There’s a long tradition of folk songs about our notorious bushrangers, and it certainly seems that isn’t changing any time soon. Queensland artist, and writer Rodd Sherwin has thrown his hat into the ring with a ballad about Daniel Morgan. The piece began life many years ago as lyrics for a song based on the story of Morgan, but as it developed the desire for it to be put to music grew ever more irresistible.
Sherwin’s friend, musician Jeremy Williams, has taken the words and crafted them into a song that has now been recorded.It will be available to hear across a range of platforms including YouTube and Spotify from 07/05/2022.
To learn more about Rodd, you can visit his website here.
To learn more about Jeremy Williams you can visit his website here and SoundCloud here.
To stream the song you can find links here, and you can watch it on YouTube here.
Mad Dog Morgan
Born to one, George Fuller A ‘Bastard’ of a child Perhaps that was the portent For a life spent running wild. Arrested at an early age For larceny and livestock theft The Judge then duly sent him down To the prison hulk ‘Success’
Released as a ‘Ticket Man’ He finally came back And very soon was known as Young ‘Down the River Jack’. While adopting this persona He maintained his life of crime ‘Till Squatter Evans wounded him Disappearing down the line.
By the new name, Daniel Morgan The bushranger ventured out A manic highway raider now With all his sanity in doubt. He committed violent outrage Convinced he was to blame The folk around all labelled him ‘Mad Dog’ – such was his fame.
His rugged hirsute features The sharp eyes and long hooked nose Did little to alleviate His hapless victim’s woes. These sudden night intrusions Appeared in such a way A Mad Dog with the posture Of a fearsome bird of prey.
Possessed by an obsession Upon this oath he swore To cross the River Murray And settle an old score. While on his road to vengeance Someone heard him say ‘T’is the end for that cur Evans This ‘Dog’ will have his day.’
Accused of several murders And robbery by stealth He bailed up mail stage coaches And homes of men of wealth. He became a hunted outlaw With a huge price upon his head Until they finally tracked him down Found where his trail had led.
Stalked by Johnny Windlaw Who shot Dan in the back The Mad Dog Morgan died there Unaware of an attack. Herein lies the irony Daniel’s life should end this way This is how the adage goes Each ‘Dog’ must have it’s day.
“In 2003, Margaret Titterton discovered her uncle’s suitcase of film memorabilia under her Vaucluse home, including this portrait of her uncle Leslie Hay-Simpson in his first screen role. Titterton told the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘I don’t think it was his dream to be an actor. I think his dream was to follow in the family footsteps and be a good, solid solicitor.’ In October 1936, Hay-Simpson disappeared at sea. After finishing filming for Mystery Island (1937), he was sailing back from Lord Howe Island in a small skiff called the Mystery Star with fellow actor Brian Abbot when the two men hit bad weather.”
The great talkie dealing with one of the skeletons in our historic cupboard has been made. Photographs of Messrs, and Miss Kelly in their habits as they are supposed to have lived are beginning to appear in Sydney shop windows. Do they bear any relation to the truth?
Well, here’s the scene as it appeared to an American, one Augustus Baker Peirce, whose Australian adventures are described in a handsome memorial volume on the foundation of the Read Memorial fund, by the Yale Press (1924).
About the second year of my stay in Geelong, I was surprised by a hurried and excited call of my old friend Joseph Nash, a reporter on the Melbourne “Age,” who informed me that the notorious Kelley [sic] brothers had been captured at Greta and that he was going up to investigate and write up the affair. He asked me to go with him and make the sketches.
The Kelley boys and their companions, well-known outlaws — all of whom had prices on their heads dead or alive, among them Burns and Sherritt — had swooped down on Greta the day before and, having bailed up the town and torn up the railroad, proceeded to gather the principal townspeople into Jones’s Hotel and make merry. Word, however, was sent to the police; and a large body of troopers came up, surrounded the house, and demanded the surrender of the outlaws. On their refusal the police shot into the house, and the Kelleys returned the fire. Then the Greta priest appeared at the door and informed the police that if they would withhold fire the Kelleys would allow the townspeople to leave the premises. This was done and a second demand of surrender made. But the Kelleys refused to move, and the police were at a loss what to do.
They contemplated burning the house, and even sent to Melbourne for a cannon to blow it down. Finally, they charged the place, firing heavy volleys into it as they advanced. Receiving no answer, they broke in and found the outlaws dead or dying — all of them, except Ned Kelley, their leader, who had disappeared. Early the following morning he was discovered by Troopers O’Callaghan and Steele, who were watching in the fog. They saw something of gigantic size rise in the mist and move away. Taking no chances they fired. The object returned the fire and then fell; whereupon they rushed upon it and found it to be Ned Kelley, dressed in full armour of ploughshares, later found to weigh some 200lb.
We arrived soon after Kelley was taken and witnessed the placing of the dead bodies of the outlaws in the courtyard to be photographed. Ned Kelley was taken to Melbourne, where his trial was the sensation of the time. After it I saw him hanged; on the scaffold he turned coward….
It sounds unpromising, even as an alternative to “The Squatter’s Daughter” type of picture. As a matter of fact, there was a much better story in Morgan. He ended by holding up a station at Peechebla and, according to Peirce (who arrived there a few weeks after and had the story from Rutherford, the manager), the manager’s wife had to entertain him by playing the piano all night. “In fact, after the first fright had passed away, the whole family did their best to propitiate their unwelcome guest.” A servant-girl managed to send a message to the local police camp, and Morgan was shot in the back as he was going towards the horse paddock in the morning.
Peirce has quaint drawings, by himself, in his book which should gladden the hearts of our local directors. And listen to this :—
The outlaw was hardly dead when the police, brave enough now that there was nothing to fear, bounded into the path, followed by a large number of people. Among them was an excited photographer who, in his eagerness to secure a portrait of the body, broke his camera while climbing a fence. However, with the aid of some brown paper the damage was soon repaired, and the corpse, propped up against some wool-bales in the shed, was photographed between the Macphersons. The Superintendent of Police at Beechworth ordered that Morgan’s face be skinned, so that he might preserve the magnificent black beard as a trophy.
Christian burial was refused. They laid the de-bearded corpse outside the fence of the large cemetery on the road from Wangaratta to Peechebla. Here surely is a ready-made drama of the mellowest hue all ready for local consumption. Think of that last shot, the lonely grave and, above all, the face-skinning incident! I doubt if Hollywood itself could have thought of that.
[Source: The Bulletin, 23 May 1934, page 5.]
WHEN THE KELLYS RODE.
‘When The Kellys Rode,’ the Cinesound Feature Film production, which is listed for presentation at the Tivoli Theatre on Saturday, centres around the exploits of ‘The Kellys,’ the most notorious of all Australian bushrangers. ‘When the Kellys Rode,’ filmed against the glorious background of Australia’s natural beauty, features a splendid cast of young Australians, headed by Hay Simpson as Ned Kelly, Regina Somerville, John Appleton and Norman Walt.
When The Kellys Rode
IT’S ABOUT: Bushrangers.
YOU’LL SEE: Hay Simpson.
THIS woefully comic curiosity is 14 years old.
The Chief Secretary’s Department banned it in New South Wales as a bushranging drama, lifted the ban a few years ago.
Made in Burragorang Valley and the Blue Mountains, When The Kellys Rode is a raw and crude piece of work.
Even in 1934, its year of production, it must have been an anachronism.
It is a pure old silent in technique.
Writer-director Harry Southwell has not captured any of the high adventure in the Kelly saga — an adventure that is still waiting for the right Australian film-maker.
His bushrangers and police lollop up and down the one stretch of mountain. His unfortunate actors, a couple of whom are well-known today, are grotesquely stilted.
Only the late Hay Simpson, as Ned Kelly, shows a rude vigor in the role. The women in the cast are lamentable.
But why go on? The film is worth preserving in some museum.
As many of the silent era bushranger films are lost to the sands of time, either through being misplaced or destroyed, there are no opportunities to view them ourselves. Because of this we rely on reports from the time that describe the films and discuss the audience responses. This was in the days before people wrung their hands over “spoilers” and were more worried about which film would break opening weekend records.
In the following we have several articles that discuss what is, to date, the only film about Captain Moonlite that has ever successfully been made.
Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Advocate (NSW : 1894 – 1954), Saturday 11 February 1911, page 4
Measrs. Toose and Orbell had a crowded house at the Dubbo Skating’ Rink on Wednesday evening, when they presented that fine bushranging Picture “Moonlite.” The film was 4000 feet in length, and occupied the whole of the second half of the programme. It commences in New Zealand, where Captain Scott alias “Moonlite” is caught cheating at cards. He is disrated and turned out of the army, and crosses over to Victoria. Here, he joins the Presbyterian Church, as minister, to achieve his purpose of robbing the bank. The picture then proceeds with various interesting stages until “Moonlite” is captured and lodged in Dubbo gaol. He strangles the warder and escapes. It is after this event that the gang is formed. His reign on the road was a short one. After sticking up several gold escorts and robbing several homesteads he had some sharp encounters with the pollce, the chief of which was Inspector Carroll, and was eventually captured alter a desperate struggle, and hanged at Darlinghurst Gaol. The film concludes with a picture of “Moonlite’s” grave, and Miss Clark, his fiance, is shown weeping over it. The first part of the programme was taken up with interesting subjects, including an A.B. drama and several good comics. The company showed again on Thursday, when “Moonlite” was again screened, together with an entirely new programme of other subjects.
To-night will be a specially attractive time at the New Picture Palace, Centennial Hall, for the great bushranging picture, “Captain Moonlite ” will be screened for the first time in Brisbane. The film has been made at great expense, and though it is very long, taking 1 hour 20 minutes in the showing, its story and incidents are such that interest can never wane. In fact, some of the bushranger’s exploits are complete in themselves as absorbing and thrilling stories, and when added together, and invested with the love interest, which runs throughout its length, the film is a novel. The story will be told by Mr. R. F. Stephens, and the first part of the programme will include many excellent pictures, including “The Drunkard’s Reformation.” A matinee will be given at 3.30 p.m.
