Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 1, No. 1, 1987
Australian Film in the 1950s
Edited by Tom O'Regan

Chauvel and the centring of the Aboriginal male in Australian film

Colin Johnson

I remember talking to an Aboriginal woman after seeing one of those documentaries about Aborigines which tend to be dull, not to say boring, and she said : Why don t they make films like Jedda (1955) anymore?' I had seen Jedda too long ago, and I replied, 'I don't know' - not having much of a recall about it, except that it was some sort of adventure flic.

Recently, I was able to view Jedda again and it was some sort of adventure flic - a sort of Tarzan in black face. Marbuk's bout with the crocodile instantly recalled to mind those old Tarzan movies where, in just about everyone of them, he wrestles a crocodile and emerges triumphant - the Marbuk of the white world! But, then, although Jedda has all the attributes of a Hollywood B movie - Tarzan crossed with a Western - it is different. The 'natives' are not relegated to a romantic backdrop, but are allowed to be centred in the film. It is as if in a Tarzan flic, the camera suddenly left the hero to concentrate on those weird native people, possibly Africans, who provide a picturesque background to Tarzan and whose only function is to be exploited by unscrupulous civilised men or eaten by wild animals.

Tarzan pictures are out-and-out adventure films, and there is no attempt to deal with any colonial, or contact situation. In fact the ideal of the 'savage' has been captured by the white hero. The European concept of the 'noble savage' has returned to the European - a sort of coming home to Rousseau. This is very apt as, if there never was anything, any reality behind the concept of the noble savage, what better way to render a myth, or intellectual theory than through the dubious reality of a Hollywood B film shot on a set in America with splice-ins of wild animal scenes from the film library. And it did work! A profitable venture which entertained us, as children, with a series of films and Tarzans, beginning, at least for my generation, with Johnny Weissmuller who, for us, was the first and supreme 'savage' archetype.

In contrast to this genre of jungle film, Jedda is uneven, with the adventure plot on more than one occasion being interrupted by a character's conversation. For example the station owner interrupts the flow of the film to discuss what else, but the 'Native Problem'. This breaks the text away from pure adventure, but for all that those images of Tarzan linger: intertextuality, or an identity of ideology of the 'primitive', makes this occur. Jedda by its instant recall of intertextuality disarms any particular message the film seeks to project. In fact when the characters start sounding off, it becomes cup-of-tea time and when we come back the adventure is rolling on again.

Jedda by Charles Chauvel, is accepted as a 'serious' film by many critics including Andrew Pike who, in discussing Aborigines in contemporary Australian films has this to, say: 'Jedda neatly expresses one of the many dilemmas of white liberalism in facing the Aboriginal in contemporary society'. [1] He dismisses other aspects of the film as 'Hollywood Romanticism' thus for him (and other critics) it is the tragedy of the Aborigine seeking to come to grips with white society which is the central 'debate' of the film. Chauvel lends himself to this view, declaring in the scrolled introduction that it concerns real people - people living in the Northern Territory. He stresses the factual nature of his filmic text.

Although this is one reading based on those discussions carefully inserted into the text I believe that there is another possible and Aboriginal reading which reveals that we are not dealing with a true account of what happens to Aborigines when they come in contact and conflict with civilisation, but with a central problem of Aboriginal society. This is the stealing of women, the social problem of wrongway relationships, and the reaction of Aboriginal society. Moreover another problem is dealt with: the fear/attraction of Mission-educated Aboriginal women when confronted by their Aboriginality in the form of an Aboriginal male, who is not the stumbling drunk the street derides, but one in full control of his being. It is to Chauvel's credit, or perhaps in spite of Chauvel, that the only dignified Aboriginal male lead that has been allowed to exist in films made by white directors in Australia is in Jedda, and, though Marbuk does die in the end, it is because he has offended tribal law rather than because of anything the whiteman has shot at him.

