Since the advent of film, outlaws have been a mainstay, however no outlaws seem to have had such an interesting history on film as Australia’s bushrangers. Starting in the early 1900s, Bushranger films fast became audience favourites with the thrilling tales of the most notorious rogues brought to life in a way that was new and exciting as well as accessible to audiences. However, authorities at the time were extremely worried that they glorified the criminal exploits of these men and encouraged youths to become criminals and in 1911 a ban was placed on bushranger films that wasn’t lifted until around the time of the Second World War. The romance of the Australian bushrangers was so popular amongst American audiences that during the ban it was film makers in the USA that made bushranger films.
Sadly nearly all of these films are lost in part or in entirety due to poor conservation or outright destruction (it turns out that celluloid makes a great substitute for coals if you’re running low on fuel). Efforts continue to locate these films for their historical and artistic significance, but very few wins have been achieved. Nearly every bushranger film is conserved by the NFSA (National Sound and Film Archive) who are staffed by experts in all areas of restoration and preservation. The bulk of the surviving silent films were released by the NFSA as a video (on VHS no less) titled Bail Up!
Bushrangers on film
Bushranging in North Queensland (1904) – No details available. Produced by the Salvation Army.
The Kelly Gang (1906) – Confusingly, this short feature opened in Hobart on the same day as the Tait feature The Story of the Kelly Gang opened in Melbourne. The version was produced by Dan Barry and Robert Hollyford and only fragments exist now including a fanciful account of the murder of Aaron Sherritt.
The Kelly Gang force a woodcutter to dance before shooting him (Source: NFSA)
The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) – Ned Kelly/The Kelly Gang. Recognised as the world’s first full-length feature film. It ran at just over an hour at a time when films were typically ten to fifteen minutes long. Only around 20 minutes has been preserved and restored by the NFSA, though searches for other prints are ongoing.
Robbery Under Arms (1907) – Captain Starlight. Rolf Boldrewood adaptation by Charles McMahon, the first in a long line of adaptations to come. [Fiction]
Robbery Under Arms (1907) – Captain Starlight. Rolf Boldrewood adaptation by John and Nevin Tait [Fiction]
The Girl Who Joined the Bushrangers (1909) – British production by Lewin Fitzhamon starring Chrissie White as a girl who joins a gang of bushrangers to steal her father’s cattle so that her lover, a policeman, my heroically recapture them.
The Story of the Kelly Gang aka The Kelly Gang of Outlaws aka Bail Up! (1910) – Not a lot is known about this film other than it was exhibited in Sydney at the Bijou in March 1910, screening twice daily from 12 – 23 March. It was shown once in Melbourne at the Cyclorama in April 1910, then in Adelaide at the Arcadia and Port Adelaide Town Hall in September that same year. It capped off the year with another set of shows in Sydney. The following year it toured to Brisbane and New Zealand, billed as a new and up to date version of the story told in the Tait film.
Ned Kelly at Creegan’s Shanty (Source: NFSA)
Thunderbolt (1910) – Frederick Ward aka Captain Thunderbolt. Dir. John Gavin. Only a portion of this film remains. At around twenty minutes, it’s long enough to demonstrate a very slight grasp on history. This was Gavin’s directorial debut and he boasted that the film was four reels long.
Moonlite (1910) – Andrew Scott aka Captain Moonlite. Dir. John Gavin. Chasing the success of their film about Thunderbolt, the creative team tackled Captain Moonlite with the director taking the lead role on screen. This film has been lost in its entirety.
The Life and Times of John Vane, the Notorious Australian Bushranger (1910) – John Vane, Mickey Bourke, Ben Hall, Johnny Gilbert.
A Tale of the Australian Bush aka Ben Hall, The Notorious Bushranger (1911) – Ben Hall, Johnny Gilbert. Dir. John Gavin.