Queensland Times (Ipswich, Qld. : 1909 – 1954), Saturday 18 March 1911, page 4
On Monday night next the above named well-known Australian bush drama will be screened at the Lyceum Theatre. It was shown for the first time in Brisbane on Saturday last, and the “Daily Mail” of Monday, last speaks of it as follows :– For the past week the management of the Centennial Hall have been booming the great bushranging dramatic picture, “Capt. Moonlite.” They were convinced they had a good picture and after witnessing the first performance on Saturday evening the public are equally convinced of the satisfactory nature of the film. There is no doubt whatever that “Moonlite” is the best motion picture of the fascinating life of the notorious bushrangers ever seen in Brisbane. There is no appearance of artcificiality or staginess in the drama; every character and super plays his part with life-like realism. The life of the famous “Moonlite” offers a wide field of study for the student of character. He is first introduced as Capt. Scott, the scene being military quarters in New Zealand. There Scott held a commission, and while playing cards with his brother officers, he is caught cheating, and taking advantage of his superior strength, brutally assaults his accusers. Exposure and disgrace follow. Drummed out of the army Scott joins the clergy with ulterior motives. He makes the acquaintance of the manager of the Egerton Bank – gains his confidence and becomes conversant with the affairs of the bank – using his knowledge afterwards in robbing the bank of a large sum of money. It is difficult to say his motive for the robbery – whether it was desire of gain or for sentimental reasons. For, about this time he had gained the affections of a beautiful young girl, named Ruth Clarke, and she appeals to Scott to save her brother from ruin by lending him money to restitute a large sum he had embezzled. The bank robbery follows this appeal, and serves to show both sides of Scott’s character – cruelty and kindness. Scott endeavours to leave by boat for England, but he overdoes his disguise and the police get on his track. A daring attempt to escape is made by jumping from the boat Lady Isabel, but in swimming Scott is wounded, and subsequently arrested. Imprisonment follows, but by strangling a warder he effects his escape. Once again free, Scott decides to form a bushranging gang, and not content with ruining the life of Ruth Clarke, makes up his mind to induce her brother to come a bushranger. More out of gratitude than from a spirit of lawlessness young Clarke joins Scott, now known as “Moonlite,” although his sister tries to prevent him doing so. The famous gang is formed, and the great robbery of the gold escort takes place. The dual nature of “Moonlite’s” character induces him to befriend poor people with the proceeds of the robbery. By effectual disguise “Moonlite” brings the raid on the station to a successful issue, and to the benefit of his lawless gang. Another raid is made on McCreedy’s farm, where “Moonlite” defies a large and well-organised police squad, and is captured by them after one of the most exciting fights in Australian history. He fights determinedly until he is overpowered. After capture he is overcome with remorse and grief at the untimely death of young Clarke, who was shot in the fight, and by permission of his captors, approaches the body and reverently lays it out. His last journey to gaol and his sweetheart’s grief at his grave concludes this most heart-stirring picture drama. The story given above includes the main points of ‘”Moonlite’s” career, but there are very many subsidiary scenes and adventures which are vividly pourtrayed [sic] by the picture. Almost an hour was occupied in displaying the film, and every minute of that time was enjoyed by the large audience.
Bundaberg Mail and Burnett Advertiser (Qld. : 1892 – 1917), Wednesday 3 May 1911, page 2
Last night the popular Jubilee picture Gardens resort presented to their numberless patrons something new and startling and a large audience gathered to witness the latest bush drama entitled Captain Moonlite. This film is over 3,000 feet long and not for one instant during its portrayal is there a dull foot in the whole length of the film. To-night this wonderful picture will be screened for the last time, and judging from the large attendance last night, the enthusiasm shown, and the magnificence of this picture and the excellent programme of other pictures we predict another crowded house.
The past twelve months have been, for want of a better word, tumultuous. In amongst it all we got two films tackling the Kelly story – True History of the Kelly Gang and Stringybark. The two productions could not have been more different in every aspect, but both made it over the finish line just before the fires and the pandemic took hold. Now the smaller of the two productions, Stringybark, has made its way onto the Ozflix streaming service giving home audiences that missed its limited cinema screenings an opportunity to check it out.
There’s no doubt that Stringybark will be confronting for some viewers, but behind every story told there’s a storyteller with a message they want heard. With this in mind I reached out to the film’s director, Ben Head, to discuss the process of creating his cinematic vision of one Australia’s most controversial true crimes and his take on the incredible Kelly story.
Thank you, Ben, for taking the time to have a chat about Stringybark. I think it goes without saying that the road this far has been quite an odyssey for you.
With Stringybark now available on Ozflix, you’re about to have your work accessible to an enormous audience, perhaps far greater than the film was intended for. Given that this is your debut feature, that’s a lot of pressure. How are you feeling about it all?
First of all thank you, Aidan, for giving me this opportunity, it’s much appreciated. Actually I always intended the film to have as broad a reach as possible and this has come to some fruition. I am feeling very chuffed with the response the film has had from all over the country. I’ve had fantastic messages of support and goodwill from many, and it’s heartening to read. I am feeling very proud of the fact that a story I have brought to the screen is touching the hearts of the many people who watch it.
This of course began life while you were still a film student. How did you settle upon the idea of doing something so ambitious as a depiction of one of Australia’s most infamous historical crimes?
Stringybark wasn’t a student film and was completely independent of my university studies. I just had to find time to squeeze it in between university commitments.
I had always wanted to tell this story, in fact ever since the story captivated me as a 10 year old boy after a holiday stopover in Glenrowan.
It’s clear that the intention was always to portray the story as authentically as possible. When developing the screenplay, what were the main sources that you referred to in order to learn and understand the story?
We read widely and sourced as much primary evidence as we could. I always wanted the film to be tackled in a scholarly way rather than basing it on the myth. It’s a story that’s never been told with any historical accuracy in a dramatic context, so I wanted to take a step up. Just by way of example, we consulted the royal commissions, original correspondence, cables, the autopsy reports of Doctor Samuel Reynolds, who performed the post-mortem examinations, and the memoir of Thomas McIntyre. And of course there are at least half a dozen novels all claiming historical insights and we read all of these as well.
There are some moments that are lifted almost identically from McIntyre’s account of the events, while others are clearly fictional but intended to fill the gaps in the historical narrative. How did you approach the process of adapting the known history and knowing where to draw the line with the moments where you had to invent a scene in order to make a workable film narrative?
We realised that the only part of the Stringybark tale that had been documented thoroughly was the ambush itself, and the events that followed. There was very little written about the lives of the police before the incident. We needed to show these men with their families and friends in order to create an audience connection with them, and to show them as real people. In constructing the scenes such as the relationship between the Kennedys, we relied on conversations with Leo Kennedy, the great grandson of Sergeant Michael Kennedy, as well as a written statement by Bridget Kennedy made years later.
This is a very decidedly pro-police film, or rather it has a strong anti-Kelly Gang/anti-crime stance. Was this a response to the overwhelmingly pro-Kelly stance pursued in popular culture or was the story of the police just that much more compelling for you?
I would say that this film doesn’t take sides – it just tells the story for what it was. Yes – our protagonists are the police officers, but we didn’t need to embellish the story – it’s fascinating all on its own. I’ve had a lot of correspondence from Kelly supporters agreeing with this. I also wanted to tell the story from the perspective of the victims because it hadn’t been done before, and for such a brutal crime it’s curious that it’s always glossed over in popular culture. Perhaps it’s because it’s a bit too uncomfortable. Truth is so often stranger than fiction and this story is no exception: literally 3 young men, all in their mid 30’s, respected and well known members of the communities in which they lived, two with wives and families, shot dead.
Would it be fair to say that the character that was most compelling for you in this was Sergeant Michael Kennedy?
It would be fair, yes. Michael Kennedy’s life captured my imagination. He was a devoted family man with 5 children and in a happy marriage. It would have made for an anxious and trying time for him knowing he had to carry out a military style mission – that is, commanding an armed covert operation into the bush in search of dangerous criminals who clearly had the upper hand, both in terms of their intimate familiarity with the location and the benefit of local support. On top of this, his party was underprepared, under-resourced and untrained for the task.
Michael Kennedy is also easily aligned with the concept of what it means to be the Australian that we look up to today – working class, family man, made ends meet on a meagre salary and all in a law-abiding way under tough circumstances.
Doing a period piece is always a daunting task for a filmmaker, let alone doing it with such limited resources. Was there ever a time during production where you felt like you had bitten off more than you could chew?
Never. It was a big bite for sure but never more than we could chew! We strictly managed our time and budget and were blessed with an incredible cast and crew. The whole production experience was a pleasure from start to finish and we have forged fantastic friendships and professional relationships in the process.
One of the things that serves Stringybark well is that it really feels like it’s own thing. In the lead up to making the film did you study any of the other existing Kelly films?
My intention was always to focus on creating something new so I really avoided looking at previous films during my contemplation and writing of this story. The real stimulation came from unearthing a cable or some other piece of written correspondence from the time and using those fragments to underpin the feel of the film.
How did you go about getting the sets and costumes given that you weren’t really able to hire costumiers and set builders?
Wardrobe was supplied exclusively by Warwick’s Militaria in Melbourne and we avoided set building by using existing locations.
One shot that really stands out in my mind is the bodies being brought back from the shooting site. It really looks like the contemporary illustration brought to life. Did you find it at all difficult to manage strapping bodies to the side of an animal with bags over their heads?
Thank you! That shot was very important to me – I really wanted to recreate that old woodcut of the bodies strapped to the horses and bring it to life. It is such a tragic and brutal image and speaks to the finality of the event. Contemporary accounts describe the pack horses being very unsettled when the bodies of the police were roped to the harness. During shooting, our pack horse also became very unsettled when the dummy was attached to the saddle. The scene that unfolded before us that day won’t be forgotten in a hurry.
The first public premiere of the film was at the Lorne Film Festival. What was it like seeing the fruit of your labour on the big screen at such a big event?
Stringybark had been shown at an investor only event at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne in April 2019 so I’d seen it on the big screen already but the premiere at Lorne was a fantastic validation of the effort that had gone into the production. Having a cinema full with an interested, intrigued and supportive audience watching the film was an awesome experience and one I’ll never forget.