My interest in Jedda began with the chance remark of the woman friend, and I followed this up by asking other Aboriginal people whether they found the film more attractive than other recent films. Those who viewed the film said that they did, and it was precisely the depiction of the Aboriginal male on which they commented. We had only to compare this with other films such as The Fringe Dwellers (Beresford, 1986) and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (Schepisi, 1978) to realise how lowly is the position of the Aboriginal male lead in Australian films, though in some others such as The Last Wave (Weir, 1977) or Storm Boy (Safran, 1976), mysticism replaces any depiction of the Aboriginal male, and he becomes chthonic - a natural earth force without humanity.

The Fringe Dwellers by Bruce Beresford is perhaps the first film since Jedda in which Aborigines are centred - that is, it is their story which is being filmed. But how is this done, and how is the Aboriginal male depicted? He is treated as comic relief! Hard working women, who wish to be assimilated, who wish to have a 'nice' home, have not only this threatened, but are destroyed by clownish males. The Comeway family (female) have males inflicted on them. The only function these (male) clowns serve is to impede the transition from the mission/settlement into the town and a Housing Commission house. This film was made in the mid eighties, but the original novel on which the screenplay is based, was set in the decade (the 1950s) when Chauvel's film was made, and Nene Gare, the author, at least knew her subject from being the wife of a worker in the field of Aboriginal Affairs. In fact when I met her recently, she more or less verified the factual content of the film - a factual content which perhaps was true in the fifties, but which is becoming less and less true in the ideal present into which Bruce Beresford dragged his film. During the First Black Playwrights' Conference held in Canberra in January 1987, I was fortunate to meet and to renew my friendship with the main actors in the film.

Essentially, the plotline concerns the efforts of a girl - played by Kristina Nehm - to escape the deadening efforts of the Aboriginal community in which she is born. According to the film it is a hopeless situation with the only possible escape being individual flight. The plot does not transfer easily to the present, and there is little attempt to update it. Thus, for example, there is no mention of Aboriginal support organisations which now exist, so that if an individual feels that he or she must leave his or her community, help may be found when he or she enters a new or strange community. The film has been hailed as a fine example of ensemble acting, but this ensemble, or community approach plays no part in resolving the plot. Perhaps this is because a community approach to solving social problems may be outside the ideology of Australian film, especially those made for the American market. It is well nigh impossible for a group of people to, for a community to, collectively bring about change or to change their environment, or living standards for the better. Success, or the ability to engineer change, is not seen as collective, but as individual. So The Fringe Dwellers is not so much concerned with the Aboriginal community, but with highlighting the dilemma of the female character, played by Kristina Nehm. At the end of the film she flees her community and runs towards the anonymity of the city, where she believes she will be able to better her condition by becoming a receptionist, or office worker. In the realist, i.e. American individualist ideology, in which the film is framed, individual salvation is the only possible salvation. There is no compromise towards any Aboriginality, or a realism in which girls such as Kristina do go to the city, but maintain their links with their community and family. This is the norm in Aboriginal society, rather than separation and alienation, but we are dealing with another realism, and an ideology in which the individual must triumph even at the expense of the community.

In this film, the Aborigines though centred, are centred around the ambitions of the character portrayed by Kristina Nehm. They may be warm and loving and funny, but they are no-hopers. We are all familiar with this stereotyping of Aborigines (especially males) as no-hopers. This stereotype of the Aboriginal male has been carefully constructed for us, as has the idea that the Aboriginal community, or the Aboriginal extended family is what keeps individual Aborigines of worth down, a notable example being Albert Namatjira.

The Fringe Dwellers perpetuates the stereotyping of Aborigines (especially male Aborigines) and it may be asked why Aborigines, and politically aware Aborigines, such as Kath Walker, Bob Maza, and Justine Saunders, agreed to act it out. A political decision must have been arrived at. First of all Bruce Beresford had the film rights to the novel, and was determined to make the film. As power holder (in both an economic and legal sense), he was in the position of dictating terms to any groups of Aborigines he wanted to use. If the actors he approached decided to boycott the film as the Victorian Koori community had done before, he could go on and eventually find a community and actors willing to perform for him. According to my sources of information, he put this bluntly to the people he wanted to use, and after some deliberation, they agreed. Naturally, at the time there was some thought given to subverting the film so that it presented a truer picture of Aboriginal life in the eighties, but subversion in the film world is difficult, especially when all power resides with the filmmaker, director or producer. Any attempts at subversion end up on the cutting room floor. So from the editing process, from which Aborigines were excluded, came the finished product in which the Aboriginal male found himself cast yet again as no-hoper, though a humorous one.

