“There is a great untold Australian story of tragedy and triumph that has been covered in a mountain of myth”: Darren K. Hawkins and Leo Kennedy Interviewed

The Ned Kelly story remains one of the most popular and enduring in Australian history, but there are always multiple perspectives from which to look at it. One of the most overlooked perspectives is of the families of the slain policemen, whose spilt blood cemented the Kelly Gang in infamy. Of these men, Sergeant Michael Kennedy was the most distinguished, and now independent filmmaker Darren K. Hawkins wants to tell his story in film – and not just the tragic ending. The project is supported by Leo Kennedy, a descendant of the policeman, whose book about Ned Kelly from the perspective of law and order, Black Snake, has become one of the most popular currently available titles on the subject.

Darren and Leo both took time out of their schedules to discuss the project with Aidan Phelan, exclusively for A Guide to Australian Bushranging.

Thank you for taking some time to have a chat. To open up, let’s talk a bit about Michael.

How would you best describe what you are aiming for with this project?

Darren: It’s multi-layered. First and foremost, Michael and Bridget’s story being told to a wider audience, cinematically.  Michael Kennedy, and two other police were murdered by the Kelly gang at Stringybark. This is something that has never been disputed by history, even Ned’s own words in his trial for the murders, yet Michael has been consigned to a mere footnote of history.  I’d love that people who watch the film begin to find out about the REAL Michael Kennedy to begin with. He wasn’t the stereotype of the “bad cop” that a lot of the police in the Kelly narrative have been tarred as being. This is a narrative that has to be corrected. The community support for his wife Bridget was overwhelming too. If the Kennedys were bad people, this wouldn’t have happened. This amazing woman became a tower of strength for her young family. There’s just so much to unpack, the more you find out about them.

If I can start a conversation for people who watch the film, to ask themselves about the REAL story, for them to do the research, find out more and draw their own conclusions, then I will have achieved something special.

Leo: The [aim is] telling of Michael and Bridget’s story to a wide audience, cinematically; and also a retelling of one of the darkest chapters of the Kelly Gang. Michael Kennedy and two other policemen were murdered by the Kelly gang at Stringybark Creek. Despite the remarkable police career of Michael and life of Bridget outside of their area their story is not widely known. But the Kelly Gang story and Stringybark Creek murders have now become unrecognisable and distant from the real history. It is sad that Michael has been consigned to a mere footnote of history; and the villain of the piece is now incorrectly feted. If only people could watch a film and begin to find out about the REAL Michael Kennedy. He wasn’t the phoney Kelly narrative of a stereotypical “bad cop”. This is an opportunity to correct that narrative. The community supported his wife Bridget and family very generously and caringly. This generosity sprang from the Kennedys’ own kindness being repaid. This amazing woman became a tower of strength for her young family. She also played a large and influential part in the community. I hope the film ignites people to reconsider our history and go after the REAL story for themselves. That is one of the reasons I laid out as many references as possible in my book, Black Snake – the Real Story of Ned Kelly. People can do the research and draw their own conclusions. Between my book and this movie I hope myth can be replaced with true history.

What was it that drew you to the story of Sergeant Kennedy?

Darren: As a young boy, naturally, I was drawn to stories about our history, I was fascinated by stories of the bushrangers.  As an adult, I began to discover that not everything that had been presented to me in the past was consistent. By chance I saw Leo Kennedy on a television show talking about his great grandfather and something struck a chord with me listening to him talk.  I started researching Michael Kennedy and discovered that here was a man that was not only respected by his community and peers, but in many ways was ahead of his times. It’s in those moments that you realise what sort of a significant individual he was, that his murder, the loss of his life, well, you just feel the incredible loss of a life that WOULD have been so much more.

Leo: I grew up hearing stories of Sergeant Kennedy, the exemplary policeman and his stoic widow Bridget who raised their five children. My mother also instilled in me a great interest in history. I was drawn to stories about our family and Australian history. Going to secondary school I was confronted by others who had been presented with a fictionalised account of history; and was shocked by the awe in which they held a murderer. Unfortunately it did not stop there. The situation got even worse when places sacred to us were taken over in the name of tourism and our family members and police officers were maligned. I started to step up and called out the errors and mistruths; and restore pride in our murdered policemen. They deserved much better than to be villainised and their murderer be lauded. It is a gross travesty. Michael Kennedy was respected by his community and peers; and was both influential in his tolerance and extending the hand of friendship to all people in this fast expanding colony; and innovative in policing. A man ahead of his times.  His impact was significant. It is very sad such an individual was cut short and his family impacted so dreadfully. The violent loss of his life changed our family’s course in history; and has had ramifications for generations.

How do you see the character of Michael Kennedy, and what qualities will be at the fore in this interpretation?

Darren: An honourable man, loving, loved, respected, devoted to his duty and his community.  Michael Kennedy for my mind was not only the sort of man you WANTED to be your local police officer, but you’d want as a friend.

Leo: Michael was an honourable man, loving, loved, respected, devoted to his family, duty and his community.  Michael was held up to me as the sort of man I should aspire to be. I recall former Chief Commissioner Ken Lay reading his record and saying that “this is a remarkable record, it is what we would want all our police officers’ records to be”.

How will the other members of the Mansfield party be woven into the narrative?

Darren: Michael Scanlan in particular will play a large part.  Kennedy and Scanlan had a close bond, a close friendship . In this telling of the story too, when Kennedy and Scanlan are tasked with apprehending the Kelly’s , the first people that they think of are Lonigan and McIntrye . I want to show a fun comrade between Kennedy and Scanlan too.

Leo: Michael Scanlan should play a large part.  They were close and had a great friendship. There was a lot of fun and camaraderie between them.

How important for your vision is it to concentrate on the Kennedy family rather than simply the incident that deprived them of their breadwinner? 

