From The Soho News (September 3, 1980). –- J.R.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith
Written and directed by Fred Schepisi
Based on the novel by Thomas Keneally
For a good 80 percent or so of its running time, the experience of seeing The
Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith affords a salutary, beautiful shock. Films that are
even halfway honest about racism — Mandingo and Richard Pryor Live in Concert
are the most recent examples that spring to mind — are so unexpected that
they’re often accused of being racist themselves, perhaps because of the deeply
rooted taboos that they expose and violate.
There’s no question that Fred Schepisi’s powerhouse Australian movie — adapted
from a novel by Thomas Keneally (who plays a small but significant role as a
lecherous cook), and “based on real events that took place in Australia at the
turn of the century” (just before the federation of Australian colonies) – is agit
-prop, ideologically slanted. But then again, it’s hard to think of any other
current release — including, say, The Empire Strikes Back and Dressed
to Kill -– that isn’t.
The aforementioned hits perform in part the not-so-innocent task of turning
contemporary objects of confusion and disgust (recent architecture and sex,
respectively) into occasions for exhilarated lyricism. The Chant of Jimmie
Blacksmith, no less a feast for the eyes, intermittently succeeds in doing some of
The reverse. What all three films do in relation to the way we live is equally
political, whatever their apparent intentions.
Despite a soupy soundtrack score, which seems at times to have been
composed for a sluggish spectacle directed by J. Lee Thompson, and a relish for
beginning sequences with startling close-ups that far exceeds any practical dramatic
utility that device can have, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is a stirring, often
ingenious piece of invective that deserves to be seen as widely as possible. It was
made two years ago, and, like a surprising number of other interesting foreign films
these days, has apparently circled the globe at least eight times before arriving in
up-to-date New York.
Meanwhile, it has been re-edited by writer-director Schepisi for the more fidgety
American market. (Perhaps significantly, he is currently at work on a film in
Hollywood.) From all the accounts that I’ve been privy to, however, the original
version — which also had a somewhat elliptical narrative — dragged in spots. The
present one doesn’t, although there is an expositional bump or two, and it appears
that the deleted 14 minutes are relatively negligible.
The title hero is a half-caste aborigine (forcefully played by Tommy Lewis), reared
and educated in a mission by Rev. Neville (Jack Thompson) and his wife Martha
(Julie Dawson) – charitable racists who decide to help him out simply because he’s
half-white. (As Martha points out to Jimmie, his grandchildren will be only one-
eighth black if he can marry a white woman. )
The film’s percussive pre-credits sequence – concentrating on the dynamic clash
between Jimmie’a aborigine culture and Christianity – economically establishes the
schizophrenia that dominates the film and its hero. When a friend whispered (apropos of Pauline Kael’s early gloss), “It’s not The Birth of a Nation, it’s The Wild Child,” I knew exactly what she meant.
Shot by Ian Baker in ravishing Panavision compositions that sometimes evoke
color photographs by Joel Meyerowitz (particularly those using door frames), the
early parts of the film chronicle Jimmie’s jobs in picaresque fashion. These
consist mainly of putting up fences for farmers, sheep-shearing, working in a
stable and tracking for the odious Constable Farrell (Ray Barrett), the scummiest
villain I’ve encountered in any film all year. The latter job ultimately entails
informing on a black man who is then sexually abused and murdered by Farrell,
while Jimmie tries not to listen. The hero is then ordered to bury his betrayed
friend and assist in the cover-up.
It’s around this point that Jimmie Blacksmith’s status and function in the film
become complex and interesting. Too complicitous by now in the evils of the
white world to qualify any longer as a simple, liberal victim in Schepisi’s crafty
dramaturgy, he nevertheless continues for some time to be the only plausible
identification figure. When, after suffering a great deal more intolerance and
provocation much later in the film (I’ve skipped a lot of the plot), he proceeds
to commit mass murder with the help of his Uncle Tabidgi (Steve Dodds), he
becomes a figure of extraordinarily ambiguous epic proportions — a Nat Turner
seen in Brechtian terms.
The only problem is, having performed this remarkable act of moral violence on the
spectator, Schepisi seems to have been at a loss about what to do next. As soon as
Jimmie becomes a fugitive outlaw (“I’ve declared war, that’s what I’ve done”), his half-
brother Mort (a purer aborigine appalled by Jimmie’s continuing violence, played by
the very expressive Freddy Reynolds) becomes the central identification figure –
a sort of pagan, pre-intellectual Pierrot le fou.
Then McCready (Peter Carroll), an asthmatic white schoolteacher taken along as
hostage by Jimmie and Mort, emerges briefly as the film’s moral spokesman,
especially when he addresses Jimmie about Mort: “He’s not really your brother, he’s
an aborigine. There’s still too much Christian in you. It’ll bugger him up, the way it’s
But by this time, the narrative focus has become too diffuse. When the film finally
resumes its concentration on the title hero, he has turned into an allegorical and
mythical Christ figure, wounded and unconvincing – rather like James Mason at the
end of Odd Man Out.
The lapse is unfortunate, but far from lethal. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith still
contains enough energy and insight and talent to warrant a look from anyone,
whatever its flaws. If Schepisi’s next film achieves even a fraction of what this one
sets out to do, it’ll clearly be something to watch.