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 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Wednesday March 25, 2020 


Charles and Elsa Chauvel were pioneer Australian filmmakers – their historic drama, Jedda, has social as well as dramatic interest even today. It was the first film they shot in colour – and used Aboriginals in the lead roles, to tell a uniquely Australian story.

Determined to tell a story that could be told only in Australia by Australians, Charles Chauvel made Jedda - the first Australian feature film to use Aboriginal actors in the lead roles and the first to be filmed in colour. Set in the Northern Territory, it is the tragic story of a young Aboriginal girl of the Arunte tribe, adopted by a white woman, Sarah McCann, as a surrogate for her own baby who has died. She names the baby Jedda after a wild bird and raises her as a white child, isolating her from Aboriginal contact. But when Marbuck, an Aboriganl man seeking work arrives on the station, Jedda is fascinated by him.

"Chauvel set up his own company and sought private finance in Sydney"

Marbuck takes the half-willing teenage girl as his captive, returning to his tribal lands, only to find he is rejected by his tribe for breaking the marriage traditions. The two are hounded from the tribe and chased by the men from Jedda’s home station, until Marbuck is driven mad, and falls over a cliff to his death, together with Jedda.

Universal, which had usually backed Charles Chauvel, backed away from the script as being too offbeat – or perhaps too downbeat – so Chauvel set up his own company and sought private finance in Sydney.

Robert Tudawali was selected – after considerable searching – to play Marbuck, and a shy Arunta girl, Ngarla Kunoth, to play Jedda.

"The sensitive colour film was carefully handled in the hot conditions, Chauvel storing it in rivers and in caves to keep it cool"

Most of the film was shot on Coolibah Station in the Northern Territory, and other locations included the now famous Standley Chasm and Ormiston Gorge, west of Alice Springs. They also shot scenes in buffalo and crocodile country around Mary River.

The sensitive colour film was carefully handled in the hot conditions, Chauvel storing it in rivers and in caves to keep it cool, and then flown periodically to London for processing in refrigerated containers. A plane crash destroyed several thousand feet covering the last scenes of the film, which had to be reshot, but to save expense, Chauvel used locations around Jenolan Caves in the Blue Mountains; interiors were shot in the Avondale Studios in Turrella.

The film had a world premiere at Darwin’s Star Theatre on January 3, 1955, attended by the Aboriginal stars and media from around Australia.

Columbia handled the distribution and released the film at Sydney’s Lyceum on May 5 that year, to critical and popular acclaim.

Jedda was released (in a version 40 minutes shorter) in the UK in 1956, and in the US in 1957 (as Jedda the Uncivilised).

"The spectacular settings of the Northern Territory are diminished on video, but not lost, and neither is the effective dramatic structure of this historic film. Given the detail of two cultural conflicts – one between black and white cultures, the other within the Aboriginal culture where lovers of different ‘skin’ are social outcasts – the film has considerable immediate social interest. These elements give the film relevance even today, and the story remains not only accessible but moving. In its time, it must have been enormously powerful, given the impact of colour (first for an Australian film) and the impact of strong performances from the two leads (as well as the supporting cast). Another first is the use of Arunte dialogue – not until Dead Heart in 1996 did an Australian film again use this language on screen. The film’s success owes a lot to Tudawali’s screen presence, and to Chauvel’s masterly direction. Certainly, the film is ‘of its time’ with Australians speaking very English English, but so are other films of the 50s. The storytelling is well paced and the insights – into station life and Aboriginal cultures – are fascinating. Taken in context, the film is both tragic and entertaining. Taken as a piece of Australian film history, it is remarkable. Needless to say, Isadore Goodman’s altogether European score is terrific, but entirely inappropriate for the film as heard by today’s cinema audience – but for audiences in the 50s, it was perhaps expected. Besides, it is in harmony with the absolutely European point of view from which the story is told. And that, too, is a historic insight."
Andrew L. Urban

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Images from the Chauvel Collection of the National Film and Sound Archive by arrangement with Susanne Carlsson & the H J McIntryre Trust.



WRITERS: Charles and Elsa Chauvel



RESEARCH: Bill Harney


EDITOR: Alex Ezard, Jack Gardiner, Pam Bosworth

ART DIRECTOR: Ronal McDonald

ANIMATION: Eric Porter

MUSIC: Isadore Goodman


RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes



VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: National Film and Sound Archives (RRP $29.95)*

NOTE: JEDDA is part of the NFSA’s historic Chauvel Collection of seven films available on video:



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