The Legend of Ben Hall: an analysis

The Legend of Ben Hall is an interesting entry in the history of bushranger films for a number of reasons. Chiefly, it is the only standalone theatrical bushranger feature that has put particular emphasis on historical accuracy in every level of production. Yet, it manages to tell the story accurately as well as artfully. While on a surface level the film can be taken as merely a portrayal of an exciting and intriguing part of history, on closer inspection what we see is a dissection of the character of Ben Hall. What emerges upon deeper examination is that the film’s title is the key to understanding what it is truly about: what is the legend of Ben Hall?

Despite what the papers encourage you to imagine, this life you want is not easy. We do this because we have no recourse left.

A key part of the artifice of the film is in the effort to replicate the costumes, weaponry, buildings and so forth of the period. Director Matthew Holmes spent months looking for available locations that were a close match for the arborial, geological and topographical features of Ben Hall Country in 1865. By portraying these things as close to history as possible, the film immediately positions itself in such a way that we understand that we are not being told what to feel and think through interpretation. Rather, we are being asked to immerse ourselves in this world in order to understand it and find the answers to the questions ourselves, without being skewed in a certain way by the director.

Compare this to other bushranger films such as Mad Dog Morgan, Ned Kelly (1970) and its 2003 namesake. These films take liberties with the art design to account for budget and artistic vision. Ned Kelly (2003) is the most notable in this regard. Whereas Mad Dog Morgan tries to be authentic, if somewhat inaccurate in execution, Ned Kelly approaches the same things through the lens of portraying what is artistically relevant, what is symbolic, in order to convey to the audience how to feel. For example, at Glenrowan Ned is dressed in mostly black to symbolise the more serious tone of the events unfolding. His clothes reflect the mood the director is conveying, rather than anything historic – especially given that Ned Kelly wore a very colourful outfit at Glenrowan in actual fact. The Legend of Ben Hall portrays character through costume too, but rather than molding the character through the costume design, the costumes are reflective of how the characters fit into the world they inhabit. Johnny Gilbert’s flashness is shown through his wearing rings and luxurious fabrics like silk and brocade. In comparison, Ben Hall is dressed pragmatically for the rough lifestyle, only allowing a little hint of the larrikin through by wearing sashes and portraying his strong self-interest with a preference for handsomely cut clothing. Jim “Old Man” Gordon is shown wearing clothes that are frayed to the point of barely holding together, reflecting a careless personality that results in the ambush that opens the film. Yet all of what we see these characters decked out in is historically accurate to the styles of the time and place. The historical accuracy enhances the portrayal of character and story rather than artificially conveying an idea.

A unique artistic flourish is how each major act of the film is punctuated with dream sequences that give an insight into Hall’s mindset as well as reminding us of the end that is approaching him. Ben Hall was notoriously aloof in life and while this quiet, contemplative aspect to his character created an air of mystery, it makes it difficult to understand how he thought for a screen narrative. As the dreams evolve through the film, we see an emphasis placed on Jim Taylor, the homewrecker who tore Hall’s family apart (at least in his eyes). Having failed to remove his son Henry from Biddy and Taylor, then failing to follow through on his threat to “put a bullet in [Taylor’s] wicked hide”, Hall becomes tormented by the man who stole his family.

In each successive dream we also see the murky, wraith like figures of troopers getting closer and closer until gun muzzles are thrust in our face, indicating not only Hall’s increasing fear of capture, but also a metatextual foreshadowing of things to come. With the severity of the crimes escalating as events roll on, Hall becomes ever more conscious of the likelihood of fierce reprisal from the police. Each dream acts as the Greek chorus, cementing the themes and preparing the audience for the grim conclusion.

You think you’re innocent in all this? You think you ain’t got no blood on your hands?

The character of John Dunn provides a cipher for the audience as he cuts his teeth as a bushranger. More importantly, Dunn provides an important role in challenging Hall throughout and mirroring, to some extent, Hall’s own rise to infamy. Initially Hall tries to discourage Dunn from signing up as a bushranger, having lost many friends to imprisonment and death in the lead up to where we pick up the story. However, it doesn’t take much to convince Hall to accept Dunn. Later, Hall will actually rely on Dunn’s advice to recruit a new gang member in the form of Daniel Ryan, showing the development of the two characters. As Dunn settles in as the “beau ideal of the modern bushranger” he serves to remind Hall of how culpable his actions are. Were it not for Hall’s recklessness in engaging police at Jugiong after they were already retreating, Sergeant Parry would not have been killed; had he listened to Dunn’s fears about police arriving at Collector rather than ignoring them, Constable Nelson would not have been shot; had Hall not allowed his temper to get the better of him at Binda, Christina and Ellen would not have been arrested for assisting them in the burning of Morriss’ store. In the end, Dunn outlives his colleagues but it’s only a matter of time before his own crimes catch up with him.

Dunn also shows the most growth as a character. Whereas Hall and Gilbert have already undergone the growth from becoming bushrangers, we see Dunn go from being naive and unsure of himself to “tipping the velvet” with Peggy Monks, being able to keep a crowd under control on his own and being able to stand up and question Hall’s plans. Perhaps the best indicator of his development is in how he goes from referring to his leader as “Mr. Hall” to “Ben”, showing he gradually reaches equal footing with Hall in the gang.

I am not underestimating this man Sergeant. Out here, this is his world.

The subplot of the film is the police efforts to finally capture the bushrangers. The police pursuit is something akin to a metaphorical hydra; many-headed and nigh on unstoppable, where you can take out one head and two more will take its place. When we begin, Hall narrowly escapes an ambush by a party led by Sergeant Condell. At the end, this same party is doubled with two heads in the form of Condell and Davidson. The relentless Detective Pye acts as something of a free-floating menace, forever nipping at the gang’s heels. Pye is driven by an unquenchable desire to bring Hall and his gang to justice at any cost, demonstrating the desperation that the forces of law and order are experiencing. He will do whatever it takes to get his man, even arresting an entire pub full of people.

Sub-Inspector Davidson is perhaps the most intriguing personality of the pursuers. During a campfire scene it is revealed that he seems to be the only one without some form of acquaintance with Hall – something he is deeply embarrassed by. Davidson soon finds his leadership challenged by the irascible Sergeant Condell and has his orders ignored when police open fire on Hall. His respect for his opponent seems to result in a lack of respect for him from his peers. Davidson has a healthy respect for Hall and this is what motivates him to speak truthfully about what happened to Hall at Billabong Creek. It is also why he doesn’t keep the locket belonging to Hall, recognising it as something of sentimental value and returning it to his fallen foe. Again, this has a Greek tragedy vibe, where the moral lesson appears to be about the importance of respect.

I was right to leave you. Look what you’ve become.

One of the most important motifs is Hall’s locket containing a photograph of Biddy. Photographs in The Legend of Ben Hall provide a window into the past, reminding us of who Ben Hall was before everything fell apart. The carte de visite that opens the film is the very image Hall gives to Henry at the end to remind him who his real father is – not Jim Taylor and not a violent outlaw, but a young squatter filled with optimism, a respectable man worthy of remembering. Similarly, Ben’s locket reminds him of the life he lost. Biddy’s desertion cut deeply and was a key factor in Ben throwing away his respectable life. The locket reminds him of who he was and the life he wishes he had, which gives him motivation to escape Australia and start again. His pursuit of Biddy, it eventuates, is not really for revenge for her leaving with his son as he initially believes. Deep down, Hall realises that there is something in him that drove her away and he needs to figure out what it is and atone for it. He needs to make amends for the wrongs he has committed in the past and he can only do that by making his peace with Biddy.

We ride again, we do so for one purpose: to get enough to skip the country for good.

