Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

History Revisited - 'Blacksmith Country" lit up on the silver screen

I wonder how many Armidale people watched the repeat of the Fred Schepisi film The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1978) on NITV? I also wonder how many know that this was a quintesthe-chant-of-jimmie-blacksmithsentially New England film?

Those who watched will certainly recognise some of the landscape in the film. To begin with, the last part of the wild chase after Jimmy Governor (Jimmy Blacksmith in the film) and his brother Joe took place across New England.

In the heat of the manhunt for Malcolm Naden, the Sydney media started calling the country around Nowendoc and the Upper Manning and Hastings Rivers Thunderbolt country. They would have been better off calling it Governor or Blacksmith country. Like Malcolm Naden, Jimmy and Joe were Aboriginal. Like Malcolm Naden, they knew the bush and effectively taunted the authorities. Like Malcom Naden, they became the stuff of legend.

Their journey was shorter, just fourteen weeks from the first murders to the death of Joe, the capture of Jimmy. Yet in that short time they became the dominant news figures in the colony, transfixing European society and its officials.

The film itself was based on a book by Thomas Keneally also called The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, a book that varied to some degree from the historical tale. Keneally had strong New England connections, for he was writer in resident at UNE and wrote two very specific New England books. The first was The Survivor (1969), a book linked to the sexual guilts of a senior academic. Anybody from Armidale will spot the local connections in the early part of the book. The second book was The Dutiful Daughter (1971), a story of UNE college life seen through the eyes of Damien Glover, the son of simple, coast dwelling parents.

The film was made mainly in Armidale, Dorrigo and their surrounds. Any modern Armidale resident would find the scenery including the Armidale Court House instantly familiar.

This is our world presented back to us through the miracle of film. It doesn’t matter that the story diverges from the historical record. It is a story after all. What matters is the instant familiarity of landscape that sends a shiver down the spine. This is our world, and we know it.

Just as with the earlier Captain Thunderbolt, the arrival of the film crew created great excitement. Locals lined up to be extras. Just as with Captain Thunderbolt, the world premiere was held at Armidale’s Capitol Theatre.

The film was not a great success. For Fred Schepisi, the film's reception was a disillusioning experience and he left Australia soon after to work in Hollywood, not returning for ten years. For we locals, the film is part of our history.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 16 January 2013. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013

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