One of the things we’re seeing becoming increasingly a trend with Australian film is the use of crowdfunding to get things off the ground. What was the motivator to have a media and crowdfunding campaign for this film?
Film finance is a complex domain and Australia isn’t awash with support for independent film, especially for those without a track record like us. We needed a budget and crowdfunding was a straightforward way to kick it off. Crowdfunding as an approach isn’t a sure fire way of achieving a budget though – word of your project needs to reach investors other than through the crowdfunding site. We were very fortunate to have received media support early on and this really made the difference.
Are there things that you wish you had approached differently or things that you wish you had been able to include but had to cut due to time or budget?
There were technical learnings along the way but I’m generally happy with how things came together. I would have liked to explore some of the relationships in greater depth, particularly the longstanding friendship between Michael Scanlan and Michael Kennedy. The pair had been mates for a long time and it would have helped create a stronger on-screen bond. I would also have liked to explore the Kennedy family dynamic some more.
The Kelly Gang in this depiction could be seen as quite over the top in some respects. They are far more aggressive than are usually shown and seem to enjoy bullying McIntyre in a way that even goes beyond the way McIntyre himself described. Can you explain a bit about what steered you towards that portrayal?
The gang’s portrayal is based on contemporary descriptions of the characters – even by their own words. The Jerilderie letter in particular provides an invaluable insight into the prevailing psyche. I also had them approach the camp in the way McIntyre had described – weapons drawn and intent on the business of the day. They were hard men intent on winning the day by force of arms. We know this. To portray them as some latter day gentlemen of the bush would have just perpetuated the popular story that really doesn’t align with their own personal histories.
One of the most impressive aspects of the film is the armoury. It’s clear from your other film projects that you have a keen interest in militaria, did that play a part in helping you track down and get a hold of accurate weaponry?
I’ve always had the view that if you go down the path of making an authentic period production, then every aspect of it should be as authentic as you can reasonably make it. This goes for wardrobe, saddlery and tack, language and of course firearms. We had the services of an excellent armourer who thankfully also shared an interest in historical accuracy.
Your dad, Tim, gets the starring role as Sergeant Kennedy – and does a sterling job too. What was it like directing him?
Fortunately no different to any of the other actors! Everyone that was a part of the project brought everything they had to it and a little more.
Naturally a film that tackles such a divisive story in a very partisan perspective is bound to get critics based purely on the side you’ve chosen. Unfortunately it’s a nasty trap that people often get stuck in where the Kelly story is concerned. What do you hope Stringybark can bring to the table to help bring some equilibrium and perspective back to how we examine these events, and what do you think that the pro-Kelly people can gain from watching your film?
I like to think that I’ve simply looked at the story through a different lens – one that nobody has previously wanted to look through. There’s a lot to reflect on if we can get past the mythology. Primarily we could focus on the impact of violence in the community that’s almost always felt first hand by our women and children. Kelly’s actions resulted in the deaths of 3 men, leaving 2 women widows and 9 children fatherless. The cost to the community of such an outcome is hard to reconcile. It’s also a situation that’s as relevant today as it was back in 1878.
Once again, thank you so much for taking time to answer my questions and give people a bit of an insight into the process and the ideas behind Stringybark. Hopefully this is a first step into a fruitful future for Ben Squared. If people would like to keep tabs on your future projects what is the best way to do that?
Thanks, Aidan, really appreciate the time! Follow us on instagram @bensquaredfilms to keep up to date!
Stringybark is available to rent on Ozflix now HERE
A massive thanks goes out once again to Ben Head for taking the time to be interviewed and for providing production stills for this article.
[Warning: The content in this article may be distressing for some readers. Discretion is advised.]
Justin Kurzel’s hyper-stylised and ultraviolent interpretation of True History of the Kelly Gang received positive reviews when it debuted in Toronto in September 2019 and seems to be landing blows in the UK where it opened this weekend. Many critics praised the gritty aesthetic and the subversion of history employed throughout. Fans of the historical Kelly story were not so embracing and questioned why the creative team felt the need to stray from history so radically to play up the violence and sex (and dresses). While Kurzel’s approach may be artistically valid, it certainly falls into his wheelhouse of telling grimy tales of psychopaths and nihilism. But is the Kelly story truly the one to use as a basis for this kind of story? Here is a list of five bushrangers stories more ripe for the Kurzel treatment than that of the Kelly Gang.
1. Michael Howe: One of the earliest bushrangers to be labelled as such was Van Diemens Land’s most notorious outlaw. Already the subject of a film that took vast liberties with the history to create a twisted and gory tale of a madman (The Outlaw Michael Howe), the historical Howe has more than enough violence and weirdness in his story to sustain even the most subversion-inclined filmmaker. According to the generally accepted story, Howe was a former Navy man, and a violent ruffian who joined John Whitehead’s bushranging gang in 1815. This version of events also describes the banditti roaming through the Van Diemonian frontier raiding farms and torching them for good measure, and attacking Aboriginal camps where they would kill the men and take the women as sex slaves, which is how Howe supposedly paired up with “Black” Mary Cockerill, who was portrayed as his love interest in the 2010 film. During a violent gunfight, Whitehead was wounded and Howe hacked off his head to stop the attackers claiming the reward that was on it (in those days presenting an outlaw’s head was used as proof to receive the bounty).
Howe frequently escaped the law, once being granted minimum security incarceration in exchange for giving evidence about his colleagues, from which he simply walked away. This has fuelled conspiracy theories that he was working for the government to dob in bushrangers in exchange for leniency, though the historical record shows it is not so clear cut. Howe was said to have murdered his confederates when his paranoia got the best of him and even escaped from capture on one occasion by murdering his captors with a hidden dagger. He shot Mary Cockerill with a blunderbuss to create a distraction during a chase allowing him to escape from soldiers, resulting in her helping the military track him down in spite when she had recuperated. He kept a diary bound in kangaroo skin, supposed to have been written in blood and detailing his lust for power. Eventually Howe became a hermit, his clothes disintegrated and he wore a cloak made of kangaroo skins he had stitched together. When a former associate tried to lure him into a trap, Howe fled to the Shannon River where he was cornered and bludgeoned to death. His mangled head was then hacked off and taken to Hobart for the reward. It was displayed proudly on a spike near where the Drunken Admiral restaurant now stands. Of course, as with a great many bushranging stories, even though this is the most widely accepted version of events it is also very wide of the mark in terms of accuracy, and the real Michael Howe was nowhere bear as bloodthirsty or savage as he has been made out to be.
2. Alexander Pearce: The historical Pearce has been the subject of two feature films that were released close to each other (Van Diemens Land, The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce) due to the harrowing narrative of his last years. Pearce was transported to Van Diemens Land and suffered the fate of all convict transportees. Malnourishment, hard labour and floggings were the daily grind. Pearce soon joined a gang that managed to escape from prison and went bush in an attempt to gain liberty.
The bushrangers soon realised the fatal flaw in their plan was their complete inability to navigate the wilderness and find food. When the rations ran out they turned to cannibalism, the victims being hacked to death in their sleep and turned into food for the survivors. Eventually the few that were left went seperate ways and Pearce was apprehended while raiding a sheep farm. He was returned to prison but escaped again with another convict who he immediately took into the bush and slaughtered. When he was recaptured Pearce declared that human flesh tasted “better than fish or pork” and had some of his companion’s flesh in a pouch that he was saving for later. Naturally, he was hanged for his crimes.
3. Thomas Jefferies: Called “The Monster” by those who heard of his despicable crimes, Jefferies was another Van Diemonian bushranger of the 1820s. He was a transportee who quickly climbed the ranks to become flagellator (the man who performed the floggings), which was a job he relished. Jefferies was known for abducting female convicts and taking them into the bush to have his way with them. When this behaviour lost him his privileges he went bush with three other convicts. Jefferies travelled through Van Diemens Land raiding farms and committing arson, rape and murder.
In his most infamous crime, he and his gang raided a farm, murdered a neighbour and wounded the owner, abducted the owner’s wife and child, and when the woman slowed down to tend to her infant Jefferies plucked it out of her hands and smashed the baby’s head against a tree until it was dead, before dumping the body in the scrub to be eaten by wild animals. Jefferies went deeper into the bush with the traumatised woman and raped her before releasing her to walk home two days later. It was this crime that earned him his nickname. Jefferies also killed and ate one of his gang members when they got lost in the bush, later admitting that he had cut the remains into steaks that he would fry up with bits of mutton, adding to his horrendous reputation. Later he also murdered a constable by shooting him through the head. When he was finally captured by John Batman, he was sentenced to death. Lynch mobs formed to try and break him out of prison so they would have the joy of administering the punishment themselves. There was supposedly an elderly woman that was so enraged she tried to stab him with a butcher’s knife through the cage of the wagon he was being transported in. Even bushranger Matthew Brady, who had been a former associate of “The Monster” and was captured after Jefferies had given the authorities information about his whereabouts, refused to be kept in a cell with him, telling the guards that he would decapitate the villain if he was not relocated. When Jefferies was hanged many sighed with relief that justice had been served.
