– Jedda (Ngarla Kunoth) to Aboriginal station women in Jedda
In addition to the many “groundbreaking” claims made for Charles Chauvel’s 1955 landscape drama, Jedda, one aspect that is perhaps the most difficult to openly discuss is the film’s raw and bold eroticism. As historian Humphrey McQueen has noted, “For all the scholarly disputation about stereotyping in Jedda, the gender analysts have never confronted the film’s sexual dynamics” (1). What could partially contribute towards such apparent sidestepping is a tendency to consider other social and stylistic features of a film this complex and rich as weightier and more culturally pressing (co-writer/director Chauvel’s non-Aboriginality providing a major topic for contentious consideration).
Yet, central to the movie’s narrative strategies, and pivotal to its thematic daring stands the striking semi-naked figure of Robert Tudawali’s [Tudewalli in the film’s credits] Marbuk, a nomadic, indigenous “wild fella” and “good man with a horse”. It’s Marbuk who comes between young Aboriginal woman Jedda – raised as white by assimilationist foster mother Sarah (Betty Suttor) – and her putative fiancé Joe (Paul Reynall), a politely spoken “half-caste” ranch-hand. And it’s Marbuk, aptly described by author Colin Johnson as the “savage deified” (2), who “steals the show for the Aboriginal male” (3).
Before the storyline punishes Marbuk for what Chauvel scholar Stuart Cunningham concisely terms “his transgressive sexual power and cultural purity” (4), the character easefully performs his libidinal charisma by simply walking away when station owner Doug (George Simpson-Lyttle) – alarmed by this black body, clad in passion-red loincloth, and bearing spears – orders him to “Get down by the river! Make camp well away from the families!” It’s this steady, measured walk – an act of retreat that comes closer to a proud promenade – that possibly prompts a critic like Sean Maynard [John Flaus] to declare that “Every time Robert Tudewali [sic] as Marbuck [sic] strides across the screen, something magic happens” (5).
Something magic, sure, but also, in this scene, something splendidly sexual and Gevacolored hot-hot-hot happens, as Chauvel intercuts Marbuk’s exit with reaction shots from various Aboriginal station women, one of whom, a plump, ageing auntie, in the words of McQueen, “lets off smoke signals of desire from her pipe” (6). The focus of this collective Aboriginal female gaze is Marbuk, strutting his slimly glistening, sinewy stuff, his own expression a subtle mix of acquiescent contempt for the white patriarch and self-confident regard for his own “babe-magnet” studliness and allure. Isadore Goodman’s score inspirits the riveting spectacle with an ominous bassoon motif for Marbuk’s march, accompanied by a giggling piccolo for his female admirers.
In media historian Karen Jennings’ pithy analysis of what she terms a “most telling scene”, symbolically loaded signifiers such as a dray-wheel and a rickety boundary-gate help reinforce the way we witness the “socially unacceptable and unassimilable” Marbuk “withdraw from ‘civilization’” (7). As he passes through that flimsy turnstile, Marbuk pauses and looks back at both the native women appreciating his “deadly” male glamour and the colonialist world so troubled and threatened by it.
In another sense, he might be staring straight out at the audience, defying the viewer to deny him his personal magnetism, his irrefutable fleshly aura, his beautifully embodied dignity, at this liminal point of departure where, as Jennings observes, Marbuk is “put in his place” (8). It will take some time until that cinematic (and social) space is sufficiently re-configured and positively transformed to accommodate gifted Australian indigenous stars such as David Gulpilil, Ernie Dingo (who portrays Tudawali in Steve Jodrell’s extremely affecting eponymous 1987 bio-pic: Tudawali: Release From Sorrow) and Aaron Pederson, to name but a few. Meanwhile, before the remainder of the film’s plot contrivances render him a recklessly hell-bound, lethally insane Ignoble Savage, Tudawali’s Marbuk, poised on a virtual borderline between order and chaos, appears to collect his lithe-limbed, ceremonially chest-scarred faculties, and to ever-so-briefly – but pointedly – stare all of us down.
In terms of the non-indigenous depiction of male Aboriginal sexual agency in Australian cinema, Marbuk’s dismissal from the station precinct in Jedda makes for a truly remarkable moment, both groundbreaking and playfully stirring, rebellious and celebratory. In approximately 70 seconds of screen time, degrading clichés from the past are challenged and the potential for more assertive, autonomously self-representing indigenous icons is tantalisingly suggested.
- Humphrey McQueen, “True Colours”, The Age 8 January 2005: http://www.theage.com.au/news/National/True-colours/2005/01/05/1104832174383.html?from=moreStories.
- Colin Johnson, “Chauvel and the Centring of the Aboriginal Male in Australian Film”, Continuum vol. 1, no. 1, 1987, p. 54.
- Johnson, p. 53.
- Stuart Cunningham, Featuring Australia: The Cinema of Charles Chauvel, Allen and Unwin, North Sydney, North Sydney, p. 161.
- Sean Maynard [John Flaus], “Black (and White) Images: Aborigines and Film”, The Australian Screen, ed. Albert Moran and Tom O’Regan, Penguin Books, Ringwood, Vic., 1989, p. 219.
- Karen Jennings, Sites of Difference: Cinematic Representations of Aboriginality and Gender, The Moving Image, St. Kilda, 1993, p. 36.
- Jennings, p. 36.