But then being a humorous no-hoper is better than being the womancidal no-hoper as seen in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Perhaps this film was hailed as a sensitive portrayal of racial issues in Australia, but the image lingering on is that of a berserk boong hacking to death white ladies. At the time when the film was released I was writing the script of my novel, Wildcat Falling, for a white director/producer and he subsequently told me to forget about it as after 'Jimmie Blacksmith' there was no market for films in which Aborigines inflicted violence on whites. Perhaps this was for the better, otherwise Australian filmmakers might have flooded the market with any number of 'boongsploitation' movies each one bloodier than the last. Aborigines in their dealings with the film world know that it is not a bastion of morality and social conscience. Jimmie Blacksmith happened in spite of the Aborigines. They were not consulted on the film - not even the family of Jimmy Governor on which Keneally based his character. When they saw the film, there was consternation - to the extent that they sought legal advice on how to stop the screened. There was no legal redress, and so we saw Jimmie do his bit for the Aboriginal male image, attempting with an axe to hack his way through confusion and racial prejudice to some sort of mystical renewal in a nun's bed. ... Preferable to this is the stereotype of the bushwise, mystic Aborigine, a monarch of all that is natural. A kind of Tarzan, who finds his greatest role in Jedda. Charles Chauvel had a vision of Australia, its landscapes and people which was akin to that of the Jindyworobak poets of the thirties. This vision, to a certain extent, was a development from the writers of the late nineteenth century Bulletin school who contrasted the virtues of country-living against the vices of city-living. Essentially what is depicted in such writings and films is an emergence of natural virtues away from the confining walls of the city. Man in confrontation with (or in the case of romanticised Aborigines in harmony with) the land or landscape. Nature in the raw - on which tough virtuous whitemen make their mark, in contrast (if contrasted) with the Aboriginal male and his affinity with nature. Charles and Elsa Chauvel in their book Walkabout have this to say about this landscape:

We want to bring you face to face with eternal distance and to have you witness that dramatic cleavage of the seasons from THE WET to THE DRY which goes on ceaselessly, changing the face of the great north land each year from harshness to beauty - draining everything from the land with heat and scorching winds and giving everything back to it again with heavy rains and flooding rivers (p.xii-iii).2

Naturally it is Europeans who come to appreciate this land, who in effect try to civilise it, and it is this land, so familiar from childhood in the poem 'I Love A Sunburnt Country' against which civilisation must contend. It is always there threatening, and ready to overwhelm the flimsy structures of man. It is what the Chauvels romantically term, 'eternal distance', (nature) which is the antagonist to the protagonists, and not any Aboriginal/Civilisation confrontation.

In Jedda there is a stylistic separation of the interior shots from the exterior landscape shots. In fact I can't remember a shot in which the homestead is centred. This separation of man's erections from the landscape also may be due to the fact that in the making of the film, the interiors were shot separately from the exteriors. They were done in Sydney, and so the reason why only one shot of the exterior of the homestead appears (and that at the very beginning) is because it did not exist on the location. Chauvel with his stated aversion to the city, part of the old bush versus city ideology, believed that he could shoot interiors anywhere, but the exteriors had to be sought, had to be authentic pieces of that bush populated with characters directly out of the bush ballads and yarns. If we see Chauvel as belonging to this ideology, we can account for his ambiguous attitude towards Aborigines which is also evident in the Bush-City ideology. And so he had to travel to find exteriors approaching the clarity of his ideological vision, just as he had to travel to locate an Aborigine closely akin to his picture of the 'noble savage', one uncontaminated by contact with civilisation.

