This week we asked film-maker Matthew Holmes, writer and director of The Legend of Ben Hall, to pen some thoughts about his passion for Ben Hall, bushrangers, film-making and how that translated into his award winning film. ~ AP
I’ve always had a love for Australian history and bushrangers were always part of that. I really didn’t know much detail about them beyond some broad knowledge of Ned Kelly, but I was fully aware of the mythos surrounding them – daring Australian highway robbers that held up coaches and fought it out with the police. But it wasn’t until 2007 when a friend of mine recommended that I check out a bushranger called Ben Hall.
When I began learning about Ben Hall, I was immediately hooked and began buying up every book I could find. Yet, my first introduction to Ben Hall was through the prism of folklore. A cursory investigation into Ben Hall will give you this romanticised version – a dashing, outlaw rogue who never killed a man; a poor victim of police corruption; a swaggering leader of men with a twinkle in eye; and of course, a martyr of police brutality. He is absolutely endowed with this ‘Robin Hood’ mantle of the noble bandit. Wikipedia, folksongs and the brief overviews of his life in bushranger books always give this impression of Ben Hall. And to be honest, I swallowed that romantic illusion completely – I loved it, and I thought this would make for a great film. It wasn’t until my books arrived in the mail and I began reading the real history that my perception of Ben Hall began to change.
I had ordered books by D.J. Shiel, Edgar Penzig and Peter Bradley and devoured them immediately with the full intention of writing a screenplay. Yet page after page, I began to realise something – Ben Hall was no Robin Hood. There was another whole side to his story. Things were not so cut and dry. The deeper I delved into the historical accounts – which included newspaper reports and police records – I began to discover a much darker tale surrounding Ben Hall – and a far more interesting one. The ‘romantic’ bushranger image began to dissolve away as the truth came forward. Ben Hall was far more complex than I could have ever imagined. This man was a plethora of contradictions and not at all like his public image. Gone was the charming, swaggering ‘Gentleman Bushranger’. Here was a broken man defined by heartache, rage, depression, regret and loss. It was almost like this man didn’t even want to be a bushranger, but found himself driven to that path by bad choices and circumstances. To me, this was no longer of story of black hat vs white hat; this was a story to be told in many shades of grey.
This is when Ben Hall’s story became even more interesting to me. I now realised that for so many years, filmmakers have been approaching these stories from two polarising viewpoints; bushrangers are the good, police are the bad – or visa versa. Yet the true history of these men and women cannot be defined so simply. I wanted to bring that truth to the big screen. I felt it was time for these social perceptions, myths and legends to be pushed aside, because the truth was far more interesting anyway. This is why I made a decided effort to make my Ben Hall film as historically accurate as I could. If I didn’t, I would only be adding more mythology to mix. I wanted to shake up the genre and say “Look Australia! Our bushrangers are far more interesting and complex than you realise!”
As a filmmaker, flawed characters are far more interesting and their stories more engaging. My goal was to humanise every character in these stories instead of branding them with a stereotype. Just because someone was policeman didn’t mean I was going to portray them as a moustache twirling aristocrat. Nor were the bushrangers going to be these loveable rogues with hearts of gold. I would portray them exactly as the history books revealed them, which at times was not very flattering – on both sides of the conflict. I wanted to help the audience understand why Ben Hall was this way. We didn’t have to agree with his choices, just understand them. We didn’t have to agree with the police gunning Ben Hall down, just to understand why it happened that way.
If I had set out to make a film that put Ben Hall on a pedestal and portrayed him a harmless rogue that was cruelly oppressed by the villainous police, it might’ve been a more accessible film as far as the marketplace was concerned – but it would’ve been completely dishonest. Yet, if I had made Ben Hall out to be an absolute villain – an irredeemable, heartless, mass-murdering thug – that too would’ve been completely dishonest. Neither of those perceptions of Ben Hall are accurate. He was many shades of grey, and when you get down to it – just a regular person like you and I, with positive and negative characteristics. Ben Hall was a man who would shoot it out with police and rob a hundred people at gunpoint on the highway, yet he would kindly play with the children of his enemies in their front yard. Ben Hall was known to break open a church poor box and take its coins, yet gave a sick woman some extra money on the road when he learned she was on her way to the doctor. He burned down people’s homes if they crossed him, yet he refused to let his gang execute policemen that they captured. It was exciting to discover a character so rich and complex, so I was determined that’s how I would portray him.
Overall, the reception to The Legend of Ben Hall has been overwhelming – from audiences. The authenticity is something everyone is picking up and appreciating. So many people find its approach to history refreshing and have thanked me for making it balanced. I’ve found the film has been less well received by critics, who tend to think I’m either glorifying a criminal or not providing enough reason for him to be this way. I think that’s because some critics, like many people, came to TLOBH with their own pre-conceived ideas of what a film about a bushranger should be. So when the film does something completely different, they blame the film for not being done correctly and meeting their expectations.
I have found the odd person on social media or YouTube condemning the film for being inaccurate. Or they believe I’m glorifying a criminal. I think its quite clear that the film doesn’t do this, but again – some people will be disappointed when the film doesn’t align with their preconceptions. I did notice on our tour of the film in regional New South Wales that many people who stayed for the Q&A’s always tried to pull me up on the film’s ‘inaccuracies’. They were in fact just referring to the myths they had been brought up believing, the same old oral tales passed down by novels, songs or TV shows. I had to carefully explain that, in fact, those were not true and why that myth has persisted. It’s amusing how many people assume that as a filmmaker, I had not done my research. But that probably comes from decades of Hollywood films messing around with the truth.
On social media, I will occassionally get an ‘Armchair Historian’ come at me with a bunch of poorly researched ‘facts’, once again lost in the mythology. But it really shows how much these tall-tales have become so entrenched in our social perceptions of bushrangers. My goal with Ben Hall – and any future bushranger films – is to take those ‘perception glasses’ off and allow people see these bushrangers and police for who they really were, warts and all. Because the truth is stranger than fiction and these stories are fabulous. Films are about entertainment, but there’s no reason they can’t educate and enlighten audiences at the same time. It’s time to let these stories speak their truths to us rather than us pressing our ideals onto the stories.
The Legend of Ben Hall will be released in the UK and Ireland for home entertainment July 2, 2018. So far it has been released on DVD and Blu-Ray in seven countries and its seen sold to television, cable and digital in over twenty-two countries.
If you would like to purchase a copy of The Legend of Ben Hall you can find one here.