In a remote cattle station in the Northern Territory, Sarah McMann's (Betty Suttor) baby has just died and in its place she and husband Douglas (George Simpson-Little) adopt an aboriginal baby girl whose parents have just died. They call the girl Jedda and raise her as for all intents and purposes white, forbidding her contact with the aborigines at the station. Jedda grows up to be a teenager (played by Ngala Kunoth) but feels herself separated from both white society due to her skin colour and from her tribe by her upbringing. Then everything changes when Marbuk (Robert Tudawali) arrives...
Charles Chauvel (born 1897) was one of the leading Australian directors of the decades before the film industry revival of the 1970s. All his feature films (two partly-lost silents and seven sound films) have been released either separately or as an eight-disc box set, The Charles Chauvel Collection. Please see my review for details of Chauvel's life and career up to what was his penultimate film Sons of Matthew (1949).
Jedda is a beginning and ending: Chauvel's final film, though it wasn't intended to be. It was the first Australian film to be made in colour. (Long John Silver, really an American film using Australian locations, premiered a year earlier, in 1954, but it also started production that year, over a year after Jedda began shooting.) By then, Australian film production had reduced to a trickle, and the country was more frequently used for its locations by overseas productions and coproductions – so much so that when They're a Weird Mob began shooting in Australia eleven years later it caused questions to be asked whether Australia could have its own film industry. Three years later, with the release of Tim Burstall's 2000 Weeks, the usually-cited starting point of the Australian film revival, it began to have one again.
The inspiration for Jedda came from a question Chauvel was asked, by an American asking why there were no Australian films featuring their indigenous people, the same way as native Americans had featured in American films. As a result, Jedda became the first Australian feature film with not one but two indigenous actors in the lead roles. For the time, this was quite a radical move, especially if you consider that twenty-three years later, Fred Schepisi did the same thing in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, another story of an aboriginal caught between white society and his (in this case) tribal background. This was an equally bleak look at how the two could not be reconciled, and the film – fine as it is – was too bleak, violent and unforgiving to find great favour at the box office.
Chauvel's film is very forthright, about as much as it could be given the censorship of the time. It's very clear that Jedda's attraction to Marbuk (often spelled "Marbuck" in reference sources but it's without a C onscreen) is a carnal one, and it's not difficult to understand - though this is conveyed through indirection - that it's consummated. Chauvel isn't shy about portraying Marbuk as a sexual being, as seen through Jedda's eyes, and the camera's, with Robert Tudawali frequently barechested and dressed only in a loincloth. Yet the film also shows that if Jedda is divided between her tribal heritage and white upbringing, she's also not at home with the tribes, as any relationship with Marbuk violates their skin code and is to be punished. Charles and Elsa Chauvel's script adds a further layer in that the film is narrated by Joe, a "halfcaste" aborigine (played by Paul Reynall) who is also integrated into white society as the McMann's drover. He's also in love with Jedda, though unrequitedly. (Joe's narration also gets around the fact that many later scenes are conducted in indigenous languages: subtitling foreign-language dialogue in English-language features was not common practice in 1955.)
Jedda was an arduous production, not least because of the intense heat – and flies - of the Northern Territory locations. There were no Australian laboratories equipped to process the Gevacolor negative, which had to be done at Denham Laboratories in London. The first six weeks of shooting was lost because a camera assistant had threaded the film the wrong side up. If that wasn't enough, the negative of the final scene was lost in a plane crash, so it had to be reshot, due to the lack of sufficient budget at a different location to the original. Shooting began in mid 1953 and was completed by the end of the year; editing and sound mixing had to be done in London as well. There was a complete print available by the end of 1954, as the BBFC passed the film (albeit with cuts) for an A certificate on 30 November. The version submitted was, according to the Board, one running 96:40. That is a little longer than the present version, which runs 89:45 including restoration credits, which suggests that further editing may have taken place before the film's premiere in Darwin on 3 January 1955, though some sources give the original running time as 101 minutes. In May, it played in competition at Cannes (the first Australian feature to do so) and had its Sydney release in May. Editing certainly happened in the UK, with as much as forty minutes cut out so that the film could play on the bottom half of a double bill, though initially, according to the September 1956 issue of Monthly Film Bulletin, its British release was at a length of 73 minutes. In the USA the film was released as Jedda the Uncivilized, an inadvertent echo of the title of Chauvel's earlier film which prefigures this one in several respects.
