• aka Jedda the Uncivilised (USA and UK)

(Note: this listing contains spoilers).

A remote cattle station in the Northern Territory. A newly born Aboriginal baby is adopted by Sarah McMann (Betty Suttor) in place of her dead child.

Sarah names the baby Jedda after a wild bird, and helped by her husband Douglas (George Simpson-Little) raises her as a white child, forbidding contact with the station Aborigines. Later as a beautiful teenage girl Jedda (Narla Kunoth) is drawn to the mysteries of the Aboriginal people, but is restrained by her white upbringing.

When a powerfully built full-blooded Aborigine, Marbuck of the Tiwi tribe (Robert Tudawali) arrives at the station, Jedda is fascinated, and on a moonlit night, is drawn to a campfire by his song, away from her half-caste fiance Joe (Paul Reynall)

Taking her captive, Marbuck drags the half-willing girl across the desert. But when he reaches his tribal lands, Marbuck is rejected by his tribe for breaking marriage taboos. Pursued by men from the station, and haunted by his rejection by his tribe, Marbuck heads for the cliffs, and he and Jedda fall to their deaths ...

Narrator Joe asks the audience:

(As birds fly through the sky): Was it our right to expect of Jedda, one of a race so mystic and so removed should be of us in one short lifetime?

The Pintaris whisper that the soul of Jedda now flies the lonely plains and mountain crags with the wild geese, and that she is happy with the great mother of the world, in the dreaming time of tomorrow ...

Production Details

Production company: Charles Chauvel Productions

Budget: £90,823 to 30th June, 1954 (The Age December 3 1954), with no depreciation written off, and the full cost of the assets purchased for the film's production (less amounts received for those sold) charged to the production. Columbia Pictures assisted with finance, as did Sydney businessmen investors.

Locations: Coolibah station, Northern Territory, Standley Chasm, Ormiston Gorge, Mary River in far north NT (buffalo and crocodile country), and when negative for the final scenes of the film were lost in a plane crash, reshooting took place at the Jenolan Caves and the Blue Mountains. Interior scenes were shot at the Avondale Studios, Turrella.

Filmed: casting completed July 1953, shooting on location in central Australia completed by November, pick up shooting for lost negative and interiors completed by the end of the year. Editing, sound and laboratory work was completed in London.

Australian distributor: Columbia

Australian release:  premiere 3rd January 1955, Star Theatre Darwin; the film was then launched at the Lyceum Theatre Sydney, 5th May 1955. Jedda was released by British Lion in the UK in 1956, with some forty minutes cut out of it so it could run as a support, and early in 1957 in the United States as Jedda the Uncivilized (distributed by the Distributors Corporation of America)

Rating:   G    For General Exhibition

35mm      Gevacolor   

Running time: 101 mins (Oxford Australian Film

NFSA DVD time: 1'25"48

Umbrella DVD release: 1'29"45

Box office: n/a, but while the film opened well, business soon dropped off ("initially excellent commercial results" is the way the Oxford phrases it). The film did not travel well internationally. 

It would be Chauvel's last feature film.



In competition eighth Cannes Film Festival, 1955. The Golden Palm was won by Delbert Mann's Marty.


The film has been released in region four by the NSFA on DVD, with an adequate, brightly coloured 4:3 image that showed off the Gevacolor stock well.

There were a meagre number of average extras on this early DVD release, including the original trailer, a photo gallery, a 2'15" sound only presentation of the title track Dreamtime For Jedda, by Leslie Lewis Raphael, and a short 4'15" four part documentary on the restoration of Jedda.

Subsequently, Umbrella re-released the film on both DVD and hi-definition Blu-ray, as part of its Charles Chauvel collection, which included DVD releases of In the Wake of the Bounty, Heritage, Forty Thousand Horsemen, Rats of Tobruk, and Sons of Matthew.

The only pity is that the main extra on each of the releases is The Big Picture, a 1'14"08 documentary about Chauvel and his wife Else by John Doggett-Williams.