Darren: His murder, and again, let’s be blunt, that’s what is was, I don’t want to dwell on it and glorify it. For too long that part has been the only time Michael was mentioned. This man was more than that. His wife Bridget was more than that.  Their story is what needs to be told. These were amazing people in quite the cultural melting pot of colonial Victoria. The community reaction to rally behind Bridget and her young family (as well as Lonigan’s widow Maria let me add) shows just how much of an effect she had too.   The fact that the community continued to rally and petition the government for years to help her, that she and Maria were the FIRST to receive a legacy pension, these men, their wives, their families, were so much more and deserve so much more.

Leo: In past tellings of his story his murder unfortunately overshadows all he was and did. For too long that event has been the only mention of him. He was so much more. And Bridget has an inspirational story too. Their story needs to be told. A story of love, doing good, overcoming grief; of pressing on. All in the cultural melting pot of burgeoning colonial Victoria. It would be fantastic to capture the community reaction and to see them rally behind Bridget and her young family. As they did for Lonigan’s widow Maria and family. The community would not let their dire situation continue. They rallied and petitioned the government for years to help her. That Bridget and Maria were the first to receive a legacy type pension, this established a precedent that has since been followed. These policemen and their wives and families were so much more than how they have been portrayed and presented. They deserve much more attention and consideration.

Given the recently released short feature Stringybark, which ostensibly covers the same ground as what you are looking at with Michael, comparisons will be drawn. What separates what you are aiming for and what has gone before?

Darren: I have to be honest, I haven’t had the opportunity to see the other short (especially with so many festivals closing their doors due to Covid), so I can’t comment on what ground it covers. If, however, it just covers Stringybark Creek, the large difference will be that Michael, while showing what happened at Stringybark Creek, aims to not concentrate upon the Kellys, and focuses upon the human side of the tragedy, the Kennedys in particular, something that I truly [believe] to be unique in any past cinematic retelling of any part of the Kelly story.

Leo: I am forever grateful to have been involved in Stringybark. It covers a section one of what Darren is covering in the life and times of Michael and Bridget. As the title indicates it covers a short lead up to the party forming and heading to Stringybark, the three murders, the escape of McIntyre; and the finding of the bodies. The difference here will be the deep dives into the lives and who these people are. Key is the focus upon the human side of the tragedy. The impact of the tragedy on the Kennedys, the Lonigans, Scanlans and the McIntyres, in particular, has never been explored or exposed before. This is quantum shift in the telling of history. The victims’ story. The story of those who carry the grief.

Leo Kennedy

Naturally, people are going to be interested in how you will portray the Kelly Gang, Ned in particular. What is your interpretation of them, and how will they fit into the film?

Darren: The Kelly gang are bit players in the film. This will be Michael and Bridget’s story. I know t.his may get a lot of the Kelly supporters upset, but I’m not going to glorify the actions of a man that, by his own words in his trial, admitted to hunting down and then murdering a wounded man who begged for his own life. Those were Ned’s own words in his trial. People can serve that up any way they want, but those were Ned’s own words.

My interpretation of the Kelly gang, and this is from a man who, when he was younger, like many Australians, saw him as some “hero fighting for the freedoms of others”; as someone who played both Dan Kelly and Steve Hart on stage; from all my research, I no longer see the Kellys as heroes.

Leo: As this is Michael and Bridget’s story; the Kellys are minor and correctly cast as the villains of the piece. I hope there is an insight provided into a young man brought up to be anti-establishment and longing for the bad old days. A man in denial of the fast growing reality that wild colonial life is coming to speedy end. He is a relic clinging to a past that he had romanticised; haunted and taunted that he was Power’s pup and only holding the horses. His cattle and horse thieving empire has just imploded and his impetuousness and recklessness now have him facing an attempted murder charge and his mother who was an accessory has just been gaoled. He is at the end of the road – but won’t surrender. There is no glory in the path he takes or his actions. This is a man who steals from the bodies of those he has murdered. He is a very low man, if a man at all. A man who murders a husband and father who has pleaded for his life. Ned’s own words and deeds make him who he is. The Kelly gang were not heroes

In the Kelly world there’s a constant tug of war between whether the story is viewed with a pro-Kelly or pro-police slant. What is your view on that, and how will it be reflected in the film?

Darren: Good question! I know that what we’re doing with this film, it will be seen as having a pro-police slant.  From the simple point of view that I’m telling the story of one of the police that Kelly murdered.  I’d like to think that what I want to do with this is to have more of a “pro-history” view and let the audience decide as to where they fit.

Leo: I am hoping there is no slant; just a straight telling of a tragic story. There are plenty of historical primary records on which to base this movie; instead of the embellishments that have been added for over a century. It is one where a man new to this country works hard to make it a better place; his life is ended too soon when he is one of three policemen that Kelly murdered. A balanced presentation based on facts. One that enables an audience to take in information and form a view.

There’s a lot of potential in telling this story to be able to create a sort of bridge between the camps. Do you believe that Michael will be able to please people on both sides of the divide and highlight the things they can all agree on, rather than pushing one perspective as the entire truth?

Darren: Yes, there will be some dramatic licence.  We don’t have any digital recordings from the people that lived through everything that happened in those days, but what we DO have are plenty of documents.  Newspapers, gazettes, hansard from parliament, written record of events as they happened. That’s where I’m taking this film’s core from.

Leo: The only camps I know of are families and non family story (all too often myth) tellers. A factual telling will heal the families and restore their confidence in media makers. When I have spoken to people about Black Snake – the Real Story of Ned Kelly and about Michael and Bridget; I have sensed a genuine interest in them and their story. The “pro-Kelly myth” narrative is tired and tarnished. The families long for the real story to be told; not a collection of embellishments and false stereotypes. The telling of real history is long overdue. It is time for the telling of Michael’s story.

