Mixed mes­sages

The Chant of Jim­mie Black­smith says more about Aus­tralia in the 1970s than 1900, writes Henry Reynolds

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

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