Other People's Stories: REPRODUCING HISTORY IN THE CHANT OF JIMMIE BLACKSMITH.
The film has its origins in a dark episode from Australia's past: a series of attacks carried out by an Aboriginal man, Jimmy Governor, against white settlers. The newspaper articles printed in the immediate aftermath of the murders, in July 1900, were at a loss to discern a clear motive. (2) In the space of a week, Governor, his brother Joe and their friend Jacky Underwood, all Aboriginal men from central-western New South Wales, killed nine people. While popular historian Frank Clune first penned a detailed account of this historical figure's life in 1959,' it was Keneally's critically acclaimed novelisation The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith which retold the events from the perspective of Jimmy Governor, whose name was changed as per the title - that won wider public recognition for the case, and would become the basis for Schepisi's film six years later. Both Keneally's and Schepisi's representations attempt to explore Jimmie's (Tom E Lewis) experiences and psychology, and how they were shaped by colonial forces, in order to understand his actions.
The artistic and narrative decisions made by Schepisi can be analysed in light of the film's sociopolitical backdrop: the struggle for civil and land rights for Indigenous Australians. Similarly, the controversies raised by the film, including its blunt depictions of violence and questions of authorship and perspective, offer significant points of discussion. Three central inquiry questions raised by this film include: how can we view Jimmie's 'war' in the context of Australia's colonial past; how successful was Schepisi in his aim of depicting the motivations behind his characters' actions without excusing them; and how should history be told on film?
At the outset, the film's pre-credit sequence establishes the clash of cultures that will contribute to the disastrous events that follow. Static shots of the white Reverend Neville (Jack Thompson) and his wife (Julie Dawson) drinking tea and reading the paper in the parlour are intercut with a montage of young Jimmie's initiation ceremony. On the soundtrack, the reverend's description of his plan to assimilate Jimmie bridges the shots. Upon his eventual return, Jimmie is whipped by Neville, who declares in a resigned tone that he 'can't understand' his foster child - a response that suggests that he has given up on comprehension without even trying (indeed, the choice of 'Neville' as a name for this character recalls the notorious AO Neville, Western Australia's Chief Protector of Aborigines and enforcer of the policy to separate light-skinned Aboriginal children from their families in the 1920s and 1930s*). At a later stage, the Nevilles explicitly discuss marriage plans for Jimmie, who is of mixed parentage, in assimilationist terms that masquerade as concern for his future. Jimmie's internalisation of this colonial mentality is evident when he applies for a job building fences for Mr Healey (Tim Robertson), and states that 'the white in me' means that he is of 'hardworking' and 'respectable' heritage. In such interactions, Jimmie is shown in constant battle with white Australians' stereotypes and low expectations, proclaiming at different points, 'Course I read' and T ain't a savage' (Indigenous author Tony Birch, in his discussion of Keneally's novel, describes how the character of Jimmie epitomises the 'colonial fantasy' of the era in which the text is set (5) ). Nonetheless, he finds a steady job on a farm and, soon after, marries a white woman, Gilda (Angela Punch McGregor), who gives birth to a child. Taking pride in his hard work, he is initially tolerated by the white family who employ him, but their attitudes change when Jimmie's half-brother Mort (Freddy Reynolds) and uncle Tabidgi (Steve Dodd) visit.
In the first half of the film, Schepisi portrays Jimmie's cumulative experiences of discrimination as he is refused jobs, cheated of his wages and continually reprimanded for asking for his due. The unfair treatment that he endures reaches a climax when his employer, Mr Newby (Don Crosby), refuses to provide him with the groceries he is owed. At the same time, Miss Graf (Elizabeth Alexander), a teacher who is staying at the Newby family's homestead, offers Gilda a job and urges her to leave Jimmie. When Gilda informs Jimmie of this, he is incensed, questioning: What right has she got? [...] Why do they keep doing this? What did I ever do wrong?' The oppressive weight of Australia's colonial forces becomes too much for Jimmie to bear; as a result - intending, initially, to 'give these whites a scare' - Jimmie, Mort and Tabidgi confront the white women at the house. When Mrs Newby (Ruth Cracknell) reaches to fire her gun, Jimmie swings at her with an axe, then enters the house to kill the remaining women inside. The remainder of the film follows Jimmie as he returns to earlier sites of humiliation and cruelty to exact revenge, until he can no longer evade capture and punishment by the law. Schepisi succeeds in confronting the viewer with the violent brutality of the murders while contextualising the acts by conveying both the anguish that drove them and the agony they caused. According to Schepisi, his intention was 'understanding [the violence] without excusing it'. (6)
As Keneally does in the novel, Schepisi is at pains to establish the historical moment in which these murders were committed and imbue it with significance. Parallels are drawn between Jimmie's acts of violence and Federation - the official genesis of Australia as a Commonwealth nation - with Jimmie's hanging postponed until after the celebrations. Earlier, the bitterness of this moment for Indigenous Australians is voiced by nefarious policeman Farrell (Ray Barrett), who mockingly acknowledges that Federation 'wouldn't be any better [...] for you black bastards [...] I suppose you'd still have the same rights - none.' This exploration of the fraught, unjust relations upon which modern Australia was built bring to mind Warwick Thornton's ironically titled Sweet Country (2017), another film that seeks to look beneath the traditional narrative of Australia's coming of age in the early twentieth century.
