1978’s Jimmie Blacksmith is an impressively ambitious follow-up to The Devil’s Playground. Based on a Thomas Keneally novel, it tackles black-white relations at a time when indigenous characters in Australian film were mostly exotic background colour (Eliza Fraser) or supporting characters.Jimmie (a fine performance from non-professional Tommy Lewis) is half-caste. On the urging of a paternalistic missionary (a miscast Jack Thompson), he tries for acceptance in the white world by taking on labouring work. He is, of course, only paid black man’s wages. He then takes a job with a racist policeman (a chilling Ray Barrett). Refreshingly, Schepisi gives Jimmie a clear trajectory, making Jimmie Blacksmith seemingly one of the few historical Australian films of the time that isn’t episodic.
Jimmie takes a white wife, the dim-witted Gilda (Angela Punch in a surprisingly small role), after she falls pregnant, only to be humiliated when her child turns out not to be his. When his brother Mort – another fine non-professional, Freddy Reynolds – comes to stay, the landowner wants Jimmie off the land for turning it into a “blacks’ camp” and his wife (Ruth Cracknell) tries to bully Gilda into taking a maid’s position in a distant white household. It’s the last straw for Jimmie who, in a cold but beautifully executed scene, takes to the women and children in the landowner’s house with an axe.
Schepisi later cut 15 minutes from the second half of the film, and it would have helped tighten the story of Jimmie’s fleeing and eventual capture. Ian Baker’s cinematography expertly conveys that Jimmie is dwarfed by the landscape, adrift in it, concealed but not protected by it. There are parallels to the Ned Kelly story in his grudgingly sympathetic treatment of an asthmatic teacher (Peter Carroll) that he takes hostage, and his wife (Robyn Nevin).Jimmie has garnered some sympathy from white city liberals on the eve of Federation, as well as arousing a lot of country anger. What’s polarised support is that he’s deliberately struck at what the racist white men hold precious (their wives and children). Schepisi (who wrote the screenplay with advice from Keneally) has somehow managed not to make this seem cowardly. Despite an occasionally overwhelming musical score from Bruce Smeaton, Jimmie Blacksmith is a fine film, both gripping and powerful.