Justin Kurzel’s “True History of the Kelly Gang” (Opinion)

I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false.

Thus begins Peter Carey’s novel True History of the Kelly Gang, a fictionalised account of the life of infamous Australian bushranger Ned Kelly. Carey’s award winning book is a dense, thoroughly literary interpretation of Kelly’s life that emulates authentically the voice of the Jerilderie Letter and weaves in a swathe of completely fictional characters including a love interest and daughter to highlight the fictional aspect of the account – a detail that went over many readers’ heads. Carey’s book creates an air of authenticity by framing the story as a series of long forgotten letters archived in the fictional Melbourne Public Library, complete with made up reference numbers for each document. Of his inspiration for the book, Carey stated in one interview:

I was born in Australia and lived there until a few years ago … Australia still seems to remain the main subject and obsession of my novels. I lived in New York City for the past eleven years. I did once try to write a novel abut the United States, but it was with great relief that I abandoned it. The reason I abandoned it was that it somehow occurred to me that there was this great Australian story about an outlaw called Ned Kelly that had never been told. And what was very interesting to me from the perspective of the United States was not that he was just an outlaw like Jesse James, but that this outlaw’s story was the single most important story in our culture. It wasn’t like he was Jesse James. It was more as if he was Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln and George Washington rolled into one. In the perspective of New York this looked very strange, you know, living away from home one has this benefit of seeing what was familiar as strange to understand. For example, the lyrics of the song ‘Waltzing Matilda’, a famous song in Australia that politicians never seem to be able to accept as our national song, are about a homeless man who steals a sheep and commits suicide rather than go to jail. This is a song about heart, in Australia this seems normal, but from the distance of New York one can see how wonderful and peculiar this is. We love Ned Kelly in the same way that we sympathise and in a way identify with the homeless man who committed suicide. I thought Ned Kelly’s story was a great story and it seemed to me that we had never imagined it properly.

It is interesting to note that Peter Carey relied very heavily on Ian Jones’ Ned Kelly: A Short Life when writing his novel, a fact that seems kind of strange in light of how the story veers from the facts but even stranger in light of recent developments. Yet in that same interview Carey explains his stance on the facts in relation to his work:

I was not really interested in historical research about the Kelly Gang, I wasn’t interested in primary documents, I was interested in how we told ourselves the story, I was interested in what we haven’t bothered to imagine. I did a lot of research, but much of it was about the period and the place. For instance, for this story to work, you have to realise it was a story of poor farmers, of Irish people, of people who were madly in love with horses. So, to write about them, you have to be really able to write about horses to be totally convincing to anybody who spent a lifetime with them. I’m terrified of horses myself and I had to face research challenges like that rather than digging in the library finding primary documents.

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The core of the book is an exploration of Carey’s favourite theme – the “Unreliable Narrator”. This pops up in a number of texts but here it is driven by the idea that truth is subjective – Ned Kelly’s “truth” is not the “truth” accepted by everyone else, which is reflected in the title. An oft-overlooked piece of artifice is that Carey deliberately doesn’t include “The” in the title of the book. A definitive article would be a lie as this text is clearly not a historical account, but that doesn’t matter to some people, which brings me to the focus of this piece.

Justin Kurzel, director of Snowtown, Macbeth and Assassin’s Creed has seemingly finally gotten his adaptation of Carey’s book off the ground and it has hit the headlines again. This is a film that has had immense trouble getting off the ground. The last time that a Ned Kelly film was successfully made was 2003’s Heath Ledger vehicle Ned Kelly, which was an adaptation of the novel Our Sunshine by Robert Drewe. At the same time Gregor Jordan began his film Oscar-winning Irish director Neil Jordan had acquired the rights to Carey’s book but abandoned his adaptation, which was rumoured to be starring Nicole Kidman and Brad Pitt, when the other film went into production first.

Kurzel had been sitting on this project for some time before it gained traction and funding bodies started approaching and actors signed on. Kurzel, by some miracle, has been able to sign up international stars Russell Crowe, Nicholas Hoult, Travis Fimmel, Dacre Montgomery and his own wife Essie Davis. As the iconic native-born, dark haired, dark eyed, Aussie outlaw Kurzel has cast a blue eyed, ginger, Englishman named George Mackay. Given the considerable backlash caused by casting English rock-singer Mick Jagger as Ned in 1970 (locals allegedly chasing Jagger and the film’s director Tony Richardson out of Glenrowan after watching the film) it seems bizarre that this casting hasn’t raised more eyebrows, though perhaps this has something to do with the fact that many reporting on the developments have incorrectly asserted Vikings star Fimmel is going to taking the role of Ned (he will in fact be playing a fictional policeman called Sergeant O’Neil). The casting, star studded as it may be, highlights that Kurzel seems to have gone with glamour over suitability for his cast. Furthermore Kurzel describes his take on the story as a “Gothic Western for our times”, a genre that is typified in an Australian context by The Proposition, a grim and ultra-violent story of morally ambiguous characters doing awful things to each other with lots of blood and gore to go around. Kurzel expands upon his vision by stating:

Peter Carey’s book True History of the Kelly Gang always felt like the true spirit of Ned Kelly. Unsentimental, brutal, raw and visceral. His story is one of the great odysseys in history, and I feel excited to be bringing it to the screen with a fresh cinematic eye.