The contemporaneous Boer War is also utilised in both the book and the film as an allegory for the (at the time of filming, only recently concluded) Vietnam War; at one point, a character pointedly states, 'Fancy goin' over there to get shot to help a bunch of bloody poms.' (7) More importantly, the discussion in this scene leads to war being defined to Jimmie as 'kill 'em, maim 'em or whatever - till they agree with you or leave you alone'. Significantly, after he commits the murders at the Newby homestead, Jimmie declares them acts of war. Here, Schepisi follows Keneally's lead in providing Jimmie with a means through which to frame his actions more broadly: as an act of retaliation to a campaign waged against him and his people. Yet, however well intentioned, this voice and motive remain imposed on Jimmie by a white Australian. Indeed, Aboriginal activist Gary Foley has argued that Jimmie's motivation for committing the murders remains underdeveloped in the narrative. Foley attributes this to Schepisi's inability to fully comprehend his character's experiences of oppression and racism. (8)
Scholar Janet Wilson's analysis of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith explores Schepisi's use of audiovisual techniques in adapting the detached, ironic narration of Keneally's novel. (9) She points to the use of expressionist cinematography and visual imagery of the landscape as a method of illustrating Jimmie's psychological state and growing alienation from both Aboriginal and white culture, concurring with critic Pauline Kael's remark that she didn't think there was 'an inexpressive frame of film in the entire movie'. (10) For instance, the film carries a repeated motif of meat being gutted, chopped, hung and sold. The butcher (Brian Anderson) is also the town executioner; in a series of scenes in which he discusses the details of the manhunt with an overly eager customer (Kevin Miles), the characters are framed by hanging carcasses. In one such scene, the butcher-executioner describes his role as merely 'part of the apparatus', and declares, 'I just do what is expected of me [...] no more, no less.' In this sequence, his character serves as an indictment of the attitude of mainstream Australians who avoid taking responsibility for being part of an oppressive system; likewise, the rich, visceral nature of the imagery exerts an intoxicating power.
Indeed, the violence of the murder scenes earned the film some notoriety," although - as in the shower scene in Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, i960) - the effect is mostly created through editing, sound and camera movement. Schepisi describes this as 'anti-violence violence', the intended effect of which was to capture the disorientation of the moment. (12) The handheld camera, which switches between objective and subjective points of view, expresses the panic felt by all parties as it rapidly pans back and forth across the room, taking in the wreckage. The droning organ is accompanied by stifled screams and groans, and the breaking of crockery. While there are few direct images of blows, we see an enamel jug tip and spill, its water diluting a pool of blood into a pink puddle. A hand clutches at a lace tablecloth and drags its contents to the floor; two eggs drop and crack next to the head of one of the slain women. The speed at which it all happens is later remarked upon by Tabidgi in his trial, in which he mentions that he had previously assumed killing someone was something to be carefully considered and not entered into lightly, but that, shockingly, 'it only takes a second'.
The socially progressive stance shared by Keneally and Schepisi is most directly voiced in the character of the hostage schoolteacher, McCready (Peter Carroll). While his dialogue has been criticised as anachronistic for 1900, (13) it remains a clear expression of 1970s sentiments; the teacher points to an estimated figure of 270,000 Aboriginal people killed by white settlers, stating, 'You can't say we haven't given you anything; we've introduced you to alcohol, religion, influenza, measles, syphilis, school - a whole host of improvements.' An additional layer of reflexivity is present in Jimmie's acknowledgement of the mythology surrounding bushrangers and his pleasure at his newfound celebrity. Jimmie at one point aligns himself with Ned Kelly, and he is eager to see a cartoon of the manhunt in the newspaper. Like the titular lawbreakers in the explosive Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), Jimmie is portrayed as being aware of his image and willing to use it to send a message to the public: that he is waging a war against the injustices done to him and his people.