There's nothing wrong with the documentary - apart from forcing 4:3 images into a 16:9 format which will offend some purists.

It provides a useful overview of Chauvel's career, but it's just that dedicated Chauvel enthusiasts will end up with six copies of the one show, when it would have been good to see other Chauvel memorabilia included in the various releases.

Even the extra Blu-ray space available for the Jedda release is mainly used to provide The Big Picture, though there are a couple of other minor extras - a stills gallery, Jedda screen tests, and a short film dubbed Screen Tests, featuring Chauvel. (The DVD release offers the same extras).

There's another problem with the hi-def in that it tends to show up any issues with the source material - for example, variable density in the negative in the aged original material shows up through the opening credit sequences, and can be seen thereafter.

That said, the source material is what it is, and is perfectly acceptable, with vivid colours - though perhaps not so vivid as the original NFSA release - and sound of the style typical for optical in the 1950s.

For anyone interested in Chauvel, Jedda is a culmination of a kind, a dramatic excess which brings to mind films such as King Vidor's 1946 western Duel in the Sun, and which would only be occasionally echoed in later times, by films such as Tim Burstall's Morris West-derived land rights melodrama, The Naked Country (though Chauvel at least cast Aboriginal leads).

It's good that the film remains widely available.

For those interested in a few teaser clips before hunting out a copy of the film, the ASO has three here, but they only offer a hint of the film's ripe, lush, over the top nature.

1. Source:

Charles Chauvel devised the idea for the film while involved in the re-cutting of Sons of Matthew in the United States, deciding he wanted to make a story that could only be told in Australia by Australians. 

He claimed to have been inspired by Hollywood producer Merian C. Cooper, script writer Bess Meredith (she had scripted films for Australian stunt star Snowy Baker in the 1920s) and her husband Mike Curtiz to get away from the studio and out into the field:

"You're lucky," she said, "to have so much untouched material that the world wants to see. But without big studios, you've got to get out and press your country into work - and when all's said and done that's digging out the character of a land." (Sydney Morning Herald 31 August 1950)

This advice was a bit like pouring petrol on a fire. Chauvel was already notorious in the industry for having run up a huge bill in 1949 making Sons of Matthew on the remote, rain-sodden Lamington plateau rainforest of south Queensland.

Chauvel decided his next remote target would be the Northern Territory, and set off by plane to Darwin, pausing only to admire the Australian spirit in the flood-bound Hunter Valley as he drove from Sydney to Brisbane to catch the plane.

Yes, there are stories down there on the wide plains.

I can almost hear the din in my ears. "Don't give us the bush - don't give us gum trees - don't give us pioneers. Why not give us pictures about our cities?"

But have we ever recorded much of the history and the greatness of this continent? No one picture can achieve it - only one facet at a time can be pictured.

The screen story of Australia can only come together for the world as one would work on a picture in blocks, each block a separate motion picture, each block helping in its turn to tell the story of our country. (SMH, as above).

In what was now his usual way, he and his partner Elsa Chauvel devised the screenplay (Elsa Chauvel is also given a head credit for "dialogue direction"), using research done by Bill Harney.

Chauvel was given assistance by the Commonwealth Government to make a tour of the Territory, making colour tests, and drafting a screenplay which originally was titled The Northern Territory Story.

It should be noted that Chauvel had previously made one "block" devoted to the primitive and the call of the wild in his engaging, if also risible, bit of deep north hokum, the 1936 film, Uncivilised, set in the wilds of north west Western Australia.

According to Susanne Chauvel Carlsson - Chauvel's daughter - in the DVD extra The Big Picture, the Chauvels (she was with them) criss-crossed the country doing about 10,000 miles on an epic location recce/research trip from western Queensland through central Australia to the Northern Territory and the Kimberleys, roughing it and sleeping in swags on the ground: "Dad didn't  believe in fancy things like tents" (laughs).

