Tony Richardson’s ‘Ned Kelly’ – in defence of a maligned film

In 1970 a film was released that has become infamous in Australian pop culture. It was directed by one of Britain’s most acclaimed stage directors, featured music by some of America’s greatest country musicians of the time, was written by a man who would in later years become known as the authoritative voice on the film’s subject (who himself had an illustrious career in Australian television), and starred one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll stars of all time. Yet, despite all of these ingredients that should amount to a legendary film, somehow it created the exact opposite reaction to what was expected and it seems to boil down to two words:

Mick Jagger.

Yes, the 1970 film Ned Kelly has become a byword for bad adaptations of the Kelly story based purely on the unfortunate miscasting of the lead singer of the Rolling Stones as Australia’s favourite bank robber. So is it really as bad as it is made up to be? When compared with other stand alone films the answer may surprise you.

1. Cast

Films usually live or die on their cast and this film is a prime example of this. Any Ned Kelly film is expected to have Ned as a lead match the appearance of Ned in the popular consciousness: tall, muscular, heavily bearded – a bushman fit for the cover of a Harlequin romance. Mick Jagger did not fit the bill. His average height seems diminished by his weedy frame and awkward gait and his trademark pouty lips are far from the thin determined mouth Ned sported in all known images. In reality Ned Kelly stood at around 5’10” to 6′ tall, average by modern standards and tall in his own day, and as demonstrated by his commemorative boxing photo his physique was rather odd. The Ned of history is long limbed and a little pigeon chested with small hands and feet, likely very toned beneath the white long johns and undershirt from years of manual labour but certainly not adorned with washboard abs like most people would imagine (very few men of the time had access to gyms and protein shakes). By comparison, Mick Jagger at 178cm (5’10”) is actually Ned’s height but at around 73kg (161lbs) is much lighter. At the time of the film’s release Jagger was 27 years old, making him the closest in age to Ned at the time of his execution than any actor in the role in a major production so far, most actors being 28 or over (Godfrey Cass who portrayed Ned Kelly in several productions was in his forties the last time he portrayed Ned on screen).

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Mark McManus and Ken Shorter as Joe Byrne and Aaron Sherritt.

As for the remainder of the cast, while many are far from the most striking likenesses of the people they play they are generally well acted. Mark McManus as Joe Byrne is a remarkably good likeness for Joe despite being more than ten years older than his real life counterpart was at the time of his death. Allan Bickford is also surprisingly accurate as Dan Kelly with his black hair and blue eyes and a performance that has him being at times forceful, playful and often at odds with his big brother, which is absolutely spot on. Clarissa Kaye depicts Ellen Kelly with gravitas, strength and dignity while presenting her as a witty and fiery force of nature, again just as the role calls for. Other standout roles include Diane Craig as Maggie, Frank Thring as Judge Barry, Ken Goodlet as Nicholson and Martyn Sanderson as Fitzpatrick. While most of the roles are not 100% accurate in terms of appearance and the police characters are often mere approximations of their historical counterparts it is a very strong cast for the time and perform admirably.

2. Production design

Perhaps one of the weaker elements of the film is the production design that tends to be quite inconsistent. The costumes, sets and props feel authentic and look magnificent but are often very lacking in accuracy. The prime example is Ned Kelly robbing the Euroa bank in a black tuxedo and white frilled shirt. No doubt this look, which was featured heavily in promotional material, was meant to represent Ned’s flashness and add a touch of theatricality to the portion of the film which is deliberately farcical, but is rather a jarring direction even for the late 60s. However the costumes worn by Ned in other scenes that usually consisted of dark coloured woolen clothes, grubby shirts, heeled boots and felt hats were far more accurate and were a great improvement over the high waisted moleskins, tall boots, shirts with rolled up sleeves and rumpled hats that seemed to be the extent of the bushranger costume in the majority of films on the topic such as The Glenrowan Affair or When the Kellys Were Out.

The towns in the film felt like real places of the time and they all felt very similar to the locations they were mimicking. The sets felt lived in and grubby without resorting to dim lighting and a desaturated palette to emulate the ambience of a house in the 1870s.