4. Dan Morgan: The story of Dan Morgan’s life is a complex one to retell due to so many decades of misreporting and folklore obscuring the truth. The film Mad Dog Morgan is a perfect illustration of how difficult it is to tell the story with adherence to the facts. Yet, if one was to create a narrative based on the folkloric Morgan, it would have be one of the most violent and perverse stories put to film. Morgan has no definitive backstory, the only reliable account of his life starts when he was imprisoned on the prison ship Success for highway robbery in the 1850s. Success and its sister ship President were reserved for the worst criminals in Victoria. On these ships prisoners were isolated, kept in undersized cells with poor ventilation, and subject to cruel and unusual punishment. During the day Morgan was ferried to the mainland to break rocks, which is where he lost the tip of a finger when his hand was crushed. Morgan was also a witness to the murder of prison inspector John Price by convicts, who bludgeoned him to death with their tools over the harsh conditions he enforced. When Morgan was released he became a swaggie and never used his real name. He worked for a time breaking horses on stations around Victoria and New South Wales but eventually went rogue. He was joined by a man called German Bill or Fancy Clarke and began a career of robbery. One of their victims was Henry Baylis, the magistrate of Wagga Wagga, who they bailed up but quickly released. Baylis, accompanied by a party of police, located the bushrangers and engaged them in a shootout. During the battle, Baylis was shot but survived, but depending on which version you believe German Bill was either mortally wounded by police or by Morgan attempting to create a diversion to facilitate his escape. The more damning accounts of Morgan’s exploits tend to be based on hearsay and exaggerate his bloodthirstiness. He was accused of tying people naked to trees and leaving them to die from exposure; threatening a woman by backing her so close to a fireplace that her dress caught alight and badly burned her legs and back; branding people; making an old man dance on a table for him under threat of death; shooting a shepherd in the groin over a perceived slight; and tying people to fences and flogging them. While some of these may be grounded in actual incidents, albeit loosely, most are not. Even popular understanding of his known crimes portrays him as an unhinged monster. Most accounts of his visit to Round Hill Station suggest he got drunk on rum, then started shooting at people. He was supposed to have threatened the station manager whose wife begged for mercy so he shot the man in the hand instead, either putting a hole through it or blowing off one of the fingers. He then shot one of the staff who had gone for help, believing he was fetching the police. During another robbery, Morgan shot a Chinese man in the leg and in another he forced a station manager to write cheques at gunpoint.
Eventually Morgan’s reign of terror ended when he was shot in the back at Peechelba station. His body was displayed and photographed then mutilated. A police superintendent had the jaw skinned so he could souvenir the beard; locks of hair were cut off and so was the head. There were also descriptions of the ears being hacked at and the scrotum being sliced off to be turned into a tobacco pouch. A film depicting Morgan as folklore describes him could indeed be a very grisly and twisted experience for the kind of director who wants to make a film that will shock and mesmerise.
5. Jimmy Governor: Governor’s life was the basis of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, which was first written as a novel by Thomas Kenneally then adapted by Fred Schepisi as a feature film. Both stick remarkably close to Governor’s real life. Governor was an Aboriginal man who worked briefly as a black tracker for the police. Undoubtedly he was used in acts of state sanctioned aggression against fellow Aboriginal people. Governor was part white on his grandmother’s side, which no doubt created some identity confusion. He then became a labourer for the Mawbey family, living in a hut on the edge of their property with his wife, a white woman, and their son, who was probably not Jimmy’s. Jimmy worked hard but was paid poorly and at the same time his wife complained about living in squalor away from her family, begging scraps from Mrs. Mawbey. She was also subjected to bullying from the Mawbeys and their associates for having married a black man. This reached breaking point when she threatened to leave Jimmy. He snapped and took his uncle with him to the Mawbey house where they slaughtered the women and most of the children with a nulla nulla (club) and a hatchet. Immediately afterwards they went on the run, but Jimmy decided to strike back at the white society that had bullied and demeaned him.
A murder spree began, where Jimmy targeted farms where he knew the families and murdered any women or children that were there, usually with his club. Jimmy had a list of around thirty names that he was systematically working through on his murderous vendetta. Jimmy and his brother Joe were made outlaws by act of parliament and stayed on the run for almost two years. Huge posses were formed to track them down as the murder count came to double digits. Governor was ambushed and shot in the jaw, but escaped. He survived by eating honey he took from a farmer’s beehive. He was soon caught and nursed to health so he could stand trial. He was found guilty of murdering the Mawbeys and hanged at Darlinghurst Gaol.
As can be seen, there are far more gory and gruesome stories in bushranging history than that of the Kelly Gang, though none are as easy a sell as a movie. Still, we have already seen some of these stories adapted to screen in some form: The Outlaw Michael Howe, The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce, Mad Dog Morgan and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Whether any of these horror stories would get the exposure of Kurzel’s punk-gothic homage to A Clockwork Orange with Ned Kelly helmets is unlikely, however.
In 2017 Matthew Holmes’ dream to create a bushranging epic for the big screen was finally realised with the theatrical release of The Legend of Ben Hall. Though it was a limited release, it gained a strong following and has since added fans from around the world to its fanbase. Now the call to action has rung out as Holmes endeavours to create a new cut of the film that is closer to his original intention than was previously possible. However, in order to make this project come to fruition he has taken to Kickstarter to raise the funds needed. Those who have followed the journey of the film will know that it was crowdfunding and an army of volunteers that made it possible to make the original film. A Guide to Australian Bushranging sat down with Holmes to discuss this monumental project, what he hopes to achieve and how.
It’s been almost three years since The Legend of Ben Hall was first released, and since then it has been distributed on DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming all around the world and has met with a great reception. What made you decide to bite the bullet and have a crack at making the definitive version of the film?
Holmes – I was committed to the idea of a Director’s Cut while I was editing the Theatrical Cut in 2015-2016. It was clear that we were going to have to lose a lot of great material in order to bring the run time closer to 2 hours. After all, our first assembly edit was 3 hours and 40 minutes long. Because we only had the money to finish one version of the film, the theatrical release version took priority and any scene that had to go, I would say “that’s one for the Director’s Cut!”
Now three years since its release, the film has done really good business in the home entertainment market, especially in the USA. I pitched the concept to my distributor Pinnacle Films and they really liked the idea. So it seemed like the right time to try to get the Director’s Cut completed. Plus the fanbase has really grown and there definitely seems like there’s a demand for it. I ran a poll on Facebook last year and 500+ people said they would support a crowdfunding campaign, so that showed there was definitely interest in the possibility.
What will the director’s cut bring to the table that is different from the version that we’ve already seen?
Holmes – There will be around 30 new scenes and 48 expanded scenes in the Director’s Cut. Essentially it’s the same story as the Theatrical Cut, but there’s more stops along the way. The film will move at a less frenetic pace. In the Theatrical Cut, my editor Caitlin Spiller and I were editing each sequence within an inch of its life to bring down the overall run time. People thought were absolutely crazy for releasing a 139 min version as our Theatrical Cut and were telling us to cull it to 90 minutes. So a lot of great character moments and little nuances got lost in the edit simply for timings sake.
My plan with the Director’s Cut is to make a far more immersive and sensory film experience. It will cement the audience more in Ben Hall’s world and allow them to sit with those characters in the environment, rather just punching along to the next event. I think it will give me the chance to really play with sound design as well, to get a feeling of what it was like to live in the bush. The Director’s Cut will absolutely be one of those films you watch over the course of two or three nights, rather than all in one sitting. The experience of the two versions will be vastly different.
Are there any particular parts of the original screenplay that you wish you had been able to film?
Holmes – There are many historical moments I wanted to include, but couldn’t. I only wrote scenes that I thought we could achieve with our very limited budget. Some historical moments had to be scaled down or omitted completely. There’s a great moment where four brothers fought off the Hall Gang from the back of a travelling wagon – that would’ve been an amazing action set piece to include. But it would’ve taken three days to film and cost a fortune.
I did write an interesting scene where the Hall Gang pillage a camp of Chinese miners and we really see the cruelty and racism inflicted on the Chinese in that period. It showed Gilbert to be a really nasty piece of work – as he really was to the Chinese. But ultimately I just didn’t have the time or budget to do it. But I promise – if we get over $110,000 on the Kickstarter Campaign – I will film that scene and put it into the movie. So get pledging, folks!
To outsiders, it might seem strange that you’ve gone to Kickstarter to get the money together for the director’s cut when we see Hollywood movies getting director’s cuts of films all the time with no apparent fundraising. Can you explain why Kickstarter was the best option to enable you to make this new edition?
Holmes – The Legend of Ben Hall is in a totally different league to Hollywood films. Hollywood productions have the budget, time and resources to make both a Director’s Cut and a Theatrical Cut simultaneously. I really don’t think people realise how little we made The Legend of Ben Hall for. Our budget was barely a million dollars. For a film of that scale, that is unheard of. In the end, I was dipping into my own pocket just to complete it. For example, I paid for half of the miniature set build simply because we’d run out of money at that time. So the only way we can afford to produce a whole new version is if the fans support it. Raising money for films is even harder than it was when we filmed the movie back in 2015. People often assume that just because we made a film that we have this bottomless pit of money to draw on. It’s quite the opposite actually.
Among the rewards on Kickstarter are brand new books about the film and the weapons used by the bushrangers and their pursuers. Can you talk a little about what pledgers should be expecting from these books?
Holmes – The weapons book will cover many of the unique guns that feature in the film, which are different than your average Western. Because it’s set in 1865, the guns were a little older than those you’ll typically see in Clint Eastwood films. The guns used in Australia at the time were largely from English gunsmiths rather than from America. I think The Legend of Ben Hall may be the first film to show someone using a Tranter Revolving Rifle. I’m certain it’s the first Australian film to ever show the Tranters being used on screen.
The A Visual Journey book will be filled with images. No text. We have so many amazing photographs from the movie, they deserve to be in a coffee-table style book. Like the Director’s Cut, that book will be an immersive piece.
Why did you choose Kickstarter over similar crowdfunding websites like Pozible and GoFundMe?
Holmes – I’ve run several campaigns in the past and the ones that succeeded were on Kickstarter. I prefer their website and the way they do things. They also have better international reach.
I don’t approach my crowdfunding campaigns as a charity. I’m offering a product to my fans, I’m not asking for a handout. That’s where most crowdfunded film projects get it wrong; they treat their film like a charity cause and beg for people to help realise their dream. Their focus should be on what the pledgers stand to get out of it. With my campaign, the pledgers are essentially pre-ordering the Director’s Cut before it hits the shelves.
In the last decade we’ve seen a big increase in independent Australian genre films such as Occupation, Arrowhead, Wyrmwood, and Stringybark getting off the ground thanks to crowdfunding. These are films that frequently get overlooked by federal funding bodies, yet there’s obviously a demand for them, especially as some of them even got sequels. Do you think that it’s a sign that the Australian film funding bodies need to evolve to meet the demands of the audiences?