Keneally's and Schepisi's interpretations of Governor's story continue to be a topic of contention. More specifically, discussions around the film speak to broader debates regarding subjectivity and forms of narrative history, and serve as useful starting points for exploring questions of historiography and the politics of representation. In 2010, producer and theatre operator Darrel Killen selected The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith as the basis for a discussion of the ways in which cinema 'fictionalises' history in the conservative literary and cultural journal Quadrant. The film is invoked as part of a discussion of the 'history wars', a debate that had been partially carried out in the pages of the same journal. (14) Killen finds fault with Schepisi's expressive approach, acknowledging that '[history] may never achieve complete objectivity', but arguing that 'surely its task is to get it as right as possible without becoming overcome by emotive content'. (15) In contrast, US author Robert A Rosenstone, who has written extensively on the value of historical films, identifies the need to move beyond this familiar argument about film's fallibilities in reconstructing historical accounts. Instead, he points to the positive contributions of historical films in emotionalising and personalising history, in that they bring historical objects and language to life in a way that museum exhibits and written accounts fail to do. Rosenstone argues that films can present a more holistic view of the process of history, in which the social, economic and political are interwoven. (16)
The discourse around another adaptation of a historicalfiction novel by Keneally, Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993), provides an interesting comparison. Much of the response to Schindler's List centres on its expressive power and ability to generate empathetic understanding of a traumatic historical event, rather than on concerns with the accuracy of its representation and its subjective approach. (17) At the same time, the cultural sensitivity surrounding the adaptation - with the significance of having a Jewish director helm the project and extensive consultation with survivors - also reflects developments since the 1970s in discussions on how culturally specific perspectives can or should be explored. (18)
These debates surrounding authorial perspective and authority open another point about power relations in the writing of history. In a postscript to a reprint of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Keneally describes the limitations of his approach:
My statement that I would not now attempt to write [the book] from within black consciousness was not meant to promote some sort of no-go zone for writers, but to extend a faltering hand across the gulf of culture. After all, we know now that one of the problems has been the false certainty with which we white fellas have presumed to know about Koori grief. We can observe it from the outside, but it is the Aboriginal people themselves who own that tale and have bitterly earned their right to tell it. (19)
In fact, Schepisi explains that he did not necessarily intend to speak for Jimmie - 'We tried to do everything in the film from the white point of view, not from the perspective [of] now but from the perspective of the time' - and admits the impossibility of the latter task: 'I don't think it's possible for us to fully comprehend from this day and age what it was like [then].' (20) For her part, Wilson firmly grounds these motivations and constraints within the director's 1970s context:
Schepisi's aim in adapting Keneally's text was to expose white settler bigotry, intolerance and oppression, rather than to develop more exploratory frames for representing Aboriginal people or to suggest grounds for potential reconciliation in race relations. (21)
Birch, too, argues for the need to understand the representations of Aboriginal people in the novel within Keneally's sociopolitical context, a time when colonial violence and Indigenous responses to this were largely unacknowledged. For Birch, Keneally's attempt to engage with and understand the discourses surrounding authorship and subjectivity is meaningful in and of itself. (22) This exploratory process is an important teaching point in its own right, as historian Henry Reynolds describes it: What we see is the way in which progressive, liberal white Australia sought to come to new understandings of the nation's history while still encumbered by remnants of discredited racial thought.' (23)
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith adopts a particular perspective on a historical event and seeks to understand it from within a postcolonial framework, using an expressionistic, subjective approach. A more recent artistic exploration of Governor's story is the 2011 theatrical production Posts in the Paddock. Developed by Clare Britton - a descendant of the O'Brien family, two of whose members were killed in the attacks - in consultation with Governor's descendants LeRoy Parsons and Aunty Loretta Parsley, its aim is to explore 'these stories and their relevance to the personal lives of Australians and to the life of the nation'. (24) While Schepisi's and Britton's aims are similar, the model of reconciliation that informs the approach of the latter's work is grounded in post-Apology Australia (25) as much as Schepisi's interpretation is in the political milieu of the late 1970s.
In a 1994 lecture, Indigenous lawyer and land-rights activist Noel Pearson stated that 'we need to learn to read between the lines of our history in order to discover the real structure of Australia'. (26) Forms of narrative history and media representations, such as those discussed above, offer the ability to explore Governor's life and the oppressive colonial forces that shaped it in an accessible way, filling in the gaps of prior accounts. Viewed alongside written sources, these representations enable students to empathetically comprehend Governor's actions in the context of a broader historical framework without seeking to justify them. Students have much to gain from a discussion of the value held by different forms of history and the perspectives that they offer - most importantly, the critical- and historicalliteracy skills that are necessary in order to remain aware of those narratives' limitations.