The DVD 'making of' notes three strands derived from stories picked up by the Chauvels on their travels - the death of a station baby, the story of an Aboriginal girl brought up by a white family who feels the pull of her culture, and the third derived from a real Aboriginal killer who abducted Aboriginal women from station properties. According to Carlsson:

"...and he and mother started to weave together these three stories together sitting around our campfire by a little waterhole in Arnhem Land, and light of kerosene lanterns and what not at night, and they just started making a basic sort of a skeleton of a script there …"

In the usual way for Chauvel, on the film's release, he and his backers put out a flamboyant 16 page quarto sized program, featuring stories such as How I found Jedda, Jedda Country, Ngalra Kunoth the Jedda Girl, Love Magic, Rubert Tudawali "civilised savage", featured players George Simpson-Little, Betty Suttor, Tas Fitzer, Wason Byers, Paul Reynell and life on location at the Finke River. (Copyrighted to Columbia Pictures Pty Ltd, 251a Pitt Street, Sydney, 1954 - for details of library holdings, see Trove here).

(Below: the cinema program for the film, with its evocative title).

For anyone interested in more information about the film, Jane Mills wrote a detailed study.

At time of writing this was still available from Currency Press here, and was given a positive review here. Inter alia, the review noted:

... Mills teases out what is for her the core problem with the film’s narrative, then digs a little deeper exploring the characters (of which the landscape is central). Further, each section makes sense of the juxtaposition of race politics, lust, desire and customary law. Insightfully, Mills relates the dislocation of the landscapes used in the ‘travelogue’ or backdrop to the flight and pursuit of Marbuk and Jedda to the historical and cultural dislocation of Indigenous people. Country is, after all, incredibly important to Aboriginal identity. In the modern context, Mills notes the struggle between white civilization and Indigenous culture, between homestead and walkabout and the impact of the stolen generation, assimilation, ‘apartness’ and race politics then and now. Mills does a good job of describing the difficulties associated with representing Aboriginal people and culture through a western oriented gaze. Mills not only highlights the film’s inherent racism, but shows how politically incorrect the depiction of race could be in the 1950s. How many white actors are described by film critics as ‘white’? Why was Jedda (Rosalie Kunoth) described as the ‘comely chocolate heroine’ or Marbuk (Robert Tudawali) as a ‘weird looking tribal barbarian’? Uncomfortable with the overt racism of the film and its publicity, Mills admits that she cannot love Chauvel’s Jedda.

Mills does not offer an authoritative voice, does not gloss over the racism or issues relating to giving other people’s children away. She does not try to justify them, apologize for them, nor try to tell the reader or viewer what to think of them, but rather acknowledges the range of Indigenous and non-Indigenous responses to the film. Importantly, for film students Mills clearly illustrates how each viewer co-authors and gives meaning to what they see depicted on the silver screen, and how that meaning is constantly updated, reviewed and made anew. 

I was surprised at how much was crammed into these pages. I also underestimated how long it would take to read – well written, intelligent texts are like that. It would have taken much longer if I had stopped to watch the scenes described when I wanted to. My advice to the reader is to take some time to reflect between sections, if you can’t help yourself, stop and watch the scenes that Mills discusses and as a last resort, take the pilgrimage. This ‘little book’ is thought provoking but most importantly invites the reader to watch Chauvel’s film Jedda again and again. One gets the impression that one more viewing will not be enough.

By way of contrast and in defence of the film and Chauvel, and after noting the attitudes of station owners to Aboriginal people that the Chauvels encountered on their recce were very mixed, Susanne Chauvel Carlsson in the DVD extra claims that many people tried to dissuade Chauvel, no doubt aware of the deep level of racism at work in 1950s Australia, and considering the result likely to be uncommercial.

Carlsson contends that Chauvel was making a simple plea for a better understanding of the Aboriginal people, and "he went about as far as he could go, I think, in the 50s, given the climate then.. even as simple and naive, some people have accused Jedda of being naive, but as simple as it was, it was quite a radical statement for that time." (She later notes that not the least controversial aspect of the film and the story was the unhappy ending, at a time when happy endings were de rigeur).