You’re currently raising funds to get a short feature made, what’s the game plan like once you hit the funding target?

Darren: I’ve been very lucky that I have a LOT of very talented people that have already committed themselves to the project, so I feel quite blessed that I don’t need to do a search for the talent. A number of the locations have been scouted, so in many ways, we’re ready to roll. I have a target that will get the film made, funding past that, and like any target, we’d all love to go past the target to ensure the belt doesn’t have to be as tugged tight. Should the fundraising REALLY excel, then we can move towards the feature version, which is the endgame.

Darren K. Hawkins

You’ve had a lot of experience, Darren, in front of and behind the camera, would you say this is potentially the most ambitious undertaking you’ve pursued to date as a filmmaker?

Darren: I would have to say that it is.  This is a period specific piece too, which provides it’s own set of challenges, but something that I’m not only relishing the challenge of, but embracing. This project is something that I’m very passionate about, I don’t think I’ve worked on something that’s quite lit the fire in my belly the way this has. I suppose it’s not only because I’m a bit of a film geek, but I’m a bit of a history nerd too!

Have you got anyone earmarked for the cast and crew yet?

Darren: Indeed I do!   I’ve got a brilliant actress in Lauren Hamilton Neill already to play Bridget and a soon as the fundraiser is done, I’ll be heading to the casting director (who has been in the industry since the 1980’s) who has agreed to get onto the casting of Michael for me.

Crew wise, the amazing Casimir Dickson who was the DOP for Legend of the Five and is a multi award winning DOP and my executive producer, Sara Joyce just finished working with Alex Proyas on his latest film. These are just a couple of examples of the incredible talents that have committed to this film!

Lauren Hamilton Neill is slated to appear as Bridget Kennedy

The project has clearly been given a great deal of support by Leo – who reached out to whom first?

Darren: I tried getting in touch with Leo via Email some time before recently, but the mail was probably lost in the ether!  After my interview with 3AW, Leo reached out to me via email and I’ve been blown away by his generosity with his time since.

Will you be using Black Snake – the Real Story of Ned Kelly as the basis of the screenplay, or will you be looking to a wider range of sources?

Darren: Both. I’ve drawn on information from a number of sources for the initial screenplay. The internet has some great source material that you can find via digital records these days, records that were once only on microfiche or in the back room of a library. Newspaper articles and the actual records of the legacy payments to Bridget Kennedy and Maria Lonigan are right there for all to see. Leo’s book, Black Snake, has also been an amazing reference source too. An absolute WEALTH of first hand information, and more importantly, direct family information, how it affected their family and there’s a treasure trove of information that had just never really been presented.  His book is a MUST for anyone wanting to get a broader understanding of the narrative.

As I move towards the feature, my hope is that I can spend some quality time with Leo and other members of the Kennedy family (and indeed the familes of Lonigan, Scanlan and McIntrye). A story like this isn’t complete without their input.

Leo: I deliberately included tomes of references in my book, Black Snake, to assist anyone to undertake their own research. Many are internet references to make people’s research easier. My book addresses the many misunderstandings of the time and the people; and that is done by accurately quoting from the original sources. I have offered to assist in the research of the characters and history.

What would you say is the most fundamental message that people need to take away from this story?

Darren: First of all , to know that there’s more to the story they’ve been used to hearing. Then secondly, to see, feel and understand the greater human story and tragedy that befell those families. To be able to listen to another perspective of the Kelly narrative. To be able to walk away from watching the film and want to find out more for themselves and form a more rounded opinion on one of the most iconic stories in Australian history and culture.

Leo: There is a great untold Australian story of tragedy and triumph that has been covered in a mountain of myth. It is the untold story of the Kelly Gang’s victims. Here is but one of them. Michael.

What can people do if they want to support the project?

Darren: Go to the website, www.australianculturalfund.org.au , search “Michael”. Donations would be amazing; all donations over $2 receive a receipt that is tax deductible. Share the project on their social media, or write to us at info@lonelyhillfilms.com.au 

The project is on Facebook, “Michael – movie”, give us a follow there and you can find all the information about how to access and donate to the ACF campaign there too.

Darren K. Hawkins and Leo Kennedy, thank you very much for your time and best of luck with Michael. Hopefully we will be seeing this story play out on the screen very soon.

Bushranging Gazette #3

Saturday, 1 May 2021

The past month has been much quieter on the news front than in previous months, but there are still new things to report and a little bonus feature at the end.

New film about Sgt. Kennedy in development

Filmmaker Darren Hawkins of Lonely Hill Films is attempting to get a feature film about Sergeant Michael Kennedy off the ground. The project, titled Michael, is described as “a dramatic retelling of an often forgotten side of the iconic Ned Kelly saga, told from the perspective of one of the murdered police, his family, his community and the repercussions that still echo today.”

The story of the police killings at Stringybark Creek has been retold on film many times, beginning with 1906’s The Story of the Kelly Gang, and most recently being the subject of 2019’s Stringybark. Where this film will differ from previous versions, according to Hawkins, is that it focuses on the Kennedys but is not designed to be a take-down of the Ned Kelly legend.

Hawkins explains, “It’s told from the perspective of one of the murdered police, his family, his community and the repercussions that still echo today. It’s core narrative is from one of the turning points in the Kelly saga from a side that is so often overlooked. We’re not about tearing apart the Kelly story or legacy, rather, about addressing an imbalance.”

The decision to make a film about Kennedy has been met with great enthusiasm from his descendants, especially Leo Kennedy who is the slain sergeant’s great grandson. Kennedy released a book, co-written with Mic Looby, in 2018 titled Black Snake, which tells the story of Michael Kennedy and his family, as well as attempts to tear down popular perceptions of Ned Kelly.