His search for authenticity of place is similar to Aboriginal attitudes towards authenticity and the 'true'. A criticism of The Fringe Dwellers was that it was not made in the proper place where the events supposedly occurred, that is in Geraldton, Western Australia. This criticism came from Western Australian Nyoongahs, but criticism of place also came from Queensland Murris who felt that the film lacked authenticity because the Aboriginal people acting in it had never lived in the place - Cherbourg - where the film was shot. Aborigines believe proper location is important, and that a film to be authentic has to be made where the story came into being. This is important in pointing to an Aboriginal critical standard which states that a story or film to be Aboriginal must be 'authentic' in its depiction of characters, in its situation, and in its plot. Naturally, 'authenticity' has only subjective meaning, in that what is accepted as 'authentic' by one person may be obviously 'inauthentic' to another. What we are really dealing with is 'ideological authenticity' which should present us with certain ideological views corresponding to a greater or lesser extent with our own. Charles Chauvel uses 'ideological authenticity' in making his film. For example he has a certain ideological commitment to depict the bush-exiled white female as a cultural force, as a civilising influence on the male. Thus in Jedda Mrs MacMahon is an ideological construct as set out in the book, Walkabout:

I found this leaning towards extreme domestic fastidiousness rather typical of outback women, one of whom confided to me that it was her defence against the toughness of her surroundings, and the outcome of her fear that she and her husband (particularly her husband) might be ensnared in, and finally submerged by the rougher elements of their living. "Men, like to live it easy", she continued. "They slip a bit here and there, then finally start walking into supper in their bare feet and forgetting to shave. Then they get to feel like a black fella, and before you can count to ten, they're going downhill, going native. So a woman must keep herself and her home attractive and never give in to the climate or the environment, for degradation can creep up like a thief in the night". And so the civilised woman's crusade goes on - to keep her man from her greatest rival, the primitive - which fundamentally is his prototype.

In Jedda Chauvel did not depict the going native of a whiteman. This is outside the parameters of his ideology here, but he did construct the ideal frontier female in such characters as Mrs MacMahon. The Chauvels in constructing the frontier female gave her no degree of sexuality or even fondness towards her husband. But the frontier male - in line with Chauvel's assertion, though given through the mouth of a frontier female, that he hovers constantly on the edge of reverting to the primitive - is allowed some delicate hints of sexuality. This is quite unrealistic in the light of those tales of randy station owners, but the ideological line must be followed.

The half-caste narrator of the film, Joe, states that this father was an Afghan, but his being given the run of the house, and being raised by Mr MacMahon to be the head stockman, leads us to believe otherwise, that is that the station owner who is in fact the natural father. Chauvel who travelled widely through the outback must have been aware of the sexual exploitation of black females, but he does not allow this to intrude into his films. It is a no-go area much like the sexuality of the white female. It is different in the case of Jedda who, being black, is allowed by the Chauvels to have a sexual awakening when she reaches adolescence, and it is this which leads to her downfall when the only other sexual being in the film (leaving aside the housemaids) sees her. Marbuk for his part, is the one desirable man for whom an adolescent girl, a black girl can yearn legally. At least in Chauvel's ideologically constructed outback world where the whole aspect of station owners and their black concubines is ignored.

A feature of 'ideological authenticity' is often flat, parabolic characters that represent 'truths', or symbols of 'truth'. Thus in Jedda, the characters can be labelled as the Station Owner', 'The Station Owner's Wife', 'A Native Stockman', and so on with nothing being lost or gained. Even Jedda herself may be labelled 'The Civilised Black Girl Raised in the Station Homestead', a description very similar to the captions of silent films. Even Marbuk may be similarly captioned, though Tudawali's acting ability enabled the character to escape the ideological bonds the Chauvels had knotted.

The film becomes centred about Marbuk, and he steals the show for the Aboriginal male. No rags, no downcast eyes, no sullenness, no drunken stagger, no Jimmie Blacksmith brutality and confusion. He walks into the film proudly, ignoring the castoff trappings of civilisation - but Jedda's black skin covered by a symbolic white dress lures and challenges him! He delights in stealing the boss's woman/daughter, in attempting in trickster fashion to steal the gift of culture from the culture holders which is similar to the stealing of fire.