To suggest Carey portrays Ned Kelly in an unsentimental way is completely bizarre – Carey’s interpretation of Ned is anything but unsentimental. Carey’s Ned is a loving son who just wants to do the right thing by his family but is faced with injustices at every turn. The relationship is almost oedipal in fact and complicated by the inclusion of a fictional love interest, Mary Hearn, who has a child to his step-father (which Ned discovers during a sex scene involving him drinking Mary’s breast milk) and later bears Ned the daughter that provides the premise for the story. In fact the acts that made Ned infamous – the police killings at Stringybark Creek – don’t occur until over half-way into the book and is almost skimmed over in favour of exploring the relationships between Ned, his family and the antagonists (mainly police). But just to drive it home further, a new article has shone a little more light on the approach this film is taking:

“True History of the Kelly Gang” is a coming-of-age tale charting the rise and fall of the Australian rebel who swore to wreak vengeance and havoc on the British Empire. MacKay will star as the notorious bush ranger Ned Kelly and will depict the colonial badlands of Australia. Nurtured by another notorious bush ranger, Harry Power (Crowe), and fueled by the arrest of his mother, Kelly recruits a wild bunch of warriors to plot a rebellion.

Far from being the story of a mother and her son, which was the main focus of the book and one of the things Carey himself realised was the heart of his own story after manufacturing a love interest for his protagonist, it seems Kurzel’s Kelly has more in common with Che Guevara or Guy Fawkes. One of the things that rings alarm bells when looking at these comments is that we’ve heard this kind of thing before.

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Ned (Heath Ledger) and Julia (Naomi Watts) in “Ned Kelly”

In 2003 Gregor Jordan stated of his film:

Australians will think what they’re seeing is fictional but the most of the movie is fact.

Between the omitted characters, the inaccurate period clothing and locations, the shoe-horned love story with a squatter’s wife, the fanciful sequence where the gang slaughter their horses and drink the blood because of an unexplained bushfire and poisoned waterholes, the sequence where the Jerilderie letter is written by Ned and his captives in the bank, and the circus at Glenrowan, this film is about as factual as an autobiography written by a jackalope. Furthermore Jordan’s attempts to describe the protagonist of his film are overly simplistic:

Ned was someone who was defiant in the face of corrupt officials. Ned was, you know, a working class man, you know, who was big and strong and fought with his fists, and cared for his family and his mates.

To say history is repeating it’s no exaggeration (and ironic). The film was a massive flop everywhere it went, only attracting a small cult fanbase mainly consisting of Orlando Bloom and Heath Ledger fanciers and no doubt that the main thing giving this new film traction is the fact that it’s riding on the coat-tails of the novel’s success – just like Gregor Jordan’s film did when it was released.

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Heath Ledger’s helmet (Source)

What baffles is that Kurzel – or at least his publicity team – are claiming that this film will shatter the Kelly mythology – a mythology they don’t actually define. To rephrase that, Kurzel and company are implying that this fictional account will destroy an existing fictional narrative around the Kelly story. Of course this is an important point to linger on for just a moment. The “mythology”, as it is usually referred to, is that Ned Kelly was a Robin Hood figure, an outlaw hero who wanted to overthrow the Empire in his pursuit of justice. Now, the term “myth” is distinct from the term “legend”, the former referring to ancient histories or wisdom usually handed down as oral tradition and the latter being exaggeration of something or someone famous but noted for its tendency to be untrue. Thus if we are to consider that the stories of Ned’s family being the victims of harassment and Ned being a self-proclaimed freedom fighter are in fact myth, then it concedes, by definition, that there is at least some basis in reality. So in effect what Kurzel’s production is apparently aiming for is to combat possibly accurate oral tradition with completely manufactured fictional elements, a stark contrast to Carey’s intention to re-examine our understanding of what the figure of Ned Kelly represents in our culture by infusing history with fictional elements to make it more relatable. Now, this may seem pedantic – and most arguments surrounding this issue tend to be – but if we want to discredit the validity of such notions of oppression and heroism wouldn’t using facts to attack the legends be more appropriate? At best this pro-fiction approach will just replace the existing myths with false information completely unfounded in reality. What is troubling is Kurzel’s apparent fundamental misinterpretation of who Ned was and the nature of the source material:

It is a true, unfettered, uncensored history of Ned Kelly, probably Australia’s most brutal bushranger. The book is about his history, what he did and how the country views him now. He is a very important part of our history. Set in colonial days, in the 1800s, I would describe it as a gothic western.