“Michael was an exemplary policeman; and an all round good man. Telling his story will set the record straight on many accounts,” says Kennedy, “We hope this movie – Michael – will play a huge part in achieving that.”

Hawkins is currently raising funds online to create a short feature that can be used as a proof of concept to help gather funds for an eventual full-length feature film. Donations can be made via the Australian Cultural Fund with all donations over $2 being tax-deductible. The campaign will run until May 31, 2021.

You can donate here.

Ned’s armour back on display

With the Covid-19 restrictions in 2020, the State Library of Victoria took the opportunity to do some renovations. One of their projects was to create a space for their most popular exhibit: the armour worn by Ned Kelly.

The armour is on display in a purpose-built cabinet that controls the climate and environmental conditions in order to preserve the contents. The cabinet, in turn, is on display in a designated space that is dedicated to the Kelly story.

Eagle-eyed viewers will have noticed that a piece of the armour is missing – the left shoulder plate. This piece is owned by Museums Victoria, who had loaned the piece to the library for display with the armour. With the arrangement expiring, it would appear that either the piece has been reclaimed by the museum, who are in the midst of redesigning much of their interior and displays, or has been respectfully withdrawn from display by the library until another agreement is made.

Tommy Bell Bushranger Boy Box Set

This month a box set of Jane Smith’s first four Tommy Bell Bushranger Boy books is slated for release.

The historical fiction books, aimed at audiences aged 6+ and illustrated by Pat Kan, focus around a time-travelling boy who crosses paths with some of history’s most renowned bushrangers such as Ben Hall, Frank Gardiner and Captain Thunderbolt, and have been published by Big Sky Publishing since 2016.

In the first box set are the books Shoot-out at the Rock, The Horse Thief, The Gold Escort Gang and Outback Adventure.

In addition to this popular set of chapter books, Jane Smith has also published multiple non-fiction books on bushrangers. For children she has published Captain Thunderbolt (shortlisted for an ABIA 2015), Captain Moonlite, Ben Hall, Frank Gardiner, and Captain Starlight. For older audiences she has also published Captain Starlight: the strange but true story of a bushranger, impostor and murderer.

Teaching notes for all of the children’s books can be downloaded freely from the author’s website: https://www.janesmithauthor.com/teaching-notes.html

You can find out more about the books here: https://www.janesmithauthor.com/books.html

Australian Bushranging Podcast

On the A Guide to Australian Bushranging YouTube channel there is now an ongoing podcast. Though it is only two instalments in, there is much fertile ground to be covered in upcoming episodes. You can listen to the first two podcasts below.

This Month’s Articles on A Guide to Australian Bushranging

– An interview with author of Tommy Bell Bushranger Boy, Jane Smith.

– An interview with Darren Hawkins and Leo Kennedy about the in-development film Michael.


Canaries and Magpies

Convict uniforms at Port Arthur

At the beginning of the British occupation of Australia, convicts wore the same clothes they were transported in. It wasn’t until the early part of the nineteenth century that there were calls for a standard issue of clothing for convicts, along with other penal reforms.
The first convict uniforms consisted of a linen shirt, white duck trousers, stockings, a blue kersey wool jacket and a woollen cap. As time went on, however, uniforms changed and were generally used to distinguish between classes of convict.

Throughout New South Wales the majority of convicts were dressed in “slops” — uniforms cut to a single, standard size and made of white duck, which was stamped with broad arrows. These uniforms did not weather well, and had to be replaced frequently. Many transportees were made to wear their slops through the duration of the transportation process and into their sentence once they reached Australia. Ticket-of-leave men were allowed to wear civilian clothing, and eventually convicts that were educated but still had much of their sentence to endure wore grey woollen uniforms.

Van Diemen’s Land was given its own classes of convict uniforms. From 1833 onwards, as soon as convicts arrived in Van Diemen’s Land they were given their “punishment suit”. For the regular convicts was the “canary” — a woollen uniform with side-buttoning trousers (to allow removal while wearing leg irons) that was dyed bright yellow. The colour allowed the convicts to be easily spotted in the bush or amongst crowds. They wire a grey woollen cap in the winter months and the rest of the time wore leather caps with large side flaps that could be tied up, and when let down formed a brim to keep the sun off.

In 1814, Government Macquarie devised the “magpie” uniform, which had the same design as the canary, but instead of being completely yellow it comprised juxtaposed black and white panels that were inspired by a harlequin costume. These punishment suits later became available in black and yellow and yellow and grey. In Van Diemen’s Land these were worn by the worst offenders and recidivists. They not only made the wearer even more noticeable, but acted to humiliate the wearer.

In order to stop the illegal trade in repurposed uniforms, the government stamped broad arrows onto every part of the uniform. Often, convicts would salvage the good parts of the fabric, recondition it and trade it. Very often, as a further punishment, convicts were made to wear their uniforms until they had completely rotted away, shoes included. For this reason, very few original examples remain today.

“There’s a lot to reflect on if we can get past the mythology.”: Ben Head discusses ‘Stringybark’ – Exclusive!

The past twelve months have been, for want of a better word, tumultuous. In amongst it all we got two films tackling the Kelly story – True History of the Kelly Gang and Stringybark. The two productions could not have been more different in every aspect, but both made it over the finish line just before the fires and the pandemic took hold. Now the smaller of the two productions, Stringybark, has made its way onto the Ozflix streaming service giving home audiences that missed its limited cinema screenings an opportunity to check it out.

There’s no doubt that Stringybark will be confronting for some viewers, but behind every story told there’s a storyteller with a message they want heard. With this in mind I reached out to the film’s director, Ben Head, to discuss the process of creating his cinematic vision of one Australia’s most controversial true crimes and his take on the incredible Kelly story.

Thank you, Ben, for taking the time to have a chat about Stringybark. I think it goes without saying that the road this far has been quite an odyssey for you.