Captain Midnight, the Bush King aka The Bushranger’s Bride (1911) – Edgar Dalimore aka Captain Midnight [Fiction]
Attack on the Gold Escort aka Captain Midnight, King of the Bushrangers aka Attack of the Gold Escort aka Captain Starlight’s Attack on the Gold Escort (1911) – No details available. Probably a recut version of Captain Midnight the Bush King. [Fiction]
Captain Starlight, or Gentleman of the Road (1911) – Captain Starlight. Rolf Boldrewood adaptation. Taken from stage-play adapted from Boldrewood’s novel
The Lady Outlaw aka By His Excellency’s Command aka By His Excellency’s Command, a Tale of a Lady Outlaw (1911) – “Dorothy” [Fiction]
Dan Morgan (1911) – “Mad Dan” Morgan. This lost film is the only film about Morgan to be made apart from Mad Dog Morgan.
Ben Hall and his Gang (1911) – Ben Hall, Johnny Gilbert, John Vane, John O’Meally, John Dunn
Bushranger’s Ransom, or A Ride For Life (1911) – Ben Hall, Johnny Gilbert, John O’Meally, John Vane, Mickey Bourke
Frank Gardiner, the King of the Road (1911) – Frank Gardiner. Dir. John Gavin. This lost film by John Gavin continued his traditional approach to bushranger films. It didn’t concern itself with sticking to the facts and used the character of Gardiner to play out a series of dramatic set-pieces.
Bushranger Ban is instituted
Moondyne (1913) – Joseph Bolitho Jones aka Moondyne Joe. Starring George Bryant, Roy Redgrave and Godfrey Cass, this film is based on a novel about Moondyne Joe by John Boyle O’Reilly. It focuses on Moondyne Joe escaping prison and befriending Aboriginals.
Trooper Campbell (1914) – Dir. Raymond Longford. Starring film star Lottie Lyall and based on a poem by Henry Lawson, Trooper Campbell must try and save a friend’s son from a life of crime or the indignity of the gallows.
Trooper Campbell is bailed up at a cutting beyond Blackman’s Run. (Source: NFSA)
The Kelly Gang (1920) – Ned Kelly/The Kelly Gang. Dir. Harry Southwell. Starring Godfrey Cass as Ned Kelly, this film tries to take a strongly pro-police stance to get around the ban on bushranger films, setting a precedent for future films about outlaws. It was primarily filmed in Coburg, Victoria.
Robbery Under Arms (1920) – Captain Starlight. Dir. Kenneth Brampton. Another Rolf Boldrewood adaptation. The bulk of funding for this one was obtained from mining magnate Pearson Tewksbury. [Fiction]
The Shadow of Lightning Ridge (1920) – “The Shadow”. Dir. Wilfred Lucas. Starring Australian boxer Snowy Baker, this fictional tale is a romance about a young Australian who returns from university to seek revenge against a corrupt squatter named Sir Edward Marriot. [Fiction]
The Gentleman Bushranger (1921) – Richard Lavender. Dir. Beaumont Smith. As bushranger films were banned in this time Beaumont Smith made his story about a man “falsely accused” of being a bushranger to avoid the ban. It featured a comedic (ie. Racially insensitive) Chinese character – a cook named Ah Wom Bat – to lighten proceedings. [Fiction]
When the Kellys Were Out aka The True History of the Kelly Gang (1923) – Ned Kelly/The Kelly Gang. Dir. Harry Southwell. The final performance of Godfrey Cass as Ned Kelly. Due to the “Bushranger Ban” the film has a heavily “pro-police” stance, and tries to focus heavily on the deaths of police at Stringybark Creek. Filmed in the Burragong Valley, it was initially banned in New South Wales but was released in Melbourne in 1923. It was released in England as The True Story of the Kelly Gang and supposedly was described as the greatest Australian film ever made by performer Pat Hanna. This film is yet another that has mostly been lost to time though portions of it still exist.
Trooper O’Brien (1922) – Dir. John Gavin. Starring the director as Trooper O’Brien, the film uses footage from The Kelly Gang (1920) and Robbery Under Arms (1920) to tell the tale of a police officer assigned to the goldfields as a sergeant who is killed by bushrangers. Also features a very unconvincing use of blackface on one of the child actors. [Fiction]
The Bushranger (1928) – No details available. American production. [Fiction]
When the Kellys Rode (1934) – Ned Kelly/The Kelly Gang. Another Harry Southwell production, this time starring Hay Simpson as Ned Kelly.