The reappearance of Johnny Gilbert represents a turning point for Ben Hall. These two go back many years and have endured despite the best efforts of the police to take them. Hall needs to find a way out of the country and out of nowhere Gilbert returns to provide him that chance. It is through the actions of Gilbert that Hall begins to truly understand what he has become. As much as he tries to deny it, Hall enjoys the thrill of being a highwayman just as much as Gilbert and Gilbert has no issue reminding him of that. When Sergeant Parry is murdered during the botched highway robbery at Black Springs, Gilbert makes a point of telling Hall “This is who we are. This is what we do.” After the failed escort robbery Hall reveals that the money he has had stashed at Mick Coneley’s could be enough to get them out of New South Wales, much to Gilbert’s and Dunn’s disgust, the pair having by now evolved into desperate men longing for escape. In this moment we can see that Hall’s true desire was never to leave the colony, but that he wanted the glory days of when he and Gilbert were kings of the road back. Hall’s selfish need to be in control, to maintain his dubious distinction of being the most notorious highwayman in Australia, to chase the thrill of bigger and bigger scores, led the three of them down an irreversible path to desperation and destruction, leaving blood and ash in their wake.

I would never have broken your heart the way she did.

The impact of Hall’s selfishness is further driven home when they return to Coneley’s hut. Coneley has become afraid of what will happen to him if people find out that he has been helping the gang, pushing him to secretly provide information to the police to help them capture Hall and company. We also further see how oblivious Hall has been to the feelings of those around him when Mary Ann reveals how upset she was when he married Biddy, highlighting comments made by Gilbert earlier in the film. Ben Hall is his own worst enemy, a man who will throw away happiness and security in pursuit of a thrill, no matter who suffers as a result and will ignore the insight of those with clearer vision if he doesn’t want to believe the truth. Mary Ann’s tender kiss seems to finally make Hall realise the man he has allowed himself to become – a realisation that leaves him shaken.

When we finally reach the conclusion of the story we realise that the journey has been one of self-discovery and redemption. When Hall gifts his son a portrait of himself as a younger man and leaves £500 for him, we see that he has finally shed the selfishness that had led him to abduct Henry then threaten Taylor. He has realised that by making the issue about his own hurt feelings he has ignored the needs of his son. Being a father is more than blood, it’s about putting your child’s needs before yourself. Hall’s reward is an apology from Biddy and a reconciliation but he discovers that even though he has wanted that the whole time, he doesn’t really deserve it and he is ashamed of himself for wanting it. As he rides away from Biddy and Henry, Hall has finally learned his lesson.

Unfortunately for Hall his apotheosis has come too late and the wheel of fate has spun before he even makes it back to Billabong Creek. The ambush on May 5 is the final step on his journey from being Ben Hall the bushranger to being Ben Hall the legend. Thus we return to that original question: what is the legend of Ben Hall?

The legend of Ben Hall is that a man who has fallen from grace into a life of sin can discover the path to redemption. As Sub-Inspector Davidson places Hall’s locket upon his chest the journey to redemption is completed. Hall has atoned for his misdeeds and though his life has ended, his soul has been saved. In contrast, Johnny Gilbert is not afforded the same closure. He is snuffed out suddenly and without mercy, paying the ultimate price for his crimes. Dunn however has his own small journey of atonement that ends on the gallows. This is story about how in the end, our crimes always catch up with us, but we all have the ability to make peace with our past.

Ned Kelly (2003): an analysis

Every interpretation of the Kelly story brings with it a host of conflicting perspectives on various points, and each is unique. More recent film depictions have been executed more artfully than the early silent films or even early “talkies”. Whereas the formative depictions of the story were usually morality plays, emphasising the social ramifications of lawlessness, the rise of the understanding of film as an artform changed the approach many directors and writers took. Gregor Jordan’s contribution is no exception. It is not a depiction of a historical figure, rather it’s an interpretation of the cultural figure of Ned Kelly that seeks to explore the idea of a man being shaped and guided by external forces to his doom.

Jordan’s film is crafted from a John Michael McDonagh screenplay based on the Robert Drewe novel Our Sunshine. Just as the book moves away from history for the sake of artistic expression, the film steps away from the history as well as the book both for artistic purposes and marketability (the latter being driven by executives rather than the creative team). This has riled many history buffs who had hoped to see the history brought to life on screen, but this is most definitely not that. It must be highlighted that the film differs drastically from the book in many areas also, thus any interpretation of the film text is not reflective of the source novel, just as much as it is not reflective of history, and must be viewed on its own terms.

He wasn’t such a bad fella. He… he was just a dumb paddy who got picked on his whole life. And that does something to your pride, you know?

Jordan’s Ned is a man with a deeply ingrained sense of injustice and is a passive protagonist. The events in the story that shape his life have nothing to do with the decisions he makes, he merely enacts a pre-conceived narrative. While Ned is brash and prone to explosions of temper his actions have no real effect on the outcome of events. This is most conspicuous in the aftermath of the Fitzpatrick incident when Ned is accused of injuring the constable despite not being present. He seeks an alibi but is denied, locking in his fate. It is then that he goes into hiding and his mother is jailed. Neither Ned’s participation, nor indeed his presence, was required to affect him becoming a bushranger. Even the act of taking Kennedy’s watch at Stringybark Creek plays out without any explanation of the protagonist’s motivation, it is simply part of the pre-conceived narrative.

None of his actions prevent the bad things from happening and nothing he does results in the undoing of the undesirable outcomes. By the end Ned has become resigned to this and when Hare unexpectedly appears and asks for Ned’s sash, he is met merely with a look of weary indifference – nothing Ned could say or do would matter because it would happen anyway.

Of course, there is an easy explanation for this fixation on destiny. This is Ned’s own interpretation of his life being acted out before the audience. This is demonstrated by the voice-over narrating the story throughout. Ned is unable to see how his actions could have resulted in the outcomes that he found himself subject to and thus we are not shown anything that could condemn him. The effect is that Ned is merely following a script and is little more than a puppet of fate. This sense of determinism is the desperate rationalising of events to make sense of a life gone astray.

Ned is thrown in gaol over a suspected stolen horse but we’re never shown anything to contextualise the event other than Ned finding a horse then being assaulted by police. The police are bullies who pick on the Kellys, but again there’s no context given beyond them being Kellys and Irish and the police not liking them for that. This trend for oversimplified cause and effect creates a sense of there being no control over things – they just are. We don’t know why the police at Stringybark Creek are carrying stretchers in the middle of the bush, but this is all it takes to confirm Ned’s belief that he would be gunned down. There’s no suggestion that the police may simply arrest him. All of this indicates Ned twisting the events in his mind to justify the way they turned out in such a manner that he is not at fault.

Further to this is the way that the supporting players are portrayed. This is Ned’s own interpretation of his gang, his family, the police and public, but of course it is all determined by its relationship to himself. Joe Byrne is Ned’s closest friend, but depicted as a womaniser and keenly intelligent, always at Ned’s beck and call. This is in contrast to Ned’s comparative sexual repression, lack of education and his natural leadership. Joe is the yin to Ned’s yang; the Horatio to Ned’s Hamlet, always on hand to confirm Ned’s suspicions or bounce ideas off. Dan Kelly is depicted as an impulsive runt. He is brash and somewhat arrogant but just as devoted to his family as his big brother, despite harbouring ill-feelings towards their deceased father. Ned takes on that paternal role and we see their relationship develop in such a way that Ned becomes something of a sage for Dan, offering wisdom from the school of hard knocks. Steve Hart however is shown as petulant, flaky and mischievous with a cowardly streak. Ned seems to look at him as little more than an inconvenience and is not afraid to belittle him. For all their differences, one thing unites this gang, which is a complete subservience to and admiration of Ned.

