The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith Review
Acclaimed film critic, Roger Ebert, started his 1981 review of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith with the following; “One of the wonders that a good movie can sometimes achieve is to take us entirely outside the framework of the society to which it will eventually be shown.” Ebert knew more than most about the mechanics and meaning of quality cinema and the social impact of the art form and Director Fred Schepisi’s film was instantly controversial and groundbreaking upon its theatrical release in 1978 and remains notorious over four decades later.
Adapted from a Booker Prize-nominated novel by Thomas Keneally, the film made an immediate impact as it eviscerated the status quo of politically correct discussion of Australian racial relations and compelled audiences to face, and perhaps more comprehensively, contemplate long-held perspectives and biases. The social discourse became heated as communities continued to become more inclusive and diverse.
The titular Jimmie Blacksmith (Tom E Lewis) is a young man trying to find his own purpose and position in Pre-Federation Australia of 1900, as his half-Aboriginal and half-Caucasian heritage cause distinct and unique complications and he attempts to find common ground in both communities, but feels unfulfilled by neither and distrusted by both. The education and support received from his adopted white family, Reverend Neville (Jack Thompson) and his submissive wife (Julie Dawson) spawns an ambition in Jimmie that conflicts significantly with his agrarian roots and culture.
Jimmie struggles equally with his aboriginal background as the “uncivilised” community regularly clashes with police and are on the receiving end of racial abuse and discrimination as they steadily lose ground, and ultimately control, to the colonialists. Jimmie's personal struggle is shockingly verbalised at the family table as the Reverend explains how he could rid himself of his “unfortunate” heritage by marrying a white woman and have a child that would only be “quarter-caste” and their children only “one-eighth-caste”. Jimmie's acceptance and pursuit of this outcome signifies a capitulation that informs every decision he makes until he eventually reaches the inevitable end of his compliance.
Jimmie does everything possible to attain the cultivated and privileged life of his dreams as he works hard, as a fence-builder for local farmers, marries Gilda (Angela Punch McGregor) and takes responsibility for a baby that, unsurprisingly, is not his. Discrimination, however, continues to follow Jimmie wherever he goes as he gets fired from jobs as soon as his wages are due and employers are embarrassed at his superior education and literacy. Jimmie accepts these flagrant inequities with resigned, but optimistic naivety, until the health and safety of his wife and baby is put at significant risk due to lack of payment.
What follows is an orgy of violence and destruction that would have been breathtakingly shocking to audiences at the time of release. Jimmie is joined on his spree by his brother Mort (Freddy Reynolds) as they visit all the homesteads where Jimmie was unfairly treated previously and exact bloody revenge as a form of catharsis and reparations.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is the fictionalised account of colonial-era serial murderer, Jimmy Governer and as such, rightly deserves the respect that Roger Ebert bestows on it, but the influential critic’s assessment is contentious; Jimmie Blacksmith is not specifically about racially-motivated murder as this link is tenuous at best as Jimmie seeks revenge and ultimately justice from those who slighted him and these offenders are coincidently white.
Secondly, and more significantly, this film is just not very good. The topics and themes explored are undeniably relevant and profound, but this in itself does not imbue greatness or quality. It is laboriously slow with little to no pay off as the pacing drags and edit jars. Character motivations are often confusing and depends heavily on the viewers own knowledge of the historical period and cultural imbalances and injustices. Fred Schepisi's direction, however, is competent and his creative impulses are astute as the expansive and breathtaking locations create an immersion that deserves credit and is captured beautifully by cinematographer Ian Baker.
But the most egregious shortcoming of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, which undermines the entire enterprise, is the lack of empathy for the protagonist. The viewer indeed understands the frustration and oppression suffered by Jimmie, but his extreme response is unpredictable and heinous and so far removed from rational, measured behaviour that it feels seriously lacking in authenticity.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was an influential film in 1978 as it gave gave thought-provoking social commentary, but has lost its impact as modern audiences require a more nuanced exploration of these complicated and sophisticated topics.
- Play feature with introduction by Fred Schepisi
- A Conversation with director, Fred Schepisi & cinematographer, Ian Baker (66 mins)
- Melbourne Premiere from Willesee at Seven, June 1978 (7 mins)
- CELLULOID GYPSIES: Making Jimmie Blacksmith – Interviews with key cast and crew, including director, Fred Schepisi and actor, Tommy Lewis
- Interview with Tommy Lewis (26 mins)
- Audio Commentary with Fred Schepisi
- Q&A session with Fred Schepisi and actor, Geoffrey Rush at MIFF (Melbourne International Film Festival) 2008 (34 mins)
- Making Us Blacksmiths – Documentary on the casting of Aboriginal lead actors, Tommy Lewis and Freddy Reynolds
- Stills Gallery
- Theatrical Trailer