3. Music

Nobody can deny the appeal of the soundtrack to this film. With songs written by the legendary Shel Silverstein (who wrote Johnny Cash’s legendary ‘A Boy Named Sue’) and performed by artists like Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson (though, strangely, the latter’s songs don’t make it into the film, only the soundtrack album), it’s a perfect blend of lyrical cleverness and folksy musical arrangements that perfectly underscore the film. The refrain ‘The Shadow of the Gallows’, the jaunty ‘Blame it on the Kellys’ and the soulful ‘Lonigan’s Widow’ are just a tiny sample of the stunning musical content that accurately reflect the tone of the film.

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“Shadow of the Gallows”


“Lonigan’s Widow”


“Blame it on the Kellys”

4. Cinematography

Ned Kelly is undoubtedly one of the best film versions of the story thanks to Gerry Fisher (The Island of Dr. Moreau, Highlander, Yellowbeard). The imagery is full of soulful ambience, texture, colour and contrast from the beautiful silhouetted stock thieving scenes to the eerie, foggy last stand. The tones feel authentic, the earthy colours of the clothing and buildings drab without resorting to desaturating the shots to create a false sense of the dusty, worn out and dreary existence of the characters. Yet there are bursts of colour such as the inclusion of bright green ribbons to signify Kelly sympathisers, which break up the gritty realism. No other Kelly film to date has managed to feature such beautifully cinematic images while remaining authentic to the time and place. This Kelly story is full of fun moments as well as dark and moody ones.

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Muted, earthy tones are punctuated with glorious bursts of colour such as in this depiction of Ned’s boxing match with Wild Wright, making the scene vivid and fun to watch.

Perhaps the crowning glory of this film visually is the atmospheric shots of Glenrowan during Ned Kelly’s last stand that show the iron-clad outlaw walking through eldritch mist, monolithic against the swirling plumes of gun smoke and fog as swarms of police descend upon him. This captures the feel of how the event was described by witnesses in a way that no other on-screen version seems to have managed to date. It was also the first film depiction of the last stand to effectively incorporate the helmet interior perspective shots that have become a staple of Kelly films ever since.

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Ned Kelly’s last stand is eerie and mist-shrouded – the only cinematic depiction of the event to get this detail right.

5. Screenplay

The beats of the screenplay are precisely accurate thanks to the original screenplay having been written by Ian Jones, who would later inspire generations of Kelly enthusiasts with The Last Outlaw as well as his books The Fatal Friendship (aka The Friendship that destroyed Ned Kelly) and Ned Kelly: A Short Life. The dialogue is often very theatrical, probably due to Toby Richardson’s theatre background, and often rather clever but at times this gets lost when the performances or film making are weak. Where it falls down, however, is where it was later tinkered with by the director who reshaped it into more of a depiction of the spirit of the story than a faithful recreation. Yet, despite these rewrites (which includes the addition of an invented love interest for Ned named Caitlin O’Donnell, odd moments such as James Whitty offering Ned work as a stockman and having Ned’s last stand in a railway cutting) it still remains more accurate than the vast majority of other depictions, including the Heath Ledger film. If you can move past the emphasis on condensing characters and events, there’s a decent screenplay in there.

6. Historical accuracy

This film, despite lording over the majority of adaptations in this regard, is prone to historical inaccuracy. As a foreigner, Tony Richardson can be somewhat forgiven for not adhering strictly to history. However there are glaring inaccuracies worthy of pointing out.

The costumes, despite generally having the right feel and look are often wide of the mark. The police uniforms seem to be mostly based on the real deal but with some artistic flourishes to make them look better as costumes. The gang’s apparent fondness for bandoliers has no basis in fact, but rather takes its cues from Westerns. Most of the inaccuracies here are minor and don’t distract from proceedings – except for the outfits the gang change into at Faithfuls Creek that are so loud, gaudy and flamboyant they could only have come from a film made in 1969.

The collapsing of Nicolson and Hare into one “super cop” called Nicholson was likely done to streamline the story for film and was replicated in the 2003 ‘Ned Kelly’ by creating a “super cop” in Geoffrey Rush’s Hare. To include all police in the way many would like is not a possibility in a theatrical release. Sergeant Steele, Captain Standish, Sadleir and Bracken all make appearances but are not always made a point of. It should be noted that emphasis was placed on key aspects of the pursuit that other adaptations glaze over or omit entirely such as the temporary arrest of sympathisers, the watch party at the Byrne house and the black trackers.

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“Nicholson” is to Jagger’s Ned Kelly as Elliot Ness is to Al Capone in old gangster movies.

The buildings, such as the Glenrowan Inn, look fairly close but are approximations rather than loving recreations as seen in The Last Outlaw a decade later. This is, again, forgivable as despite not being 100% accurate they feel accurate and reflect the sort of environments that the story took place in, a far cry from the mud soaked huts in the bleak. flat and drab environs of Gregor Jordan’s 2003 film.

There are many things woven throughout the script based on oral history and rumours that can’t be qualified such as the Republic, the army of sympathisers in the hills at Glenrowan, the secret wedding on the eve of the execution and Ned Kelly’s girlfriend “Caitlin O’Donnell”.

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Caitlin O’Donnell appears to be an amalgam of various rumoured girlfriends and wives of Ned Kelly and is used to show the tender side of Ned.

Many of the inaccurate moments are very minor for the most part but done for artistic reasons such as Ned’s last stand taking place on the train tracks in a gully to show the police piling in on him or the gang bailing up the staff at Younghusband station at dinner to expedite the narrative of the bank robbery rather than spend ages having the gang round people up into a shed. It must be remembered that this was meant to be a film that captured the spirit of the story rather than a slavish recreation. Yet despite the occasional divergence from history it fares a lot better than the 2003 film that is so rife with inaccuracy it requires its own article!

7. The Little Things

Repeat viewings of the film reveal small touches that show a surprising level of detail likely thanks to Ian Jones’ influence.

Little moments like Maggie and Tom Lloyd staring lovingly at each other during the party to celebrate Ned’s return from gaol, the camera lingering on Aaron Sherritt when Ellen makes a disparaging comment about “orange men”, or the way that the boys hoot and holler when they take the bull Ned caught to the pound to demonstrate their larrikinism help the film feel that little bit more understanding of the story than overt appearances might portray. There are many lovely nods towards the history that will reward the attentive viewer, such as when Ned sings The Wild Colonial Boy and is cautioned when Constable Fitzpatrick enters the pub because it was prohibited to sing the song in public, then he just keeps on singing (what a rebel!) before sculling a beer.

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Maggie’s love for Tom Lloyd is a little nod that could easily be overlooked by the casual viewer.

Conclusions

Ned Kelly is far from a perfect film and wasn’t without its controversies but it is hardly worthy of being the “bad” Ned Kelly film, especially seeing how much it got right in comparison. It looks gorgeous, it has fun and engaging moments, a killer soundtrack and one of the most accurate screenplays on the subject co-written by one of the most important Kelly scholars – all things that should elevate it in popular culture. It is a film deserving of more respect and at least a watch all the way through and all it takes is getting past the fact that Mick Jagger is a little too skinny and awkward to look like Ned Kelly.

At least he doesn’t have a mullet.

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https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0066130/fullcredits/?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm

3 thoughts on “Tony Richardson’s ‘Ned Kelly’ – in defence of a maligned film

  1. Do you know why Mick Jagger was chosen! The choice completely missed Australian sentiment. A completely unknown actor would have been more likely to be received favourably. As I recall Jagger’s presence in Australia was overshadowed by his then girlfriend Marianne Faithful’s near fatal heroin overdose.. Jagger didn’t seem to like us … (Australia that is). He seemed bored and just tolerated us and couldn’t wait to leave. All things that did not endear him to Australians at the time! My father’s generation didn’t like him because he was perceived to be a drug taking rock star and that persona didn’t match our love for “our Ned”. Our “good guy” was being played by a “bad guy” so to speak. Just my impression. That was my impression as a young woman at that time.
    Great article. Thanks for posting !

    Like

    1. Yes, all of that is true from my understanding. Marianne was originally slated to play Maggie but her overdose ruled her out. The story behind it all is a drama in itself and perhaps one day I’ll be able to write about it all. Thank you for your response.

      Like

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