The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith says more about Australia in the 1970s than 1900, writes Henry Reynolds
THOMAS Keneally’s novel The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith , published in April 1972, was remarkably timely. Australia was on the eve of significant political change, Aboriginal issues were more prominent than ever before and racism was a focus of both national and international attention.
Fred Schepisi, a close friend of Keneally, read the novel before it was published and was immediately interested in adapting it for cinema. The two friends had much in common including a Catholic upbringing and training as seminarians. Schepisi acquired the rights to Keneally’s novel and crafted the script, which Keneally then commented on. Keneally was cast in a cameo role. The film was released in 1978 and the front credits gave audiences two vital pieces of information: that it is ‘‘ from the novel by Thomas Keneally’’ and is ‘‘ based on real events’’.
Keneally took much of his story from Frank Clune’s 1959 book, Jimmy Governor , although he subsequently carried out research of his own. The story is based on the actual lives of two brothers of mixed descent, Jimmy and Joe Governor, and their sudden violent emergence from obscurity in central and northern NSW in 1900. In the film the brothers become Jimmie and Mort Blacksmith. Filmmakers and novelists should not be imprisoned in an iron cage of history. But Schepisi and Keneally rest the validity of their work on its relationship with the known and recorded past. So how, as a historian, do I judge The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith ? Should it be considered history or fiction?
So much research and meticulous labour clearly went into the creation of the sets and the look of the film. I am full of admiration for the production designer, Wendy Dickson, and her team for their commitment to historical realism.
The Aboriginal camps and the run- down mission are entirely realistic and the buildings — which were either in their original condition or were reconstructed — create authentic- looking late 19th- century locations.
In other aspects are innumerable small inconsistencies and improbable events. The elder who teaches Jimmie his hunting skills scoops a fish out of a small pool in a granite boulder. Jimmie extracts honey from what appears to be an anthill.
We see the young Jimmie receiving the sacred scarification of initiation. The adult bears no resulting scars. His uncle brings his extracted tooth to him but actor Tommy Lewis has no gap in his winning smile.
I was greatly struck by the performance of Ray Barrett as Sergeant Farrell. Over many years I have read much, and written too, about the behaviour and attitudes of colonial police towards the Aborigines. Barrett not only creates a powerful, overbearing and sinister character but it is as though every word and gesture is informed by the long and bitter history of relations which veered, during the 19th century, between the murderous and the paternalistic.
Keneally and Schepisi were at their most revealing in an episode of A Big Country that went to air on ABC TV in April 1978. The Aborigines, Keneally explained, were sick of being depicted either as stately warriors silhouetted against the skyline, spear in hand, or as loyal servants to white explorers or pioneers. They were anxious for a modern legend, a new sort of hero, and he informed the viewers that his novel was being used as a text in programs designed to heighten Aboriginal political consciousness.
Keneally referred to the history of Ned Kelly, observing that the bushranger had been a brutal killer but over time had become a legend seen as manifesting desirable national characteristics: courage, mateship, resourcefulness and cheek. Keneally thought that, with his novel and Schepisi’s film, Jimmy Governor might become a legend as well. It doesn’t seem to be pushing the argument too far to suggest that Keneally and Schepisi had decided to present the Aboriginal community with the unsolicited gift of their own Ned Kelly.
This self- appointed task seems to have been at once audacious and presumptuous. It was also very difficult. Ned Kelly had never been forgotten in the way that the Governors had been. Nor had his crimes been as heinous as theirs. Jimmy, after all, had smashed in the skulls of women and children and raped an adolescent girl.
Another difficulty about anointing Governor as a black hero was that he did not like to be called a black fellow. He declared himself a mestizo, as much white as black. To retrospectively declare him black is to echo those writers of 1900 who not only declared that the murders had been committed by Aborigines but that fact in itself was a sufficient explanation for the sudden, atavistic violence.
The journalists racialised the violence and, in their own way, so do Keneally and Schepisi. Had the Governors been poor white sons of selectors they presumably would have found nothing engaging in their story.
Schepisi and Keneally set out to inform their audience about the role of racism in the nation’s past. But film and novel inform us more about the 1970s than the late 19th century. What we see is the way in which progressive, liberal white Australians sought to come to terms with new understandings of the nation’s history while still encumbered by remnants of discredited racial thought.
It was a time of transition and this more than anything else helps us understand the contradictions and the confusion in both novel and film. The faults and problems are instructive to contemporary audiences, the more so because they were seemingly not apparent to either Schepisi or Keneally. But in the history of the ’ 70s there is no doubt that Schepisi’s film ranks with other works that characterise the era. It should stand beside such important literary landmarks as Charles Rowley’s The Destruction of Aboriginal Society ( 1970), Geoffrey Blainey’s history, Triumph of the Nomads ( 1975), and Thea Astley’s novel, A Kindness Cup ( 1974).
Despite the commercial failure of the film, Schepisi created unforgettable scenes and images that will remain as important contributions to the intellectual and cultural history of Australia in the second half of the 20th century.
This is an edited extract from Australian Screen Classics: The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith by Henry Reynolds ( Currency Press, $ 16.95).
Black and white stereotypes: Fred Schepisi’s 1978 film The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, with Angela Punch and Tommy Lewis
True to type: Ray Barrett as Sergeant Farrell