(Below: Jane Mills' study of Jedda)

2. Financing and Production:

Universal, which under Herc McIntyre, had backed Chauvel's previous films, decided it was too exotic and off-beat a story, so Columbia stepped in to help.

Chauvel then formed a new production company and raised money from Sydney businessmen, including Mainguard Australia Ltd (which owned Festival Records, amongst other interests).

Chauvel Productions Ltd was formed in 1951 with a notional capital of £500,000 and went public in August 1951, offering 240,000 shares.

How Chauvel managed this while Ken Hall was denied the chance to raise money to make his pet project Robbery Under Arms is one of the minor mysteries of film financing in the 1950s.

Chauvel later said he had turned down an offer of £44,000 (US$100,000) to help finance the film because one of the conditions was that Linda Darnell be cast in the lead.

Chauvel spent some eighteen months finding locations, and in the meantime, always an astute showman, he generated a substantial amount of coverage in the press by conducting an extensive search for actors to play the two indigenous lead roles.

In the quaint language of the time, the hunt was on for "dusky stars" and much interest was displayed when "dusky aspirants" turned in to "dusky stars", while the Illawarra Daily Mercury headlined a story on 13th May 1982, Nation-wide Search For 'Eve In Ebony' (Trove here).

The production unit left Sydney for Darwin in May 1952, with filming beginning in July.

Eventually Chauvel settled on Robert Tudawali, an Aboriginal man from Melville island, and Arunta woman Ngarla Kunoth, from an inland mission station, to play Jedda (discovered at St Mary's hostel in Alice Springs)

Only three professional actors were required - Betty Suttor, George Simpson-Lyttle and Paul Reynall as Jedda's half-caste fiancé. (This model for generating publiciity would shortly be followed by Anthony Kimmins hunting for a child actor to play Smiley).

Chauvel's film was made on a very low budget, and the pioneering use of colour film created additional issues, given the remote locations.

The sensitive colour stock had to be handled carefully in the northern heat. Raw and exposed negative stock was stored in rivers and caves, with the exposed stock flown under refrigeration for processing in London.

Rather than being able to dailies, this meant there were larger consignments, so when a plane crash near what was then called Djkarta destroyed several thousand feet of film, it meant a number of the end climactic scenes were lost.

These scenes were reshot around the Jenolan caves and in Kanangra Walls/Falls area of the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, meaning that to a local eye, the landscapes in the end scenes are considerably different visually to the Northern Territory locations, notwithstanding some attempts to paint the Blue Mountains rocks an ochre colour to match in with previous footage.

3. Release and Aftermath:

Chauvel might have been an interesting film-maker, but he was a terrible businessman. After the premiere of the film in Darwin at the Star Theatre January 3rd 1955, Charles Chauvel Productions Ltd advised its returns. 

In May and June 1955, the company received £17,915 and decided it would change its name to Jedda Ltd. to concentrate on exploiting the film.

There was much puffery - the Australasian agreement with Columba was for seven years, and box office takings were said to be a record, but more interestingly, the directors also arranged for Charles and Elsa Chauvel to end their service agreement "leaving them free to produce on their own account." (the Melbourne Argus, 23rd November 1955).

That was in effect a parting of the ways, and it was another semantic trick in the Melbourne Argus of 8th December 1956 that proposed the company had made a profit for the year of £50,454, thereby reducing the debit balance in the film production account to £60,697.

The directors talks up the prospects of satisfactory revenue from the USA and Canada, and from Australian second release and TV rights (television had begun in Australia on 16th September 1956), but at the same time the report noted that to date overseas results had been "disappointing".

The film had in fact conformed to the typical trajectory of a Chauvel project - grand visions, remote locations, a budget that needed international returns to reach a profit, disappointing international critical response and returns, and a parting of the ways between the Chauvels and their investors.

The Chauvels' next drama project was intended to be an adaptation of Kay Glasson Taylor's novel Wards of the Outer March, but while editing Jedda in London, the BBC saw some of the footage, and impressed, hired them to make a thirteen part television series about the Northern Territory, Walkabout, which was a part travelogue and part documentary.

The Chauvels' completed the series in 1958, but before work on other projects could begin again, Chauvel died the 11th November 1959. (Copies of the television series Walkabout circulate amongst collectors derived from VHS sources).

Susanne Chauvel Carlsson adds a poignant note in the DVD extra - according to her, Chauvel had his fatal heart attack after getting excited about his next series, a South Sea islands walkabout, and just before he died , he asked his wife about a notorious fugitive from justice, Darcy Dugan, then on the run, thinking it was a marvellous story. Chauvel died as he lived, a showman to the last.

As a result of the publicity surrounding the two Aboriginal stars - Chauvel had achieved another first in this area - the Australian press maintained an interest in the future of the two main indigenous stars, helped no doubt by their diverging paths.

Tudawali went on to appear in one further film (Robinson/Rafferty's Dust in the Sun in 1958), and he also earned fifty pounds a week while working on the television series Whiplash.

But he was an alcoholic, and regularly appeared before Darwin magistrates in relation to drinking offences, with marital issues featured in evidence. These stories routinely turned up in the press.

By way of contrast, Ngarla Kunoth was said to have gone through a difficult time after returning from filming, living in bush camps and involved in tragic events involving her family, but then the newspapers celebrated her becoming a nun in a Church of England convent in Melbourne (at the Anglican convent in Cheltenham).

She later did welfare work amongst Aboriginal people in Victoria, and survived the costs of brief stardom to become a respected elder.

Tudawali  hit headlines - "the fall of a star" - when in 1965 he lost a job collecting garbage in the streets of Darwin. He died of alcohol-related health issues in 1967. His story was told in the Paul Barron telemovie production Tudawali, starring Ernie Dingo in the title role (available, like Jedda, on DVD).

Gevacolor is not a stock that ages gracefully, and it was fortunate that the film was transferred on to tri sep stock (three full versions of the film, in cyan, magenta and yellow). In 1995, a new negative and print were struck by the NSFA from the trip seps, and after further restoration, the film was released on DVD as part of the Kodak/Atlab collection.

4. The first Australian colour film?

Chauvel's film was the first feature-length theatrically released drama to be financed and shot in Australia by Australians using colour film.

The first film to be shot in Australia using colour stock was Lewis Milestone's Twentieth Century Fox financed 1952 drama Kangaroowith Americans in key creative and technical roles, backed by Australian cast and crew.

The first feature-length film financed by Australians (the Federal government in fact), shot in colour by Australians, and released theatrically was the documentary on the 1954 Royal Tour, The Queen in Australia, which beat Chauvel by a few months, and which experienced the same difficulties and an air crash which cost it some footage as the film was shipped to London for processing and editing. Not so much dailies as monthlies.

Frame this question right, and win big, as many people will remember the drama Jedda, rather than the feature-length colour documentary setting the pace.

That said, this is not to diminish or underestimate the degree of difficulty required to shoot a colour feature film in a remote area for the first time (it not being enough for Chauvel to do it in a big city).

As well as the plane crash in Indonesia destroying the negative for the climax, the DVD extra The Big Picture features Else Chauvel telling how the unit couldn't unload the cameras until nine at night, such was the heat, and recounting how in one location they did a deal with a local butcher to help keep the film cool.

Because everything had to be shipped to England for processing - there were simply no facilities in Australia - the crew had no idea of the state of the negative until a cable arrived to tell them.

This proved to be a major problem, because after the first six weeks of filming, they discovered the young assistant cameraman had threaded the film into the camera emulsion side up (instead of out), meaning the footage for the first six weeks of filming was lost. As noted in the extra, lesser folk would have given up after this sort of loss.

5. Spin-off:

As noted above, Chauvel liked to send viewers away with a little extra, and as with his previous shows, he was an early believer in merchandising and memorabilia.

In this case, the story of the making of the film was sold for a modest two bob, and with a title that resonated in the 1950s.

Though rare this program guide can still be found in the second hand market, and the title of the cinema slide below says much about the marketing of the show: