The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978 Aust 124mins)
Source: Sharmill Films/ScreenSound Australia Prod with the assistance of Australian Film Commission & Victorian Film Corporation Prod, Dir, Scr: Fred Schepesi, from the novel by Thomas Keneally Phot: Ian Baker Ed: Brian Kavanagh Art Dir: Wendy Dickson Mus: Bruce Smeaton
Cast: Tommy Lewis, Ray Barrett, Jack Thompson, Arthur Dignam, Brian (Bryan) Brown, John Jarrett (Jarratt)
It’s a fairly standard trope of Australian film, particularly in the ’70s and early ’80s, to focus on images of the local landscape in a way that emphasises the alien-ness and inhuman horror of it. Such landscapes are not presented as ‘location’, as scenes for human action. Rather, they tend to be set up in opposition to the people existing within them. Where the usual practice for orienting the viewer in a scene makes use of landscape as a way of positioning the characters within a space of action (which is thereby constituted in relation to a human scale), these films will often have repeated sequences which oppose the landscape to the space and scale of human action. The landscape thus presents itself in shots either too large, or too small for the human figure; vast wide shots of ‘nature’ devoid of the signs of human life or impact, or close-ups of native wildlife (in particular, spiky, dangerous and unfriendly looking insects and lizards), presented quite distinctly from whatever ‘action’ is taking place within the film. The land, and the landscape, is thereby positioned as something alien, threatening and monstrous, not a home in which we live, but a force against which we battle. What’s emphasised in these sequences is the idea that we do not belong here, we don’t fit in this landscape – we don’t come from here. It reflects the void that lies at the heart of the discourse of Australian national identity, the disavowed knowledge that being ‘Australian’ means coming from somewhere else, somewhere other than Australia. The landscape here is never ‘The Motherland’, it does not nurture us, we are not born of it; it places the very idea of being ‘Australian’ in question.
Of course, the phrase ‘Australian national identity’ here conveniently elides the key issue – that ‘Australian’ here actually means non-indigenous Australian. This erasure is more than simply symbolic. The extermination, abduction, and destruction of indigenous Australian peoples and cultures has been part of government policy from the moment there was a government to have a policy. These practices simply try to turn the fiction of Terra Nullius (which says that the white occupation of Australia was legitimate because no one else was using it) into a reality, by making sure there are no indigenous Australians left to place the ‘Australianness’ of non-indigenous Australia in question. Any discourse, then, which deals with the question of national identity, as Australian films of the ’70’s and early ’80’s do, is implicitly or explicitly dealing with its own version of this ‘native problem’ – how can we articulate or present or create an Australian national identity when we’re not the ones who come from here?
The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith deals with these questions both explicitly and implicitly. At an explicit level, there are the constant references to the imminent federation of the colonies, the literal origins of the nation, and of the category of (non-indigenous) Australianness itself. It even goes to far as to pre-figure the mythological ‘coming of age’ of Australia at Gallipoli, in its references to Australians volunteering to fight in the Boer War. These references point to a concern with origins, questions literally of the order of ‘where did I come from?’. This is hardly surprising given the interest in these issues in the film industry of the time. Only slightly more below the surface, however, these concerns with questions of origin express themselves in constant references to ‘mongrels’ and ‘bastards’, in particular in the figure of Blacksmith himself, whose tragedy (according to the film) is to be neither black nor white, a mongrel bastard accepted nowhere. It’s interesting to trace Blacksmith’s differing identifications throughout the film. Initially, he’s identified with an indigenous identity which is positioned within or as part of the landscape (in the pre-credit ‘initiation’ sequence). His attempts to fit into and be part of white culture mostly take the form of ‘mastering’ the land, that is, fencing it, putting it to work, clearing and dominating it (for his white bosses). In this he seems to reflect the white Australian tradition of the landscape as a site of horror, something alien and foreign which must be tamed and mastered. Once he rejects white culture once and for all (or is rejected by it), the film identifies him more and more with this landscape again, with this horror, stripping him ultimately even of the power of speech. In the final scenes of the film, he is literally like a wounded animal, half his face blown away, teeth protruding from the open wound, a wild-eyed inhuman monster. He becomes identified with the horror figured in the landscape itself (which resonates uncomfortably with the notion of Aboriginal culture as being ‘at one with the land’; given the horror with which the landscape is so often imbued, such an identification may be less positive than it at first appears).
There’s little question that the film intends us to be sympathetic to Blacksmith and his plight, that he is in some sense or another meant to be a tragic figure. Nevertheless, he’s the site of considerable anxieties and contradictory tensions within it, which I would argue stem directly from its difficulty in dealing with its ‘native problem’. The ‘tragedy’ of his mixed parentage points us fairly directly to the fears of miscegenation alluded to in the constant ‘mongrel bastard’ references in the film. This includes Jimmy’s incorrect belief that the white woman he marries is pregnant with his child, a child who ultimately turns out to have had a white father as well. These problems of identity and origin are then also tied to fears and fantasies surrounding black sexuality, on several different levels. There are the more overt fears about black men (i.e., Jimmy) desiring white women, which are paralleled by more hidden fears that white women might desire black men back (both in the figure of the woman he marries, but also in some of the looks between him and the wives and daughters of the farmers he works for). Jimmy in particular seems to fear the sexuality of black women (it’s implied indirectly that this is what drives him to reject his black culture and embrace whiteness); when he does sleep with a black woman it is presented as a kind of cultural rape, of her by him. All this is to suggest that blackness is thus marked in the film as the site and source of confusions and conflicts of identity and origin, not simply for Jimmy Blacksmith, but also for a non-indigenous culture which still today marks indigenous culture as a threat and a danger to the category of ‘the nation’, a divisive question mark always lurking behind the idea, and at the end of the word Australian(?).