Stingaree (1934) – Stingaree. Dir. William A. Wellman. An E. W. Hornung adaptation starring Richard Dix and Irene Dunne. This American production was designed to satiate the taste for bushranger stories that the Americans were hungry for. This romantic tale focuses mostly on the love story between Stingaree and Hilda Bouverie. [Fiction]
Captain Fury (1939) – Captain Michael Fury. Dir. Hal Roach. American Production starring Brian Aherne as fictional bushranger Captain Fury. It follows the story of an escaped Irish convict who raises a gang of bandits to seek justice against a corrupt landlord. Directed by the renowned comedy producer Hal Roach, whose other credits include scores of silent shorts, The Little Rascals and One Million BC the film was Academy Award nominated for best art direction by Charles D. Hall. The full film is available to be watched on YouTube. [Fiction]
Bushranger Ban is lifted
A Message to Kelly (1947) – Ned Kelly/The Kelly Gang. Dir. Rupert Kathner. This short film was used as a means of procuring investment in a full-length feature. The footage was shown to community groups in Benalla who were trying to get the production shut down in order to get their support. The plan succeeded.
The Glenrowan Affair (1951) – Ned Kelly/The Kelly Gang. Dir. Rupert Kathner. Successfully procuring the means to make his Ned Kelly epic, Kathner directed and acted in the film, which starred Carlton footballer Bob Chitty as Ned. The film relies heavily on oral history and myths to form its depiction and uses the myth of Dan Kelly escaping from the burning inn at Glenrowan as a jumping off point. There was much consternation as it was one of the first Australian films in many years to be exhibited internationally.
Captain Thunderbolt (1953) – Frederick Ward aka Captain Thunderbolt. Dir. Cecil Holmes. All that remains of this film is a thrilling trailer showing a handsome, clean shaven Thunderbolt played by Grant Taylor on his daring escapes. Clearly very heavily influenced by Hollywood Westerns, this film appears to focus more on derring-do than any attempt at historical accuracy. It apparently was very very popular in the United States where it was released two years after its Australian release. It also features a young Bud Tingwell as Alan Blake.
Robbery Under Arms (1957) – Captain Starlight. Dir. Jack Lee. Yet another Rolf Boldrewood adaptation, this time starring Peter Finch and Maureen Swanson. [Fiction]
Man in Iron (1960) – Ned Kelly. Unproduced Tim Burstall feature. Burstall, whose film credits include Alvin Purple and The Last of the Knucklemen, tried for years to make his Ned Kelly film. A photograph of his assistant in Ned Kelly’s armour, superimposed on a nature shot from Stringybark Creek was gifted by Burstall to Eltham High School, his former school.
Ned Kelly: Australian Paintings by Sidney Nolan (1960) – Ned Kelly. Dir. Tim Burstall. A short art documentary. Not strictly about bushrangers but it does focus heavily on the story of the Kelly Gang. [Documentary]
Ned Kelly (1970) – Ned Kelly/The Kelly Gang. Dir. Tony Richardson. Starring Mick Jagger in the title role and based on a screenplay by Ian Jones, this film is a musical romp with a very foreign perspective on the tale that did not win a sympathetic audience locally.
Ben Hall (1975) – Ben Hall, Frank Gardiner, Johnny Gilbert, John Piesley. This TV series was a joint effort by the ABC, BBC and 20th Century Fox and starred English actor Jon Finch (best known as Roman Polanski’s Macbeth), Jack Charles and John Orcsik.
