ON DVD & BLU-RAY
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) Blu Ray (Eureka!)
A mixed-race white-Aboriginal declares war
This violent period drama is set in Australia during the turn of the 20th century. Tommy Lewis plays Jimmie Blacksmith, a mixed-race white-Aboriginal who has been raised by a white reverend named Neville (Jack Thompson) and his wife. On their advice, he tries to gain acceptance within the white community by carrying out various odd jobs such as putting up fences. Although some of his clients wilfully shortchange him, he carries on regardless. Eventually, he settles down on the ranch of the Newby family and falls for a white kitchen helper named Gilda Marshall (Angela Punch McGregor).
They quickly get married and she has a baby who is clearly not his own since it is 100% white. Soon after the birth, Mrs. Newby (Ruth Cracknell) attempts to persuade her to move away from Jimmie and the other Aboriginals who work with him. This angers Jimmie, who already harbours a dispute with Mr. Newby (Don Crosby) over some withheld wages. He then resorts to a series of shockingly brutal acts as he declares war on the whites inhabiting his land.
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A tale of the destructiveness of normalised prejudice
Adjectives like “powerful” and “hard-hitting” are often overused when describing films with weighty subject matter. Most often, what we get is a rather overly earnest, worthy affair that uses mechanical storytelling techniques to hammer home its points with a total absence of any nuance. However, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is certainly worthy of both of the aforementioned terms.
It paints a devastating picture of a man who tries very hard to fit in but is eternally cursed not to. While he has plenty of friends amongst his purely Aboriginal peers, his upbringing in a “respectable” white household means that he aspires to belong amongst the “civilised” whites. However, the white people can never see him as being anything other than a “savage” black. The unusual thing here is that the film doesn’t go for a conventional loaded Hollywood-style narrative whereby Jimmie Blacksmith is elevated to the status of mythical folk-hero and all of the white folk are reduced to one-note caricatured villains. In fact, his ultimate actions are, in many ways, far more heinous than those of his oppressors in that he is seen brutally murdering defenceless women and children. While these scenes aren’t overly graphic by today’s standards, they come as a real shock to the system because of the deliberate, almost laid-back buildup which comes before them.
The film’s triumph is that it makes the viewer understand and sympathise with him despite the fact that the acts he perpetrates in the second half are fundamentally unforgivable. Tommy Lewis turns in a superb performance as a down-to-earth guy who finally hits breaking point and loses any sense of humility or forgiveness. The racism around him is prevalent and poisonous, and yet the white people perpetuating it are remarkably ordinary in their demeanour. Their prejudices have become such a normalised fact in their life that most of them just treat it as “the way it is”.
Director Fred Schepisi captures the spectacular Australian landscapes, the squalor of Aboriginal camps and the pristine cleanliness of the white homesteads with a telling, painterly sense of detail. It’s little surprise that, while it wasn’t a big box office hit, it attracted enough positive critical notices to allow him gain a successful career in America, where he made such diverse films as a western (Barbarosa in 1982), a Steve Martin comedy (Roxanne in 1987) and a John le Carré adaptation starring Sean Connery (The Russia House in 1990).
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is a chilling and tragic depiction of the results of prejudice. It’s a compulsive and timely lesson for us all.
Runtime: 117/122 mins
Dir: Fred Schepisi
Script: Fred Schepisi, from a novel by Thomas Keneally
Starring: Tommy Lewis, Freddy Reynolds, Ray Barrett, Jack Thompson, Angela Punch McGregor, Steve Dodd, Peter Carroll, Ruth Cracknell, Don Crosby, Elizabeth Alexander, Bryan Brown
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
There are two different versions of the film available here: a 122-minute Australian version and a slightly shorter (117-minute) International cut. I am reviewing the longer Australian cut here, which is based in a remaster commissioned by the domestic label Umbrella Entertainment. Ian Baker’s cinematography with its autumnal hues looks superb in the HD format. Soundwise, everything is clear and clean.
As well as the two different cuts, there are two different commentary tracks: one by Australian film critic and author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, the other by director Fred Schepisi. We also get plenty of featurettes including an interview with Schepisi, a making-of, a conversation with Schepisi and cinematographer Ian Baker, a Q & A featuring Schepisi and actor Geoffrey Rush from the 2008 Melbourne International Film Festival, and a documentary about the casting of Aboriginal lead actors Tom E. Lewis and Freddy Reynolds. The enclosed booklet features an essay by film writer Travis Crawford plus a copy of Pauline Kael’s original review of the film.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is a must-see if you can take its uncompromising brutality. Eureka Entertainment should be applauded here for including two different cuts plus a wealth of extras.