The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (22nd July 2019).
The Film

AFI Award (Best Actress in a Lead Role): Angela Punch McGregor (won), Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Ray Barrett (won), Best Original Music Score: Bruce Smeaton (won), Best Film: Fred Schepisi (nominated), Best Director: Fred Schepisi (nominated), Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Peter Carroll (nominated), Best Screenplay, Adapted: Fred Schepisi (nominated), Best Achievement in Sound: Bob Allen, William Anderson, Peter Burgess, Dean Gawen, and Gerry Humphreys (nominated), Best Achievement in Production Design: Wendy Dickson (nominated), Best Achievement in Costume Design: Bruce Finlayson (nominated), Best Achievement in Editing: Brian Kavanagh (nominated), and Best Achievement in Cinematography: Ian Baker (nominated) - Australian Film Institute, 1978
Palme d'Or: Fred Schepisi (nominated) - Cannes Film Festival, 1978

Outback missionary Reverend Neville ('Breaker' Morant's Jack Thompson) despairs of being able to do anything for the "blasted blacks" apart from half-white Jimmie Blacksmith (Goldstone's Tommy Lewis) if he can keep him away from the company of drunken roustabouts with the goal of giving him an education that will allow him to get a job, buy a farm, and marry a decent (i.e. white) girl whose children will be quarter-caste and whose grandchildren will be an eighth caste, or "Hardly black at all," according to the reverend's wife (Caddie's Julie Dawson). Sent on his way with a recommendation from the reverend upon coming of age, Jimmie finds that there is less chance of an aboriginal getting a job during the depression than the many out of work whites also making their way on foot through the Outback. He eventually finds a job putting up a fence on the far side of the property of farmer Healey (The Big Steal's Tim Robertson), but the bigoted man nickels and dimes him over imperfections in his construction in order to keep from paying him the amount they agreed upon. He then works under Constable Farrell (Revenge's Ray Barrett) but finds himself more often than not arresting his own people as a police tracker and being forced to cover up a death in custody (in conjunction with a heinous crime). He finds more stable work at for Jack Newby (Newsfront's Don Crosby) and Heather (The Night, The Prowler's Ruth Cracknell) and becomes engaged to white girl Gilda (The Survivor's Angela Punch MacGregor) even though she is already pregnant with a white man's baby. Jimmie nevertheless endures public gossip and scorn in order to have a happy family, but the scheming of the Newbys and a local schoolteacher, ostensibly with Gilda's best interests at heart, and the pessimism of his uncle Tabidgi (Gallipoli's Steve Dodd) and cousin Mort (Freddy Reynolds) push Jimmie towards a desperate act that turns violent and tragic for all involved.

"Based on real events that took place in Australia at the turn of the century" as scripted by director Fred Schipisi from the novel by Thomas Keneally (Schindler's List), The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith does seem to streamline the facts of the Jimmy Governor/Grosvenor case somewhat from a lot of information that may have been malicious speculation and defamation that is firmly in keeping with the prevailing racist attitudes of the time voiced by everyone including the Reverend Neville and either ignored, laughed off, or otherwise borne by aboriginal characters including Jimmie who more often than not just wants to get on with the topic at hand but must whether people ask him questions about himself out of prying curiosity or just slip in jabs about his coloring in the midst of conversation. The prevailing attitudes of the period about what to do with the aboriginals seem equally intolerant, whether it is avoiding them altogether and waiting until they disappear or intermarrying as a way of breeding the black side out with successive generations of half-castes as advocated by the supposedly more compassionate missionaries. The crimes and trial of Jimmy Governor were a media sensation in Australia at the turn of the century and Fred Schepisi would return to Australia a decade later to show that little had changed in nearly a century as the middle class lapped up the sensationalism around the Baby Azaria case in A Cry in the Dark from the book "Evil Angels" by John Bryson and the film and its perspective on the case came at a time when aboriginals had started writing back academically in response to sociological and ethnographic studies that often provided explanations and justifications for their marginalization. The film was not well-received by the public, however its critical reception of three Australian Film Institute wins and nine other nominations sent Schepisi towards Hollywood with Barbarosa, Iceman, Plenty, and the updated "Cyrano de Bergerac" adaptation Roxanne along with a handful of lesser hits in the nineties (including the hit Broadway play adaptation Six Degrees of Separation and task of reshooting the ending of A Fish Called Wanda's lesser follow-up Fierce Creatures when original director Robert Young was unavailable). The large cast also includes early roles for Bryan Brown (F/X),Lauren Hutton (Once Bitten), and John Jarratt (Wolf Creek). Composer Bruce Smeaton (Picnic at Hanging Rock) and cinematographer Ian Baker (Queen of the Damned) would continue on with Schepisi through the eighties, and Baker beyond that to Shepisi's last feature to date Eye of the Storm.
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Video