Jedda, as is fire, is a passive agent in the stealing. In fact her very passivity reflects the passivity of adolescent black girls locked up in mission compounds, thick with stories of savage myalls prowling the fence of the compound ready to steal them away. Or from another angle Christianity has erected a wall around their hearts, protecting them from the savage pagans haunting their dreams. The white indoctrination walls her off from Marbuk, but she can allow herself to be 'sung', to become a passive victim of his lust. Naturally, here we are not talking about the ideology behind the Chauvel film, but how certain black women viewed the film, finding it attractive, and reflecting hidden dreams of adolescence in which the black phallus ruled.

Tudawali was more than the black men they were familiar with. Men who had become fringe dwellers on the outskirts of the whiteman's world. Who had given in, who had taken to drink, who had become impotent in their lives, and perhaps beds. The white phallus was erect and quivering with the power to give to these mission women the stability the missionaries had told them was the normal condition of Christian life. They had been rendered into Mrs MacMahons with the little Jedda of their black souls imprisoned under a white frock.

The halfcaste 'Joe' is the male counterpart of the mission female. Another flat character, though narrator, he is a mission black, the assimilated halfcaste destined until the entrance of Marbuk to be the husband of Jedda. He is like something out of The Boy's Own Journal, or if you prefer 'Jungle Jim' in opposition to 'Tarzan'. He has no Aboriginality, is separated from the other stockmen, and the other blacks except for Jedda In the chase sequence some of the artefacts and attitudes of civilisation are lost, but he never loses his pants, never reverts to the 'primitive'.

'Jungle Joe' is a fine example of what else but 'The Halfcaste'. He is civilised and different from the native stockmen. They are degraded versions of Marbuk The symbol of their fall from 'natural' grace is their clothing and when Jungle Joe takes two men to pursue Marbuk, the duality of their nature is revealed in that they wear European clothing, but carry spears. It is one of these hapless men, (just as in Tarzan and now should I include Jungle Jim films?) that falls victim to a crocodile, unlike our Black Tarzan who has dispatched one with a stone knife, which is impossible. Of course this is part of the ideological authenticity, which Chauvel outlined in his book Walkabout, and other writings. He was on the lookout for your authentic Aborigine, your noble savage uncontaminated by European values who could casually dispatch a crocodile with a stone knife. Marbuk is the Noble Savage who can work these mirages, and we must not forget that it is the naked Marbuk who instantly appeals to the station women, and not the clothed stockmen, who lack any individual definition in the film. Marbuk is the savage deified whereas the stockmen represent the savage or the Aborigine defiled. By allowing themselves to become part of the culture of the station, they have lost the erotic appeal of the true natural man. Again this fits in with the appeal this film has, or had, to Aboriginal women whose men were defeated, clothed and spellbound by their confrontation with European culture.

Marbuk, as Chauvel sees him is 'natural man', and because of this ideology stemming from the noble savage, he is allowed to dominate the film and the landscape. He alone has an active sexuality and he alone satisfies it. It is the ideological position of Chauvel which allows the film to be dominated by a black male, and the male Aborigine, as never before or since, becomes centred in a film as a hero and protagonist. He uses fire as a natural element to prevent immediate pursuit when he steals Jedda; he uses water, the swamp, to cover his tracks, and he even uses culture, the rifle and Jedda, when need demands, though he is willing to discard them. Even though he uses a rifle to deadly effect on the buffalo hunt, he sticks to his spears, and after kidnapping, or regaining the cultural artefact, Jedda, he is willing to abandon it in order to put things to rights. For the only law that he fears is Aboriginal law and it is conflict with this law which eventually brings about his death. Marbuk was confined by white law, but escaped. He breaks Aboriginal law, and is 'sung' by his tribe. Outlaw and law come into conflict and the outlaw is punished by law. Not only is the Aboriginal male centred within the film text, but so is the power of Aboriginal law. It is as if for whole moments in the film the white world is swept away, and even Jungle Joe hot on the tracks of Marbuk becomes a kurdaitcha man!

Unlike the white Tarzan who as a heroic product of Hollywood had little harm built into his savagery, Marbuk as a black male is the threatening 'other'. As such, he must be done away with for even in a film the Aboriginal male must not be seen to triumph. It is part of the ideological postulates of European Australia that the black man has had his day and must be seen either as tamed, or dead. In fact in the 1950s for an Aboriginal male not to accept that power had passed from him, was the attitude of a crazy man, and so in the latter part of the film Marbuk is made insane, or has it been implicit throughout the film?