Cash and Company (1975) – Sam Cash and Joe Brady. This series, set during the Gold Rush, follows two desperadoes on their adventures as they try to evade the forces of law and order at the hands of Lieutenant Keogh. [Fiction]
Tandarra (1976) – Joe Brady and Ryler. A spin-off of Cash and Company, this series replaced Sam Cash and focused mainly on farm life rather than outlawry. [Fiction]
Mad Dog Morgan (1976) – “Mad Dan” Morgan. Dir. Philippe Mora. Starring Dennis Hopper with an Irish accent, this film tries to explore colonial Australia and the character of Dan Morgan. Very popular overseas as a “Tromasterpiece”, it is renowned for its violent imagery.
The Bushranger (1976) – Written by Margaret Pomeranz. No further details available. TV Movie [Fiction]
The Trial of Ned Kelly (1977) – Ned Kelly/The Kelly Gang. Dir. John Gauci. Featuring John Waters as Ned Kelly, this TV movie examines Ned Kelly through the narrative of his trial.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) – Jimmie Blacksmith (inspired by Jimmy Governor) Dir. Fred Schepisi. Adapted from the novel of the same name that was based heavily on the story of Jimmy Governor, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith shows the oppression suffered by the title character pushing him to breaking point whereupon he commits a hideous murder and goes on the run. [Fiction]
The Last Outlaw (1980) – Dir. George Miller. This TV mini-series is well loved by many Ned Kelly buffs for its adherence to the actual story rather than inventing events or characters. Starring John Jarratt and Sigrid Thornton, and sporting a screenplay by Ian Jones and Bronwyn Binns (whose previous series Against the Wind was a huge success), it was released in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the Glenrowan siege and Ned’s execution.
Reckless Kelly (1993) – Ned Kelly. Dir. Yahoo Serious. Serious followed up his hit Young Einstein with this whacky interpretation of Ned Kelly as a way of critiquing Hollywood’s obsession with guns and violence as well as advocating for gun control but is better known for its use of Yothu Yindi on the soundtrack and Ned Kelly teaching his dog to say “Cornflakes”. [Fiction]
Robbery Under Arms (1985) – Captain Starlight. Dir. Donald Crombie and Ken Hannam. Rolf Boldrewood adaptation by Donald Crombie and Ken Hannah. This adaptation of Boldrewood’s story stars Sam Neill and has the distinction of being both a feature film and a TV mini-series. After its theatrical run, the film was re-edited to become a multi-part TV special. [Fiction]
Ned Kelly (2003) – Ned Kelly/The Kelly Gang. Dir. Gregor Jordan. Riding on the coat-tails of the renewed hype around Ned Kelly because of the success of Peter Carey’s novel True History of the Kelly Gang, Jordan’s film stars Heath Ledger, Orlando Bloom, Naomi Watts and Geoffrey Rush. Based on Robert Drew’s novel Our Sunshine, it takes significant liberties with historical fact.
Ned (2003) – Ned Kelly. Dir. Abe Forsythe. This film tries to pick apart the myth around Ned Kelly and lampoon the obsession with the outlaw by creating a Ned Kelly that is a hopeless loser who gains popularity because he wears a bucket on his head. Forsythe, who also stars in the film, first pitched this idea in his year ten English class. [Fiction]
Outlawed: The Real Ned Kelly (2003) – Dir. Mark Lewis. In the wake of such a resurgence in interest in Ned Kelly, it was only natural that production companies would take a crack at documentaries on the subject. Full of moody, dramatic re-enactments and interviews, Outlawed: The Real Ned Kelly tries to question whether Ned Kelly was really a hero or a villain. [Documentary]
One of the moody re-enactment scenes in Outlawed: The Real Ned Kelly. (Source: Windfall Films)
Besieged: The Ned Kelly Story (2004) – Dir. Barrie Dowdall & Gregory Miller. Trundling out a year after the majority of the hype had died down, this documentary had dramatic re-enactments starring Peter Fenton as Ned Kelly. Fenton also composed the music for the documentary. Not as slick as the previous year’s effort, it perhaps does a better job of airing both sides of the “hero or villain” debate. [Documentary]
(Source: Umbrella Entertainment)
The Proposition (2005) – Burns Brothers. Dir. John Hillcoat. This brutal, bloody tale tells the story of the Burns brothers, Western Australian outlaws, and how the police force Charlie Burns to turn in his brother. Written by Nick Cave, this film is completely fiction but plays with the tropes of Westerns and bushrangers. Renowned for its unflinching exploration of the dark side of human nature in colonial Australia, it highlights violence and racism as well as exploring the effects of isolation both geographically and socially. [Fiction]
Hell’s Gates (2007) – Alexander Pearce. Dir. Jonathan auf der Heide. Short film created to help raise finances for Van Diemen’s Land feature. Focuses on Pearce and his companions’ escape from Sarah Island up until their first murder.
