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Jedda

Year: 1955
Production Co: Charles Chauvel Productions
Director: Charles Chauvel
Producer: Charles Chauvel
Writer: Charles Chauvel
Cast: Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, Robert Tudawali, Betty Suttor, George Simpson-Lyttle, Paul Reynall

Decades before even Bruce Beresford, Fred Schepisi or Brian Trenchard Smith were twinkles in their parents' eyes, Charles Chauvel made what must have been the most international Australian movie in history (indeed, it was the first Australian production filmed in colour).

And having been shot deep in the countryside near Alice Springs – including in some of the most picturesque and probably inaccessible canyons you've ever seen – it makes you realise what kind of job they had carting that huge, 50s era equipment and sets around the outback, years before VFX or RED cameras.

As the opening credits make clear, it's a Western no different than Stagecoach or The Searchers, the title cards set against murals of the endless bush and with a sweeping orchestral score by Isadore Goodman.

But just like the surprise I got from supposed expliotation late 80s shocker Dark Age, it's surprisingly and gratifyingly aware of the trials and tribulations of being an aborigine in the settler period, especially at a time in history when indigenous Australians weren't even allowed to vote yet.

Like The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith decades later it's the story of a native caught between two cultures. But instead of reacting to institutional racism by becoming the object of terror he's assumed to be like Jimmie did, Jedda (Rosalie Kunoth-Monks) reacts by pining longingly.

She's born on the cattle trail while her people are employed by sympathetic station owner Douglas McCaan (George Simpson Lyttle) during a seasonal muster, and Douglas' wife Sarah, grieving after the illness and death of her own baby, agrees to take Jedda in for a little while.

Seventeen years later, the young woman has become not just the daughter Sarah never had, but her project to civilise the savagery out of her. Jedda's worn clothes her whole life, learned piano and done her lessons and has never been allowed to join the other station workers when they go walkabout or attend corroborees. Jedda desperately wants to join them and understand where she came from but Sarah steadfastly refuses, wanting to save the girl from the primitive ways that surround them.

One day Jedda she catches the eye of Marbuck, a young man from another tribe who stirs strange longings in her (it was the 50s, so while it's never addressed directly, it's obvious she's experiencing her first sexual yearning for the handsome young stockman).

Any sympathy to the plight of Aboriginal people undergoing forced behaviour to 'civilise' them is kind of abandoned at that point. Marbuck lures the fascinated Jedda to his fire one night and snatches her, taking off into the bush with his prize. Joe, a half aboriginal, head stockman and the occasional narrator of the movie who's in love with Jedda, sets off at Douglas' blessing to rescue her.

But Marbuck takes her deeper into dangerous territory, battling crocodiles, starvation and ultimately his own tribe damning and casting him out for bringing a woman from the wrong background into their midst.

For some reason that's never really explained, their condemnation of Marbuck drives him insane, and he takes Jedda further away into a land of wild cliffs (actually the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, all reshot after film reels of the climax on their way to England for processing went down in a plane crash) to meet their terrible fate.

The politics at that point seem a bit muddied. After being a kind of soft protest against early settler efforts to separate aboriginal people from their traditional ways (an official policy that led to the stolen generation, something audiences at that time would have known nothing about), the story then seems to assert that these are actually wild, untameable and dangerous people little better than animals or shamans because of their refusal to see reason like white men.

But it's just as possible that Chauvel, working from his own script, just wanted a rip roaring adventure that happened to include accoutrements of aboriginal culture, a movie that showcased the canyons, billabongs and beauty of the Northern Territory like John Ford had so often done with Monument Valley.

It's a mystery because it's so sympathetic and attuned to the traditions of song, dance, hunting styles, diet, etc – stuff audiences at the time would probably have agreed with Sarah McCann about, dismissing it all as primitive savagery.

The acting befits the era, all very melodramatic and stylised, but it suits the milieu of the rest of the film perfectly. For the longest time in the 80s and 90s I always got a mild thrill to see Australia depicted on screen (years before Sydney became a mecca for blockbuster Hollywood filmmaking in the Star Wars prequels and Matrix era), but I was decades too late. Jedda does so to an astronishing degree, and it very deftly spoke the language of Hollywood epics of the time.

It was also accepted as Australia's entry for the Cannes Palme d'Or prize in 1955, the only Australian movie so honoured in history, as far as I can find out.

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