Filmed in the Clare Valley, Gladstone and the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, this prison movie was inspired by the true life prison riot at Bathurst Jail in 1974 and its subsequent Royal Commission into New South Wales Prisons.
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This is a fine example of the breed of excellent Australian films released in the 1970s during the Australian film renaissance (it's interesting to note that virtually all of the directors of these films, including director Fred Schepisi, later moved to the U.S. to make big budget Hollywood films). This tale of a young aboriginal man who eventually turns to violence following one humiliation after another by white settlers in 19th century Australia asks some very uncomfortable questions of the audience such as: Is it morally justified to use violence against a corrupt, racist, violent system in which there are no lawful means to receive justice? Additionally, it is up to interpretation whether the violent reactions of the title character are justified: we are clearly sympathetic to him in the beginning, but once he perpetuates incredible brutality on the settlers, can we remain sympathetic? He is definitely not a monster, but a well-mannered and educated Aboriginal brought up by missionaries. After all, his actions are not simply heat-of-the-moment reactions; he has formally "declared war" on the perpetuators of injustice. Does that legitimize what he is doing? The U.S. has been asking itself these exact same questions for the past 50 years: Jimmy is very much a close Australian cousin to Bigger Thomas, the main character in Richard Wright's classic American novel "Native Son" - a black man pushed to violence by virtually every aspect of white society.
However, like Wright, I admired director Schepisi's decision to carefully straddle the line between whether Jimmy can be viewed as a simple societal construct or whether he is a man in control of his own actions. One could easily make a case for either of these scenarios or probably both of them. That makes the movie even more uncomfortable when one thinks about it afterward.
In many ways, this is a very depressing movie; in the end there is no closure, no justice, and nobody has learned a damned thing, except possibly the audience, if they truly think about what they have just seen. I really respect filmmakers who tackle incredibly difficult subject matter such as this, with moral quagmires and complex characters. My only complaint is that it is very difficult to understand much of the Aussie English, so an American viewer must listen very closely. This is a film definitely deserving of a U.S. audience. Too bad that its controversial (i.e. thought-provoking) nature has probably prevented it from being released on VHS or DVD in the U.S. I understand copies of this are quite rare abroad, as well, so I suggest viewing it if given the opportunity.
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