Holmes – Crowdfunding has been a saving grace for many indie filmmakers like myself. It allows us to go straight to our audience. When you have government funding bodies standing between you and your audience, that’s a no-win situation. They hold the keys and their opinion of the market (and your film) will dictate if you get their funding or not. Crowdfunding allows filmmakers the chance to bypass them, which I love.
The Legend of Ben Hall would not exist if it wasn’t for those wonderful people who pledged on my Ben Hall short film campaign back in 2014. That was the catalyst that ignited the feature film. Screen Australia was never going to get behind a Ben Hall feature film, and certainly not one directed by me. When we approached them to help us with some post-production funding, they refused to support the film even after it was shot and edited.
Also, the funding bodies typically avoid genre films in favour of whatever is socially or politically popular at the time. So sci-fi, horror, western, action, comedy – or any combination of those – are not going to be looked at favourably. Most of Australia’s most interesting, upcoming directors have had to launch their careers outside of the government funding system. Crowdfunding is a big key to doing that.
At around three hours, it’s going to be quite a long film.
Holmes – Yes, but it’s not going to be abnormally long. Wyatt Earp, Dances with Wolves, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Once Upon a Time in America – these are all very long films. Perhaps too long for theatrical release, but perfect for the home entertainment scenario where you can pause the movie, get a cup of tea and snacks and come back.
We’ve seen that films like the Avengers films and the Lord of the Rings trilogy increasingly have hefty run-times that people are happy to sit through. Do you think that this signifies a return to movies being a kind of event rather than the disposable entertainment that has flooded the market in recent times?
Holmes – I believe an invested audience is happy to sit through a longer running time. In the case of The Avengers or the Lord of The Rings, those films have a hardcore, established fanbase who want as much as you can give them. The Legend of Ben Hall has such a fanbase that is, of course, more niche but no less enthusiastic. People will binge 3 or 4 episodes of television in their homes, so I don’t see a 200 minute movie as being any different.
The Director’s Cut is not being made for the regular film goer; this is absolutely one for the fans or for those who love these types of sprawling, historical epics. Impatient or casual viewers should stick to the Theatrical Cut! Personally, this will give me the chance to make The Legend of Ben Hall the way I always wanted it to be, which is not very commercial. This version will let history play out rather than be driven by movie conventions. Not having to argue or debate with anybody as to what should stay or go gives me full creative expression as a filmmaker, which I felt I lost making the Theatrical Cut.
I believe people will find the Director’s Cut a very different movie because of that.
Adapting history for film is not easy; how do you go about selecting what gets shown and what is left out?
Holmes – In my case, it came down to budget and what I could afford to show. But I also knew that the film had to focus on Ben Hall’s inner journey as much as his outer journey, so I selected historical moments that had a profound impact on his personal life. That was my best guide as to what should stay and what should go. In the end, a film is about characters, not plot. I focused the scenes more on the characters rather than worrying about the external narrative drive. Sure that made it more episodic, but I don’t think that’s something to be criticised. Many of my favourite films are hugely episodic, yet they are considered modern classics.
One of the more noticeable changes that you made that history buffs would notice was that you merged the characters of “Old Man” Gordon and John Dunleavy. Was that always the intention or was it a matter of practicality come production time?
Holmes – That is something I wish I could go back in time and fix. Adding John Dunleavy to the First Act would’ve added another character in an already burgeoning cast and I was forced to make some cuts due to our constricted budget.
If you were able to, would you do a “George Lucas” and digitally insert an actor portraying Dunleavy into those scenes retroactively, or indeed use digital magic to add shots that you had not been able to first time around?
Holmes – Absolutely. If we over-finance on the Kickstarter campaign, I’ll magically weave John Dunleavy into the Director’s Cut – that’s another promise! I’d pay Jack Martin and Andy McPhee to reprise their roles and actually film some bonus scenes to make that work. It’s entirely possible if I have the funds for it. So get pledging, folks – the sky is the limit! The more money we raise, the better the Director’s Cut will be. In fact, I might make Dunleavy’s appearance and the Chinese Miner scenes as Stretch Goals.
There’s dialogue in the Theatrical Cut where Johnny Gilbert explains that he would dress in women’s clothing as a disguise. Given that this is something that he was known to do, was there ever any thought to finding a way to include Gilbert in a dress in the film?
Holmes – We actually had a scene written with Gilbert disguised in women’s clothing. We even had a yellow dress picked out along with a silly bonnett. But on the night we planned to shoot it at the Maldon Historical Village, a huge storm blew in and rained us out. It shut production down for several hours, so we had to abandon the scene. It was at the head of the ‘Forbes Brothel’ scene (which will be restored in the Director’s Cut.)
Gilbert often dressed in women’s clothes when going into a populated town, as 2 or 3 flashy young men riding down the main street would catch the attention of local police. Dressing as a woman to disguise oneself was common practice amongst bushrangers in those days. There was nothing more to it than disguise and practicality. I find it very silly that a certain other bushranger film has attempted to make wearing dresses out to be a bigger deal than what it was.
Father McCarthy is a character that plays a significant role in the story of the gang, historically having directed John Vane of the original Gilbert-Hall Gang to turn himself in to Superintendent Morrisett. He was included in early promotional material for The Legend of Ben Hall, but didn’t make the final cut. Are you glad you have the opportunity to reinstate those scenes?
Holmes – I’ll be hugely excited to see that scene reinstated. I always felt it was a pivotal one. It was one of the last and one of the hardest scenes to delete, because it carried so many of the film’s central themes: choice and the consequences of it. It had so much foreshadowing and let the audience see what was driving Ben Hall’s decisions, to understand the difficult position he was in. It was heart-breaking to remove, but we were being heavily pressured to get the first act moving faster. I know actor Peter Flaherty, who played Father McCarthy, is very happy about its return, as he gave a wonderful and earnest performance. And he really nailed the Cork accent.
The theatrical cut of The Legend of Ben Hall tended to show Hall as essentially a good man who is driven to change his ways because he realises the consequences of his own behaviour and doesn’t want his son to think of him as a villain. Will the director’s cut explore that aspect any further?
Holmes – The Director’s Cut will show a much darker side to Ben Hall, that’s for sure. There were certain moments and lines of dialogue that were lifted from the Theatrical Cut because we had feedback that viewers were losing empathy for Ben Hall, particularly during the middle of the film. I showed Hall to be quite ruthless at times and revealed that war between good and evil raging in his soul. Personally, I loved that aspect of the character and Jack Martin showed both sides of his personality really well. I wanted to show Ben Hall as he was – torn and conflicted. But that doesn’t bode well with those who are used to having their movie protagonists portrayed as squeaky clean. For the Director’s Cut, I won’t have any of those restrictions. That will be liberating and I think will make for a far more complex and engaging character.
Has there been any movement regarding the other films in the proposed “Legends” trilogy?
Holmes – Just in the last two months, we’ve received some really solid interest from the USA in the first prequel film The Legend of Frank Gardiner. Ironically, there’s been no interest from Australian investors or funding bodies. I also have two new producers onboard who are working on sourcing the finance and attaching cast. That film will introduce three new lead characters – Frank Gardiner, Sir Frederick Pottinger and Kitty Brown, Biddy’s younger sister.
If that film goes ahead, many original cast members will be reprising their roles such as Jack Martin, Jamie Coffa, Joanne Dobbin, Nick Barry, Angus Pilakui, Gregory Quinn, Adam Willson and Tom Beaurepaire. It will be an absolute dream come true if Gardiner happens. We’ll be able to show things that weren’t possible in the first film. Plus we are also planning to film it all up in Ben Hall country in the Central West of New South Wales. So fingers crossed!
When will the Kickstarter campaign be winding up for those looking to make a pledge?
Holmes – Our Kickstarter ends on March 29th, 2020. I’m running it longer than usual because it’s a big target to reach. If we don’t reach $90,000, the Director’s Cut won’t ever happen – it’s that simple. That would be a tragedy, because I believe this Director’s Cut will be a superior film to the Theatrical Cut in every way.
But in the end, it really is up to the fans. But that’s the way it’s always been with this film. The fans kickstarted The Legend of Ben Hall back in 2014; I just hope five years on, the fans are still with me for one last ride. We shall know in a few weeks time!
To learn about the rewards on offer and make a pledge to the Kickstarter campaign for The Legend of Ben Hall Director’s Cut, follow this link: http://shorturl.at/fnuPY
What is it about we Australians, eh? What is wrong with us? Do we not have a Jefferson? A Disraeli? Might we not find someone better to admire than a horse thief and a murderer?
It took Justin Kurzel, on the back of two financial and critical flops, seven years to get enough funding to make this film, and then the budget got halved just as they went into production. They didn’t even have enough money to buy adequate rice to feed Russell Crowe, resulting in the Hollywood heavyweight storming off set after a rant at the caterers. Not exactly an auspicious start for what was slated to be one of the highest profile Australian films of the decade. With big name stars Crowe, Charlie Hunnam, Essie Davis and Nicholas Hoult, as well as rising stars George Mackay and Thomasin McKenzie to draw the crowds in, and based on an award-winning and internationally lauded novel by one of Australia’s most popular authors to boot, this should have been a grand slam and something to write home about – and it is, but for all the wrong reasons.
In this review we will be discussing major details of the film, which some refer to as “spoilers”. If you want to go into the film blind, I suggest you rethink the decision to read reviews before watching the movie. There’s a lot to unpack here but, in short, this is not the film we wanted and is likely to cause distress amongst many potential viewers in a number of ways. It is incoherent both visually and in terms of plot; some key technical aspects of the film are little better than amateurish; and the whole thing is underscored with utter antipathy towards essentially the entirety of the audience that would want to watch a Ned Kelly film. This film has no reverence or even a modicum of respect for history, nor indeed the source text. To call it a mockery gives it too much credit.
