Black Snake: The Real Story of Ned Kelly by Leo Kennedy and Mic Looby is one of those rare occasions when you get a truly fresh insight into familiar history. Driven by the desire to tell the story of his great-grandfather, Sergeant Michael Kennedy, after decades of bullying and seeing the killer of his forebear glorified, Leo Kennedy has produced a marvelous family history. His account of the life of Ned Kelly, however, is a different matter entirely.
Where Black Snake stands head and shoulders above so many other books about this history is in its account of the Kennedy family and the police force. The love for the family history drips off every page where we see their tale unfold. One could be forgiven for thinking that Kennedy and Looby have gone out of their way to paint them in a good light, but there is nothing here that contradicts the information already readily available about the Kennedys. Little anecdotes really bring the story to life like Michael Kennedy digging out and constructing the cellar of the family home and Kennedy and Scanlan ambushing a sheep thief.
Michael Kennedy himself is portrayed in the most heroic way possible. There is nothing on record to suggest that Kennedy was anything other than a model citizen, but at times the butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-his-mouth characterisation used in this book runs the risk of betraying the author’s hero-worship and leading the reader to question how much of what they’re reading is merely romance.
Despite this starry-eyed artifice employed to portray the hero of the story, we learn a lot in these sections about the family and the unenviable lifestyle of the police of the late 19th century. These are points that have not really been featured in any significant way in Kelly biographies to date. Seeing how the dire situation the police found themselves in impacted on law enforcement portrayed in a Kelly book is refreshing. Many times we see the lack of training, the stretched resources and the kinds of dangerous situations police would find themselves in illustrated clearly and vividly. That there is no moral grandstanding in these passages, for the most part, is what makes them so good.
Had Black Snake been just about the Kennedys with Ned Kelly only popping up in relation to the Stringybark Creek tragedy, this would be an essential text to illustrate the other side of the story. However this content only comprises around half of the book and what balance it creates in these passages is completely dwarfed by the remaining content.
Alas, where the book falls down, and it is a significant pitfall, is its depiction of the other side of the story it tells. The title of the book says everything you need to know about the author’s position on its subject. The attempts to illustrate how despicable the Kellys and their ilk were rely very heavily on dramatisation based on little information. For example, referring to the Ah On incident (wherein Aaron Sherritt and Joe Byrne were charged with injuring a Chinese man with rocks) as evidence that the Greta Mob indiscriminately attacked the Chinese and indigenous people as a matter of course. Furthermore where he feels that he hasn’t made them out to be villainous or cretins he tries to attack their masculinity by referring to Steve Hart frequently riding around in a dress and gang members dancing with other men instead of women at Glenrowan, implying homosexuality. Such vitriol is lazy and draws on just enough factual information to make the conclusions believable. One can forgive Kennedy for wanting to push this interpretation forward given his past. The public perception of Kelly was (and in many cases still is) quite warped thanks to decades of myth-making and regurgitation of half-truths as fact, but you don’t remedy one warped viewpoint by pushing more falsehoods in the opposite direction. What a pity that this should be the focus of the book – not an elevation of the Kennedys but a degradation of the Kellys. No doubt this is largely shaped by the works of Doug Morrissey, who provides a glowing assessment of the book in his foreword and whose books have been referred to heavily throughout Black Snake.
As for the man behind the words on the page, Mic Looby does an excellent job of dramatising the information provided by Kennedy, really engaging the reader. It is clear that he had a strong connection to Kennedy during the writing process and portrays his interpretation of history clearly and consistently, even if it isn’t one everyone would agree with. Looby’s extensive writing background in the media and journalism is put to good use here and is undoubtedly the strongest aspect of the tome. Despite the often difficult content, a reader should have no issue devouring the writing the way they would with, say, the work of Peter FitzSimons.
In a nutshell, Black Snake is a tender love letter to ancestors who have inspired a strong moral understanding while also being primarily a scathing character assassination against the man who caused so much heartache in the family for generations.
It is heartening to think that descendants are finally giving themselves and their forebears a voice. In the case of the gallant Sergeant Kennedy, the release of this book just in time for the 140th anniversary of his slaughtering at Stringybark Creek could not be more appropriate.
This is a book that will repulse the majority of pro-Kelly die-hards, be championed by anti-Kelly crusaders as a masterpiece and met with disappointment by anyone looking for a balanced and objective approach to the subject. However, for someone only just getting into the story it is highly recommended reading, if only for the fact that it elevates the Kennedys beyond merely being the names of victims, but should be paired with something more nuanced as a counterpoint.
Leo Kennedy deserves kudos on the admirable research into his family history and the history of the Victoria Police that has gone into this book. It is no trivial task to piece together so much information where so little has been written on it before. Grab a copy and judge for yourself.
A massive thank you to Affirm Press for providing Black Snake: The Real Story of Ned Kelly for the purposes of this review. The book is available now in stores across Australia.
It always astounds that so few books have been published about the Clarkes. Of course, this likely has to do with the fact that for the longest time it was a taboo and much of the story has been lost as subsequent generations disappeared, a phenomena not suffered by Ned Kelly or Ben Hall. So it is with much excitement that one approaches a tome that tries to shed new light in the dark corners of this complex and intriguing story.
Judy Lawson’s book, may appear slim and a quick and breezy read but it is quite deceptive in this regard. In reality it is a heavily immersive and detailed exploration of the Clarkes and the various murders attributed to them that warrants careful reading. Lawson has clearly done her homework and conveys in easy to follow language and structure her impressive research that combines the recorded history with the socio-political climate of 1860s Australia. The bookncontaons several useful diagrams and lists to allow readers to keep track of people and places but if you’re expecting a wealth of pretty pictures you will be disappointed – though the writing more than makes up for it. It is clear from the outset that Lawson’s angle is quite different than what has gone before, stating her mission statement clearly on the cover: “Innocent Until Proven Guilty”.
Without going into too much detail (that’s what the book is for) Lawson breaks down the Jinden murders as well as the deaths of Miles O’Grady, Billy Noonang, Pat O’Connell, Jim Dornan and Bill Scott – all deaths that were attributed to Thomas Clarke and his gang in some respect. Each incident is presented without judgement and with all available information from witness accounts and testimony from various trials and commissions pertaining to the events to allow the reader to draw their own conclusions that may indeed be counter to the accepted narrative. Previous works have been written with the author’s judgement firmly in place, usually declaring that the Clarkes were guilty as sin. What Lawson achieves is providing a potent counter to this assessment. Many questions still hang over the deaths of the special constables: was it the bushrangers or their harbourers that pulled the triggers? Were the local police involved? None of the questions have simple answers but this book brings us closer than perhaps ever before to seeing a miscarriage of justice in the case of the Clarke brothers being hanged. By presenting each potential scenario and breaking it down to discuss what is and isn’t feasible it allows readers, especially those unfamiliar with the stories, to really understand the complexities of each case.
Lawson also discusses the Irish culture, including the roles of men and women, and emphasises the way that tension between English Protestants and Irish Catholics formed a key aspect of the Clarke outbreak. By describing historical conflict and ideological differences that contributed to the treatment of families like the Clarkes we see a dimension of the story that is not often factored into most retellings. The way that these conflicts as well as the division between upper and lower class people manifested in laws and the prevailing culture in New South Wales during the 19th century are incredibly important in understanding what may have pushed the Clarkes and their ilk into a lawless lifestyle. By looking at the larger context of this infamous outbreak of bushranging we get a feel for how situations like this resulted in similar stories in other colonies such as the Kellys in Victoria and the Kenniffs in Queensland. Lawson also highlights the unfortunate reality that the charge that sent Tommy and Johnny Clarke to the gallows was not the one that they were tried for, that there was a bigger motivation behind it and that the execution was a foregone conclusion as in the cases of Ned Kelly and Paddy Kenniff. A big part of the taboo of the Clarke story seems to stem from the concerted effort local police made to demonise their enemies. Without a means of recourse to the various accusations the bushrangers were not able to explain their own situation (and there was certainly more to it than simple disregard for law and order as evidenced by their wide syndicate of supporters and harbourers).
Lawson herself possesses a Bachelor of Arts, having studied geography and history for three years before becoming a science teacher in various states, territories and abroad. Her passion for the Clarke story has led to her researching and documenting it for almost four decades in the pursuit of truth and removing the stigma of the story on descendents and the broader community. Lawson discovered that she is in fact a descendant of the O’Connells in her thirties due in large part to her father refusing to talk about it, such was the potency of the taboo. This motivation and passion is evident in every drop of ink in this book and is a must-read for anyone who is interested in the Clarke story, a tale with so many twists, turns and mysteries it easily rivals that of the Kellys. Her aim is not to hold the bushrangers up as heroes or deny any wrongdoing, but merely to ask the questions that need to be answered and find whatever information possible to answer them.
This entry was written by playwright Gabriel Bergmoser, creator of the musical Moonlite. Gabriel’s passion for bushranger tales is evident in his work and I am very glad to present this personal account to you. ~ AP
It’s impossible to write this without giving a bit of personal context, so please bear with me.
I went to primary school in Mansfield, about a hundred metres from where Sergeant Kennedy, Constable Scanlon and Constable Lonigan were buried after being shot by Ned Kelly at Stringybark Creek. With its relative proximity to the creek itself, Mansfield is a major Kelly Country location, and there is a reasonable thread of fascination with the events in the town.
I was totally Kelly obsessed from the moment I was old enough to have any kind of understanding of the story, and as such I was thrilled when, in primary school, my class spent a few weeks studying bushrangers. To tie in with this theme, every lunch our teacher read us a little bit of the only novel she had on the topic – a book from the 1920s called The Girl Who Helped Ned Kelly. At the time, being around ten, I was utterly transfixed by the book, looking forward to the next instalment every lunch, outraged when the book was snapped shut and we had to go and play.
We never finished the book, much to my consternation, and as my teacher’s copy was an antique she wasn’t about to lend it to me, so I resolved to find my own. Every weekend trip to Melbourne I would beg my parents to let me scour second hand bookstores to try and find it. But it didn’t matter how many places I searched (a lot); I never saw the book.
Over the years I kept looking. Not super seriously, eventually more just out of habit. But as more and more time passed, a strange kind of fervour grew. It had to be somewhere, right?
Apparently it didn’t. Even online searches yielded nothing. The book evidently existed, it was just very, very rare.
It wasn’t even like I was driven by genuine memories of how good it was. If you’d asked in the past couple of years, I doubt I could recount any of the book with any accuracy. But the fact that I couldn’t find it was maddening.
Then, a few weeks ago, I was walking through Adelaide when a second hand bookstore caught my eye. I wandered in and set about trying to find the book. No luck. But there were a couple of other gems in the bushranger section and as I took them up to the counter the lady who owned the shop commented on an evident obsession. I mentioned my ongoing search for The Girl Who Helped Ned Kelly and the response was immediate; “oh, it’s in that cabinet over there.”
That book was first read to me in 2002. It took sixteen years to finally get my hands on it.
Honestly, after all of that I wasn’t sure if I would even read it. Carrying it out of the store with immense reverence, the idea that the book wouldn’t be worth it was a bit of a concern. But upon flicking through it became evident that I wouldn’t be able to help myself.
Beyond that, I was fascinated by what the book might represent. Originally serialised in the 1920s, a disclaimer in the front of the book says that the names of many of the supporting characters had been changed “for obvious reasons”: the book was written within the life spans of people who knew the Kellys. Ellen Kelly died only a few years before it was published. With that in mind, does this book represent one of, if not the earliest romanticised fiction of Ned Kelly? If so, what, if any, was its role in his growing canonisation? And aside from anything else, is it actually a good book?
Told largely from the perspective of fictional drifter Jack Briant, The Girl Who Helped Ned Kelly chronicles his tangential involvement with the gang during the last year of their lives, and… well, actually that’s about it.
The character of Briant, despite some early intrigue regarding his backstory that is resolved in the most toothless, predictable way possible, feels very much like a not particularly subtle stand in for the author. It’s hard to state this with much veracity; I couldn’t find much information on writer Charles E. Taylor, but the character of a wealthy man from Melbourne who wins Ned’s trust, confounds the police and flirts with Kate Kelly seems very much like a way for an author brought up in the aftermath of the Kellys’ time to play out a kind of wish fulfillment. By extension, this makes him an audience surrogate and, perhaps, indicates why the book had such an impact on ten year old, bushranger obsessed me.
As a character however? Briant is kind of annoying. He stands out badly due to the fact that he never existed and yet in the book he is at least tangentially present for much of the gang’s doings. But the fact that he has no real place in the history also means that he’s largely inactive as a protagonist; his contributions to the plot essentially extend to teaching the gang how to conceal their campfires (because that’s exactly the kind of thing a rich bloke from Melbourne would know rather than Ned) and distracting the police once or twice.
Adding to the character’s artificiality is an occasional propensity to remind the audience, via his inner monologue, that Ned is bound for a sticky end and that the police are just doing their jobs and plenty of them are noble. This doesn’t really track with his actions and as such feels like the work of a nervous editor ensuring the book doesn’t glorify the Kellys too much. Even the foreword insists that ‘no attempt has been made to canonise these young criminals’ despite the fact that, well, that’s exactly what the book does.
Make no mistake; this novel exists squarely in the tradition of Ned as a romantic, Robin Hood like figure. He’s presented in the text pretty much exactly how you’d expect; noble, imperious, wily with occasional flashes of larrikin charm. The rest of the gang get essentially one note personalities, with Dan being The Angry One, Joe being The Sad One and Steve being The Other One.
Beyond the gang, Hare and an almost pantomime villain version of Aaron Sherritt, most of the characters are either loose analogues for people like Wild Wright or Tom Lloyd or, like Briant, made up entirely. Weirdly, some of those characters are actually among the book’s most endearing, from crotchety old Kelly sympathiser Sam Jackson to Briant’s love interest, mercurial farmer’s daughter Nita. Even some of the fictional policeman show moments of surprising depth, like one particularly evangelical trap standing silently side by side with sworn enemy Ned at a funeral out of respect for the deceased.
And then there’s the titular ‘girl’. Jim Kelly was apparently outraged by this fabrication in particular, vehemently claiming that Ned ‘had no girl’. As it stands, the character is barely there, a fictional lover of Ned who only appears in the second half of the book and barely warrants supporting character status, let alone the title. The relationship is so thinly sketched that it’s hard to see why it was included at all.
It’s honestly difficult to say what the book is really about. Jack’s fledgling romance with Nita gets the bulk of the attention, but neither of them are the title characters or, y’know, real people. Their will they-won’t they thing is surprisingly engaging, but it ends up being far more dominant than major events like the death of Aaron Sherritt, which happens within a page of Joe discovering he’s a traitor, or the siege of Glenrowan which gets maybe two pages at the end. As it stands, it reads more than anything like the author just really wanted to hang out with these characters.
Except, of course, they’re not characters, they’re real people. The changed names are the most telling aspect; this book was written at a time where the events were not so long in the past as to rightly be considered legend yet. Given those circumstances, it’s hard to see the book as one written in particularly good taste, and it’s even harder to understand why it makes some of its more egregious diversions from history; namely the Siege of Glenrowan occurring several weeks after Sherritt’s murder and Dan dying well before Joe and Steve at the siege itself. You could chalk this up to ignorance, were it not for the afterward that includes many of the correct dates and details.
But look, accuracy is not what makes this book fascinating and nor, realistically, is narrative. What makes it worthy of discussion is the fact that it represents a blithe fictionalisation of the Kelly story written at a time when the events were still very much within living memory. And despite Jim Kelly’s consternation, it would be far from the last. From Our Sunshine to True History of the Kelly Gang; the literary class might have evolved, but the fundamental ethos certainly hasn’t; this story is our defining cultural myth, so writers and artists will always be drawn to create their own version.
I don’t know whether I would attribute much if any of the history’s ongoing romanticisation to this book. The process of consolidating the facts into legend had long since started, but to my knowledge The Girl Who Helped Ned Kelly represents the first in a long tradition, the moment when writers started to feel comfortable twisting the story to suit their own ends, in the process creating new versions of the legend that would ensure it was kept alive for generations to come. Whatever your opinion on the practice, that fact alone gives it a place in the canon.
It’s hard, in the end, to know how to feel about this book. I didn’t remember enough of it to be especially nostalgic in reading it. It was certainly entertaining and rarely less than fascinating. But it is very much of its time and as a novel, isn’t much more than mediocre. A forgotten classic this absolutely is not.
Of course, my stake in the whole endeavour always went deeper than simply reviewing a piece of Kelly esoterica. After a sixteen year search, am I glad I finally found and read the thing? Yeah, I’d say so. I would have been immensely surprised if it was anywhere near as good as my 2002 self remembered it so its overall quality didn’t count as much of a disappointment. More than anything, having and holding an original copy of the book dating from the 1920s is really special, and a piece of Kelly history I’m proud to own. But in terms of whether you should embark on your own multi year hunt to track down and read it? Unless you’re a hardcore collector, there are probably better uses of your time.
In 1970 a film was released that has become infamous in Australian pop culture. It was directed by one of Britain’s most acclaimed stage directors, featured music by some of America’s greatest country musicians of the time, was written by a man who would in later years become known as the authoritative voice on the film’s subject (who himself had an illustrious career in Australian television), and starred one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll stars of all time. Yet, despite all of these ingredients that should amount to a legendary film, somehow it created the exact opposite reaction to what was expected and it seems to boil down to two words:
Yes, the 1970 film Ned Kelly has become a byword for bad adaptations of the Kelly story based purely on the unfortunate miscasting of the lead singer of the Rolling Stones as Australia’s favourite bank robber. So is it really as bad as it is made up to be? When compared with other stand alone films the answer may surprise you.
Films usually live or die on their cast and this film is a prime example of this. Any Ned Kelly film is expected to have Ned as a lead match the appearance of Ned in the popular consciousness: tall, muscular, heavily bearded – a bushman fit for the cover of a Harlequin romance. Mick Jagger did not fit the bill. His average height seems diminished by his weedy frame and awkward gait and his trademark pouty lips are far from the thin determined mouth Ned sported in all known images. In reality Ned Kelly stood at around 5’10” to 6′ tall, average by modern standards and tall in his own day, and as demonstrated by his commemorative boxing photo his physique was rather odd. The Ned of history is long limbed and a little pigeon chested with small hands and feet, likely very toned beneath the white long johns and undershirt from years of manual labour but certainly not adorned with washboard abs like most people would imagine (very few men of the time had access to gyms and protein shakes). By comparison, Mick Jagger at 178cm (5’10”) is actually Ned’s height but at around 73kg (161lbs) is much lighter. At the time of the film’s release Jagger was 27 years old, making him the closest in age to Ned at the time of his execution than any actor in the role in a major production so far, most actors being 28 or over (Godfrey Cass who portrayed Ned Kelly in several productions was in his forties the last time he portrayed Ned on screen).
As for the remainder of the cast, while many are far from the most striking likenesses of the people they play they are generally well acted. Mark McManus as Joe Byrne is a remarkably good likeness for Joe despite being more than ten years older than his real life counterpart was at the time of his death. Allan Bickford is also surprisingly accurate as Dan Kelly with his black hair and blue eyes and a performance that has him being at times forceful, playful and often at odds with his big brother, which is absolutely spot on. Clarissa Kaye depicts Ellen Kelly with gravitas, strength and dignity while presenting her as a witty and fiery force of nature, again just as the role calls for. Other standout roles include Diane Craig as Maggie, Frank Thring as Judge Barry, Ken Goodlet as Nicholson and Martyn Sanderson as Fitzpatrick. While most of the roles are not 100% accurate in terms of appearance and the police characters are often mere approximations of their historical counterparts it is a very strong cast for the time and perform admirably.
2. Production design
Perhaps one of the weaker elements of the film is the production design that tends to be quite inconsistent. The costumes, sets and props feel authentic and look magnificent but are often very lacking in accuracy. The prime example is Ned Kelly robbing the Euroa bank in a black tuxedo and white frilled shirt. No doubt this look, which was featured heavily in promotional material, was meant to represent Ned’s flashness and add a touch of theatricality to the portion of the film which is deliberately farcical, but is rather a jarring direction even for the late 60s. However the costumes worn by Ned in other scenes that usually consisted of dark coloured woolen clothes, grubby shirts, heeled boots and felt hats were far more accurate and were a great improvement over the high waisted moleskins, tall boots, shirts with rolled up sleeves and rumpled hats that seemed to be the extent of the bushranger costume in the majority of films on the topic such as The Glenrowan Affair or When the Kellys Were Out.
The towns in the film felt like real places of the time and they all felt very similar to the locations they were mimicking. The sets felt lived in and grubby without resorting to dim lighting and a desaturated palette to emulate the ambience of a house in the 1870s.
Nobody can deny the appeal of the soundtrack to this film. With songs written by the legendary Shel Silverstein (who wrote Johnny Cash’s legendary ‘A Boy Named Sue’) and performed by artists like Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson (though, strangely, the latter’s songs don’t make it into the film, only the soundtrack album), it’s a perfect blend of lyrical cleverness and folksy musical arrangements that perfectly underscore the film. The refrain ‘The Shadow of the Gallows’, the jaunty ‘Blame it on the Kellys’ and the soulful ‘Lonigan’s Widow’ are just a tiny sample of the stunning musical content that accurately reflect the tone of the film.
“Shadow of the Gallows”
“Blame it on the Kellys”
Ned Kelly is undoubtedly one of the best film versions of the story thanks to Gerry Fisher (The Island of Dr. Moreau, Highlander, Yellowbeard). The imagery is full of soulful ambience, texture, colour and contrast from the beautiful silhouetted stock thieving scenes to the eerie, foggy last stand. The tones feel authentic, the earthy colours of the clothing and buildings drab without resorting to desaturating the shots to create a false sense of the dusty, worn out and dreary existence of the characters. Yet there are bursts of colour such as the inclusion of bright green ribbons to signify Kelly sympathisers, which break up the gritty realism. No other Kelly film to date has managed to feature such beautifully cinematic images while remaining authentic to the time and place. This Kelly story is full of fun moments as well as dark and moody ones.
Perhaps the crowning glory of this film visually is the atmospheric shots of Glenrowan during Ned Kelly’s last stand that show the iron-clad outlaw walking through eldritch mist, monolithic against the swirling plumes of gun smoke and fog as swarms of police descend upon him. This captures the feel of how the event was described by witnesses in a way that no other on-screen version seems to have managed to date. It was also the first film depiction of the last stand to effectively incorporate the helmet interior perspective shots that have become a staple of Kelly films ever since.
The beats of the screenplay are precisely accurate thanks to the original screenplay having been written by Ian Jones, who would later inspire generations of Kelly enthusiasts with The Last Outlaw as well as his books The Fatal Friendship (aka The Friendship that destroyed Ned Kelly) and Ned Kelly: A Short Life. The dialogue is often very theatrical, probably due to Toby Richardson’s theatre background, and often rather clever but at times this gets lost when the performances or film making are weak. Where it falls down, however, is where it was later tinkered with by the director who reshaped it into more of a depiction of the spirit of the story than a faithful recreation. Yet, despite these rewrites (which includes the addition of an invented love interest for Ned named Caitlin O’Donnell, odd moments such as James Whitty offering Ned work as a stockman and having Ned’s last stand in a railway cutting) it still remains more accurate than the vast majority of other depictions, including the Heath Ledger film. If you can move past the emphasis on condensing characters and events, there’s a decent screenplay in there.
6. Historical accuracy
This film, despite lording over the majority of adaptations in this regard, is prone to historical inaccuracy. As a foreigner, Tony Richardson can be somewhat forgiven for not adhering strictly to history. However there are glaring inaccuracies worthy of pointing out.
The costumes, despite generally having the right feel and look are often wide of the mark. The police uniforms seem to be mostly based on the real deal but with some artistic flourishes to make them look better as costumes. The gang’s apparent fondness for bandoliers has no basis in fact, but rather takes its cues from Westerns. Most of the inaccuracies here are minor and don’t distract from proceedings – except for the outfits the gang change into at Faithfuls Creek that are so loud, gaudy and flamboyant they could only have come from a film made in 1969.
The collapsing of Nicolson and Hare into one “super cop” called Nicholson was likely done to streamline the story for film and was replicated in the 2003 ‘Ned Kelly’ by creating a “super cop” in Geoffrey Rush’s Hare. To include all police in the way many would like is not a possibility in a theatrical release. Sergeant Steele, Captain Standish, Sadleir and Bracken all make appearances but are not always made a point of. It should be noted that emphasis was placed on key aspects of the pursuit that other adaptations glaze over or omit entirely such as the temporary arrest of sympathisers, the watch party at the Byrne house and the black trackers.
The buildings, such as the Glenrowan Inn, look fairly close but are approximations rather than loving recreations as seen in The Last Outlaw a decade later. This is, again, forgivable as despite not being 100% accurate they feel accurate and reflect the sort of environments that the story took place in, a far cry from the mud soaked huts in the bleak. flat and drab environs of Gregor Jordan’s 2003 film.
There are many things woven throughout the script based on oral history and rumours that can’t be qualified such as the Republic, the army of sympathisers in the hills at Glenrowan, the secret wedding on the eve of the execution and Ned Kelly’s girlfriend “Caitlin O’Donnell”.
Many of the inaccurate moments are very minor for the most part but done for artistic reasons such as Ned’s last stand taking place on the train tracks in a gully to show the police piling in on him or the gang bailing up the staff at Younghusband station at dinner to expedite the narrative of the bank robbery rather than spend ages having the gang round people up into a shed. It must be remembered that this was meant to be a film that captured the spirit of the story rather than a slavish recreation. Yet despite the occasional divergence from history it fares a lot better than the 2003 film that is so rife with inaccuracy it requires its own article!
7. The Little Things
Repeat viewings of the film reveal small touches that show a surprising level of detail likely thanks to Ian Jones’ influence.
Little moments like Maggie and Tom Lloyd staring lovingly at each other during the party to celebrate Ned’s return from gaol, the camera lingering on Aaron Sherritt when Ellen makes a disparaging comment about “orange men”, or the way that the boys hoot and holler when they take the bull Ned caught to the pound to demonstrate their larrikinism help the film feel that little bit more understanding of the story than overt appearances might portray. There are many lovely nods towards the history that will reward the attentive viewer, such as when Ned sings The Wild Colonial Boy and is cautioned when Constable Fitzpatrick enters the pub because it was prohibited to sing the song in public, then he just keeps on singing (what a rebel!) before sculling a beer.
Ned Kelly is far from a perfect film and wasn’t without its controversies but it is hardly worthy of being the “bad” Ned Kelly film, especially seeing how much it got right in comparison. It looks gorgeous, it has fun and engaging moments, a killer soundtrack and one of the most accurate screenplays on the subject co-written by one of the most important Kelly scholars – all things that should elevate it in popular culture. It is a film deserving of more respect and at least a watch all the way through and all it takes is getting past the fact that Mick Jagger is a little too skinny and awkward to look like Ned Kelly.
New from Umbrella Entertainment is the Blu-Ray release of Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker. Starring the legendary David Gulpilil in the first lead role of his career, it is the story of a posse in the Northern Territory searching for an Aboriginal man accused of murdering a white woman and the harrowing misadventures that occur along the way. First released in 2002, it was lauded by industry types and critics for its lyrical and powerful study of racism in post-colonial times.
In the history of Australian law enforcement through the colonial era and the early 20th century, Aboriginal trackers were vital for finding victims and offenders in the bush or the outback. The abilities of these trackers were the stuff of legend and many superstitious whites considered their ability to read signs in the natural environment as supernatural. For almost the entirety of bushranging history, trackers were employed to find bandits in the bush – a terrain the settlers found alien and treacherous. By the 1920s, when The Tracker is set, bushranging was seemingly in its death throes (bushranging is like a blackberry bush – it never stays dead for too long) but the trackers were still the bushrangers’ greatest nemesis. And thus it is with The Tracker, a simple hunt narrative based around the incomparable abilities of the Aboriginal trackers. Though to refer to this as a bushranger film is tenuous, many common tropes are apparent: the bush-faring fugitive protected by friends and relatives, the haplessness of the police in searching the bush and themes of crime and punishment and justice. By focusing not on the criminal, not on the police but on the humble tracker we get a whole new perspective on this element of law enforcement, which creates fertile soil to grow from.
Gulpilil is amusing, enigmatic and captivating as the titular Tracker. His weariness of the white men he has been drafted to serve is matched by his determination to complete his task and his sympathy for his fellows who suffer immeasurably at the hands of white men. Gary Sweet is on top form as the relentless, amoral policeman hell-bent on finding his quarry. While his role may seem cartoonishly evil at times there’s a truth to it that perhaps many modern day Australians can’t recognise. Damon Gameau, in his screen debut, shows what has made him a mainstay of the Australian cinema ever since with his performance as a young man who becomes disillusioned and broken by the evils he witnesses. Finally Grant Page represents the settlers, halfway between understanding the Aboriginals and stuck in the sense of superiority of the whites. He does not approve nor condemn the horrifying things that the police do to Aboriginals and becomes the first casualty, testing his colleagues’ moral fortitude.
The film’s visuals are lyrical and immersive. The landscape dominates proceedings, the camera frequently pulling back to contextualise these figures in the undulating wilderness or lingering on craggy outcrops and cracked earth. The dust from the earth permeates everything, sapping the colours into shades of yellow, brown and orange with lashings of blue and green. The Blu-Ray transfer renders this with brilliant clarity and colour so vibrant you can almost taste it. Umbrella have continued their trend of producing the highest quality restorations and HD transfers, with The Tracker enjoying the benefits of its first 4K restoration.
An intriguing device utilised throughout is employing paintings by artist Peter Coad to illustrate the violence rather than depicting gore and turning it into a grisly spectacle. The violence here is not about titillation, it’s about highlighting the horrendous things people do to each other. The effectiveness of this technique is not 100% but it does create a welcome respite from the viscera employed by most cinema.
Rather than a score, Rolf de Heer uses the musical talents of Archie Roach as the soundtrack, lending a strange anachronistic vibe that reminds the viewer that this was not so far into the past.
Extras on this disc are generous and showcase the process as well as the reception for the film. The featurette David Gulpilil: “I Remember…” is an emotional road trip through the locations from the movie with Gulpilil describing his reminiscences. We are also treated to interviews and outtakes as well as footage from various premieres and festivals and an Archie Roach music video to round it off – overall a wonderful collection of supplementary materials.
If you are a lover of Australian film, drama or even just a simple yet moving story beautifully told, The Tracker is essential viewing and with this Blu-Ray release you get the benefit of seeing it the best that you probably ever could have.
If you would like to grab your own copy of The Tracker on Blu-Ray, you can purchase it online here. It is also available in its standard definition on DVD here.
Bursting onto the indie comics scene is I Am Ned, a post-apocalyptic zombie story full of action and horror. The brainchild of Max Myint, it is like a mix of Mad Max, Dawn of the Dead, and Terminator: Salvation with a unique Aussie flavour. If you’re expecting a comic book about Ned Kelly you may be disappointed – this character is inspired by Ned but this is most assuredly not Victoria circa 1880.
The hero of the story is Ned, a nomad wandering the badlands liberating humans from farms set up by their zombie overlords. Yet, to the humans herded like cattle into large pens by the walking dead Ned is a legend – a fairy tale – but the faithful wear red bands adorned with an illustration of Ned’s helmet knowing he will come. This twisted dystopia is full of weird sentient zombies, some of whom have objects grafted to their bodies, and is depicted with a gritty, visceral quality that sucks you in. In issue #1 we are introduced to Kristy who is captured by zombies with a group of survivors including Nolan, a sceptic who has no faith in the legend of Ned. They are herded into a farm where zombies jostle and inspect them. Among the herd Kristy and Nolan encounter Koa, an Aboriginal man and staunch believer in Ned who lives in hope. Then, just when things are looking bleak Ned arrives…
As an introductory issue one could not ask for a more exciting, intriguing setup, though the story moves so fast that it really leaves you craving for more. The characters are visually appealing, Ned’s costume in particular seems tailor made for icon status. Fans of all things that rev will get a kick out of Old Mate, Ned’s vehicle of choice which looks like the Batmobile via Mad Max. The issue is punctuated with in-universe propaganda posters pertaining to the Zombie World Order and add a satirical edge to the proceedings. We see a fully fleshed out world opening up before our eyes and a tantalising hint of what’s over the horizon.
Myint’s writing is punchy and engaging, perfectly complemented by Zac Smith-Cameron’s artwork which is very evocative of the visual styles used in many edgier comics in the 1980s and 1990s, such as Mike Mignola’s Hellboy and in Frank Miller books such as Batman: Year One and Sin City. The creation of an anti-hero inspired by the armour of Ned Kelly was a master stroke and hopefully gets a bit more explanation in future issues. A great part of the book is the concept art at the end that shows how the look of the world evolved. We can see the effort put into designing the look of everything with sketches and notes from Max Myint. A personal favourite design is the zombies that have stilts for arms and legs so they can keep an eye on the humans.
Few Australian films have attracted the same degree of praise as The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith which has received its first ever Blu-Ray release thanks to Umbrella Entertainment. 40 years after its original release the team at Umbrella bring us a beautiful re-release of this classic award-winning piece of Aussie cinema and it’s just as relevant now as it ever was.
Set just before Australian federation, this tale is the trials and tribulations of a young half-Aboriginal man trying to find his way in a world of oppression. Jimmie (Tommy Lewis) is coached by his uncle Tabidgi (Steve Dodd) in the ways of his people but raised by a white pastor (Jack Thompson) who discourages him from mixing with his Aboriginal kin. As he reaches maturity Jimmie becomes alienated. Repulsed by the alcoholism of the Aboriginals who take his earnings for booze and bullied by the whites who deny him his earnings and constantly abuse him, Jimmie is trapped between two worlds that both hold him back. Being a half-blood he belongs to neither world and spends his days fighting against his instinct to rebel against them both. The racial dichotomy of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith speaks to the struggles faced by Aboriginal peoples in the wake of the arrival of Europeans who brought with them the destructive forces of disease and alcohol as well as their prejudices, treating the Aboriginals as sub-humans worthy of nothing more than scorn and domination. It also highlights the difficulties faced by mixed race individuals who were frequently outcast from both white and Aboriginal societies. At a time when being of a mixed race was cause for almost universal scorn Jimmie Blacksmith tries to push ahead with optimism. He joins the police but is pushed to the edge by the evil acts he is forced to be complicit in by the repulsive Farrell (Ray Barrett) and flees. Becoming a fencer, Jimmie is a skilled craftsman who is again and again denied his rightful earnings by racist employers. Taking a job with the Newby family things begin to look up. He falls in love and marries Gilda (Angela Punch McGregor), a promiscuous white woman, and builds a hut for them to live in. Members of his Aboriginal community stay with Jimmie, declaring his marriage to a white woman is a bad totem. This in turn raises the hackles of Jack Newby (Don Crosby), the station manager, who refuses to pay Jimmie until he clears his relatives away. When his family is denied food he snaps and goes on a murderous revenge spree taking his brother Mort (Freddy Reynolds) with him. Jimmie becomes the most wanted man in the country, the most infamous bushranger since Ned Kelly.
The film is based on the book by Thomas Kenneally which is a fictionalised account of the life of Jimmy Governor. Closely following the real Governor story, while departing in aspects the film is still very faithful to the history in comparison to some films and books about historical figures. The screenplay is soulful, skillfully weaving humour and pathos throughout to highlight the themes of colonialism, disenfranchisement, racism and the plight of the Aboriginal people at the turn of the last century (which was just as relevant in 1978 when the film was first released). The light-hearted moments at the beginning soon evaporate into a harrowing tale of racial hatred and revenge zig-zagging between the world of whites and Aboriginals. You sympathise with Jimmie as he does all he can to succeed but is constantly knocked down but your sympathies are tested when he finally snaps and does the unthinkable. Fred Schepisi, who also adapted the screenplay from the novel, directs with deftness and intelligence, which is greatly facilitated by the superb cinematography of Ian Baker and the heart-wrenching score by Bruce Smeaton. Featuring stellar performances from newcomers and old hands such as Tommy Lewis, Freddy Reynolds, Steve Dodd, Ruth Cracknell and Peter Sumner, the film is gripping from beginning to end. Lewis in particular is remarkable, his charming, youthful naivete giving way to a scintillating rage that leaves the viewer with a heavy feeling in the pit of their stomach as the injustices of Jimmie’s life result in the inevitable retaliation.
The restoration of the print is absolutely glorious with rich colours and crisp details often sadly lacking in the majority of such releases. It would be easy to think in some instances that this was a film made only in the last few years with its vibrant colour palette and epic cinematography. The Blu-Ray transfer means that you can now blow it up on a home cinema to soak it all in without the fuzziness that comes with the usual DVD format or indeed some Blu-Ray re-issues. The special features are fantastic and include such gems as an interview with the film’s director Fred Schepisi and cinematographer Ian Baker that discusses a lot of the history of the film industry they emerged from and how that related to the making of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith; a report from Willesee at Seven showing people’s reaction to the premiere; a wonderfully detailed making of retrospective and a feature about the Aboriginal actors. Overall this is a complete package for film buffs.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is not a film to be entered into lightly. The violence is hugely impactful, the rampage in the Newby household in particular noted for its impact on audiences. The depiction of racism in the film is potent and was considered to be very raw when the film was released. It must be noted that when The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith reached cinemas Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders had only been able to vote in Australia for thirteen years, only recognised by the census and Commonwealth laws for eleven, the governmental bodies that had facilitated the removal of Aboriginal children, known as the “stolen generation”, had only been dismantled for nine years, and the first Aboriginal parliamentarian, Neville Bonner, had gained a seat only six years before. Thus The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was truly a product of its times. This film will break your heart, fill you with horror and rage at historical injustices and keep you spellbound by the absolute beauty of its visuals. For lovers of Australian stories and cinema it is a must have.
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is available now from Umbrella Entertainment. You can order your own copy here.
One of the most exciting things for bushranger enthusiasts in 2017 was Foxtel’s original documentary series Lawless: the Real Bushrangers, the first time in years that a documentary about the bushrangers had been attempted. Several documentaries about Ned Kelly were made in the early 2000s riding on the success of Peter Carey’s book True History of the Kelly Gang but the last time any attempts had been made to do anything about the other bushrangers was the abandoned docu-drama mini-series Bushranger Country in the early 1990s (read about that here). Lawless had a clear mission statement too – to extract the truth from the myths and solve some of the most enduring mysteries in bushranging history – no mean feat. The series focused on four mysteries: did Ned Kelly kill in cold blood at Stringybark Creek? ; who shot Constable Webb-Bowen during the Wantabadgery siege? ; Was Ben Hall murdered in his sleep? ; and did Paddy and Jim Kenniff really commit the murders they were convicted for?
Episode one was very controversial upon its release for its anti-Kelly leanings as much as for the revelations pertaining to the actual location of the shootings at Stringybark Creek. The re-enactments are visually glorious but woefully inaccurate – a trend that is consistent throughout the series. The effort made to utilise modern technology to ascertain the correct location of the shootings is impressive but definitely ruffles feathers if you prescribe to any of the alternative site theories. The inclusion of descendants to drive home the point that these were real people who were involved in the incident, not abstract ideas of good and evil, is potent. We also see well known bushranger historian and general enthusiast Steve Jager getting a brilliant Ned Kelly tattoo to raise the issue of men with Ned Kelly tattoos having a statistically higher chance of dying young from violent means, a study that Lawless team member Roger Byard entered the public spotlight over a few years back. Overall the conclusions of this episode are compelling but will not be enough to persuade Kelly buffs. The star of this installment is Adam Ford whose archaeological approach is the most significant element in terms of its findings.
The Captain Moonlite episode is more of the same, using a mix of high tech and forensics to work out the layout of McGlede’s farm and the nature of Gus Wernicke’s wounds, however this episode hinges more on the work of historian Kiera Lindsey. Lindsey creates a profile of Andrew Scott based on available documents and highlights the questionable approach to his trial. This profile of Scott makes him more accessible to the viewer and begins to make sense of his decisions. Lindsey also refers to Scott’s letters, written in his last days, to confirm the relationship between him and James Nesbitt. Adam Ford does brilliant work on the site of the McGlede’s farm, but the conclusion doesn’t quite gel with existing information. Once more there are descendants, though the people selected are a little on the tenuous side.
Episode three is all about Ben Hall and it is Byard’s chance to shine. Using forensic testing he establishes a greater understanding of how Hall died and in conjunction with the research from Kiera Lindsey reveals a chilling fact about the conduct of the police on the day Hall was killed. Adam Ford meanwhile goes on a wild goose chase in a field of lupin because he didn’t do his research correctly and is determined to find what he considers to be the true location of Hall’s death based on a deliberately incorrect map. Unfortunately this episode is probably the weakest of the bunch based solely on the fact that there’s considerably less of it to work with.
The final episode is Mike Munro’s crowning moment, putting the spotlight on his ancestors – the Kenniff brothers. This is the episode that really makes the series as Munro’s passion for the story helps to draw out more detail than in the previous three installments. Munro has clearly spent a considerable amount of time researching the story and for many this is their introduction to it. Munro demonstrates the wild Carnarvon Ranges and some of the spots utilised by the Kenniffs – secrets handed down through his family. Kiera Lindsey’s research complements Munro’s brilliantly and we see Adam Ford and Roger Byard in top form too, uncovering archaeological evidence of the incident as well as solving a big unknown about the manner in which the victims were disposed of. The revelations about who may have been the real culprits is a huge bombshell unveiled by a local indigenous elder. As the episode concludes it drives home the importance of this history on Munro’s family as the effects are echoing into a sixth generation of the family.
Overall the series is a slick, stylish and engaging foray into the world of bushrangers. The episodes are somewhat frustrating in their limited scope, focused on one aspect of a single story each, yet this will appeal to the casual viewer or people who know very little about bushrangers. The revelations in each episode are definitely worth further scrutiny and open up possibilities for future investigations. The relationships between the team members is one of the keys to the success of the series, especially the blossoming bromance between Adam Ford and Mike Munro. This is clearly a well chosen group of experts who are both very good at what they do and are also engaging to watch, regardless of whether you agree with their opinions. The DVD itself is light on features, only offering the four episodes and subtitles as well as scene selection, which is somewhat disappointing as there was a wealth of supplementary material featured on the website and social media for the show including interviews and interactive scenes that could have been added as special features. Hopefully if sales are strong Umbrella will be able to produce a Blu-Ray edition with the extras down the line (as long as demand for it exists). There are also rumoured plans for a second series that would be absolutely fantastic as there are a great many more mysteries to uncover. It would be amazing to see the team tackle mysteries such as the murder of the Special Constables at Jinden to establish if the Clarke Gang were responsible; where and when Frank Gardiner died; what happened to the skulls of Ned Kelly and Dan Morgan; or whether Captain Thunderbolt really did cheat death and so many more. There’s definitely plenty of material to mine for future installments but until then we have this wonderful quartet to keep our tastes satiated.
Lawless: The Real Bushrangers is available on DVD from most retailers of fine audio-visual produce or online through Umbrella Entertainment.
On a blistering Sunday afternoon in a tiny subterranean room in one of the oldest pubs in Collingwood, magic was about to unfold. As a guest of the incomparable Steve Jager, the man behind the Australian Bushrangers page on Facebook as ell as familiar face to those who have seen The Legend of Ben Hall, Lawless: The Real Bushrangers or been bailed up by the nefarious Captain Red, I got the opportunity to see the new musical Moonlite, the first such depiction of Andrew George Scott to date. After stumbling across the poster artwork on Instagram I had been learning more about the production and plugging it wherever possible (as many of my followers will be familiar with).
Moonlite is being performed in the basement of the Grace Darling Hotel in Collingwood as part of the 2018 Midsumma Festival. The location is brilliant for it connects the show to the real stories as Moonlite was rumoured to have frequented the Grace Darling in his heyday. To get to the performance space you must stomp down a series of stone steps that is eerily reminiscent of Pentridge prison where Scott spent the majority of his time in Australia. Written and directed by Gabriel Bergmoser, Moonlite is an exploration of the man and the legend as perceived by those around him. Bergmoser is an experienced and decorated writer for such projects in addition to his reviews through his Movie Maintenance podcast and website Den of Geek. It should also be pointed out that Moonlite is a musical featuring music by Daniel Nixon that really creates the meat on the bones of this production, but more on that later.
The through-line of Moonlite is a discussion between Falconer McDonald of Wantabadgery Station and two of Moonlite’s acolytes Thomas Rogan and Gus Wernicke. As the boys try to rationalise their adoration of their captain we see flashes of the real Andrew Scott poking through the holes in the veneer of a roguish hero Scott has masked himself with. It is decidedly more interested in questioning the validity of any opinion about Scott than depicting history accurately, which works tremendously well in this context. Scott’s life is so confusing to pin down specifically because so many untruths and half-truths were told and published even in his own lifetime that it has confused and baffled historians ever since. When we reach the rousing conclusion of the piece we are not left with definitive answers about who Scott was and what to think of him, rather with an understanding that there is no black and white answer. This could be problematic for some, but on this occasion it was clear that the moral ambiguity was just another added delight for the audience, many of whom would most likely know little to nothing about who Captain Moonlite was before taking their seats.
The musical is a medium that many turn their nose up at due to consistent tropes about characters unrealistically breaking into song. Moonlite‘s music is a wonderful exception to that rule. The songs feel organic to the storytelling and never take the audience out of the moment. There are some real gems among the musical interludes including a reworking of “Star of the County Down” to illustrate the affection between Scott and Nesbitt and an upbeat lark depicting the trial for the Mount Egerton bank robbery.
The cast were brilliant performers who really worked hard to ensure the magic of the story kept the audience spellbound. This was a cast employed for their talent rather than their resemblance to the historical characters and this proves to be the key to the show’s success. Ryan Smedley’s earnestness as Nesbitt (here spelled Nesbit), Megan Scolyer-Gray’s vitality and sense of fun for Wernicke (here spelled Werneke), James Coley’s balancing act between acolyte and infidel as Rogan, Daniel Cosgrove’s fierce and moving performance as Falconer McDonald (in this production named Faulkner) and Katy Nethercote’s ever changing supporting characters from gentlewoman to judge were the driving force of the piece that helped to tie everything together around the delightfully camp and dominating performance by Tim Constantine as Captain Moonlite. This cast are funny, engaging and memorable and are an absolute asset to the production.
Moonlite is running during the Midsumma Festival until Febuary fourth, but tickets have sold like hotcakes with every performance sold out. Later on there are plans to do a regional tour, which is a brilliant idea and will hopefully see the show head to many of the locations associated with this amazing story. If you missed out on seeing the show this time around, fear not as there will be future opportunities to experience it. The production team are currently running a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to have the show professionally recorded and produced as an album which is a great opportunity to support local artists and a great show. Moonlite is a rollicking good time from start to end with wonderful performances and clever writing from one of the country’s emerging talents. It was certainly a privilege to get the chance to go and see this performance, well done to all involved.
To check out the Moonlite crowdfunding campaign and donate, go here.
To check out Bitten By Productions on Facebook, go here.
To read about the process of putting Moonlite together go here.
This past weekend I went to the Old Treasury Building on Spring Street, Melbourne, and took a gander at the free exhibition: Wild Colonial Boys: Bushrangers in Victoria.
The exhibition is admittedly small when compared to, say, NED the exhibition from 2002, however it is apparent that a lot of thought went into assembling the exhibits in the context of the already quite packed Treasury Building. Most items are on loan from the Public Records Office and State Library of Victoria who have some very interesting items in their catalogues. The small size benefits the narrow scope of the exhibition that focuses mainly on Victorian bushrangers with, naturally, an emphasis on Ned Kelly. The information supplied is very interesting and if you stop to properly examine the items on display they offer up all sorts of things.
Items on display include Dan Kelly’s armour, Dan Morgan’s death mask, a Cobb & Co. bullion box and the prison record of Jack Doolan. One of my favourite items was a log book that details the costs for building the gallows in Melbourne as it gives a rather unique insight into the way things were run back in the day. I also enjoyed the display detailing the events depicted in Bushrangers on the St. Kilda Road by William Strutt. Naturally most visitors go straight to the Ned Kelly stuff where you can drop a coin into a tube and cast your vote on whether you agree with the death penalty or where your opinion sits on the spectrum. Dan Kelly’s armour is kept in a rather awkwardly placed, super reflective glass case. This has the annoying qualities of being both inconvenient when more than one person is in that part of the exhibition and making it difficult to see the armour inside the case due to the reflections of the white walls on the glass. Despite the minor bother presented by this I definitely recommend checking it out.
While you are at the Old Treasury Building be sure to check out the other exhibitions on Aboriginal history in Victoria, the development of Melbourne as a city and the displays downstairs in the old vaults. It provides many informative and fascinating perspectives on various aspects of Victoria’s history.
The Old Treasury Building is at 20 Spring Street, Melbourne, and is open from 10am until 4.00pm, Sunday to Friday. Entrance is free however gold coin donations are a great way to give a little something back to help keep things going.
Wild Colonial Boys: Bushrangers in Victoria is on display at the Old Treasury Building until August 13, 2017.