The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978)

Sex :
Violence :
Director Fred Schepisi
Writers Fredh Schepisi, Thomas Keneally (novel)
Starring Tommy Lewis, Freddy Reynolds, Ray Barrett, Jack Thompson, Angela Punch McGregor, Steve Dodds, Peter Carroll, Ruth Cracknell
Genre Revenge
Tagline The chant of the underdog
15 second cap Tired of being ripped off Jimmie goes ballastic and then runs around the outback


“The boy isn't really your brother, he's an Aborignal. There's too much Christian in you.” - McCready

At the turn of the 20th Century Jimmie Blacksmith is a half caste Aboriginal being raised by a missionary. Reverend Neville installs in Jimmie a strong work ethic, a belief that he should eradicate his heritage, and the strange idea of marrying a white woman and starting a family as the way forward. Working against Neville are some of Jimmie's relatives that keep to the traditions and beliefs of their race.

Leaving the Mission Jimmie first embarks on a career of fence building, and routinely gets ripped off because he's “a black”. He next becomes a police auxiliary under the racist Farrell. Jimmie compromises himself, treating the local aboriginals with disdain and violence. Leaving the police Jimmie gets a job with a wealthy landowner, Newby, and builds a life for himself. Eventually Jimmie marries a white woman, Gilda, due to her being pregnant and brings her to live in the one room house he has built. Jimmie's family arrive concerned with him marrying a white woman and Jimmie's productivity plummets. Newby cuts off supply to Gilda, leading Jimmie to explode in a fit of violence. Fleeing into the bush with his brother Mort, Jimmie evades the police manhunt for quite some time, but gradually loses those around him.

Fred Schepisi's first feature length movie as Director, The Devil's Playground (1976), was a huge critical and commercial success allowing the Director the latitude to make whatever movie he wanted next. Schepisi decided to make a “true to the book” adaptation of Keneally's The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, and raised $1.3 million dollars in funds primarily from the Australian Film Commission, the Victorian Film Commission, and Hoyts. The resulting movie was critically acclaimed but turned into a car wreck at the cinema. A lot of commentators have put the commercial disaster down to Jimmie Blacksmith confronting racial themes, I'm going to argue that movie simply wasn't that good to begin with, and was the start of Australians turning away from their own cinema for the glitz and false reality of Boredwood.

I was somewhat hesitant going into this movie as my experience of Aussie historic movies is that they are generally overrated locally and of little interest to anyone outside of Australia. Exhibit A, Picnic At Hanging Rock, while well shoot and haunting the movie does nothing but is held up as an example of Aussie cinema. Surprisingly then I actually quite enjoyed the first couple of blocks of Jimmie Blacksmith as Schepisi built toward Jimmie's explosion and ultimate “declaration of war” on the white settlers. Unfortunately as soon as Jimmie and his crew went bush the movie started to drift, pacing dropped off, and the moralistic stance was overwhelmingly didactic. Yes we get the point Schepisi, beating an equine with a large fence post isn't going to enhance your stance. Clearly the wine and cheese set love the movie, due to the racial issues being exposed, but for the rest of us it's another example of a movie that promises a lot and then gets lost up it's own self important arse.

Notably, and something the critics tend to shy away from, while Jimmie is being ripped off by various white farmers, he is also being ripped off by the fringe dwellers he makes his home with. Jimmie gets paid for some hard labour building a fence for an Irish farmer, he immediately has to hand the money over to his “family”, who proceed to spend the cash on grog at the quickest possible pace. In effect the whites don't accept Jimmie because he's “a black”, while the Aboriginals don't get his need to join white society. Something has to give, and Jimmie demonstrates exactly where Jack Torrance got it wrong with using an axe.

Behind the camera Schepisi demonstrates why he's better off making Boredwood movies. While everything is technically proficient, and there's some cool angles coming at you to keep it interesting, the Director spends way too much time producing an Aussie tourist film and way less time building up the tension. When Jimmie does finally snap, Newby has cut off supplies to his family, I simply didn't believe it. Schepisi didn't develop the character of Jimmie well enough for the mental fractures to show. When Jimmie decides he has an axe to grind, it comes out of left field and you are left with a real sense that Schepisi underplayed his hand. Why exactly Tabidgi got involved in the slaughter is also a moot point, Schepisi doesn't bother explaining it. Interpret away folks, the Critics are no doubt gushing over it. If you are not going to give me serious motivation that is believable, the Director pays lip service to Jimmie's family being in dire straights – best you tell us as you don't portray it, then I'm not going to be overly involved in proceedings.

The other major issue with Jimmie Blacksmith is the film ends abruptly, with the hangman deciding Jimmie's neck is thicker than most blacks. Say what! Did Schepisi run out of money, or did he simply forget to shoot the final block of the movie? And they wonder why this one was a commercial flop!

Throughout the movie we have reference to Australia heading towards Federation, at the time the States were self governing with no Federal Government, and a fair amount of antagonistic feeling between white Aussies and displaced Poms. Good stuff, adds some historic flavour to things, except what the frack did it have to do with the central narrative or anything else for that matter? There's a number of scenes that should have hit the editing floor, and perhaps been replaced by the lost half an hour at the end. Schepisi once again proving he only has a limited knowledge of pacing, anyone surprised this one turned into a train wreck.

I have to say there's a pretty stellar Aussie cast working in this movie, with quite a number of Actors appearing who would go onto glittering careers locally. Unfortunately the script is too much on the preaching side of the pulpit to allow anyone to actually shine. Don't tell me what I should think Schepisi, I'll make my own mind up thank you very much. Though I do put that down to Thomas Keneally's half arsed Chardonnay socialist source novel.

Way over my word limit here. Just have to say Bruce Smeaton's score is over indulgent, over dramatic, and bloody painful to listen to. It's bulk standard Aussie stuff from the period, thank god they don't do that shite anymore, with the notable exception of Baz “Australia” Luhrmann's cringe worthy efforts.

I got about what I expected from The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, an overrated movie championed by people who don't watch it that often. The movie's pacing is off, it's judgemental, and it doesn't allow the Audience room to form their own opinions on the portrayed racism. No wonder locals turned off Aussie film if this is an example of what was being pushed onto them. No recommendation, watch if you need to fill out your Aussie movie chart, else go catch something else. In short the movie was a commercial disaster not due to the themes, but due to the overly trite way of deliveirng those themes. If I wanted to be preached at I would go to Church!

ScaryMinds Rates this movie as ...

  Another movie that doesn't deliver on the hype.