Zoe Wallin completed her PhD in film history at Flinders University. She is currently teaching English and History at Inverell High School.
(1) Janet Wilson, 'Reconsidering Fred Schepisi's The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978): The Screen Adaptation of Thomas Keneally's Novel (1972)', Studies in Australasian Cinema, vol. 1, no. 2, August 2007, pp. 191-3.
(2) See 'The Ulan Murder and Other Incidents', The Mudgee Guardian and North-western Representative, 26 July 1900, special supplement, p. 1; A Complete Narrative: Absence of Motive', The Daily Telegraph, 23 July 1900, p. 9; 'The Black Outlaws', The Evening News, 1 September 1900, p. 5; and 'Horrible Murders', The Nepean Times, 28 July 1900, p. 3.
(3) Frank Clune, Jimmy Governor: The True Story, Horwitz, Sydney, 1959.
(4) See Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Bringing Them Home: National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, 1997, pp. 91-5, available at <https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/content/pdf/socialjustice/bringing_them_home_report.pdf>, accessed 5 September 2019.
(5) Tony Birch, 'Reading Australia: The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith by Thomas Keneally', Australian Book Review, no. 372, June-July 2015, available at <https://www.australianbookreview.com.au/reading-australia/the-chant-of-jimmie-blacksmith-by-thomas-keneally>, accessed 14 September 2019.
(6) Fred Schepisi, commentary, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, DVD, Umbrella Entertainment, 2010.
(7) Thomas Keneally, quoted in Bruce Harding, An Interview with Thomas Keneally: The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and the Politics of Australian Aboriginality', Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 51, no. 3, 2015, p. 314.
(8) Gary Foley, quoted in Glen Donnar, 'ReViewing Jimmie: The Critical Reception of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith', Senses of Cinema, issue 45, November 2007, <http://sensesofcinema.com/2007/australian-cinema-45/chant-jimmie-blacksmith-2/>, accessed 14 September 2019.
(9) Wilson, op. cft., pp. 191-207.
(10) Pauline Kael, quoted in Wilson, ibid., p. 194.
(11) See Jerico Mandybur, 'The Legacy and Controversy of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith', NITV, 5 February 2016, <https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/2016/62/02/legacy-and-controversy-chant-jimmie-blacksmith>, accessed 5 September 2019.
(12) Schepisi, op. cit.
(13) Wilson, op. cit., p. 193.
(14) See Robert Manne, 'The History Wars', The Monthly, November 2009, <https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2009/november/l270703045/robert-manne/comment>, accessed 5 September 2019.
(15) Darrel Killen, 'Fictionalising History on Film: The Case of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith', Quadrant, vol. 54, no. 11, November 2010, p. 115.
(16) Robert A Rosenstone, 'The Historical Film as Real History', Film-Historia, vol. 5, no. 1, 1995, PP- 5-23.
(17) See, for example, Janet Maslin, 'Imagining the Holocaust to Remember It', The New York Times, 15 December 1993, <https://www.nytimes.com/1993/12/15/movies/review-f1lm-schindler-s-list-imagining-the-holocaust-to-remember-it.html>, accessed 9 September 2019.
(18) See, for example, Conor Friedersdorf, 'What Does "Cultural Appropriation" Actually Mean?', The Atlantic, 3 April 2017, <https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/04/cultural-appropriation/52l634/>, accessed 14 September 2019.
(19) Thomas Keneally, cited in Clare Britton, 'Posts in a Paddock: Revisiting the Jimmy Governor Tragedy, Approaching Reconciliation and Connecting Families Through the Medium of Theatre', The Journal of the European Association for Studies of Australia, vol. 4, no. 1, 2013, p. 150.
(20) Schepisi, op. cit.
(21) Wilson, op. cit., p. 193.
(22) Birch, op. cit.
(23) Henry Reynolds, Australian Screen Classics: The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Currency Press, Sydney, 2008, pp. 70-1.
(24) Britton, op. cit., p. 153.
(25) ibid., p. 151.
(26) Noel Pearson, 'Mabo and the Humanities: WK Hancock Memorial Lecture, November 5, 1994', in Deryck M Schreuder (ed.), Celebrating the Humanities: Jubilee Essays, Australian Academy of the Humanities & Highland Press, Canberra, 1995, p. 44.