Released in the United States by New Yorker Films and in the U.K. by Twentieth Century Fox, the film's release history is something of an enigma. The original Australian version ran roughly 122 minutes while an international version ran roughly 117 minutes, but it is not certain when this international version was prepared. The 1978 U.K. X-certificate theatrical release was the Australian cut while the two British pre-cert VHS releases from the early eighties were the international version, as were the two 18-certificate editions from 1987 and 1994. The U.S. release was not until 1980 and it may indeed have been the international version since their three-reel 16mm reissue version available for rental and purchase was even shorter at 108 minutes. The Australian cut appeared from Umbrella Entertainment on a special edition DVD, the extras of which were ported to all-region Blu-ray last year with the addition of lengthy new interview with Schepisi and cinematographer Baker and a premiere featurette. Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray includes both cuts of the film for the first time on Blu-ray, and they differ in more than just content. The Australian version (122:02) opens with the Umbrella Entertainment logo and is the same master as the Australian release, while the international version (117:22) exclusive to the Blu-ray side of this combo opens with the Shout! Factory logo (they are currently streaming this cut in the United States but the upcoming American Blu-ray edition with both cuts is due out in September from Kino Lorber). The framing of both appears similar but the Australian transfer has a yellow cast that seemed appropriate to the sun-parched look of the setting and period, while the international version is a different transfer or at least has had some better color correction. The international version is slightly darker but what stands out immediately is the color green, not a green cast in the print source but the greens of the walls in the reverend's home and his wife's dress, and then in nature form a macro close-up of a lizard to the patches of green grass and leaves in the outback that have little to no presence in the Australian's color timing. Short of a 4K remaster of the film for its next anniversary supervised by Schepisi or Baker, we probably will not know for certain which is more accurate.
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Audio

Both versions of the film feature English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono tracks that are clean enough to convey both the subtle nature sounds and the silences soon to be broken by screams and axe chops. Optional English SDH subtitles are provided for both versions.

Extras

The Australian version of the film is accompanied by an audio commentary by director Fred Schepisi ported over from the Australian release in which he discusses the adaption of the book (including some changes made at the insistence of the producers), the film's casting (Lewis had no dramatic training and was spotted by his wife), the shoot, and the film's reception both by the public and its awards and nominations. The second track is a Eureka-exclusive audio commentary by film historian Alexandra Heller-Nicholas who contextualizes the track as being by a white Australian woman talking about a film and book by white Australians about a true life case (also noting author Keneally's feelings both about his book and Schepisi's fidelity to it, as well as his statement that he would if rewriting the novel tell it from the perspective of a white character rather than appropriating Jimmie's point-of-view). Such an approach may rankle some who think political correctness has run rampant, but these issues are still very current in Australia, and her discussion encompasses the image of the mainstream Australian film industry on the world stage. Once she moves into analysis of the story and the film, her commentary makes a nice companion piece to Schepisi's track in that it takes into account his anecdotes about the shooting while also looking at what he achieved visually and aurally from a more objective and critical perspective.

Also new to the Eureka release is an interview with director Fred Schepisi (40:52) which was likely not shot for the film in that Schepisi without prompting discusses the differences in approach between adapting the works of others remaining true to their voice even when making changes to material to be more cinematographic and working from original stories, working from subjective experience in his own screenplay to trying to find parallels in his life to adapted material, as well as the difficulty in selecting material particularly when working in Hollywood with more not always welcome input. The discussion also includes finding the organic visual methods of the storytelling, recalling that by the time of Iceman, he and cinematographer Baker had worked out a visual methodology to conveying the worlds of the different characters that was present in embryonic form in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, as well as some anecdotes about Six Degrees of Separation. Also ported over from the Umbrella release is a conversation with director Fred Schepisi and cinematographer Ian Baker (64:01) that actually edits together their separately recorded remarks about their creative collaboration starting with Schepisi getting into advertising early on and running the advertising unit of a television station at sixteen, being inspired by Canadian network experimental films to try some of his own with 8mm, and learning storytelling and directing non-actors on industrial films. The discussion is not structured as a survey of their collaborations so much as referring to the films as examples from the general discussion of their working methods, Schepisi's visual storytelling abilities and decisiveness, and the technical rigors of shooting on location.
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"Celluloid Gypsies: Making The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith" (36:21) is the more focused discussion of the film's making with comments from Schepisi, Baker, Lewis, and editor Kavanagh. Schepisi recalls that Don't Look Now's producer/screenwriter Alan Scott was pursuing the rights to Keneally's novel but Schepisi already had a working relationship with the author who had penned the source for his contribution to the erotic anthology Libido, and describes some of the "gripping images" that drew him to the work. He also discusses the scripting process, and how he tried to convey the cinematic rhythms through language, sentence and paragraph length. Lewis recalls his casting and learning to act before the shoot (covered in more detail in another extra below), the shoot, and how it lead to other opportunities. Kavanagh discusses the challenges of editing on location, working from a can with a flatbed editing table and Moviola while following the shooting crew from location to location, while Baker pops up again to discuss the visual collaboration with Schepisi, with the two separately discussing the shooting of the film's violent set-piece (conceived initially as a single shot sequence only for them to discover that it ran too slow and lost its intensity). Schepisi also discusses the historical context of the film, "white intentions," and the decision to film from a perspective of the time rather than a modern one.

"The Chant of Tom Lewis" (25:33) is an extended interview from which his comments in the above featurette were derived. It finds him reflecting on his upbringing, learning about the historical background of the film, wondering where he would be if not for making the film and the opportunities he has had for travel and acting in other venues, his international recognition for the film, and his family life. "Making Us Blacksmiths" (10:23) is a vintage featurette in which Schepisi, Baker, Schepisi's casting director wife Rhonda, and acting teacher Michael Caulfield discuss casting Lewis and Reynolds, testing them in the studio for the strenuous conditions under harsh lighting and moving within the frame, rigorous rehearsal of the script with Schepisi, and Caulfield providing them with basic acting lessons to get them to loosen up in their delivery and expressing emotions. The 2008 Melbourne International Film Festival Q&A with Fred Schepisi & Geoffrey Rush (34:05) has actor Geoffrey Rush (Quills) recalling how he missed much of the Australian film boom in the seventies studying in France and England and discovering some of the classics of the period like Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith abroad. He introduces Schepisi and interviews him about the novel, the aboriginal casting (especially in light of Peter Wier's The Last Wave) pointing out the presence of actors who might not be so recognizable to international audiences sensitivity to the various tribes performing in the film and those described in the novel, and particulars of the shoot. Also included is the film's theatrical trailer (2:20).
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Not provided for review were the reversible cover and a collector's booklet featuring a reprint of Pauline Kael's original review of the film, and rare archival imagery. The first 2,000 copies include a limited edition O-card featuring newly commissioned artwork by Nathanael Marsh.

Overall

While Umbrella Entertainment's release of the Australian classic The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith seemed incredibly comprehensive, Eureka's Masters of Cinema edition both gives the film its British digtial debut while also stepping up the game.

 


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