To claim Ned was our most brutal bushranger displays considerable ignorance of bushranger history. Any reference book worth its salt will, from a cursory glance, pull up names such as Dan Morgan, the Clarkes, Bradley and O’Connor, Thomas Jeffries and Alexander Pearce who left Ned for dead in the brutality stakes. Whether you’re pro or anti Kelly this is a problematic situation for people with an interest in the history.

In an IF Magazine article How many Ned Kelly movies are too many? the discussion includes a very interesting statement by Shaun Grant about his approach to adapting the script:

We believe our film is different than anything that’s come before in terms of Ned Kelly films. To me his story is timeless and open to reinterpretation, like Shakespeare or Superman or many other tales.

What this makes clear is that for this team the story of Ned Kelly is not a matter of history – it’s a drama like a Shakespeare play or a fantasy like Superman. They don’t see that these are real events that involved real people who actually lived and died and have relatives alive today who are still affected by the fallout. This kind of view is the same line of thinking that led to casting a Carlton footballer as Ned in 1951, the lead singer of the Rolling Stones as Ned in 1970 and adding increasingly preposterous love interests in the 1970 film, The Last Outlaw in 1980 and the 2003 film.

The core of the problem is this: why bother to adapt someone’s life to film if you’re just going to dispense with the facts? If the facts are so boring or superfluous why would you even think of adapting the story? In most earlier Ned Kelly films there was almost no resemblance to fact apart from a few names and key events mostly due to the publication of highly inaccurate biographies at the turn of the century and an over-reliance on half-remembered stories that were handed down. To date the most accurate versions of the Kelly story on film have been the Mick Jagger film and mini-series The Last Outlaw and they have their own significant flaws regarding accuracy. Both were written (at least initially for the 1970 film) by Ian Jones who was mentioned earlier. Both films adhere to the general plot of the actual events and retain most of the characters, however the 1970 version goes for poor casting, inaccurate costumes and sets, rejigs certain events to make them seem more cinematic and slots in a love interest – Caitlin – complete with secret wedding on the eve of Ned’s execution. The Last Outlaw on the other hand has a strangely condensed plot that starts with Harry Power and skims through all of the dramas with the Quinns, Kellys and Lloyds in favour of an almost saccharine tale of “little Aussie battlers”, and pushes Jones’ pet theories about Kath Lloyd as Ned’s lover and the Republic of North-Eastern Victoria as categorical fact – complete with the so-called “phantom army” at Glenrowan despite the lack of solid evidence to corroborate all of these ideas (most of it stemming from interviews with Tom Lloyd Jr or other anecdotal accounts). That is not to discredit Jones’ incredible research, which has completely paved the way for all researchers that came after him on all sides of the debate. Truly, given the contributions Jones has made to the history as we know it – which is considerably more than perhaps any other historian – he can be cut a bit of slack for being so forthright in his convictions however flimsy they appear to be.

If you want to see a biopic done right you need to look at Spielberg’s Lincoln or Ron Howard’s Rush, which both have impressive casts that actually look like the people they are playing and adhere tremendously accurately to the facts with minimal dramatic license – especially Rush which has an eerily accurate depiction of Niki Lauda’s car crash. It is possible to tell a compelling story without altering or inventing major elements to make it more Hollywood friendly. And there are times when a small amount of fictionalisation, or creative license, is able to fill in the narrative gaps left by history and enhance what is an otherwise accurate depiction such as the darkly humourous Chopper which makes a bold choice to play up the unreliable narrator trope and the stunning The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which both tell intimate portraits of historical figures so shrouded in legend it is difficult to tell fact from fiction and exploit that ambiguity (in fact, with the latter also being based on a fictionalised novel adapted by the man who made the former it is perhaps the most apt comparison).

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(Justin Kurzel’s previous films “Snowtown”, “Macbeth” and “Assassin’s Creed”) A representative from Kurzel’s distributor for “True History of the Kelly Gang” states the film will be “a burst of energy, buzzing with electricity, loud, brash and full of color.”