Then we see how the various other characters relate to Ned: Julia falls in love with him to the extent of cheating on her husband because he is so much more manly; Kate adores him and sees him as the family’s protector; the police fear Ned while also having a begrudging respect for him; Aaron views Ned with admiration but this soon gives way to fear once he starts helping the police. In essence, the characterisation of the cast is almost entirely derived from how they view Ned, or rather how Ned imagines they view him.

I am a widow’s son, outlawed, and my orders must be obeyed!

This leads us to Ned’s perception of himself. By the way many events play out we see Ned as charming, attractive, playful, witty, tough, commanding and, moreover, popular. Everyone knows who he is wherever he goes, even if they occasionally need their memory jogged at gunpoint. When we see the Jerilderie robbery, Ned’s passion and charisma as he dictates his letter in front of a crowd whips them into a frenzy, chiming in to help him create memorable insults directed towards the police. Whenever Ned speaks people listen and even the police can’t help crack a smile when they think of how devilishly clever and witty he is.

I’ve watched gravel fade. Dust settle into crust. I’ve seen drips of water turn to stone that defied gravity. I’ve turned blood red with cave mud. I’ve been a bloody rock!

The film’s extremely gloomy, desaturated palette echoes the increasingly burdened state of mind of Ned. As the film is framed as Ned telling his own story, naturally the atmosphere is reflective of Ned’s own feelings, embodying his essence. The flatness and sparseness of the locations is also indicative of Ned’s emotional connections to the places we visit in the story. While in reality the Kellys lived near the foot of a large, smooth hill dotted with trees and covered in grass, albeit prone to drought, when we see the homestead in the film it juts out of the grey, flat and boggy landscape as if plonked in the middle of nowhere and looks more like his ancestral home, Ireland, than Australia. Ned does not really imagine the surroundings, his only focus is what the house represents – his family. To Ned, it’s his mother and siblings that matter, not the place they live in. Ned is very focused on family and the pain and loss he feels relating to his mother’s imprisonment is signified by a shot of Ellen in her cell, alone and surrounded by darkness except for a patch of light coming from the cell window. His memories of his family are generally bleak bar one: the memory of the day he received his green sash.

Ah, what did Da call me? That’s right. He called me Sunshine.

Here we see his parents beaming with pride, the sun shining brightly upon young Ned as he receives his reward for saving a life, surrounded by people that cheer for him. This is Ned’s “happy place”, the memory he clings to that proves he really is a good person. This is why the reveal of the sash after his capture is so important. It shows how beneath the armour, his outlaw facade, he still clings to this sash as a symbol of something pure and virtuous inside him. The only other time we really see the sunshine and the beauty of the landscape is between Ned’s return home and the Fitzpatrick incident then the gang’s emergence from the fire-decimated landscape. Colour and sunshine and the beauty of nature symbolise hope and optimism. His time working on the Cooks’ station is a happy time as it seems things could be improving for the Kellys, and it serves to drive home how bleak things become afterwards.

They said I’d lost what it meant to be human, maybe never had it in the first place, but wasn’t this about protecting the ones I loved? The ones who gave me food, and shelter, even the clothes on me back? And therefore wasn’t it now a war?

Perhaps the most disturbing sequence in the film involves the gang, starving and dying of thirst, slaughtering their horses to drink the blood. This is immediately following a huge bushfire that the police cause leaving the gang stranded and struggling to survive. The horses are slaughtered in the dark of night and the gang look like wild men, deranged and filthy. The desperation of their situation is written on their faces in mud, soot and blood. This nightmare is a representation of Ned’s feelings during the height of his outlawry. He is ashamed of what he has become and is desperate to reform his image and so ventures to the only person he can think of that could help him – the only woman who has ever shown him romantic love – Julia Cook. Julia reminds Ned of who he really is and this motivates his crazy scheme at Glenrowan.

They say the trouble with the Irish is that they rely too much on dreams and not enough on gunpowder. Whereas the English were shy on dreams, as usual, but had plenty of the other. Now we had both.

Ned never states definitively what the plan is for Glenrowan. We are given allusions that it’s something big and important as the gang create armour, gather weapons and then re-emerge with clean clothes and haircuts. The town of Glenrowan becomes the base of operations, though what Ned hopes to achieve here is never made clear. Ned gives a speech about how he and his gang are at war with the British Empire and even the London Times. Ned has emerged from the chrysalis of desperation as a revolutionary, a freedom fighter. The bizarre mix of people in the inn represents what Ned sees as the common people, the ones who are victimised by the corruption in the power structure. Yet, they are also reflective of the nature of the social and political dimension Ned’s situation has taken on: little more than a bizarre circus. The caged lion that paces and hollers outside is a symbol of Ned’s warrior spirit; ironic and subversive in that the lion is usually the symbol of England, the culture Ned is so opposed to. When the gang emerge in their armour they are chivalrous knights, protecting the downtrodden from the oppression of police and the political construction they represent. We see the ruthlessness of the police as they gun down innocent civilians as they try to escape from the inn. The gang respond by emerging from the shadows like steel automatons and casually decimate the front line of the police despite the fact that it is pitch black, raining and they are wearing helmets that restrict their vision. The gang avenge those who have been struck down by the cruelty of the police before being forced to head back inside. This is where Ned decides to make his last stand.

Whereas in history Ned’s last stand occurred as he returned to the inn from behind police lines, in this interpretation it is portrayed as Ned venturing out to fight the police single-handedly to create enough of a distraction for the captives to escape. The last stand now becomes a noble and selfless act whereby Ned saves the surviving captives at the cost of his own freedom and, in effect, his life. Naturally without Ned to lead them, the rest of the gang end up dead and the scene of what should have been Ned’s greatest victory goes up in flames. Ned wanders through the bizarre, alien landscape with its camels and pelting rain, only to collapse metres behind the police. The dead lion signifies the death of Ned’s spirit. He realises that he was never destined to succeed and when he regains consciousness again he fires on the police and is quickly taken down. His survival beyond this maiming seems to add insult to injury as he lies gasping under the weight of his armour, the very thing that saved his life from gunfire now little more than an embodiment of his crushing defeat resulting in a demeaning death at the end of a rope.

Such is life.

This is perhaps one of the most unusual interpretations yet of the Kelly story, as it is in essence a warped portrayal played out in the memories of a doomed man. The inaccuracies become the artifice that demonstrates the unreliable nature of a narrator assured of the notion that his life was predetermined and all of his actions, no matter how nefarious or altruistic, were incapable of altering the course of his destiny. Everyone is in awe of the protagonist either through fear or respect as he does a marionette dance from one happenstance to another. This is the story of a man shaped by external forces to become the most hunted man in the British Empire and destined to die an ignominious death as a young man fighting a war he cannot possibly win. There is no real moral lesson to this story, merely the depressing realisation that life rarely turns out the way we want it to.

“Mad Dog Morgan”: An Analysis

Ordinary criminals come and go every day. The bushranger comes once in an age. Nature requires time to produce her titans and these monsters reappear after the lapse of years.

On the face of things, Philippe Mora’s magnum opus Mad Dog Morgan is little more than an “ozploitation” film loosely based on the life of bushranger Daniel Morgan. The film is clearly low budget with violence and nudity plonked in to appeal to an audience craving titillation in the then-new era of relaxed censorship that defined Australian film in the 1970s. Yet, beyond the surface elements is a script that uses the character of Morgan to meditate on the nature of humanity and society.

I’m a mad dog, sir.