The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce (2008) – Alexander Pearce. Dir. Michael James Rowland. The first of two historical feature films based on cannibal Bolter Pearce. Examines the story of Pearce as he approaches his execution and seeks divine forgiveness.
Dying Breed (2008) – Dir. Jody Dwyer. Australian horror film using the reputation of Alexander Pearce as a gimmick. In this incarnation Pearce is an escaped convict cannibal nicknamed “The Pieman” whose descendants live in seclusion and are discovered by a group of young people trying to find evidence of Tasmanian Tigers. [Fiction]
Van Diemens Land (2009) – Alexander Pearce. Dir. Jonathan auf der Heide. After successfully procuring funds to expand Hell’s Gates into a feature, Van Diemen’s Land is a shocking, gritty account of the exploits of Alexander Pearce and his accomplices as they try to traverse the wilds of Tasmania.
Ned Kelly Uncovered (2009) – Dir. Alex West. Tony Robinson of Time Team and Blackadder fame hosts this documentary made during the archaeological dig at Glenrowan. [Documentary]
Moonlite (2011) – Andrew Scott aka Captain Moonlite. Dir. Rohan Spong – unreleased. This independent film featured Barry Crocker and Tasma Walton and a whole lot of green screens. Not much is known about it other than it would have had the actors superimposed into scenery rather than using actual sets. Unfortunately production ground to a halt due to a lack of funds.
Wild Boys (2011) – Jack Keenan [Fiction] This was a fun, action-adventure series that, while not historically accurate, tried to legitimise the idea of bushrangers as “Australian cowboys”. It starred Daniel MacPherson.
The Outlaw Michael Howe (2013) – Michael Howe. Dir. Brendan Cowell. This interpretation of Howe’s story is mostly accurate but heavily rewrites key aspects including Howe’s death and features Damon Herriman as Howe and Rarriwuy Hick as Mary Cockerill.
The Legend of Ben Hall (2016) – Ben Hall, Johnny Gilbert, John Dunn. Dir. Matthew Holmes. This independent film focused heavily on historical accuracy and was funded primarily through crowd funding. Starring a cast of previously unknown actors, it is intended to launch a “Legends Anthology” including films about Frank Gardiner, John Vane and Ned Kelly.
Stringybark (2019) – The Kelly Gang. Dir. Ben Head. This independent, crowdfunded feature depicts the police killings at Stringybark Creek from the perspective of the doomed officers. After a debut at the Lorne Film Festival it is slated for a 2020 official release.
True History of the Kelly Gang (2019) – The Kelly Gang; Harry Power. Dir. Justin Kurzel. This quasi-modern, fantasy interpretation of the Ned Kelly story is inspired by Peter Carey’s novel of the same name and depicts the gang as dress-wearing renegades. After its 2019 Toronto International Film Festival debut, it languished for months before a limited theatrical run in January 2020 followed by it’s premiere on the streaming service Stan on Australia Day 2020.
The Australian screen : a pictorial history of Australian film making by Eric Reade.
A century of Australian cinema edited by James Sabine for the Australian Film Institute.
Australian film, 1900-1977 : a guide to feature film production by Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper.
The story of the Kelly Gang film 1906-1907 by Jack Cranston.
To Shoot a Mad Dog (1975) – Dir. David Elfick. The making of Mad Dog Morgan.
Stand and Deliver: Making The Legend of Ben Hall (2017) – Dir. Edward Tresize. The making of The Legend of Ben Hall.