sure, but tart nonetheless.
          Like the best dramas Schepisi made once he relocated to Hollywood—Barbarosa (1982), Iceman (1984), A Cry in the Dark (1988), and so on—The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is a serious picture filled with careful craftsmanship and provocative ideas. It also boasts a strong sense of atmosphere, thanks to evocative music and rich location photography. Even though it doesn’t achieve the thunderclap impact Schepisi was presumably shooting for, this is still a potent rumination on race, responsibility, and revenge.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith: GROOVY

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