Chauvel resolves his picture in romantic fashion by killing off his two main characters, Jedda and Marbuk. They die in a lovers' leap from the top of a high cliff top, and keeping to the genre of adventure films, there is a fight. But here there is a deviation from the norm in that not only is the villain, Marbuk, but so too is the romantic heroine, Jedda, killed off.

Only Joe is left as victor, but his place in the film has been so uncharismatic that he cannot aspire to any degree of heroism. Perhaps this is one reason why Chauvel when viewing the rushes did not let him have the girl as happens in this type of film. In an Aboriginal reading as both male and female have broken the law, both deserve to die, and do.

In this discussion of Jedda, I have sought to show that the film is not a realistic depiction of life, or of conflict between European and Aborigine as it is often taken to be, or a mishmash of 'Hollywood' images and romanticism transferred to Australia, but a film constructed from the ideological position of Chauvel. This I have termed 'ideological authenticity'. A number of contradictions arise from his position. One such contradiction involves the positioning of the Aboriginal male in Australian film. From the book, Walkabout, it may be seen that Chauvel had ideas on what constituted a 'true' Aborigine, and this 'trueness' had little basis in reality, but in his holding such notions as 'the noble savage' - a stereotype familiar to us from Tarzan films.

Now Chauvel, in the words scrolling up the screen at the beginning of the film sought to project the idea that he had made a quasi-documentary film, a 'true' story though clothed in action, showing what happens when the Aboriginal enters the white world and how it leads to tragedy, but the flatness of his European characters, and the strength of Tudawali's role enables us to read the film as an Aboriginal text.

When reading the film as an Aboriginal text we see that its central conflict, the stealing of women and its resolution, is an old problem inherent in Aboriginal society. This central conflict enables Aboriginal men to strongly identify with Marbuk. 'Identification' is extended to Aboriginal women, too, especially mission women and station women, in that Christian indoctrination forbade them to have anything to do with such savage myalls as Marbuk. They were to find partners within the mission compound, or in the white world. This meant that the savage myall became a subject of fascination to them, and a dream desire figure. Thus we can understand the appeal this film had for my friend who wanted to know why films like Jedda were not made anymore. The answer to her question is that the problem is not with us anymore - that the savage has been killed off and with it the dark figure hidden in the hearts of those women reared in missions. In the missions civilisation was extolled and savagery condemned and derided. The mission inhabitants, predominantly women, were forced to forego their Aboriginality at least consciously. Only in dreams was it allowed to emerge, and it did. Forbidden, the savage, or the free Black Man became a fascinating sexual object for those women.

Chauvel unwittingly transcended his film, for when he depicted the lure of Marbuk for Jedda, he was depicting the lure of Aboriginality for mission blacks. Of course the message is as simple as 'Me Tarzan, You Jane', but it is there for all that. But what makes his film rise above a B Hollywood film is not a plot so much as his casting of a black man in the leading role. Tudawali's acting ability and charisma dominates the film. One recalls instantly the shots of him striding into the lives of the station blacks in full knowledge of the power of his sexuality and self-being, and this makes us realise how far Chauvel was from the stereotype of the poor downtrodden blackman of recent Australian films such as The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and The Fringe Dwellers. Now that a film is being made of Tudawali's life, I hope that once again we shall see this black man stride through his own film confidently - but I know that this hope will be in vain. We are overwhelmed with other stereotypes - of nature emasculated by civilisation, of the Aborigine as perennial victim - and so Robert Tudawali will end up tragically, in an ideologically realist film different from Chauvel's ideological authenticity, though the characters may be firmly rounded for our delectation and vicarious enjoyment.


1. Andrew Pike, "Aboriginals in Australian Feature Films", Meanjin, v. 36, no 4(1977),p 597

2. Charles & Elsa Chauvel, Walkabout (London: Allen, 1959).

New: 5 January, 1996 | Now: 8 March, 2015