But, before we get into the unpleasant things, let’s discuss the tiny glimmers of light in the Lovecraftian murk. The cast are phenomenal. George Mackay, if given a better script, could have easily become the essential on-screen Ned Kelly. He absolutely embodies the man and is utterly magnetic whenever he’s on screen. He comes across as a director’s dream; readily able and willing to do whatever the role requires of him, whether that be chanting obscenities at police or dancing like a monkey after a brutal boxing match. Despite being an Englishman, he nails the Australian accent, which lends an unusual slice of authenticity to the character. Meanwhile, Russell Crowe certainly earned his hefty paycheque with a delightfully camp portrayal of Harry Power that leaves the audience wanting more. His personality shift from jovial and fatherly to brutal and nasty veers the closest to the source text of any roles that make it into the film. Essie Davis is powerful as a twisted, Kath Pettinghill-esque interpretation of Ellen Kelly in tight pants and hair beads. Rather than a hard-done-by Irish widow, this version of Ellen crackles with religious fervour and primal fury. Her intensity and effortless transition from adoring mother to bloodthirsty harpy and back throughout the film demonstrates just why Davis is one of the best actresses on the scene. Charlie Hunnam gives a great performance as Sergeant O’Neil, despite his often incomprehensible accent early on. There’s an authenticity and believability in his performance that leads one to believe that he had crafted a narrative for his character that wasn’t present in the script, just so he had some idea of how to play the part from scene to scene. The three Kelly Gang members – Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan), Dan Kelly (Earl Cave), and Steve Hart (Louis Hewison) – are all engaging and entertaining in the fleeting glimpses we get of them, but they are criminally underused. For a film with “Kelly Gang” in the title, there’s bafflingly little screen time dedicated to the titular gang. Cave and Hewison in particular had the potential to be some of the best characters in the film, especially given their characterisation in the source text, and both have flashes of brilliance in the limited moments where able, but spend most of the time they are on screen out of focus, out of frame, or in the background. Sean Keenan creates a version of Joe Byrne that wears his heart on his sleeve and carries the burden of fully comprehending the gravity of Ned’s bloodthirsty actions when his friends don’t, which is another underplayed aspect that could have made for compelling character moments in a better written film. When he breaks down in tears after seeing the slaughter at Stringybark Creek that results from Ned ignoring his pleas, or when he’s slapping Ned for dooming them all at Glenrowan, one can’t help feel for the guy. Thomasin McKenzie is a delight as Mary Hearn, portraying the character as far more tender and overwhelmed by the crazy world she has been whipped up in than comes across in Carey’s novel, which makes her far more endearing. Orlando Schwerdt as a young Ned Kelly portrays a gravitas and strength well beyond his years in a career-making performance that will see him go places if there’s any justice in the world. Nicholas Hoult impresses as Fitzpatrick, who in this version is an English “Libertine” type who frequents a bizarre brothel, tries to lure Kate Kelly into a paedophilic relationship, and becomes Ned’s arch-enemy, who apparently can analyse the man better than anyone else, yet still struggles to catch him. Hoult displays excellent comedic chops, but unfortunately the humour is frequently misplaced and falls flat through no fault of the actor. Other standouts were Jacob Collins-Levy as Thomas Curnow, and Claudia Karvan as Mrs. Shelton, both of whom are the most realistic human characters in the piece. It is clear that all of the performances were crafted with passion and care, but one can’t help but get the sense that the film we got was not the one they signed up for.
The costumes are quite interesting to look at and the design work is absolutely superb, with Mackay’s signature look of scarlet shirt, hobnail boots, moleskins and monkey jacket a standout with a contemporary look and old world vibes. In conjunction with the mullet it makes him look like a Sharpie (a Melbourne street gang from the mid-20th century), which seems to match up with the very 1970s aesthetic given to young Ned. The same for the police uniforms and Harry Power’s suit, which create a sense of being of the time while being very contemporary to the present. Alice Babidge definitely created a unique style that should have made the film iconic, but the outfits rarely get shown off and there seems to have been far less effort put into the rest of the production design to reinforce the visual flair. Of course, there are some head-scratchers like Joe Byrne’s outfit of short shorts, knitted cardigan, Akubra hat, Blundstones and nothing else. Poor Sean Keenan had to wear this Manpower Australia costume in the snow for most of the film. Then there’s the glowing police ponchos that make the cops visible in the Glenrowan scene but make them look like the ghosts of the press photographers from particularly rainy football games. The wardrobe was evidently shaped by the garbled visual sense Kurzel’s wanted to portray, and one cannot fault Babbidge for rising to the task and creating beautiful costumes within the enforced guidelines – just like any decent professional.
The casting of Marlon Williams as George King is clearly to get a known singer on the soundtrack, because apart from singing he has very little else of significance to do (excepting a baffling monologue about habitually abusing a dog), and Russell Crowe even manages to get a filthy song in so he can show off his vocals, primed after his years in TOFOG. Jed Kurzel’s score is droning and tense, which works really well to create a tense atmosphere in some of the quieter scenes, but it isn’t very memorable and comes across as the Aldi version of the score to The Proposition. The much promoted punk songs performed by the actors playing the Kelly Gang pop up far less frequently than they deserve, and if there had been more of that it would have really tied the punk aesthetic together and made for something truly memorable, but instead it really just gets used to make some transitions seem slightly more interesting than they really are.
As for the use of sets and locations, the decision to make all of the buildings look like repurposed sheds from Bunnings is odd to say the least. The recurring visual motif is slot shaped windows (because obviously that’s an homage to the armour) but it isn’t interesting enough to warrant lauding it. The Glenrowan Inn interior looks like the public toilet at Abu Ghraib, complete with half a dozen people wearing bags over their heads. The environments used do not reflect the historical locations at all, even when they film in places like Old Melbourne Gaol, which they digitally altered, and seem to have been picked for their remoteness, sparseness and harshness on the eye. The Kelly family live in a swamp, Harry Power lives in the snow and the Glenrowan Inn is built in the middle of a dried out pasture. Several shots are lit in such a way that it resembles a stage set from a production at the Malthouse Theatre rather than a film shot on location. Perhaps the praise many gave this amdram styling and emphasis on stylised visuals with little to no substance indicates the state of arts criticism in the present day more than anything else in relation to this film.
The biggest talking point though has been the dresses. In the film Dan Kelly and Steve Hart wear dresses because they heard about a band of Irish rebels called the “Sons of Sieve” who used to do unspeakable things to the English, and the implication is that the adoption of the quirk occurred during Ned’s time in prison for shooting Sergeant O’Neil. In Carey’s book Ned beats the snot out of the pair for wearing the dresses and tells Steve Hart to leave their camp in Bullock Creek believing he is a corrupting influence on Dan. Ned’s anger towards the dresses in the book stems from the triggering of memories of being bullied by Sergeant O’Neil over Red Kelly being one of the aforementioned rebels. This literary incarnation of Red had murdered a man through the activities of the rebels, but used the pig stealing story to cover up the real reason he was sent to Australia. In Carey’s writing this is important as it invokes historical rebellion in Ireland as well as touching on the reality that many Irishmen were sent to Australia as political prisoners – details that don’t factor into the film version. But further to that point, Red’s deliberate efforts in the literary version to obscure his own history is one of the driving factors in Ned’s decision to write his memoirs in the first place. In the film, however, the “Sons of Sieve” are more like a cult than a rebel band, even to the extent of Ellen forcibly telling Ned “You’re a Son of Sieve!” as if that should have some significance to him. Then with Ned and Joe adopting the dresses and blackface themselves, it goes completely against what Carey established in the book about how the very notion of the rebels and their way of doing things was offensive to them. This point, above all else, highlights that Kurzel not only did not understand his source material, but also leapt upon any opportunity to draw a link between machismo and homoeroticism – especially when he has Fitzpatrick talking about the joys of having sex while wearing a dress. This, of course, also ties in with the undercurrent of sexual tension between Ned and Fitzpatrick, as well as between Ned and Joe. Ned and Joe can barely keep their hands off each other and always seen about two seconds away from snogging. Meanwhile, Fitzpatrick is introduced admiring Ned’s physique during a boxing match, which he later compliments him on with bedroom eyes. Of course, this doesn’t gel with Ned’s relationship with Mary Hearn, not the Oedipal undercurrent of his relationship with Ellen. Furthermore, it should be noted that the female Kellys in the film are prone to gender bending too, with Kate Kelly sporting short hair and boyish clothes, and Ellen favouring a Patti Smith inspired pants and jacket. There is something very Freudian about the director’s fixation on having Ned Kelly act in a very queer manner, but there’s also an intellectual dishonesty in effectively shouting “no homo” by dismissing it as merely the intimacy of strong friendship, deliberate attempts to signify madness, or the result of opium use. It’s a situation that requires either full commitment to the idea or none at all.
Let’s talk technical. There are two extremely important aspects of film that can make or break a production: cinematography and editing. On both counts this movie demonstrates that you can get a job in the industry even if you’re not great at what you do, so long as the director or ptoducer likes you. The camera movements leap between pointlessly kinetic and totally static without rhyme or reason. If you aren’t motion sick by the ten minute mark it would be miraculous. There is no discernible attempt at mise en scene, with shots either too close to the actors, too cluttered, poorly framed or boringly sparse indicating that the sets were not built around what the audience should be seeing, but rather the shots were dictated by a checklist – wide shot, mid shot, close up, extreme close up. The lighting ranges from stark and bright to gloomy to the point that it’s like watching with a case of optic neuritis (that is when there’s not pointless strobe lighting). As for the editing, the lack of flow between scenes and even within them owes much to the incomprehensible attempt at slapping together shots without any respect for continuity. Constantly throughout the film characters completely change position from shot to shot, which is something even amateur editors know not to permit. The effect is that the attentive viewer is distracted because, for example, Ned will be holding a pipe and looking out of frame then suddenly holding nothing and looking at Fitzpatrick. It’s one of the cardinal sins of editing and it cheapens the whole enterprise.
On a script level, there’s nothing of considerable substance on show. The plot is merely a collection of events with no connective tissue and no motivation. Any resemblance to Carey’s book comes across like it was taken from SparkNotes about the novel rather than an actual reading of the literature. Characters are, at best, one note and rudimentary, leaving it up to the actors to do the heavy lifting. Any point to the story is almost impossible to discern until Curnow’s closing monologue makes clear that the whole thing is about how Australians make an embarrassing spectacle of themselves because they put criminals in pride of place for a lack of decent human beings of their own to look up to. In the book, Curnow is a self-important elitist who gives his comments about Jefferson and Disraeli in a train as he and his family are being escorted away from Glenrowan by police to protect them from reprisals from the Kelly Sympathisers. It is portrayed as a snide aside taking a dig at the colonials. In the film, it is delivered as a grandiose speech to an enormous crowd in the State Library of Victoria who give it rapturous applause. While this transposition may seem trivial, it actually underscores the whole point of the film succinctly. By making the statement indicating that Australians are intellectually inferior a lauded public statement rather than a quiet comment it suggests that Grant and Kurzel see this as the key message of the film. The book’s key message is actually about the subjectivity of “truth”, and plays with the concept of what is true or not by blending pure fiction with historical fact (Carey spoke in glowing terms of Ian Jones’ work, much of which is directly paraphrased in the novel). On the other hand, none of this idea seems to have occurred to the duo of Grant and Kurzel, though perhaps earlier drafts of the screenplay were quite a lot closer to the source text in this way.
The dialogue ranges from the needlessly prosaic to coarse and vulgar. As a result, many of the snatches of dialogue lifted from Carey’s book feel out of place, especially when voiced by Mackay as Ned, as it results in a lack of character consistency. The overuse of the words “fuck” and “cunt” render the words meaningless, which is probably yet another jab at the “bogans” that Kurzel and Grant appear to have a chip on their shoulder about. While these words were used at the time, it is unlikely anyone would have spoken in this way without being arrested. It comes off as merely a hamfisted attempt at making the Kellys and their ilk come across as yobbos.
One thing in particular that makes the film a slog is that there are no likeable characters. Every single character is crude, violent, insane or effete. Harry Power blows two men to kingdom come so he can steal their guns and a trinket box from their mail coach, then later tries to make Ned shoot Sergeant O’Neil’s penis off (the latter, admittedly, derived from a similar scene in the novel). Ellen Kelly acts like a deranged priestess, grooming her eldest son to be some kind of “chosen one” and allowing Dan to adopt the garb of the cult as if prepping him to become a zealot for her mysterious cause. Her absolute belief that Ned worships her to the point of being willing to sacrifice himself for her is incredibly uncomfortable to watch, especially when she gives Ned a briefing on how he will be executed and how he is to behave during it to make her proud after a kiss that is far too passionate for a mother and son to share. Then, you have Fitzpatrick as a predatory paedophile who has no qualms in grooming girls, threatening to shoot babies, or attempting to rape Ellen in a train carriage. That he somehow ends up leading the pursuit for Ned despite only being a constable is a stretch of reality that is almost passable. Joe Byrne is off his face throughout most of the film (the only one to date that depicts him using opium) but he seems to be the voice of reason nonetheless. His most memorable moment is his impassioned monologue where he tries to convince Ned to escape to America because they have donuts there.
In terms of the characters that were left out of the film completely you have people like Aaron Sherritt; Tom Lloyd; Wild Wright; Ned’s siblings Maggie, Jim, Grace, Annie, Alice, Ellen and Jack (though an unnamed baby is featured); all of the senior police officers like Standish, Hare, Ward, Nicholson and O’Connor; all of the native police and on, and on. The character of Bill Frost, a major character in the book, is amalgamated with Sergeant O’Neil to justify Charlie Hunnam’s time and wages. The inclusion of cabaret singer Paul Capsis as a transgender brothel madam isn’t out of place in this film, but one has to seriously question why more of an effort wasn’t made to allow him to use his exquisite voice, which is what he’s famous for.
As for Ned, he seems to be four different characters rolled together. At first he’s a young boy who is more mature than his years out of necessity. He’s headstrong and assertive but still prone to the deep emotional trauma that his lifestyle would leave on any child. Then he’s a wild man who punches people for the entertainment of others and gets high on the adrenaline before doing a monkey dance and howling. Then he’s a quiet, unassuming young man who is awkward around women, unsure of his sexuality, suspicious of most men and resentful of his mother. Finally there’s the Ned that we see at Glenrowan who is utterly unhinged and unpredictable. One second he’s mumbling about how there’s errors in the parsing of his writing, then the next he’s bashing tables and throwing chairs, then he’s back to writing. This is the same Ned that finds the (unnamed) Sergeant Kennedy dying in the long grass after Ned ambushes the police, waits for him to stop moving and then hacks his ear off with a pocket knife. No doubt this queer, violent and unhinged portrayal will be welcomed by certain individuals that have a particular aversion to the popularity of Ned Kelly.
The mystery of why Ned has blonde hair in the film becomes apparent when we see that Red Kelly is thus called because he wears a red dress, not because of his hair colour. All of the Kelly family have brown or black hair except for Ned, who shares his golden locks with Sergeant O’Neil who seems unusually affectionate to young Ned, and swears to look after the family when Red mysteriously dies in custody (and is somehow taken back to the family in his red dress, which we had seen Ned burning earlier). Just what it is that Kurzel was trying to imply by having this lovechild subplot that amounts to nothing is unclear, but it is one example of the many aborted themes, motifs, subplots and characters. Throughout the film things that have been set up as being of note go nowhere. A good example is Ned using a locket he stole as a bullroarer in the first act is mirrored by Ned spinning a rope while breaking in a horse in the second, but is never followed up. George King simply vanishes, as do O’Neil and Harry Power. Not enough effort is made to demonstrate how cause and effect shape the three acts (Boy, Man and Monitor), which results in Ned suddenly going bonkers and dressing in a sheer dress and recruiting an army of teenagers to help him commit mass murder. This “army” also amounts to nothing as mere minutes later, when they are supposed to join the gang at Glenrowan, they just never appear. There’s no scene showing the children throwing away their armour upon realising their folly or anything, just an absence. It would not surprise if huge chunks of the film were cut at the last minute to conform to the running time that cinemas demand in order to fit more advertising in at screenings, but, regardless of the excuse, this tendency to not bother following up on threads or connect ideas is the biggest flaw in the film as it compromises any attempt to justify many of the creative decisions.
Modern films, of course, require at least a couple of scenes that rely heavily on CGI, and this is no different. Of note, we see Ellen Kelly blow the brains out of a CGI horse with a shotgun. We also see the gates of Melbourne Gaol blown apart by an American Civil War ship (“The Monitor”), the most baffling aspect of which is why Melbourne Gaol is partially submerged. The final bit of CGI that really stands out is in the hanging sequence. Rather than using the actual gallows for the hanging, Kurzel decided he would rather they push Ned over the railing to hang him. For this, they filmed next to the actual gallows (out of shot, naturally) and used CGI to make the gaol look bigger, as well as put a wooden beam across the walkways so that Ned can dangle in the middle of the gaol. There’s nothing wrong with using CGI to achieve what cannot be achieved practically, but one has to wonder why they chose to do things like set the gaol gates in a river.
From a historical perspective, apart from the obvious elements, there are a great many baffling things. A prime example is the inclusion of “Mad Dog Morgan” who Harry Power and Ned Kelly find in the bush. Morgan is portrayed as a craggy old man who has been lynched to death, tied halfway up a tree with his testicles cut off and shoved in his mouth. Despite the fact that Morgan wasn’t an old man, nor was his corpse tied to a tree with its own genitals hacked off and shoved in the gob, there’s the issue of Dan Morgan having been killed four years before Ned even met Harry Power. There is only one bank robbery shown, depicted with Joe Byrne, still dressed in hot pants and Blundstones, scrambling in the snow for a handful of crumpled banknotes, while inside Ned orders the bank manager to publish his letters. In fact, the sheer amount of snow in the film is baffling, considering that Australia is not exactly known as a winter wonderland. The only Aboriginal we see is Jack Charles as a waiter and there are no Chinese characters of note, despite their huge presence in the Kelly story and Australian history, though we do see some Asian characters as prostitutes in the brothel sequences. There is a ball scene that comes out of nowhere and doesn’t seem to have a point other than to make Mary Hearn cross paths with Ellen Kelly and George King, and to show Fitzpatrick trying to get groom Kate Kelly into a sexual partner. This sequence features a number of extras wearing animal masks and costumes with a strong Eyes Wide Shut vibe. The meaning of these creative decisions is rarely easy to discern, but Kurzel has demonstrated time and again in his filmography that he only cares if his films it look cool.
In the end, the best things you can say about this are that there are some wonderful performances and that it might cause people to rethink their attitude towards letting writers and directors have Carte Blanche to use historical figures to secure an audience upon which to push their own agendas. There is a supreme cognitive dissonance in the text, which tries all it can not to be a Ned Kelly film but reminds you at every opportunity that it is one (usually with slotted windows). This is an utterly misanthropic and mean spirited attack on not only the historical figures on both sides of the law, but also anyone that takes an interest in them. The majority of those praising this postmodern deconstruction of Ned Kelly are doing so out of a sense of solidarity with Kurzel, all of them of opinion that only their intellectual interiors have an interest in this story. It’s the typical modus operandi of the “intelligentsia”. It leaves one at the end of the grim spectacle with just one question for Justin Kurzel:
Who hurt you?
True History of the Kelly Gang is in selected Australian cinemas until Australia Day, when it will premiere on Stan.It will be in UK cinemas from 28 February.
We could be getting a three-hour director’s cut of The Legend of Ben Hall
by MATTHEW EELES
The Legend of Ben Hall will become an even bigger spectacle with the possible release of a three hour director’s cut if things go to plan for the filmmakers behind the ambitious bushranger epic.
On December 4, The Legend of Ben Hall director Matthew Holmes posted to the film’s Facebook page asking fans if they would support a crowdfunding campaign for an extended director’s cut which would restore almost an hours worth of unseen material back into the film featuring thirty new scenes and forty-eight expanded scenes.
“If we get 500+ votes for ‘Yes’ then we have a real shot at making it become a reality!!!,” the post read.
Twenty days later Holmes’ dream to release his original vision for the film came one step closer to reality with another Facebook post announcing he had received over 500 votes in support of his ambitious venture.
“In early 2020, we will be launching a crowd-funding campaign so we can make the definitive director’s cut of this film,” the post announced.