The film takes its title, not from history, but from the influences of American Westerns. Yet, it is the perfect moniker for this incarnation of Morgan: a wild man driven insane by desperation and cruelty in a frontier world defined by struggle and oppression. This is not the historical Morgan that appears in the Margaret Carnegie book that inspired the film. This is a folk hero who represents the rebel; the outlaw who lives by his own rules. This is why Mora chose Dennis Hopper for the lead. Hopper had become something of an underground cult figure, an icon of the counter culture, ever since crafting his film Easy Rider. Something about the lawless characters in the film, which concentrates on two bikers on their travels through America at the height of the “free love” era, seemed to be very much in the spirit of outlaws like Morgan. The notion of Morgan as a “mad dog” refers to how he is viewed and treated after his rejection of civilisation and what he feels are unjust laws that protect those who harm others. His robberies are not merely acts of criminality; to his supporters they are rebellion, while to his detractors it is a sign of his mental incompetence and dangerousness.

One example of this is in an incident that plays out in the film almost exactly as it did in reality. Morgan bailed up Thomas Gibson, the superintendent of a station at Burrumbuttock, and forced him at gunpoint to write £500 worth of cheques to be handed out to the staff. This action was intended to humiliate the employer for his miserly treatment of his staff as well as compensate the workers. This was an act of militant socialism, forcing the wealth to be distributed more evenly. Of course, this was an affront to Victorian society, which had no qualms about the exploitation of workers for the financial gain of an employer. Acts like this were proof of Morgan’s dangerousness. He was unpredictable, but more importantly he seemed to have an agenda and authority figures were his targets.

The more I see of man, the more I admire dogs.

“Mad dog” as a label is intended to dehumanise Morgan. It highlights the attitude that his lawlessness made him no more than a feral animal deserving of extermination. The theme of criminals being dehumanised repeats throughout the film, reflected in various characters. There are discussions of the similarities between men and apes and how this could relate to criminality. There is an assertion that Morgan may be some form of gorilla rather than a man. Yet there’s also a sense in all this that the upper classes have a disdain for humanity in all forms, demonstrated particularly in the character of the odious and lugubrious Superintendent Cobham.

All of Morgan’s actions are reactionary in some way, a retaliation for injustices actual and perceived. Yet despite the apparently justified motivation for his depredations he is labelled as sub-human. In comparison we see supposedly respectable, law-abiding people – police, stockmen, miners – attacking and killing others for their race, torturing and strangling prisoners, being uncharitable to the needy and unfair to their employees, even ordering the mutilation of the dead with the infamous directive to remove Morgan’s scrotum for use as a tobacco pouch.

“By all means – off with his head. And don’t forget the scrotum.”

Further to this point, is the fact that the only people who seem to display kindness during the film are the outcasts: bushrangers, tramps and barflies. The dregs of society, it would appear, have more humanity than those who would consider them to be no more than mangy dogs. The only time we see an expression of love in the film is between Morgan and his Aboriginal companion Billy. While there appears to be a homosexual undertone to the relationship between Morgan and Billy, it is representative of the genuine and binding affection that people can share, especially when they are kindred spirits. Billy saved Morgan’s life without any expectations of reward and Morgan in response makes a point of listening to Billy’s story and learning his ways in hunting and survival. Billy gives Morgan the strength and motivation to keep going, reminding him that there is good in the world.

I think my father was white. I think. Because they came to kill my tribe because they took the sheep.

There is also a deep spirituality throughout this tale. We see Billy as something akin to an embodiment of nature at times, living off the land and endowed with knowledge of skills ranging from hunting to medicine. He is a young man whose past is a mystery even to himself. He can’t remember if his father was white but he has memories of being rejected by his tribe. His arrival just in time to bring Morgan back from the brink of death as if in answer to Morgan’s prayers sets him up as something of a guardian angel, appropriately introduced to what sounds like an angelic chorus. There are also curious moments in the film that seem to imply a deep connection to nature such as the slow-motion shot of Billy bathing in the waterfall or the closing moment of Billy making a kookaburra call into the wilderness as if to signal Morgan’s becoming one with the natural world – despite it being implied that Billy had been strangled to death earlier in the film. Combined with the quote from Mainwaring describing the bushranger as nature’s titan, we are given the notion of Morgan being guided by the embodiment of Australia itself to rebel against the colonial establishment. That a “mad dog” could become the champion for a conquered land and its dispossessed people is a very subversive idea.

That’s an extinct animal, Morgan, like you.

There is also particular emphasis placed on the gift of a skin. Upon Morgan revealing the reward on his head, dead or alive, Billy hands Morgan the pelt of a thylacine, an animal still alive in the 1860s but for the purposes of artistic expression herein referred to as an “extinct animal”. This skin is a sacred object and an item Morgan keeps close at hand throughout the remainder of the film. No attention is drawn to how Billy came into possession of a thylacine skin despite it being an animal exclusive to Tasmania, but there is a sense that this was some kind of totem object. Indeed, the thylacine becomes Morgan’s totem, representing his doomed existence and the prejudice thrust upon misunderstood creatures. The act of giving the skin to Morgan seems to represent the Aboriginal transferring his dispossession at the hands of the colonists to the renegade colonial who is destined to suffer the same fate. It is symbolic of a shared suffering and indeed Morgan’s connection to Billy reflects this kinship as well.

Do you know how lucky I am to be Dan Morgan?

Beyond this, it is the tale of a man doomed to die a monster’s death but straining to cheat the reaper as long as possible. As the film rolls on Morgan becomes only too aware of the fact that his race is almost run. His return to Victoria is an act of defiance laced with a fatalistic gloom. He knows his chance of surviving is not great and we see the cracks show when he takes supper at a shanty and expresses his regret that he’d never been with a woman and had no idea what to do with one if given the opportunity. This highlights the way his life had been wrenched away from him by the severity of the penal system and the difficulty of frontier life, both on the goldfields and as an outlaw. The outlaw lifestyle, while shown as romantic at times, is hardly a glamourous one here. It is a cursed existence devoid of comfort and necessitating a paranoid temperament as anybody could turn at any moment. Morgan is forced to sleep in caves and eat snakes despite the booty he accumulates from his robberies. He amuses himself by shaving off his moustache to look like Abraham Lincoln and practising what he’ll say and do when bailing people up. He preens himself into the image of a pirate but when the chips are down and he senses that the net is closing around him he grows more wild and bedraggled in his appearance.

I’ve always gotta keep smilin’ – keep smilin’! Always smile because it’s a beautiful day! A beautiful day…

We see Morgan begin to have nightmares where a monstrous incarnation of Smith, the police antagonist Morgan murders in an ambush, leaps out of the water wreathed in flames to seek his revenge. Morgan senses that his sins are catching up with him but is determined to go down swinging. He becomes driven by a vendetta against those that personally wronged him, revenge being his only fuel to keep going. His behaviour becomes more erratic and he tries to drown out the pain of his existence with booze. Eventually he accepts his fate with a mirthless chuckle as he twigs that Peechelba Station is surrounded by police and bounty hunters. He drapes himself in the “sacred skin of an extinct animal” and boldly steps into the open and ignores his imminent doom, instead marvelling at the sunshine and clear skies.

Well, you only go around once they say. I tell you what, that Irish whiskey’s pretty good.

