Jedda

  • aka Jedda the Uncivilised (USA and UK)

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) 

NFSA DVD time: 1'25"48

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.

Opinion

Awards

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

Availability

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

There's a meagre number of average extras, 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.

1. Source:

Charles Chauvel devised the idea for the film while involved in the re-cutting of Sons of Mathew 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.

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 risible 1936 film, Uncivilised, set in the wilds of north west Western Australia.

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" .

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

Eventually Cauvel settled on Robert Tudawali, an Aboriginal man from Melville station, and Arunta woman Ngarla Kunoth, from an inland mission station, to play Jedda.

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 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.

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 the BBC 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).

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 Kangaroo, with 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 documentary setting the pace.

5. Spin-off:

As with his previous films, Chauvel liked to send viewers away with a little extra, in this case the story of the making of the film, for a modest two shillings, and with a title that resonated in the 1950s.

Though rare it can still be found in the second hand market, and the title says much about the marketing of the show: