The Legend of Ben Hall is an interesting entry in the history of bushranger films for a number of reasons. Chiefly, it is the only standalone theatrical bushranger feature that has put particular emphasis on historical accuracy in every level of production. Yet, it manages to tell the story accurately as well as artfully. While on a surface level the film can be taken as merely a portrayal of an exciting and intriguing part of history, on closer inspection what we see is a dissection of the character of Ben Hall. What emerges upon deeper examination is that the film’s title is the key to understanding what it is truly about: what is the legend of Ben Hall?
Despite what the papers encourage you to imagine, this life you want is not easy. We do this because we have no recourse left.
A key part of the artifice of the film is in the effort to replicate the costumes, weaponry, buildings and so forth of the period. Director Matthew Holmes spent months looking for available locations that were a close match for the arborial, geological and topographical features of Ben Hall Country in 1865. By portraying these things as close to history as possible, the film immediately positions itself in such a way that we understand that we are not being told what to feel and think through interpretation. Rather, we are being asked to immerse ourselves in this world in order to understand it and find the answers to the questions ourselves, without being skewed in a certain way by the director.
Compare this to other bushranger films such as Mad Dog Morgan, Ned Kelly (1970) and its 2003 namesake. These films take liberties with the art design to account for budget and artistic vision. Ned Kelly (2003) is the most notable in this regard. Whereas Mad Dog Morgan tries to be authentic, if somewhat inaccurate in execution, Ned Kelly approaches the same things through the lens of portraying what is artistically relevant, what is symbolic, in order to convey to the audience how to feel. For example, at Glenrowan Ned is dressed in mostly black to symbolise the more serious tone of the events unfolding. His clothes reflect the mood the director is conveying, rather than anything historic – especially given that Ned Kelly wore a very colourful outfit at Glenrowan in actual fact. The Legend of Ben Hall portrays character through costume too, but rather than molding the character through the costume design, the costumes are reflective of how the characters fit into the world they inhabit. Johnny Gilbert’s flashness is shown through his wearing rings and luxurious fabrics like silk and brocade. In comparison, Ben Hall is dressed pragmatically for the rough lifestyle, only allowing a little hint of the larrikin through by wearing sashes and portraying his strong self-interest with a preference for handsomely cut clothing. Jim “Old Man” Gordon is shown wearing clothes that are frayed to the point of barely holding together, reflecting a careless personality that results in the ambush that opens the film. Yet all of what we see these characters decked out in is historically accurate to the styles of the time and place. The historical accuracy enhances the portrayal of character and story rather than artificially conveying an idea.
A unique artistic flourish is how each major act of the film is punctuated with dream sequences that give an insight into Hall’s mindset as well as reminding us of the end that is approaching him. Ben Hall was notoriously aloof in life and while this quiet, contemplative aspect to his character created an air of mystery, it makes it difficult to understand how he thought for a screen narrative. As the dreams evolve through the film, we see an emphasis placed on Jim Taylor, the homewrecker who tore Hall’s family apart (at least in his eyes). Having failed to remove his son Henry from Biddy and Taylor, then failing to follow through on his threat to “put a bullet in [Taylor’s] wicked hide”, Hall becomes tormented by the man who stole his family.
In each successive dream we also see the murky, wraith like figures of troopers getting closer and closer until gun muzzles are thrust in our face, indicating not only Hall’s increasing fear of capture, but also a metatextual foreshadowing of things to come. With the severity of the crimes escalating as events roll on, Hall becomes ever more conscious of the likelihood of fierce reprisal from the police. Each dream acts as the Greek chorus, cementing the themes and preparing the audience for the grim conclusion.
You think you’re innocent in all this? You think you ain’t got no blood on your hands?
The character of John Dunn provides a cipher for the audience as he cuts his teeth as a bushranger. More importantly, Dunn provides an important role in challenging Hall throughout and mirroring, to some extent, Hall’s own rise to infamy. Initially Hall tries to discourage Dunn from signing up as a bushranger, having lost many friends to imprisonment and death in the lead up to where we pick up the story. However, it doesn’t take much to convince Hall to accept Dunn. Later, Hall will actually rely on Dunn’s advice to recruit a new gang member in the form of Daniel Ryan, showing the development of the two characters. As Dunn settles in as the “beau ideal of the modern bushranger” he serves to remind Hall of how culpable his actions are. Were it not for Hall’s recklessness in engaging police at Jugiong after they were already retreating, Sergeant Parry would not have been killed; had he listened to Dunn’s fears about police arriving at Collector rather than ignoring them, Constable Nelson would not have been shot; had Hall not allowed his temper to get the better of him at Binda, Christina and Ellen would not have been arrested for assisting them in the burning of Morriss’ store. In the end, Dunn outlives his colleagues but it’s only a matter of time before his own crimes catch up with him.
Dunn also shows the most growth as a character. Whereas Hall and Gilbert have already undergone the growth from becoming bushrangers, we see Dunn go from being naive and unsure of himself to “tipping the velvet” with Peggy Monks, being able to keep a crowd under control on his own and being able to stand up and question Hall’s plans. Perhaps the best indicator of his development is in how he goes from referring to his leader as “Mr. Hall” to “Ben”, showing he gradually reaches equal footing with Hall in the gang.
I am not underestimating this man Sergeant. Out here, this is his world.
The subplot of the film is the police efforts to finally capture the bushrangers. The police pursuit is something akin to a metaphorical hydra; many-headed and nigh on unstoppable, where you can take out one head and two more will take its place. When we begin, Hall narrowly escapes an ambush by a party led by Sergeant Condell. At the end, this same party is doubled with two heads in the form of Condell and Davidson. The relentless Detective Pye acts as something of a free-floating menace, forever nipping at the gang’s heels. Pye is driven by an unquenchable desire to bring Hall and his gang to justice at any cost, demonstrating the desperation that the forces of law and order are experiencing. He will do whatever it takes to get his man, even arresting an entire pub full of people.
Sub-Inspector Davidson is perhaps the most intriguing personality of the pursuers. During a campfire scene it is revealed that he seems to be the only one without some form of acquaintance with Hall – something he is deeply embarrassed by. Davidson soon finds his leadership challenged by the irascible Sergeant Condell and has his orders ignored when police open fire on Hall. His respect for his opponent seems to result in a lack of respect for him from his peers. Davidson has a healthy respect for Hall and this is what motivates him to speak truthfully about what happened to Hall at Billabong Creek. It is also why he doesn’t keep the locket belonging to Hall, recognising it as something of sentimental value and returning it to his fallen foe. Again, this has a Greek tragedy vibe, where the moral lesson appears to be about the importance of respect.
I was right to leave you. Look what you’ve become.
One of the most important motifs is Hall’s locket containing a photograph of Biddy. Photographs in The Legend of Ben Hall provide a window into the past, reminding us of who Ben Hall was before everything fell apart. The carte de visite that opens the film is the very image Hall gives to Henry at the end to remind him who his real father is – not Jim Taylor and not a violent outlaw, but a young squatter filled with optimism, a respectable man worthy of remembering. Similarly, Ben’s locket reminds him of the life he lost. Biddy’s desertion cut deeply and was a key factor in Ben throwing away his respectable life. The locket reminds him of who he was and the life he wishes he had, which gives him motivation to escape Australia and start again. His pursuit of Biddy, it eventuates, is not really for revenge for her leaving with his son as he initially believes. Deep down, Hall realises that there is something in him that drove her away and he needs to figure out what it is and atone for it. He needs to make amends for the wrongs he has committed in the past and he can only do that by making his peace with Biddy.
We ride again, we do so for one purpose: to get enough to skip the country for good.
The reappearance of Johnny Gilbert represents a turning point for Ben Hall. These two go back many years and have endured despite the best efforts of the police to take them. Hall needs to find a way out of the country and out of nowhere Gilbert returns to provide him that chance. It is through the actions of Gilbert that Hall begins to truly understand what he has become. As much as he tries to deny it, Hall enjoys the thrill of being a highwayman just as much as Gilbert and Gilbert has no issue reminding him of that. When Sergeant Parry is murdered during the botched highway robbery at Black Springs, Gilbert makes a point of telling Hall “This is who we are. This is what we do.” After the failed escort robbery Hall reveals that the money he has had stashed at Mick Coneley’s could be enough to get them out of New South Wales, much to Gilbert’s and Dunn’s disgust, the pair having by now evolved into desperate men longing for escape. In this moment we can see that Hall’s true desire was never to leave the colony, but that he wanted the glory days of when he and Gilbert were kings of the road back. Hall’s selfish need to be in control, to maintain his dubious distinction of being the most notorious highwayman in Australia, to chase the thrill of bigger and bigger scores, led the three of them down an irreversible path to desperation and destruction, leaving blood and ash in their wake.
I would never have broken your heart the way she did.
The impact of Hall’s selfishness is further driven home when they return to Coneley’s hut. Coneley has become afraid of what will happen to him if people find out that he has been helping the gang, pushing him to secretly provide information to the police to help them capture Hall and company. We also further see how oblivious Hall has been to the feelings of those around him when Mary Ann reveals how upset she was when he married Biddy, highlighting comments made by Gilbert earlier in the film. Ben Hall is his own worst enemy, a man who will throw away happiness and security in pursuit of a thrill, no matter who suffers as a result and will ignore the insight of those with clearer vision if he doesn’t want to believe the truth. Mary Ann’s tender kiss seems to finally make Hall realise the man he has allowed himself to become – a realisation that leaves him shaken.
When we finally reach the conclusion of the story we realise that the journey has been one of self-discovery and redemption. When Hall gifts his son a portrait of himself as a younger man and leaves £500 for him, we see that he has finally shed the selfishness that had led him to abduct Henry then threaten Taylor. He has realised that by making the issue about his own hurt feelings he has ignored the needs of his son. Being a father is more than blood, it’s about putting your child’s needs before yourself. Hall’s reward is an apology from Biddy and a reconciliation but he discovers that even though he has wanted that the whole time, he doesn’t really deserve it and he is ashamed of himself for wanting it. As he rides away from Biddy and Henry, Hall has finally learned his lesson.
Unfortunately for Hall his apotheosis has come too late and the wheel of fate has spun before he even makes it back to Billabong Creek. The ambush on May 5 is the final step on his journey from being Ben Hall the bushranger to being Ben Hall the legend. Thus we return to that original question: what is the legend of Ben Hall?
The legend of Ben Hall is that a man who has fallen from grace into a life of sin can discover the path to redemption. As Sub-Inspector Davidson places Hall’s locket upon his chest the journey to redemption is completed. Hall has atoned for his misdeeds and though his life has ended, his soul has been saved. In contrast, Johnny Gilbert is not afforded the same closure. He is snuffed out suddenly and without mercy, paying the ultimate price for his crimes. Dunn however has his own small journey of atonement that ends on the gallows. This is story about how in the end, our crimes always catch up with us, but we all have the ability to make peace with our past.