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Australian Cinema Part IV – 1971-1990

With Australian cinema firmly in the doldrums, it took John Gorton, the Prime Minister from 1968-1971 to come to its rescue. He implemented a raft of government sponsored schemes designed to support cinema and the arts, and this was continued by his successor, Gough Whitlam. With funding and training now widely available, Australian movies began to appear in ever greater numbers, and two distinct forms of movie making emerged in the Seventies, the Australian New Wave and Ozploitation.

The New Wave (also known as the Australian Film Revival, Australian Film Renaissance, or New Australian Cinema) introduced a more direct, volatile approach to movie making, with themes of violence and sexuality brought more to the fore than they had previously. New Wave directors often made movies that were tough and uncompromising, with the Australian landscape featuring as an integral part of contemporary features. The era saw the start of several impressive careers, both behind the camera – directors Peter Weir, Bruce Beresford, George Miller, John Duigan, and DoP John Seale – and in front of it – Judy Davis, Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown, Sam Neill, Nicole Kidman.

Australian movies began to be regarded highly abroad as well as at home. Walkabout (1971) premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972) was the first movie to achieve over A$1,000,000 at the Australian box office. Production was booming suddenly, and some movies proved bulletproof; such was the scarcity of homegrown content in the Sixties that this resurgence also brought back audiences in droves. The New Wave revitalised and democratised the industry, leading to startling, indisputably Australian movies being made such as The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) and Sunday Too Far Away (1975). The so-called Ozploitation movement also saw highly individual movies being released, movies such as Alvin Purple (1973) and Inn of the Damned (1975). And there was a further sub-genre of Australian movies dubbed “outback gothic”, where survival in harsh situations or locations were a vital element of the plot or story. And Australia’s first animated movie was released: Marco Polo Jr. Versus the Red Dragon (1972). It seemed at last that there was something for everyone, both at home and abroad.

Australian movie makers also began looking to their own history and began to make forays into the darker moments of its colonial past. Though it wasn’t based on a true story (though it certainly felt like it), Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) explored class and social distinctions of the era it depicted through the prism of a girls’ school. Eliza Fraser (1976), though ostensibly a bawdy romp, still had some pertinent things to say about early colonialism and the hardships involved. But one of the most powerful movies to be made during the Seventies, and one that explored themes of Aboriginal exploitation, was the industry’s first determined effort to fully address the issue of the country’s indigenous racism.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith Quad

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) / D: Fred Schepisi / 120m

Cast: Tommy Lewis, Freddy Reynolds, Ray Barrett, Jack Thompson, Angela Punch McGregor, Steve Dodd, Peter Carroll, Ruth Cracknell, Don Crosby, Tim Robertson, Elizabeth Alexander, Peter Sumner

Half-white, half-Australian Jimmie Blacksmith (Lewis) is raised by a benevolent minister, Reverend Neville (Thompson) and his wife. Neville’s belief is that he can foster positive social ambitions in Jimmie by teaching him Christian values and by providing him with an entry into the wider, white society. Jimmie is a hard worker, conscientious and respectful, but this is due to his upbringing with the Nevilles. At the first job he takes on, building fences on a farm, the owner fails to pay Jimmie and his Aboriginal half-brother Mort (Reynolds) the agreed wage, and when Jimmie challenges this he’s then sacked. The same happens to him at the next farm he works at. By this point, Jimmie is beginning to understand that not all whites are like the Nevilles.

Jimmie finds work as a policeman. He accepts the role of law enforcer with equanimity, and has no trouble administering the law when it comes to Aboriginals. But matters change when he witnesses a flagrant abuse of the law he believes in, an abuse that shows him there will always be one rule for whites and no rules for others. Appalled, he leaves the police force and eventually finds work on a sheep ranch owned by a Mr Newby (Crosby). Here he sends for Gilda (McGregor), a woman he met at one of the farms and who has agreed to marry him. When she arrives she is heavily pregnant, but when the baby is born it’s obvious that Jimmie isn’t the father. Newby’s family are less than sympathetic, and take every opportunity to make snide remarks about “his child”. Jimmie makes the best of it, but when a well-meaning acquaintance of the Newby’s suggests that Gilda should take her baby and leave Jimmie, and he’s let go without any pay, the steady tide of oppression that he’s encountered since leaving the Nevilles leads to a shocking, violent outburst that leaves Jimmie, Mort, his uncle Tabidgi (Dodd), and Gilda on the run from the police.

Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, The - scene

Adapted from the novel by Thomas Keneally, itself based on the true story of Jimmy Governor, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is like an unexpected slap across the face, a shocking moment that is made all the worse by the surprise factor. The same can be said about the movie, one that the viewer goes into thinking they know what to expect, but then finds themselves reeling from the ferocity of emotion, violent or otherwise, that they experience. It’s an impressive, extraordinary movie that can still do that nearly forty years after it was first released, and a testament to the vision of Schepisi, and the lead performance of Lewis.

Watching the movie today its bleak and uncompromising nature really is that startling for modern viewers unused to having outrage displayed in such frank and brutal terms, from the casual verbal racism of the whites to the inverse scorn of the Aborigines who feel Jimmie is losing his heritage by associating too closely with whites. In a brave but necessary move, writer/director Schepisi paints a portrait of a time and a society where sympathy and consideration for Australia’s indigenous people was considered anathema, but offers no judgement on either sides feelings or beliefs. With Jimmie’s increasing disillusionment and anger at the attitude of his white employers and the larger, endemic disdain for his race, Schepisi’s uncompromising treatment of the material leaves the audience facing a dilemma: are Jimmie’s actions defensible given his treatment by the whites, or are they too extreme for extenuating circumstances to be taken into consideration or provide mitigation? Whatever your opinion, Schepisi doesn’t make it easy, and nor should he.

It’s refreshing too that the movie doesn’t try to be relevant to the Seventies, or invite the viewer to search for a subtext. This is entirely about the times, and the hardship of life in Australia in the early twentieth century if you weren’t white: it doesn’t need to be about anything else. And Jimmie, as a character, is refreshingly free from the type of psychological interpretation that would no doubt be employed if the movie were to be made today. Lewis is completely convincing in the title role, Jimmie’s sense of belonging to two cultures but without knowing which he should commit to, rendered with such detail and commitment that it’s hard to believe that Lewis had never acted before. It’s an amazing achievement, and with Schepisi, he reinforces the idea that Jimmie can be sympathised with or detested in equal measure.

With the movie proving so intense, it definitely can’t be regarded as entertainment, but it is thought-provoking, consistently tough-minded and hard-hearted, and avoids any undue sentimentality, settling for a discomforting nihilism that suits the mood of the times, and underpins Jimmie’s struggle to fit in. Schepisi left Australia for Hollywood after this, citing the struggles he had to endure to get the movie made, but he’s yet to make another movie on a par with this one. Lewis continued to make movies, but he never played a lead role again. Perhaps it’s fitting for both men as it’s hard to see how either could top The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith for sheer gritty realism and power.

The movie also benefits from measured performances from Thompson, Barrett and McGregor, while there are minor roles for Bryan Brown, John Jarratt, and Arthur Dignam, and surprisingly, Lauren Hutton. It’s shot in a dour, unflattering way by Ian Baker that enhances and embraces the material, but still leaves room to showcase Australia’s natural beauty. And the score by Bruce Smeaton is similarly enriching, adding an emotive layer to the proceedings that complements the bleak narrative.

Rating: 9/10 – desolate and austere in its approach but all the more potent for it, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is the kind of tough, relentlessly savage movie that is rarely this confident or emotionally draining; all credit to Schepisi for refusing to water down the febrile nature of the story, or the tragic consequences that arise from one man’s refusal to be treated so arrogantly.

 

The late Seventies and early Eighties saw a rise in the number of movies that looked at classical stories from Australian literature and history, movies such as My Brilliant Career (1979) and Breaker Morant (1980). International acclaim had been building steadily across the Seventies, with Peter Finch becoming the first Australian actor to win an Oscar (albeit posthumously) for Network (1976), and the Eighties saw Australian movies consolidate and expand on that success. The focus was more on dramatic stories rather than comedies, and several prestige movies garnered awards from around the world. At home, The Man from Snowy River (1982) proved to be such a well-received movie that it was regarded as the best Australian movie of all time (though not for long).

In 1986, a movie arrived that was a comedy, that had been cleverly constructed for international audiences, contained adventure and romance, told a delightful fish out of water story, and made an international star out of its creator, Paul Hogan. The movie was “Crocodile” Dundee, and when it was released in the US (in September ’86), it achieved the distinction of being the second highest grossing movie of the year (losing out to Top Gun). At the time, Hogan stated that he was “planning for it to be Australia’s first proper movie… a real, general public, successful, entertaining movie”. Some may have felt that Hogan was being unfair, but the movie’s success did lead to a sea change in the way that Australian movie makers approached those stories that were essentially Australian in terms of subject matter and cultural reference. As the Eighties drew to a close, and with the industry still enjoying its renaissance, “Crocodile” Dundee‘s example would lead to an even richer period of Australian movie making, and an even stronger presence abroad.

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