Jedda had a considerable impact, and it's not hard to see why. In his Centenary of Cinema documentary on his country's films, 40,000 Years of Dreaming, George Miller describes how the film had just such an impact on him when he saw it as a child. While more recently the film has not been easy to get to see – just about impossible in the UK, with no VHS or DVD release and no television showing I can trace, so this Blu-ray is the first chance I've had to see the film – but it has maintains its deserved status as a classic of Australian cinema. And while Chauvel's output is uneven, and his command of actors and dialogue in particular somewhat shaky in his earlier works, his craftsmanship is not in doubt, nor his ability to give his films an epic scale and heft. Robert Tudawali made one more film, 1958's Dust in the Sun, and some work on television before his death at age thirty-nine in 1967. Ngarla Kunoth (real name Rosalie Kunoth, later Rosalie Kunoth-Marks), born in 1936 and still alive as of this writing, never acted again, but she appeared as herself in John Pilger's documentary Utopia in 2013.
Chauvel continued to develop film ideas, but his next project was a documentary series for television, a coproduction between ABC in Australia, which had just launched in 1956, and the BBC, who showed it in 1958 with a repeat showing the following year. Over thirteen twenty-five-minute episodes, Charles and Elsa took a filmmaking tour of their native country. (You can see two extracts here.) This was Charles Chauvel's last work. He died of a heart attack on 11 November 1959, at the age of sixty-two.
Jedda was one of the Atlab 50: fifty major Australian films selected for restoration with new archive prints struck, a project announced in 2000 which ran five years. Fifteen years later, the film has had a digital restoration by the NSFA and that is the basis for Umbrella Entertainment's Blu-ray and DVD. The latter is available separately or as part of the eight-disc Charles Chauvel Collection box set reviewed earlier. Both editions are encoded for all regions and the DVD is NTSC format. Completists should note that the Blu-ray contains two extras which are not on the DVD.
The film is presented in a ratio of 1.33:1, with the DVD anamorphically enhanced. Jedda began shooting in June 1953, three months before the premiere of the first CinemaScope film, The Robe and certainly by the time Jedda saw the light of a projector lamp in public, all commercial cinemas in the USA and UK had converted to widescreen. (How quickly Australia converted will be a matter for someone to research.) While I'm not going to doubt that Jedda should be in Academy Ratio (1.37:1) it is highly likely that many places showed it cropped to a wider ratio, and given that Chauvel frames many shots with a fair amount of headroom, it's more likely to look awkwardly cropped at the bottom of the frame than the top. There are also no telltale reframings in shot to keep characters and objects within the bounds of the wider ratio, the usual giveaway of an open-matte transfer as opposed to a full-frame one. The restoration, especially in HD, does expose some undoubted flaws in the original, including fringing and density fluctuations, especially early on. The colour is distinctly fifties, with heightened skin colours, of the white characters especially, but the bold yellows and oranges of the desert and the intense blue sky, comes over very well, and blacks are solid.
The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as DTS-HD MA 2.0 on the Blu-ray and Dolby Digital 2.0 on the DVD. It's well-balanced between dialogue, sound effects and Isador Goodman's excellent music score (though apparently Elsa Chauvel disliked it). Unfortunately, there are no subtitles for the hard-of-hearing.
The main extra is on all eight of the DVDs in the collection: the 2014 documentary about Chauvel, The Big Picture (74:03|), so the rest of this paragraph is repeated from my review of the DVD box set. It's a runthrough of Chauvel's life and career, subdivided into sections for each film. There are contemporary interviews with Susanne Chauvel Carlsson (who died in 2013: the documentary is dedicated to her), who wrote a book about her famous father, and Ric Chauvel Carlsson, her son and Charles and Elsa's grandson. From the archive we hear from Charles Chauvel (via newsreel footage from the time) and an audio interview with Elsa, plus Betty Bryant, Ken G. Hall, Chips Rafferty, Herc McIntyre and, quite extensively, Michael Pate, who reveals that he shouts something during the cyclone sequence of Sons of Matthew which is not what you hear on the soundtrack, but which amused some lipreaders in the audience at its premiere. There are some major spoilers here though, especially for Jedda. The documentary is presented in 16:9, anamorphically enhanced, though that does mean that the plentiful film extracts are cropped.
Also on both discs is a self-navigating stills and poster gallery (4:48) and the film's theatrical trailer (2:19), in black and white despite the film itself being in colour. On the Blu-ray but not on the DVD are two further extras, confusingly enough with almost the same title and having the exact same running time (20:29) as each other. One is a series of screen tests for Jedda presented mute and in black and white and colour which has seemingly faded so much that it's become pink. The other extra is Screen Test, a short dramatised documentary made in 1937. Chauvel is credited with the direction of the Australian scenes, which are at the beginning of the film, where he appears as himself talking to a journalist about the screen testing process. The rest of the film was made in Hollywood and directed by S. Sylvan Simon, who also appeared as himself overseeing a screen test of Kay Hughes (playing herself), with much emphasis on the input of the costume and make-up departments.
Much Australian cinema from before 1970 remains very hard to see in Australia and presently impossible in the UK, as those titles not lost are in many cases only available for viewing by taking a trip to Australia and visiting an archive. So the release of Charles Chauvel's output on DVD, with the present film on Blu-ray as well, is a very welcome development. More, please.