It is the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth in Australia, and when Jimmie Blacksmith (Tommy Lewis) was a boy he was brought up by a Christian minister who was determined to "improve" his lot, for Jimmie was born half aborigine, half white, which had left him somewhere in the middle of the two cultures. Whenever he did anything regarded as wrong by the holy man, he was beaten to get the white side of him dominant, but as he grew he came to realise that no matter how he tried to live as close to a normal life, be that white or black, there was no way he was going to succeed, for the ruling white culture was simply too savage against anyone with black blood...
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was, as we are told at the beginning of the opening credits, based on a true story, which had inspired a very well regarded novel by the Australian writer Thomas Kenneally (whose book Schindler's Ark inspired the Steven Spielberg landmark Schindler's List twenty years or so later). Many wanted to make it into a film, but the man Kenneally felt would do it justice was a fellow Australian, Fred Schepisi, who had recently made his big screen debut with boys' school drama The Devil's Playground; that too had been well-received, especially internationally, so Schepisi appeared to be the man for the job. And so it was, with the critics praising this to the heavens.
However, in its native Australia, it failed to catch the interest of the public in the way that others of that nation's cinematic renaissance of the nineteen-seventies did, and it was clear why after watching it: this was one gruelling film. Not only that, but it reminded the white audience of the endemic racism in their culture which had been an issue for centuries, the treatment of the aborigines either dismissive at best, or actively aggressive and murderous at worst, therefore going to see a movie where the blacks took their vengeance on the whites with wild abandon was not exactly a great prospect for a night out at the pictures, leaving the project more or less shunned there.
Even abroad, where the film became a must-see for the arthouse crowd of many countries, it was a tough sell, since there was violence here of course, but the portrayal of a land where the racism is so much a part of everyday life was incredibly oppressive to witness, not least because of how accurate you were well aware it was. Although Schepisi and his cinematographer Ian Baker were keen to capture the picturesque qualities of their home landscape, and this was an attractive film to look at in many shots, the cancerous prejudice sucking the life out of every citizen, be they white or black, dragged down even that natural beauty so that it offered no comfort. Making it worse is that Jimmie did not start the film as an obvious aggressor, he was as much a victim of this society as any of the aborigines.
Indeed, Jimmie comes across as a really nice guy, optimistic that he can escape the figurative shackles of the Australian communities and make a success of himself: he begins by taking manual jobs, but then graduates to marrying a white girl and owning some land. However, a fat lot of good that does him when she gives birth to a baby that isn't his (the child is obviously white) and he is starved off the land by the farmers; with everything cruelly tightening the screws on the man, shutting off his opportunities and persecuting him for daring to, well, to have a dream essentially, one that would not seem unreasonable in any fairer society, his only option is eventually to descend into rebellion, starting with axing to death a group of white women. The film pulls few punches in the bloodshed, though it did not revel in it as the violence was abrupt and harrowing, Jimmie going on to wage his self-styled "war" against the whites. Perhaps what made this so chilling was twofold: we completely understand why he needed to lash out, and after events have drawn to a close, everyone here will have gone to their graves believing they did the right thing. Important, but the opposite of fun. Music by Bruce Smeaton.
[Loads of features on Eureka's Blu-ray, as follows:
LIMITED EDITION O-CARD (First 2000 copies only) - featuring newly commissioned artwork by Nathanael Marsh
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith Australian Version [122 mins] presented in 1080p on Blu-ray (with a progressive encode on the DVD), from a restoration completed by Umbrella Entertainment
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith International Version [117 mins] from a brand new restoration completed in 2019 from the original film elements (Blu-ray only)
Uncompressed monaural soundtrack (on Blu-ray)
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
Brand new and exclusive audio commentary by film critic and writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (Australian Version)
Audio commentary by director Fred Schepisi (Australian version)
Interview with Fred Schepisi [39 mins]
Celluloid Gypsies: Making The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith [36 mins]
A conversation with director Fred Schepisi and cinematographer Ian Baker [64 mins]
The Chant of Tom Lewis interview with Tom E. Lewis [26 mins - all the more moving in light of his death in 2018]
Q&A session with Fred Schepisi and Geoffrey Rush, from the 2008 Melbourne International Film Festival [34 mins]
Making us Blacksmiths Documentary on the casting of Aboriginal lead actors Tom E. Lewis and Freddy Reynolds
PLUS: A collector's booklet reprint of Pauline Kael's original review of the film.]