As with many of the schlocky Australian films of the 70s there’s a message under the surface that can be missed by the casual viewer. The world of Mad Dog Morgan is not so separated from our own where those with power and authority look down upon the lower classes, sometimes even to the extent of questioning their humanity; the lower classes, meanwhile, prop up rogues as heroes for their defiance of an authority they feel does not reflect their values and openly holds them in contempt. To these people, Morgan represents something more than he is. He’s either the lowest form of degradation or the highest form of galantry. Yet it’s at the meeting point between law and lawless that we get the most conflict and moral complexity. It demonstrates that the further removed from something we are, the more convinced we are in our righteousness. Morgan is merely a man trying to survive in a remorseless world who becomes a force of nature, shaped by cruelty and hardship into a weapon against the structures of man. He murders the enforcers, burns the chapels of industry and wages war on that most dangerous of mankind’s creations: society. In the end, Morgan is slain but as we see from the reactions of those observing the body afterwards, he has succeeded in forcing the people to reevaluate their adherence to authority. One by one the police turn their backs on the monstrous Cobham as he instructs the doctors to mutilate the corpse for trophies, leaving the doctors stranded between the moral choice and subservience to authority.

The Mystery of Dan Kelly’s and Steve Hart’s Demise – Part Two


The following is aimed at mature readers.

We continue our two part feature on the mysterious deaths of Dan Kelly and Steve Hart with an overview of the folklore and conspiracy theories about the pair surviving the fire as well as a summary of the evidence that disproves these popular legends. You can read part one here. The subject matter is not for the squeamish and will feature sensitive material as well as imagery some might find upsetting, but this is all in the pursuit of understanding what really happened at Glenrowan and bringing closure to this enduring speculation.

The Conspiracy Theories

Many people have peddled the barely credible stories of Dan and Steve surviving Glenrowan. Most of these people were old swaggies who traded their stories for food and shelter. The basic tropes of the stories are as follows:

1. The boys hid (usually in a cellar) where they avoided being burned.

2. The bodies from the fire were swaggies or some other strangers to the area. Random unidentified casualties in the fire appear in various incarnations of the story.

3. The survivors headed to Queensland and beyond (usually South Africa) but never returned to their families.

4. The claimant insists on the legitimacy of the claims despite deviation from recorded facts.

Here we will look at some of the more notable stories that have done the rounds over the past century.

The South Africa Legends

The earliest legend of the boys escaping stated that they subsequently fought in the Boer War in South Africa. Travelling under assumed names they fought in the war and upon the war ending returned to Australia. Variations of the story are plentiful. In one account the pair used Ned Kelly’s last stand as a diversion for their escape from the fire. They then took a coach to Melbourne, stowed away to India, joined the Imperial Indian Army and were engaged in service in South Africa. Later Dan returned to Australia where he was questioned by police, whereas Steve had drowned in Calcutta harbour around 1917. This version asserts the bodies found in the inn were tramps.

Another variation states that the pair escaped the inn dressed as troopers using uniforms they carried around to use as disguises. They fired back at the inn and avoided detection because no police knew what they looked like. In this version an old shepherd puts them up then they head to Sydney where they take a ship to Argentina, then later fought as soldiers in South Africa before returning to Australia. The Dan Kelly in this rendition was later seen arguing, drunk, in the street alluding to it all being a ruse.

It is claimed by one alleged witness, Ralph Merton, that they worked in a Kimberley hotel where he recognised them and called them out. They subsequently admitted their identities and produced an article about Ned Kelly’s execution as proof. This claimant asserted than Steve Hart was a master pugilist and could hold his own with the best of them. He stated that the pair escaped from Newcastle in a cattle boat headed for South Africa where they were determined to live out the rest of their days but eventually Dan died in South Africa and Steve Hart in California.


Ambrose Pratt even compiled the “memoirs” of one of these impostor Dans in a book simply titled Dan Kelly Outlaw in which Dan survives Glenrowan and sails to America. As can be expected it is riddled with inaccuracies and clear fabrications. These are just some of the variations on the tale reiterated by tramps and swaggies at the turn of the last century. It was estimated that there was no less than a dozen people claiming to be Dan Kelly doing the rounds that time, but none would gather as much attention as the enterprising “Dan” who took his story straight to the press.

“I am Dan Kelly”

Dan Kelly and his dog at Toombul, ca. 1930s, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 1196305 [Source]

The most infamous Dan Kelly impostor was James Ryan, a swaggie from Queensland who used his dubious credentials to gain popularity in rural communities. Before his unfortunate demise on the receiving end of a coal train, he approached the press in Queensland where his story was covered by The Truth in the 1930s and widely accepted as fact by a public not terribly aware of the facts of the story, eager for any kind of juicy controversy that could distract from the harsh existence they eked out during the Great Depression.

Ryan would boldly claim:

“I rode with Ned. For 53 years I have been a fugitive, with murder on my head. I am here now to prove that I didn’t die in the fire at Glenrowan, and to tell the whole truth before it is too late.”
A hell of a claim to live up to! Of course, it all starts to fall apart when he is pressed on the details. In the narrative, as dictated to The Truth, we are told:
“Ned Kelly had just come out of Berrima Gaol in 1877 after serving a sentence for horse stealing when he was told by Kate [Kelly] of Fitzpatrick’s wooing. As it is related, it is one of the most dramatic episodes in the entire story of robbery and bloodshed. Kate told Ned she had ‘a boy,’ and when Ned learned who it was, and showed anger, Kate dropped Fitzpatrick ‘like a hot spud.'”
Not a word of this is the truth and likely did the rounds of the pubs in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland. The Truth make the wise move of pointing out Ryan’s inaccuracies:
“Where his details collide with fact the subject is usually one with which he has become acquainted through hearsay and report; for example, the reward which was placed on the heads of the gang after the sticking up of the Jerilderie bank in February, 1879. His version is that £1000 a head was posted, when actually the offer was £2000.”
James Ryan was no ordinary teller of tall tales. When confronted with the obvious falsehoods he was peddling he simply stated that the “truth” was lies perpetuated to try and defame he and his associates, such as this choice quote regarding the armour being made by a Benalla blackmith named “Jack Quin”:
“He made the armor in the bush outside the town, and he made it of best sheet steel, about three-sixteenths of an inch thick. It is nonsense for people to say the armor was made out of old mouldboards and casl-off pieces of metal. It may be true, as it’s said, that the name of Lemmone, the plough-maker, was found on Ned’s armor after his capture, but you can take it from me that the steel used was new stuff, strong and true.”
But, of course, the most important part of his story has to be the account of how he escaped the fire.
“The other three had their armor on under their coats. My first recollection of trouble was an alarm. We saw suddenly that the place was on fire. The others who were with us rushed to the doors— and found that they were locked. The police had locked them and set fire to the shanty. Somehow, I suppose,they intended to let the others out, but they wanted us badly.
Through the thick smoke that was filling the bar I saw Ned jump for a small window, carrying his rifle. Us three were nearly suffocated. Hart and Byrne were encumbered with their armor, which was their undoing. They couldn’t get out and were burnt alive. It all happened in a flash. As Ned got through the window I heard a crackle, of shots, and realised that the place was covered by many rifles. I had already been scorched by the flames, and I ran into a room off the bar, where the smoke seemed less dense. It turned out to be a bedroom.
A baby was lying on the bed, screaming with fright and pain. Somebody had left it there in the confusion. Flames were filling the room, and I thought the end had come.
The wall of the room suddenly began to bulge, and I saw a chance. One of the boards — It was only a single board place — began to go, and I pushed it outwards with the strength of a madman.
You get pretty excited when you look to have a good chance of being burnt alive. Already I was being caught by the flames, and there was no hope at all for the kid. The fire must have burnt around the board where it was secured to the post for it suddenly gave way as I pushed.
I stuck my head out for air. I thought I might be able to push other boards out and get through. I found instead that my head was caught, and that I couldn’t move it.
The fire gave me some hurry-up for the short time I was stuck there helpless. I writhed in agony as my legs and back and sides came within the range of the flames. Luckily for me, the police were in the front of the place; otherwise I’d have been potted off like a sick dog. I struggled and pushed for all I was worth, and when I was just about ready to give up another board gave way. That will give you an idea of how hot it was in the room!
I got into the open. Pains were shooting through me like the fires of hell. I had no chance of walking. But I could crawl. I crawled slowly down into a bit of a washout beyond the hotel.
Every moment was torture such as I never knew could be possible. I still had ideas of helping Ned. I could see him in the moonlight about 50 yards away from where I lay behind a clump of scrub. He was standing behind a big bloodwood log. I still wanted to help him, but I had no gun.
Ned called out to me to surrender. He could see me, but the police couldn’t. They were firing at him, and he was replying towards their rifle flashes. I couldn’t help him so I shut my mouth. If I had started calling back to him I’d have taken his attention off what he was doing.
They were firing at him at intervals. They started about midnight and kept it up until dawn. He was still wearing his armor, and now and then, when a bullet hit him on a protected part, he’d thump his chest and call them skunks, and cowards. By dawn there must have been a hundred weight of police lead at his feet — bullets that had flattened on his steel coat.
I saw them break Ned’s wrist with a bullet. The revolver dropped out of his hand. I heard him call them again a lot of curs, and then I heard no more I suppose I lost my senses. It was still day when I came to, and the place was quiet.
Nobody came to look for me. The ruins of the pub were still hot. I laid there in the scrub groaning with agony. The pain was almost unbearable. I was there for five days without water or food. It was a hard time. I was burned on the legs, the hips and the back. Of my clothes, all had been burnt off except the collar of my shirt and the waist band of my trousers.
They say Dan Kelly never escaped from the fire! During those five days there were times when I wished I hadn’t. On the fifth day an old cocky came in sight, and I called out to him. I hardly recognised my own voice, and it was so weak that I was surprised that he heard me croak.
He came to me. I told him who I was. He turned out to be a German, Schultz by name. He tended me and put me into his cart.
He was a fine old fellow. Knowing that he would never ‘crack a lay’, I took him right into my confidence. He got me back to Victoria and left me at a farmhouse just outside Benalla. I don’t remember the name of the farmer. If I did, I wouldn’t disclose it, because they did me the biggest turn any man could have asked for, and they may have descendants living around there now.”

How anyone even vaguely familiar with the truth could consider there to be any shred of credibility in this ludicrous tale is beyond comprehension. There is not the slightest chance that this man was who he said he was and a companion piece published by The Truth that attacks the arguments against the assertion that this elderly huckster was Dan Kelly makes for infuriating reading. The utter absurdity of this circus of lies leaves one feeling that even a short summary as this gives the delusion more air than it ever deserved, though there are still some out there who believe it to be true so it warrants inclusion.

The Facts

In order to adequately address the notion of a miraculous escape from the fire we must examine the likelihood of survival in a fire of such a magnitude by hiding in a cellar. The following images of the body of one of the outlaws, likely Dan Kelly, illustrates the gruesome sight that confronted the family and spectators:


As can be clearly seen, the extremities had burned off, the bones had fragmented and there were no identifying marks as a result. While this inability to identify the remains after the fire was seemingly enough to fuel the rumours, it actually demonstrates the number key reasons why such an escape would be impossible. In the event that a cellar did exist, and the boys hid inside it during the fire, the fire would have been too hot to allow survival. The Black Saturday fires demonstrated that hiding in a cellar or underground shelter may seem like a sound idea, and in a few cases it worked, but the deaths from smoke inhalation, suffocating and overheating prove that burning is not the only way an inferno can kill you. The fire in the inn was so hot it liquefied glass bottles putting the temperature of the fire around 1400 – 1600° Celsius (2522 – 2912° Fahrenheit, or 1673.15 – 1873.15° Kelvin). For days after the fire the ruins were still seen smouldering. Two people hiding in a cellar under the inn would have likely suffocated as the fire sucked all the air out to feed itself if the radiant heat hadn’t already killed them through hyperthermia, that is extreme overheating, which starts to become fatal when the body temperature exceeds 40° Celsius (104° Fahrenheit, 313.15° Kelvin) meaning that the fire in the Glenrowan Inn would have been more than 30x hotter than the temperature needed to cause death. However, if by a miracle the cellar was deep enough and provided enough shelter to protect from the radian heat, they would have suffered severe burns attempting to exit the ruins that consisted of molten glass, hot metal and embers, which were observed almost constantly over the next few days by rubberneckers and souvenir hunters.
The state of the bodies after the fire demonstrates that they had been partially cremated. The descriptions of the flesh bubbling and sizzling, and the fists clenching, and limbs contracting are perfectly in line with the effect of the first ten minutes of cremation in a modern crematorium. Temperatures in modern cremation chambers reach around 1000° Celsius (1832° Fahrenheit, 1273.15° Kelvin). The final product that we see in the photographs of the corpse on a sheet of bark are alike a cremated body would be at fifty minutes into the process (which would usually take a little over an hour) indicating that the back room at least was slightly cooler than the bar room would have been.

This photograph by Madeley demonstrates the huge cloud of smoke from the inn, which was burning hotter than a cremation chamber.

But let’s put aside the science for a moment and consider that maybe there was a cellar that they hid in, is it not bizarre that at a site surrounded by dozens of police and locals as well as the scores of onlookers that had come to gawp and fossick over the course of the siege and following days, that not a single person a) noticed a cellar and b) saw anyone emerge from the wreckage.

Beyond the grisly nature of the deaths, there is the inescapable tragedy of two young lives wasted, their potential snuffed out before it could ascend and two families with nothing to mourn over but the semi-cremated remains. Steve Hart in his youthful ignorance pursued adventure but ended up in Hell. Dan Kelly, ever the subordinate to his impulsive brother, seems to have been led away from a life that could have seen him step away from the difficulties of life as a Kelly and make something of himself, but as instead doomed to barely reach his majority.


The core of this examination is to put an end to the rumours of an impossible escape from the Glenrowan Inn so that the memory of these young men, little more than boys, can be respected, despite their criminality, and the truth be seen for the tragic waste of life it was. Moreover, it is to impart the importance of examining stories with a critical eye or else risk being taken advantage of and made to be a fool. To perpetuate the idea of an escape is to peddle poppycock that has no value beyond the believer’s own satisfaction that the police didn’t win against the gang, which is obviously what the death or capture of the outlaws would have meant. The notion that two of the gang escaped is no more than an extended middle finger to the authorities. The issue was famously raised to Ellen Kelly in an interview and her reaction is telling:

“Don’t I know that he’s dead? Haven’t I proof of it all these weary years? Do you think I don’t know? I tell you Dan’s dead and gone, many years ago. […] Dan is dead. No one knows it better than I do. Yes; I have the proof. Look! If Dan Kelly was alive all these years, wouldn’t he have come to me? Would he let me want and go hungry, as I have done? Would he have seen me ending my life in this misery and done nothing to help me? Wouldn’t he have told Jim?”

To those family members still alive while the rumours were gaining traction it was a big slap in the face. Not only had they had to endure the loss of loved ones, but now they had strangers claiming that they were not dead or, even more tastelessly, claiming to be them. Regardless of your stance on their criminality, it would be cruel and inhumane to posit that they and their families were not entitled to be treated with some basic humanity. While Superintendent Sadleir was reprimanded for turning the bodies over to the family at the conclusion of the siege, it was this single act of humanity that stopped further escalation at Glenrowan. Tensions were high that day and a refusal to allow the bodies to be claimed for burial could have tipped the scales. If the man who was leading, at least in part, the hunt for these young men who were wanted dead or alive can understand the power of such an act of goodwill, despite what they were known to have done, surely it is acceptable for us as outsiders to respect the families as well, without condoning acts of criminality.