The Legend of Ben Hall is based on the true story of Australian bushranger Ben Hall, played by Jack Martin, who reforms his old gang with newcomer John Dunn in tow. After killing two policemen in a botched holdup the government declare the gang outlaws and they’re now outrunning do-gooders eager to fill them full of bullets in return for an attractive cash reward.
If the crowdfunding campaign is to meet its target, it wouldn’t be the first time for Holmes. In 2014 the director launched an ambitious Kickstarter campaign to raise $75,000 for a short form version of The Legend of Ben Hall. The film went on to raise over $145,000 using crowdfunding. Six months later the project had secured an international sales agent, an Australian distributor and multiple private investors, including state funding and The Legend of Ben Hall was expanded into a two hour feature film.
In September Holmes received public support to release a digitally remastered version of his sophomore feature film, Twin Rivers. That campaign saw $7906 pledged of a $4000 goal.
Unfortunately, not all of Holmes’ crowdfunding campaigns have been realised. Glenrowan, a feature film about the infamous last stand of Ned Kelly with Walking Dead actor Callan McAuliffe tipped to star, was not successful. The project is now being developed into a 6-part mini-series.
As one of Australia’s most eager filmmakers, Holmes is also working on a remake of Blue Fin based on Colin Thiele’s story of tuna fishing in Port Lincoln. Holmes is also developing a new horror film called The Artifice, based on his short film of the same name. You can watch that short film here.
Keep an eye on Cinema Australia and The Legend of Ben Hall’s Facebook page for more announcements regarding the 2020 crowdfunding campaign.
Cinema Australia wishes Matthew and his team all the best.
In 2011 a film about Captain Moonlite and James Nesbitt was slated for release. It took inspiration from the film Sin City – a gritty noir anthology filmed entirely on green screens to emulate the look and feel of the graphic novels that it was based on – and featured Barry Crocker and Tasma Walton. But somewhere along the line the film just disappeared like a summer cloud. So why has Moonlite never seen the light of day?
Moonlite was surprisingly not the first film depiction of Captain Moonlite. In 1910 John Gavin directed and starred in a silent film also called Moonlite. The film was produced by Herbert Forsyth and based on a play by William Joseph Lincoln, who himself was a prolific writer and director of films. As with most early films it no longer exists, the typical practice of the time being to exhibit the film for a limited time the same way a play would be, then to destroy the film. Celluloid burns tremendously well and it was not uncommon to see furnaces on steam ships blazing away full of reels of cinematographic entertainment. What little we can piece together about the film indicated that it would have been essentially a series of tableaux portraying a fictionalised interpretation of the historical Captain Moonlite with added Aboriginal companion and a female love interest, whose brother’s money troubles set this version of Moonlite on his path of criminality. The film was well received and did very well indeed at the box office. Only one image from the production is known to exist.
It perhaps speaks volumes that it took a century for another Captain Moonlite film to raise steam. Of all the most well-known bushrangers, Moonlite has always been an outlier. Mainly known for his dramatic nom de plume, very few people know the story of Andrew George Scott. In recent years, however, with the increasing prominence of the pro-LGBTI+ movement, Moonlite’s story has gained new interest. The notion of a gay bushranger is one that certainly resonates with parts of the community and creates a bold new perspective for examining the story. This is where the twenty-first century Moonlite enters the scene.
As with nearly all Australian films, a good place to start is with Screen Australia. This government body who is tasked with getting Australian films, television series and web series off the ground tends to have useful information on their site pertaining to productions that they have had a hand in. On Screen Australia’s website it claims the film is completed and describes it thus:
The rollicking adventure tale of charismatic bushranger Andrew George Scott, alias, Captain Moonlite, and his close companion, James Nesbitt. Fated to meet in prison, the pair become lifelong friends and embark on an adventure through the Australian bush. A police constable pursues them, a young newspaper journalist commentates on their journey in print and a mysterious lady in black watches from afar as the story reaches a shocking conclusion.
It seems very odd indeed that a film could be listed as officially completed, yet never released. In searching for any clue as to a speculative release date via that vast directory of internet domains, Google, one comes across the film on the credits of many of those involved in the project. Martin Kay, sound recordist on the film, lists it as “yet to be released” with 2010 listed beside it. In fact it is the only film in the list that hasn’t been released. One could suppose that it merely hadn’t been updated, however there are films and awards on the same page as recent as 2018. Continuing on, actor Richard Stables lists the film on his website. Stables was cast in the lead role as Captain Moonlite and his website simply states:
‘Moonlite’ – Captain Moonlite (lead role) Rohan Spong and JGD Productions Hits cinemas nationwide in 2012
2012, it would seem, was the most recent estimated year of release, indicating it had been pushed back from it’s initial slated release dates in 2010, then 2011. This is not unusual in the film world where attempting to get projects off the ground is more akin to the birdman rally than an airstrip.
The Stale Popcorn blog mentioned Moonlite in its list of Australian films for 2011, even going so far as to include links to the official website, IMDb, Facebook and Twitter, which no longer exist. So with all of these scraps of information dotted around the internet, the story becomes even more muddled and mysterious, but there was one avenue yet that could yield the answers.
In September 2019 I reached out to Rohan Spong himself via Facebook. It was a long shot as there was no guarantee he would see the message, let alone reply. I asked him if he was able to supply any information about the project. To my surprise and delight he responded the following day with exactly the information I was looking for. He explained:
The script was adapted from a play by Simon Matthews. Some scenes were shot, but the film was never completed. It was an ambitious project that would have required a lot of budget for post – we were angling for a “Graphic Novel” kind of look which was in vogue at the time. Proof of concept videos never generated the right level of market interest. The actors were all marvellous. I’ve since moved on to a strictly documentary practice.
So there you have it, right from the horse’s mouth. Moonlite suffered the fate of so many bushranger film projects of recent years despite promising to be something very fresh and unique. As we approach the 140th anniversary of the Wantabadgery siege, it is worth taking some time to consider what could have been.
A very special thank you to Rohan Spong for kindly responding to the query about this film.
The most anticipated project at present is Justin Kurzel’s adaptation of True History of the Kelly Gang. The Booker Prize winning novel has had an awful time reaching the screen as detailed in previous articles. With this outing by the Assassin’s Creed director, there has been very little news since production wrapped in 2018. Repeated attempts by A Guide to Australian Bushranging to contact the production and distribution companies connected to the film to gain any information was been met with resounding silence. However, on 24 July we finally got a release date and the first official images from the film.
According to reports, the film will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019. This means that it will have been over a year since production wrapped when audiences first get a chance to see it. It also means that Australian audiences will have to wait even longer to see the film, which naturally has some people scratching their heads. Whether Canadian audiences will respond to the film will be interesting to see.
Available information for the film states that it remains in post-production. For months, rumours abounded that it would premiere at Cannes, which it did not as it was not ready in time to qualify, then more recently it was speculated to be premiering at the Venice Film Festival. What is clear is that regardless of where it was to debut, it was always intended to play to international audiences at a film festival first. There is still no word on the release date for general audiences or if it will be a limited release.Oddly, the film has already been nominated for best film adaptation at the 52nd AWGIE awards, despite not having been screened or released, which begs more questions than it answers. Shaun Grant’s screenplay seems to only have one other contender – another as-yet unreleased Essie Davis vehicle in Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears – to duke it out with, so that remains a curiosity.
Essie Davis, who will be playing Ellen Kelly, has mentioned the film several times in interviews about her latest project, Lambs of God. Davis in one interview talks about how a scene in THOTKG saw her thrashed about and bruised, while in another interview she talks about having to keep her hair during the making of Lambs of God because of her role as Ellen. This makes one curious as to what scene could possibly see Ellen thrashed around and beaten.
Another cast member that has spoken of the film in interview is Sean Keenan, who was asked about the film on The Project while promoting his stage production of Cosi. During the brief and awkward interaction Keenan described filming on the snow, Winton Wetlands and in Wangaratta. He also confirmed that he is playing Joe Byrne and that the film is a “contemporary mix” and “modern retelling” of the story.
Artwork used on sites associated with the film’s production and distribution around March appeared to depict something of a concept for the poster design. With a pink colour scheme, the only graphic was an assortment of half-naked young men holding firearms and wearing dresses or ladies underwear. None of the faces of the men Were shown, indicating that these are not the actors from the film, but rather stand-ins. It is unlikely that this will reflect the final poster design.
The production images are not very specific in what they depict but there are perhaps some clues as to the style of the film, it’s attitude to the source material and some of what we can expect to see in the film. It is a little strange that for a film titled True History of the Kelly Gang there are no images of the eponymous bushrangers. It is also strange that Nicholas Hoult, one of the bigger international stars in the film, is not included while two of Russell Crowe were despite the former likely having a more significant role.
Meanwhile, Ben Head’s short feature Stringybark debuted at the Lorne Film Festival on 26 July. The film, centred around the ill-fated Mansfield party rather than the bushrangers, has had an interesting production history; starting out as a student film then getting a huge boost from crowdfunding that allowed the team to get closer to their vision. After an investor screening of the film, things went quiet while the team tried to tee up screenings. Several official photographs from the film were released as well as a trailer, giving audiences a good sense of what to expect ahead of time. Beyond its Lorne premiere there is no further word yet on when there will be other opportunities for people to see the film on the big screen or via streaming, but according to Ben Squared Films they are currently looking at independent cinema screenings in the next few months.
Matthew Holmes’ Glenrowan remains in development, but is now being pitched as a six-part mini-series, intended for streaming. This will allow the story to expand to include elements previously unable to be included due to time constraints. Whereas the original screenplay focused almost entirely on the actual siege, the expanded format will include more of the prelude and aftermath, including an entire episode to open the series based on an expanded version of the short feature screenplay Blood and Thunder, and more emphasis on Aaron Sherritt and the politics that led to the formulation of the Glenrowan plot. The new format also allows more focus to be put on the people outside of the outlaws and the police such as Ann and Jane Jones, the Kelly sisters and key sympathisers like the Lloyds and Harts. It follows the structure and content of the novel that was written parallel to the development of the initial screenplay (by yours truly) more closely than was previously possible.
As details come to hand about any films or other bushranger related productions, you will be able to find them at our Facebook page.