With Stringybark now available on Ozflix, you’re about to have your work accessible to an enormous audience, perhaps far greater than the film was intended for. Given that this is your debut feature, that’s a lot of pressure. How are you feeling about it all?

First of all thank you, Aidan, for giving me this opportunity, it’s much appreciated. Actually I always intended the film to have as broad a reach as possible and this has come to some fruition. I am feeling very chuffed with the response the film has had from all over the country. I’ve had fantastic messages of support and goodwill from many, and it’s heartening to read. I am feeling very proud of the fact that a story I have brought to the screen is touching the hearts of the many people who watch it. 

This of course began life while you were still a film student. How did you settle upon the idea of doing something so ambitious as a depiction of one of Australia’s most infamous historical crimes?

Stringybark wasn’t a student film and was completely independent of my university studies. I just had to find time to squeeze it in between university commitments.  

I had always wanted to tell this story, in fact ever since the story captivated me as a 10 year old boy after a holiday stopover in Glenrowan. 

Courtesy: Ben Squared Films

It’s clear that the intention was always to portray the story as authentically as possible. When developing the screenplay, what were the main sources that you referred to in order to learn and understand the story?

We read widely and sourced as much primary evidence as we could. I always wanted the film to be tackled in a scholarly way rather than basing it on the myth. It’s a story that’s never been told with any historical accuracy in a dramatic context, so I wanted to take a step up. Just by way of example, we consulted the royal commissions, original correspondence, cables, the autopsy reports of Doctor Samuel Reynolds, who performed the post-mortem examinations, and the memoir of Thomas McIntyre. And of course there are at least half a dozen novels all claiming historical insights and we read all of these as well.

There are some moments that are lifted almost identically from McIntyre’s account of the events, while others are clearly fictional but intended to fill the gaps in the historical narrative. How did you approach the process of adapting the known history and knowing where to draw the line with the moments where you had to invent a scene in order to make a workable film narrative?

We realised that the only part of the Stringybark tale that had been documented thoroughly was the ambush itself, and the events that followed. There was very little written about the lives of the police before the incident. We needed to show these men with their families and friends in order to create an audience connection with them, and to show them as real people. In constructing the scenes such as the relationship between the Kennedys, we relied on conversations with Leo Kennedy, the great grandson of Sergeant Michael Kennedy, as well as a written statement by Bridget Kennedy made years later. 

This is a very decidedly pro-police film, or rather it has a strong anti-Kelly Gang/anti-crime stance. Was this a response to the overwhelmingly pro-Kelly stance pursued in popular culture or was the story of the police just that much more compelling for you?

I would say that this film doesn’t take sides – it just tells the story for what it was. Yes – our protagonists are the police officers, but we didn’t need to embellish the story – it’s fascinating all on its own. I’ve had a lot of correspondence from Kelly supporters agreeing with this. I also wanted to tell the story from the perspective of the victims because it hadn’t been done before, and for such a brutal crime it’s curious that it’s always glossed over in popular culture. Perhaps it’s because it’s a bit too uncomfortable. Truth is so often stranger than fiction and this story is no exception: literally 3 young men, all in their mid 30’s, respected and well known members of the communities in which they lived, two with wives and families, shot dead. 

Courtesy: Ben Squared Films

Would it be fair to say that the character that was most compelling for you in this was Sergeant Michael Kennedy?

It would be fair, yes. Michael Kennedy’s life captured my imagination. He was a devoted family man with 5 children and in a happy marriage. It would have made for an anxious and trying time for him knowing he had to carry out a military style mission – that is, commanding an armed covert operation into the bush in search of dangerous criminals who clearly had the upper hand, both in terms of their intimate familiarity with the location and the benefit of local support. On top of this, his party was underprepared, under-resourced and untrained for the task. 

Michael Kennedy is also easily aligned with the concept of what it means to be the Australian that we look up to today – working class, family man, made ends meet on a meagre salary and all in a law-abiding way under tough circumstances. 

Doing a period piece is always a daunting task for a filmmaker, let alone doing it with such limited resources. Was there ever a time during production where you felt like you had bitten off more than you could chew?

Never. It was a big bite for sure but never more than we could chew! We strictly managed our time and budget and were blessed with an incredible cast and crew. The whole production experience was a pleasure from start to finish and we have forged fantastic friendships and professional relationships in the process. 

One of the things that serves Stringybark well is that it really feels like it’s own thing. In the lead up to making the film did you study any of the other existing Kelly films?

My intention was always to focus on creating something new so I really avoided looking at previous films during my contemplation and writing of this story. The real stimulation came from unearthing a cable or some other piece of written correspondence from the time and using those fragments to underpin the feel of the film.

How did you go about getting the sets and costumes given that you weren’t really able to hire costumiers and set builders?

Wardrobe was supplied exclusively by Warwick’s Militaria in Melbourne and we avoided set building by using existing locations.

One shot that really stands out in my mind is the bodies being brought back from the shooting site. It really looks like the contemporary illustration brought to life. Did you find it at all difficult to manage strapping bodies to the side of an animal with bags over their heads?

Thank you! That shot was very important to me – I really wanted to recreate that old woodcut of the bodies strapped to the horses and bring it to life. It is such a tragic and brutal image and speaks to the finality of the event. Contemporary accounts describe the pack horses being very unsettled when the bodies of the police were roped to the harness. During shooting, our pack horse also became very unsettled when the dummy was attached to the saddle. The scene that unfolded before us that day won’t be forgotten in a hurry. 

Courtesy: Ben Squared Films

The first public premiere of the film was at the Lorne Film Festival. What was it like seeing the fruit of your labour on the big screen at such a big event?

Stringybark had been shown at an investor only event at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne in April 2019 so I’d seen it on the big screen already but the premiere at Lorne was a fantastic validation of the effort that had gone into the production. Having a cinema full with an interested, intrigued and supportive audience watching the film was an awesome experience and one I’ll never forget.