The secret burials in unmarked graves, construed by some as proof of a cover up, was a practicality. These families wanted closure, privacy and to protect the bodies from further indignity. It must be remembered that Dr. Hutchinson had procured a foot from the inn, supposedly Dan Kelly’s, and kept it in a private collection in South Africa (along with a lock of Ned Kelly’s hair). If a respected medical man could not be expected not to stoop to such ghoulish behaviour, what hope was there that the general public would respect the family’s desire to mourn in peace?

The coffins containing the remains of Dan Kelly and Steve Hart sit in the back of the undertaker’s cart in front of McDonnell’s Tavern, Glenrowan.

In the end, the perpetuation of the survival stories is symptomatic of a bigger issue – the triumph of fiction over fact. When a romantic idea takes a grip on the imagination, reality is often the first casualty. A story such as those proposing the survival of Dan and Steve only gain traction through ignorance. By examining the facts and laying the falsehoods to rest we can observe the story for what it really was, a horrific tragedy, rather than merely an exciting yarn to tell your drinking buddies at the pub. If we allow ourselves to be swayed by fiction on matters of history, how well does that bode for our critical thinking about current events? Conspiracy theories peddled by people such as 9/11 and Sandy Hook “truthers” have the ability to cause more harm than good. Incinerating the legend of Dan Kelly’s and Steve Hart’s survival is a step in the right direction – towards the truth.

Selected Sources:

“When the KELLY GANG RODE OUT” Truth. 13 August 1933: 1.

“Kelly gang’s Last Stand at Glenrowan” Truth. 27 August 1933: 13.
“RECOGNISED DAN KELLY IN SOUTH AFRICA” The Herald (Melbourne, Vic. : 1861 – 1954) 5 December 1930: 7.

“Dan Kelly and Steve Hart in South Africa.” Queanbeyan Age (NSW : 1867 – 1904) 23 July 1902: 2.

“DAN” KELLY. (1919, February 14). Canowindra Star and Eugowra News (NSW : 1903 – 1907; 1910 – 1911; 1914 – 1922), p. 4.

“THE KELLY GANG” The Charleville Times (Brisbane, Qld. : 1896 – 1954)1 October 1948: 6.

“DAN KELLY SOLVES THE MYSTERY.” The Corowa Free Press (NSW : 1875 – 1954) 19 September 1902: 3.

“THE KELLY GANG FROM WITHIN” The Sun (Sydney) 27 August 1911: 9

Looking for Ned: Life versus Legend


Many people have a very clear image in their head of Ned Kelly: tall, muscular, bushy beard and pompadour hairstyle. This image is Ned Kelly a day before his execution, almost six months after he was nearly shot to pieces at Glenrowan. So, if this is Ned at the end of his life how close is it to how he was in the prime of life? The truth is, even within his lifetime the idea of Ned and how he appeared was not always in line with the reality and the perception of a person can be very heavily influenced by the image we have of them. Ned’s legend has only grown since those days and the ideas of him have become so entrenched and polarising it’s time we began to try and figure out who Ned Kelly the person was. So how do we find the “real” Ned Kelly?

They say a picture says a thousand words so for this exploration we will be looking at the known images of Ned and analysing them. The earliest image of Ned is a portrait taken when he was on remand in Kyneton charged with aiding Harry Power. This image shows a gaunt looking fifteen year old in ill-fitting clothes (probably handed down from his deceased father) with a gentle wave in his hair, parted on the left demonstrating prie in his appearance. He is tight lipped and stares determinedly past the photographer almost like a challenge to some unnamed opponent. He may have been the most notorious fifteen year old of the day but nobody could have known the height of infamy this strong-bodied and hot-headed youth would reach. It was at this time that Ned was subject to an immense amount of ostracism on multiple fronts. The general public looked at him with suspicion and scorn for his criminality, many of his family and friends also looked at him with scorn because they believed he had turned Harry Power in (it was actually his Uncle Jack Lloyd who was instrumental in Harry’s capture but that’s a story for another day). So here was Ned, a teenager dealing with his own adolescence, needing to provide for his family and being treated like a black snake by all and sundry with the notable excetion of Sergeant Babington and Superintendent Nicolson who he would later write to asking for financial aide to help tide the family over. If ever there was a recipe for an angry and troubled youth this was it and Ned’s behaviour following his release from Kyneton would portray exactly this. The McCormick incident he details in his Jerilderie letter and the brawl with Senior Constable Hall demonstrate Ned to be short tempered and confrontational, traits that would land him in serious trouble.

Black snake: Ned Kelly at fifteen

The next image is Ned’s prison mugshot taken as he was finishing his sentence in Pentridge Prison.  By the time this image was taken Ned was a hardened eighteen year old and he sports a short layer of stubble that accentuates his strong jawline. Again with pursed lips and narrowed brows this is Ned Kelly finally reaching manhood among the worst of the worst the Victorian penal system had to offer. Gone is the determined gaze of the wild fifteen year old, replaced with a hardened complicity forced into him by hard labour and enforced isolation. Incidentally there is an incredibly strong probability that during his stint here Ned crossed paths with his old teacher Harry Power and the notorious Captain Moonlite himself, Andrew Scott, who was something of a go-to guy in Pentridge for contraband (which Ned did not partake in). Ned had spent the past two plus years learning various skills including bricklaying that were to soon do him well on the outside. His time at Point Gellibrand on the Sacramento would have been his first and only time seeing any body of water greater than a river. Ned kept his head down in prison and earned himself an early remission around the time this photograph was taken. Life in Pentridge was a horror show that many fully grown men struggled to survive, let alone a seventeen year old country boy, and Ned was determined never to go back. Legend states that Ned once remarked that the next time they got him into a prison they’d have to hang him.

Ned Kelly during his stint in Pentridge

When Ned Kelly was released from prison he went straight – for a while. There are multiple images claiming to be Ned during this time but the only one that has been authenticated is an image that was not known to authorities of the time depicting Ned in his underwear, boxing shorts and slippers in a boxing pose which, according to the handwritten annotations on the foot of the image, was taken to commemorate his boxing match with Wild Wright. Ned looks every inch the confident young man, his features much softer in expression than the previous two images but still strong. This is the Ned of legend – tough, skilled with his hands and handsome. If only his notorious temper and personal brand of justice hadn’t toppled this path to success we may have never seen the ensuing outbreak of lawlessness that thrilled, entertained and terrified the nation for three years and cemented his place in our history.

Ned Kelly as a nineteen year old boxing champion

That this image was apparently unknown to authorities in the time of Ned’s outlawry explains why it was never used to try and demonstrate his appearance. Instead, when the Kelly gang bailed up the police camp at Stringybark Creek and killed three of the troopers the police were still relying on his prison mugshot. Thereafter the police created a myriad of doctored images to try and convey Ned’s potential appearance to assist in his capture. The results range from passable to ludicrous.

This image puts Ned Kelly’s head on the shoulders of James Nesbitt, a fellow Pentridge inmate and partner of Captain Moonlite, with an added beard and longer hair to update his look creating a surprisingly accurate image of the outlaw
This rather uninspired mock up merely adds a hand drawn beard and moustache to Ned’s mugshot and darkens his eyes

Not all of the mock ups were photographic. Illustrated papers of the day took the route of rather unconvincingly adding facial hair to the known photographs of Ned in etchings to make him more closely resemble the descriptions of him, usually with the image of the bushranger as a fifteen year old as the primary source. The effect was rather akin to a child wearing a false beard to look older.

This bearded fifteen year old Ned looks perplexed at the clumsy attempt to depict his likeness
A drawing based on the above etching graced the cover of G. Wilson Hall’s account of the Kelly gang
Despite the assertion that this is Ned sketched as he was leaving Benalla, it is quite clearly another portrait based on the fifteen year old Ned mirrored and with added beard, messy hair and stink-eye that lends Ned a strange and intimidating appearance
This etching, based on Ned’s mugshot, was used in a feature about the police killings at Stringybark Creek and makes him look rather more portly than it should, which has the unique quality of lending him a more thuggish countenance

With these inaccurate depictions of Ned it’s hardly surprising that he went unrecognised for so long. In fact the lack of definitive likenesses fed into the popular media of the day with cartoonists having the flexibility to simply portray a stereotypical bearded bushranger to act as a proxy for Ned. These cartoons effectively set Ned up as the arch criminal and created a visual shorthand for unmitigated criminality that could be effectively employed against controversial political figures of the day.

This Thomas Carrington cartoon shows Ned Kelly dancing around the banner of Communism with Victorian premier Graham Berry and a little lady representing The Age newspaper (Source: Melbourne Punch (Vic. : 1855 – 1900) 13 February 1879: 5.)
berry blight.png
This Carrington cartoon gives Ned a far different appearance more in line with how most people commonly imagined the rugged bushranger to be in order to highlight the dodgy behaviour of the Victorian government. (Source: Melbourne Punch (Vic. : 1855 – 1900) 27 February 1879: 5.)

When we look at the known images of Ned it tells us an awful lot about how the events of his life shaped him as well as showing where many of the ideas about Ned came from. There is one very controversial image that is supposedly Ned that has recently seen the light of day and has been nicknamed “Lumberjack Ned”. This image is of great interest to Kelly historians as this may be the only image to depict Ned and Dan Kelly together and more importantly it was a photograph owned by Ellen Kelly herself if the provenance proves to be true.

lumberjack ned.jpg
This low fidelity copy of the “Lumberjack Ned” photograph was published by The Australian (Source)

The image can be viewed at the Ned Kelly Vault in Beechworth inside a specially made box as the Kelly descendants that gave permission for the image to be exhibited had strict conditions for its display including that the image not be published in its full resolution. Many who have seen the image are split on the likelihood that the larger of these two men is in fact the most infamous outlaw in Australian history. More research needs to be undertaken and no doubt as time passes the opportunity to see this image in all its glory and make a more thorough and public analysis will eventuate. Until then we must be satisfied with the existing verified imagery. Should it prove to be legitimate it would be the most incredible image yet of Ned highlighting his imposing physique with rippling muscles in his arms, a neatly groomed beard and soft smile even showing teeth. This is a much more relatable Ned, a tradesman and pioneer who could have led a very different life under other circumstances.

Since Ned’s execution he has become a part of Australian folklore and his likeness, especially in his armour, has become an icon representing rebellion and toughness in a uniquely Australian way. This idea of Ned is closely associated with the idea of the Eureka rebels who were willing to lay down their lives in the pursuit of liberty and equality, thus Ned in his armour is often paired with the Eureka flag better known as the Southern Cross. In recent years Ned has been referred to as the “original hipster” for his unique beard and hairstyle. The idea of Ned as a rugged outdoorsman and “alpha male” accentuates the idea of Ned Kelly that appeals to the public consciousness and creates an almost aspirational figure for some who wish to possess such qualities. While this notion has taken root in Australian culture, it has very little to do with the historical Ned Kelly as we’ve seen.

A fabulous tattoo design by artist Paula Stirland using all-too-familiar iconography (Source)

Oral traditions and art helped to create a mythological Ned Kelly, which many will fight to protect while others fight to tear it down for, just as Captain Cook has become for many Australians a symbol of British colonialism and genocide while to others he represents ingenuity, determination and enlightenment, Ned Kelly is a symbol for people to focus their loves, hates, confidence and timidity on to. But what happens to the idea of this man so loved and reviled by so many when we look back on that image of the defiant, ill-kept and impoverished fifteen year old with only ten years ahead of him in his then-uncertain future? Or when we look at the photograph of the embittered eighteen year old whose rebelliousness, carelessness and anger has led him to the worst prison in Victoria? Does this entrench our ideas or elaborate on them? Will we ever reach a satisfactory and mutually acceptable understanding of the man Ned Kelly was or are we doomed to forever argue over preconceived ideas of Australia’s most notorious outlaw based on misremembered stories and popular culture? The real Ned Kelly is out there, you just need to look beyond the beard and helmet.

Despite what much imagery indicates, Ned Kelly never rode a motorcycle. Incidentally, this is a piece by John Harding who is actually a fantastic artist and you can see more of his work here

Spotlight: Ned Kelly – the final portrait


Few images from Australia’s history have such an immediate effect on the viewer as Ned Kelly’s portrait taken on the day before his execution. Few can say they are unfamiliar with the meticulously oiled pompadour, voluminous beard and wistful eyes with delicate crow’s feet making the 25 year old outlaw appear much older than he was. Many, however, are unaware of the second portrait from that session.

Ned Kelly, the bane of Victoria’s establishment, poses defiantly against the bluestone wall of the Melbourne Gaol. On first glance we see a powerfully built young man taunting his captors by jiggling the chains around his legs, his right hand resting on his hip, his knees relaxed casually. He does not appear like a man marked for a short, violent death the next morning and that is exactly how he wanted it to be. Ned requested the portraits to be taken for his family. There are, interestingly, rumours of a third portrait taken of Ned seated on a wooden chair that has been lost to the ages. The portraits were taken by Charles Nettleton who was employed throughout Victoria as a prison photographer, but who was also renowned for his landscape photography. Taken on glass plates, the images could easily be reproduced in varying sizes for multiple copies. These portraits are considerably different from the mugshots that he usually produced and thus can reveal a few details that one might not have noticed.

If we start at the bottom of the image we can see Ned’s boots. Specially made for him to wear during his trial, they sport fashionable undercut heels shown off probably deliberately by his out-turned right foot. Between his ankles can be seen something rather odd. It is the base of a special stand that many photographers had in their kit. Such a device had arms and brackets that supported a body to keep it in position for a photograph, usually utilised in memento mori photography to keep corpses upright for the camera. Here we do not see a dead man propped up for a portrait, but a man who has cheated death only to live long enough to be executed. The stand allows Ned to stand upright long enough for an exposure to be made, his bullet riddled legs far too weak to keep him up for long enough unaided. This also explains the pose whereby he appears to be leaning back.

As we move up we see his trousers bunched up at the waist by the belt that stopped his irons from dragging. The next morning when the irons were removed and the belt thereby removed also a twisted cloth had to be used as a makeshift belt to deny Ned the indignity of having his pants falling down constantly. Here we also see Ned’s crippled hands. His right hand so damaged from bullets at Glenrowan that he could barely hold a pen, hence his final letters being dictated and signed with an X. His left hand was comparatively stronger, but his arm was basically useless from his elbow being smashed in the opening volleys of the Glenrowan siege. The curious thing to note here is what appears to be a ring on Ned’s right hand. It was suggested even at the time that Ned was known to have been engaged to marry and some have even gone so far as to state that Ned had a wife when he was outlawed. Could this be a wedding ring?

As we move up we see the faint, faded white broad-arrow on the right side of his chest showing that his uniform was the property of the government, just as his lifeless body would become property of the government once it had finished hanging for the requisite half hour, after which his renowned locks would be shaved off, a cast of his head made, then his body given to medical students. When we look into the face of the outlaw we are not seeing a man defying his captors, we see a man doomed to die clutching at his dignity and trying to leave a memory for his family of a fighter, a rebel rather than an executed felon. Perhaps this image above all others gives a window into the soul of the most infamous outlaw in Australian history.