Criterion Prediction #203: The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith
Director: Fred Schepisi
Cast: Tommy Lewis, Angela Punch McGregor, Freddy Reynolds, Jack Thompsen, Steve Dodd
Synopsis: After a lifetime of prejudice and mental and physical abuse, a young aboriginal man, Jimmie Blacksmith (Lewis), struggling to live in colonialist Australia, takes the initiative to lead an honest life. Leaving his adoptive white parents behind, he sets out to establish himself as a laborer building fences. Despite being cheated and betrayed by his employers, Jimmie’s insistent that he soldier on with his work. Once he bears humiliation at the hands of his new wife’s family, he and his uncle Tabidgi (Dodd) and his brother Mort (Reynolds) commit an atrocity that sets off a brutal killing spree.
Critique: Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds are the ultimate revisionist historical revenge movies and that’s cool. Rewriting history with cinema is a way to cleanse the errors of the past with some punchy style and clever witticisms to boot. So where would that put something like The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, a ruggedly uncompromising epic that follows the killing spree of three aboriginal men (mostly the titular character and his brother) who, after countless instances of abuse and prejudice, struck out and murdered a number of white settlers? In principle, it feels like the inspiration for something like Django Unchained. Except Schepisi isn’t rewriting the myth of the outback but the true story of Jimmy Governor, a notorious figure in Australian history.
The parallels between the American west and Australian outback are plenty; white intervention, displacement and genocide of indigenous people. The famed outlaws of America (Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickock) are infamous folk icons remembered for their exploits. On the other hand, notable Australian outlaws such as The Kelly Gang, Martin Cash, Bold Jack Donohue, Frank Gardiner, and of course, Jimmy Governor, are known as criminals but, unlike western outlaws in the states, embody a more rebellious air of ideology. It’s a condemnation of colonialism and harkens back to an anti-authoritarian mentality, consistent with Australian culture. But Jimmy Governor’s story is different in that he’s aboriginal, one of the famed outlaws whose rampage against colonialism feels the most urgent and socially relevant, not just to Australian history (despite being wholly unique to that area) but on a broader canvas to anyone who’s suffered under the shadow of imperialism.
Schepisi’s direction is raw, unadorned, and utterly compelling. His sense of expanse makes casual use of the vistas and wide-open horizons of Australian immensity to considerable effect, giving the movie expanse without compromising the density of the material. There’s a tightness and discipline to the compositions. With violent historical drama, there’s an inherent artistic instinct to play things tight, without emphasis or flourishes. But Schepisi’s terse execution has the timing of a taciturn Melville movie and the eye for nature that would often be associated with David Lean. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is a remarkable experience with a calibrated presentation that shows us the inexorable cycle of violence born of oppression without clobbering us over the head or faulting toward sensationalism. Our character is an idealist after his fit of rage; his violent actions feel like a reflex, an irresistible impulse. Lewis is phenomenal as the boyish outlaw. He’s sweet but there’s a fire inside of him and when it comes out it’s dangerous. Schepisi doesn’t justify his actions and Lewis plays on his inclined sense of opportunism while harboring a deep-seated level of interior conflict. The recognizable aboriginal actor Reynolds carries a childlike sense of underlying glee and naivete and McGregor embodies puritanical repression and the repression women endured during this period.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: People turn to The Criterion Collection for many reasons. One of the main ones is that they will throw us something entirely out of the blue, movies that, even to the most seasoned cinephile, are unknown. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith might not be as rare or elusive as Marketa Lazarova, Law of the Border, or Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. But it’s a title that is lesser seen stateside, and as of now, it’s only available via Region 2/B coded DVDs and Blu-rays from Umbrella Entertainment, which seems to be Australia’s answer to boutique home media since many of their titles overlap with the likes of Criterion. Among the lot there’s Mouchette, Last Year at Marienbad, The Devil’s Backbone, The Ballad of Narayama, Babette’s Feast and many more. With so many similar movies from both distributors, there’s a good reason to anticipate this classic could come our way. The Masters of Cinema series has introduced this title to their library as well and in so many cases that can be seen as an overture to a Criterion release.