One of the things we’re seeing becoming increasingly a trend with Australian film is the use of crowdfunding to get things off the ground. What was the motivator to have a media and crowdfunding campaign for this film?

Film finance is a complex domain and Australia isn’t awash with support for independent film, especially for those without a track record like us. We needed a budget and crowdfunding was a straightforward way to kick it off. Crowdfunding as an approach isn’t a sure fire way of achieving a budget though – word of your project needs to reach investors other than through the crowdfunding site. We were very fortunate to have received media support early on and this really made the difference.  

Are there things that you wish you had approached differently or things that you wish you had been able to include but had to cut due to time or budget?

There were technical learnings along the way but I’m generally happy with how things came together. I would have liked to explore some of the relationships in greater depth, particularly the longstanding friendship between Michael Scanlan and Michael Kennedy. The pair had been mates for a long time and it would have helped create a stronger on-screen bond. I would also have liked to explore the Kennedy family dynamic some more. 

Courtesy: Ben Squared Films

The Kelly Gang in this depiction could be seen as quite over the top in some respects. They are far more aggressive than are usually shown and seem to enjoy bullying McIntyre in a way that even goes beyond the way McIntyre himself described. Can you explain a bit about what steered you towards that portrayal?

The gang’s portrayal is based on contemporary descriptions of the characters – even by their own words. The Jerilderie letter in particular provides an invaluable insight into the prevailing psyche. I also had them approach the camp in the way McIntyre had described – weapons drawn and intent on the business of the day. They were hard men intent on winning the day by force of arms. We know this. To portray them as some latter day gentlemen of the bush would have just perpetuated the popular story that really doesn’t align with their own personal histories. 

One of the most impressive aspects of the film is the armoury. It’s clear from your other film projects that you have a keen interest in militaria, did that play a part in helping you track down and get a hold of accurate weaponry?

I’ve always had the view that if you go down the path of making an authentic period production, then every aspect of it should be as authentic as you can reasonably make it. This goes for wardrobe, saddlery and tack, language and of course firearms. We had the services of an excellent armourer who thankfully also shared an interest in historical accuracy. 

Your dad, Tim, gets the starring role as Sergeant Kennedy – and does a sterling job too. What was it like directing him?

Fortunately no different to any of the other actors! Everyone that was a part of the project brought everything they had to it and a little more.

Naturally a film that tackles such a divisive story in a very partisan perspective is bound to get critics based purely on the side you’ve chosen. Unfortunately it’s a nasty trap that people often get stuck in where the Kelly story is concerned. What do you hope Stringybark can bring to the table to help bring some equilibrium and perspective back to how we examine these events, and what do you think that the pro-Kelly people can gain from watching your film?

I like to think that I’ve simply looked at the story through a different lens – one that nobody has previously wanted to look through. There’s a lot to reflect on if we can get past the mythology. Primarily we could focus on the impact of violence in the community that’s almost always felt first hand by our women and children. Kelly’s actions resulted in the deaths of 3 men, leaving 2 women widows and 9 children fatherless. The cost to the community of such an outcome is hard to reconcile. It’s also a situation that’s as relevant today as it was back in 1878. 

Once again, thank you so much for taking time to answer my questions and give people a bit of an insight into the process and the ideas behind Stringybark. Hopefully this is a first step into a fruitful future for Ben Squared. If people would like to keep tabs on your future projects what is the best way to do that?

Thanks, Aidan, really appreciate the time! Follow us on instagram @bensquaredfilms to keep up to date!

Stringybark is available to rent on Ozflix now HERE

A massive thanks goes out once again to Ben Head for taking the time to be interviewed and for providing production stills for this article.

Stringybark (Review)

In 2019 there was much consternation about the new Kelly Gang films that were brewing. The adaptation of Peter Carey’s novel, True History of the Kelly Gang, was set to be a big budget extravaganza with many Nedheads expecting to see a burly, bearded bushranger clad in armour with guns blazing on the big screen. The other film project that was getting good press was Stringybark, a small-scale indie production that caught the attention of some notable Kelly-critical commentators thanks to a hugely successful crowdfunding campaign.

Well, True History fell short of its lofty ambitions. As it turns out, a scrappy, post-modern interpretation of their favourite bushranger full of cross-dressing and bad haircuts wasn’t what people expected when they heard a Ned Kelly film starring Russell Crowe was being made. On the other hand, Stringybark stayed pretty low-key even after its official launch at the Lorne Film Festival. In a way that has actually served it well – a sort of “tortoise-and-hare” way – that means the home audiences won’t necessarily be going in with big expectations of sturm und drang with helmets and Hollywood glitz.

With Stringybark making its way to Ozflix, straight off the bat it must be pointed out that if you go into this expecting a Ned Kelly film you’re going to be disappointed. This is unashamedly a film about the police who were sent to arrest Ned and Dan Kelly for the attempted murder of Constable Fitzpatrick, with particular emphasis on the party’s leader Sergeant Michael Kennedy. It’s a perspective that, frankly, is refreshing after so many variations on Ned Kelly’s response to discovering the police coming after him as part of the bigger scheme of his outlawed life.

It is abundantly clear from the outset that the angle this film takes is that the cops are the good guys and the Kellys are the bad guys. It is a perfectly valid viewpoint to take, of course, given that the police were there to capture men wanted for attempted murder and were shot dead by said fugitives in response. It is a perspective that has its fair share of strident champions – many of whom got involved with the film at the crowdfunding stage and were pushing Stringybark as a game-changer. Given that the filmmakers were not industry professionals, that was a lot of pressure to put upon them and, honestly, they did a valiant job of living up to the expectations of those who were pushing them to be the definitive anti-Kelly portrayal of the police killings.

On a technical level this film isn’t quite where it needs to be, unfortunately. It suffers at times from audio issues as well as camera work that struggles to maintain proper framing. Some of the action sequences are difficult to follow because there’s a lot of movement that obscures the action (this was rife with True History as well, so seems to be more of a stylistic trend in modern films than a fault per se.) That said, given that this is a film made by students on a tiny budget with limited resources it’s an admirable effort and they still manage some excellent work in spite of the rough edges. There are some very inspired shots that demonstrate that there was an aesthetic vision before the thing was put together rather than just a sort of on the fly attempt to craft interesting shots around what was happening on the day. In fact, I would go so far as to say that some of the shots that appear in this film are some of the best that we have seen in an on-screen depiction of this story thus far.

The score by Simon Rigoni is also a real strength as it is atmospheric and melodic without being overpowering. There is a trend in film scores now to have the music merely tie a scene together so that there’s something interesting to hear when people aren’t talking. Apart from one scene, where the police chat around a campfire, one never gets the sense that the music is ever just there because it has to plug a gap in the soundtrack, and that one exception is really only a result of the way the music is edited in the scene.

Hair and makeup was fantastic with some minor prosthetic work on the murdered police looking convincing without being too gruesome, though given the contemporary descriptions of Kennedy’s body upon its discovery the gore could have been amplified by ten and still been pulling punches. Likewise, the costumes felt authentic even if some of the details may have been off. There was a definite attempt to be as true to the descriptions of what the gang wore, as well as historical knowledge of how police dressed for bush work. It was good to see a film where the police were not shown in their uniforms while hunting the fugitives in the bush. It was also nice to see the correct firearms being used.

The cast were an interesting ensemble. Some performances were definitely stronger than others, Tim Head as Kennedy, Joshua Charles Dawe and Ned Kelly, and Ben Watts as McIntyre being absolutely the strongest in the ensemble. Given the nature of the project you were never going to see A-listers popping up, and everyone who appears does a solid job with their material. The characterisations were one of the weaker aspects of the film as while some characters were en pointe – specifically Kennedy, who feels like the most fleshed out – some others bore no resemblance to their historical counterpart – Joe Byrne being the worst offender in this regard. Those who side with the gang more than the police are going to struggle with this one because the Kelly Gang are outright villains. In fact, I would go so far as to describe them as cartoonishly villainous. They are vulgar and enjoy bullying the police who are powerless against them. While critics of the bushrangers and their supporters would suggest this is accurate, witness accounts do not exactly bear this out (but that’s a discussion for another article, and one well worth having.) Much of Ned Kelly’s more aggressive behaviours, such as driving the barrel of a pistol into someone’s cheek to intimidate them, are given to the other gang members in order to amplify their intimidation factor while Ned seems positively civil by comparison. In fact, Joshua Charles Dawe is probably one of the best on screen Ned Kellys to date, despite the lack of physical resemblance. There’s a nuance to the performance that makes the viewer feel like there’s something bubbling underneath the cruel and bullying exterior and subsequently it’s a shame he gets such limited screen time.

The police on the other hand are much more rounded and sympathetic characters, McIntyre being shown as something of a cheeky jack-the-lad figure that is quite at odds with the bookish and determined McIntyre we see depicted in the ex-policeman’s memoirs and contemporary accounts. An early scene has Kennedy, McIntyre and Scanlan pulling a nasty prank on Lonigan, which is obviously intended to show a sort of “locker room” mentality in the police station. Lonigan here comes across as somewhat oafish and paranoid, which is not an accurate depiction of a man who was known as a very capable officer who had a very justified wariness of their mission, though we do get a great character moment from him in recounting his clash with Ned in Benalla. It would have been nice to get more of Scanlan’s story as he is often forgotten owing to the fact that he neither survived the encounter to tell the story nor did he leave a widow or children to mourn him, but Jim Lavranos makes for a memorable performance all the same.

Some of the more heightened aspects of the ambush sequence are only disappointing because they weren’t necessary. Having the Kelly Gang dropping c-bombs may portray them as uncouth and therefore create a roughness that makes them seem dangerous, but it’s not necessary for making them intimidating. Case in point, Dawe’s Ned Kelly manages to be intimidating while speaking in a mostly civil manner with McIntyre just after Lonigan’s death simply by virtue of the body language employed. Another example of where the heightened drama didn’t quite work was in the death of Kennedy, which is written so as to show Ned Kelly as a cold blooded murderer. Kennedy appears to be in good health despite a cut on his forehead, so it isn’t clear why he would feel like he would need to write a letter for Ned to give to his wife if he dies, let alone for Ned to agree. Ned’s decision to allow Kennedy to write the letter is immediately undercut by his execution of the sergeant without any indication of why. What perhaps worked on paper lost a little something in translation to screen.

While the idea of having the gang appear at the end is actually a really clever one, the lack of motivation for their crimes can be hard to stomach, which is one of the reasons why most interpretations focus on their perspective rather than on the police. It feels like violence for the sake of violence, even though from the perspective of the victims that’s exactly how it would have seemed. This aspect is both one of the biggest strengths of the film and one of its notable weaknesses. It is a strength because it really drives home exactly why the story is being told the way it is, but it is also a weakness because by dehumanising the bushrangers it creates a disconnect that is very jarring. Without any indication of why the gang attack they are no more than soulless monsters that emerge from the wilderness to cause mayhem. To “unperson” the bushrangers makes them no different to the shark from Jaws or the Raptors from Jurassic Park. Perhaps having Ned talk to his gang and explain their plan could have changed that and given some sense of understanding to both sides rather than opting to cut one side out in favour of the other.