An adaptation of Carey’s book has the potential to emulate the success of that approach but based on what we have observed above this film runs the risk of upsetting people, and even being enough of a financial failure that it could cause considerable damage to the Australian film industry. We can also see Kurzel’s stylistic tendency showing through. The trend with Kurzel’s films to date seems to be to adapt a story but make it darker and grittier without much rhyme or reason, a trend he himself notes

I’ve become quite self-conscious about the darkness of the films I’ve done,

In fact this humourlessness was something many critics panned Assassin’s Creed for, one review from Empire magazine stating:

The assassins are deadly with a fork from 300 paces, but you suspect the thing that would really kill them is if someone asked them to crack a joke

Although Empire’s fondness for tearing directors to shreds with impunity means this should be taken with a grain of salt. What this all arrives at is the inescapable reality that in any past effort to make a Ned Kelly film that veers away from the history, the execution has been unpopular and the results widely panned.
As someone who has a passion for history and yearns to see someone take this incredible story and do it justice for once, this film is seemingly yet another disappointment. We could have an intriguing study of a complex man and the turbulent society that defined his life but instead we seem to have what promises to be nothing more than an imitation of The Proposition. When a director and his team express a disdain for their source material or a fundamental misunderstanding of it the product that results is often the sort of thing to encourage a request for refunds on tickets. Kurzel, of course, has his work cut out for him given the nature of public opinion on this topic and he has, perhaps wisely, made a concerted effort to avoid historians (which can be divisive) and historical consultants, social media and all the potential audience interaction it entails. This is a film being made in a bubble, just as Gregor Jordan’s was. Of course, I dearly hope to be proven wrong.

4 thoughts on “Justin Kurzel’s “True History of the Kelly Gang” (Opinion)

  1. It would be a sad game to play, but if Kelly had succeeded at Glenrowan I would have thought the three police at SBC and the deaths from all manner of trauma plus the deliberate murders of train-wreck survivors would have scored more in the brutality stakes than any of those gruesome killings you mentioned. Or are you arguing that torturing and killing one person slowly can be more brutal than any number of shooting deaths? The point for me is that all these killers were brutal and Ned Kelly was up there with the worst of them.

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  2. Aidan it seems to me you’re missing the point about this film. You seem to be objecting to the fact that this film is not even pretending to be history and insisting that it should be, that it should be a better version than the Kelly movies and TV series that went before. But its a movie based on a Novel, which itself is far removed from the factual history. So why insist the movie should be historical when the book its based on isn’t ?

    Carey talks about the Kelly ‘story’ and about Australian ‘culture’ and in the same breath as he discusses Kelly he talks about Waltzing Matilda, showing that he saw some sort of equivalence between the two. Both are Australian ‘stories’ both embedded firmly in Australian ‘culture’ and once freed from a demand that they be historical, both can give rise to imaginings and interpretations and musings that may or may not enhance or undermine or defy the core myths. Thats why Carey didnt do ‘historical research’ – its an ‘imagining’ based on the cultural story that arose from the facts, not an attempt at a recreation of the facts. And its not just ‘truth’ that can destroy a myth or legend – more myth and other legend can do it just as effectively, though I would be amazed if this movie or any movie for that matter could destroy the Legend as it currently exists in some Australian minds.

    Quite apart from the fact that we have yet to see the movie, I dont understand why it should be criticised for not being something its not even pretending to be.

    And one other thing : in regard to your objection to Kelly being described as “probably Australias most brutal bushranger” he most certainly would have been if he hadn’t been stopped at Glenrowan, wouldn’t you concede? Did any other bushranger ever formulate and attempt to carry out anything anywhere near as brutal as the mass murder Kelly intended for Glenrowan?

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    1. You may need to re-read the article Dee, the point I was making, which is abundantly clear from the quotes used throughout, is that while Carey makes the point that his version is divorced from the history Kurzel seems to believe the exact opposite. Furthermore, I make the point that were it not for the success of Peter Carey’s book it would not be likely to be gaining traction as a film (the adaptation of Our Sunshine being greenlit to cash in on the popularity of Carey’s book as well). My concern is that this film is being promoted as historical fact based on press releases and interviews pertaining to it, which misses the point of Carey’s work.

      On the point of Ned Kelly as “most brutal bushranger” because of the plan at Glenrowan, I find your comment relies heavily on a specific interpretation of brutal. Would not Thomas Jeffries kidnapping a family and shooting the husband dead in front of his wife then snatching her infant from her arms and smashing its brains out against a tree to make her walk faster be considered more brutal? Would not Jimmy Governor murdering women and children by clubbing and hacking them to death with a mission to kill as many white people as possible before he got caught be considered more brutal? How about Alexander Pearce murdering and eating his comrades? Michael Howe shooting his Aboriginal wife (who he had kidnapped) as a distraction, cutting off his gang leader’s head and murdering people in their sleep in case they turned on him? What about the Clarkes luring police into the bush with false leads so they could ambush and shoot them then allegedly murdering gang members they suspected of leaving? Or Dan Morgan shooting John Maclean in the back on suspicion he was going to the police? Or Bradley and O’Connor murdering their way through Tasmania and Victoria? Do these not shadow Ned’s actions whether or not they were actuated, even partially?

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