Overall Stringybark has notable flaws, but it also has significant strengths. It has enough respect for the history to stick closely to it throughout the majority of the film and weave in details that even the most lauded of Kelly films and miniseries have gotten wrong or omitted. It has a clarity of vision that means that nobody watching can possibly doubt what angle the film is taking. There are plenty of great visuals and performances in the mix as well as a great, understated score. It’s a Kelly film that dares to tell the other side of the story, which in itself is noteworthy. These are not aspects to be taken lightly, especially considering that this is not the work of some Hollywood veteran with tens of millions of dollars to play with. As a debut feature, tackling a historical piece, let alone one as turbulent and divisive as the Kelly story, is jumping into the deep end with lead weights on your ankles so it takes a certain amount of guts to even attempt it. Say what you want about whether or not you agree with the portrayal, or of the directorial choices, one thing that can’t be disputed is that when it comes to taking on as big a task as dramatising one of Australian history’s most controversial events Ben Head is as game as Ned Kelly.

Stringybark is available to rent online via Ozflix HERE

The most grisly bushranger stories

[Warning: The content in this article may be distressing for some readers. Discretion is advised.]

Justin Kurzel’s hyper-stylised and ultraviolent interpretation of True History of the Kelly Gang received positive reviews when it debuted in Toronto in September 2019 and seems to be landing blows in the UK where it opened this weekend. Many critics praised the gritty aesthetic and the subversion of history employed throughout. Fans of the historical Kelly story were not so embracing and questioned why the creative team felt the need to stray from history so radically to play up the violence and sex (and dresses). While Kurzel’s approach may be artistically valid, it certainly falls into his wheelhouse of telling grimy tales of psychopaths and nihilism. But is the Kelly story truly the one to use as a basis for this kind of story? Here is a list of five bushrangers stories more ripe for the Kurzel treatment than that of the Kelly Gang.

Kurzel’s Ned Kelly film exchanges historical accuracy for a grungy, gory aesthetic

1. Michael Howe: One of the earliest bushrangers to be labelled as such was Van Diemens Land’s most notorious outlaw. Already the subject of a film that took vast liberties with the history to create a twisted and gory tale of a madman (The Outlaw Michael Howe), the historical Howe has more than enough violence and weirdness in his story to sustain even the most subversion-inclined filmmaker. According to the generally accepted story, Howe was a former Navy man, and a violent ruffian who joined John Whitehead’s bushranging gang in 1815. This version of events also describes the banditti roaming through the Van Diemonian frontier raiding farms and torching them for good measure, and attacking Aboriginal camps where they would kill the men and take the women as sex slaves, which is how Howe supposedly paired up with “Black” Mary Cockerill, who was portrayed as his love interest in the 2010 film. During a violent gunfight, Whitehead was wounded and Howe hacked off his head to stop the attackers claiming the reward that was on it (in those days presenting an outlaw’s head was used as proof to receive the bounty).

Michael Howe

Howe frequently escaped the law, once being granted minimum security incarceration in exchange for giving evidence about his colleagues, from which he simply walked away. This has fuelled conspiracy theories that he was working for the government to dob in bushrangers in exchange for leniency, though the historical record shows it is not so clear cut. Howe was said to have murdered his confederates when his paranoia got the best of him and even escaped from capture on one occasion by murdering his captors with a hidden dagger. He shot Mary Cockerill with a blunderbuss to create a distraction during a chase allowing him to escape from soldiers, resulting in her helping the military track him down in spite when she had recuperated. He kept a diary bound in kangaroo skin, supposed to have been written in blood and detailing his lust for power. Eventually Howe became a hermit, his clothes disintegrated and he wore a cloak made of kangaroo skins he had stitched together. When a former associate tried to lure him into a trap, Howe fled to the Shannon River where he was cornered and bludgeoned to death. His mangled head was then hacked off and taken to Hobart for the reward. It was displayed proudly on a spike near where the Drunken Admiral restaurant now stands. Of course, as with a great many bushranging stories, even though this is the most widely accepted version of events it is also very wide of the mark in terms of accuracy, and the real Michael Howe was nowhere bear as bloodthirsty or savage as he has been made out to be.

The Outlaw Michael Howe was a gritty, “grimdark” retelling of the story of one of the earliest bushrangers.

2. Alexander Pearce: The historical Pearce has been the subject of two feature films that were released close to each other (Van Diemens Land, The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce) due to the harrowing narrative of his last years. Pearce was transported to Van Diemens Land and suffered the fate of all convict transportees. Malnourishment, hard labour and floggings were the daily grind. Pearce soon joined a gang that managed to escape from prison and went bush in an attempt to gain liberty.

Illustration of Pearce after death by Thomas Bock

The bushrangers soon realised the fatal flaw in their plan was their complete inability to navigate the wilderness and find food. When the rations ran out they turned to cannibalism, the victims being hacked to death in their sleep and turned into food for the survivors. Eventually the few that were left went seperate ways and Pearce was apprehended while raiding a sheep farm. He was returned to prison but escaped again with another convict who he immediately took into the bush and slaughtered. When he was recaptured Pearce declared that human flesh tasted “better than fish or pork” and had some of his companion’s flesh in a pouch that he was saving for later. Naturally, he was hanged for his crimes.

Post-mortem sketches of cannibal convict, Alexander Pearce.

3. Thomas Jefferies: Called “The Monster” by those who heard of his despicable crimes, Jefferies was another Van Diemonian bushranger of the 1820s. He was a transportee who quickly climbed the ranks to become flagellator (the man who performed the floggings), which was a job he relished. Jefferies was known for abducting female convicts and taking them into the bush to have his way with them. When this behaviour lost him his privileges he went bush with three other convicts. Jefferies travelled through Van Diemens Land raiding farms and committing arson, rape and murder.

Jefferies by Thomas Bock

In his most infamous crime, he and his gang raided a farm, murdered a neighbour and wounded the owner, abducted the owner’s wife and child, and when the woman slowed down to tend to her infant Jefferies plucked it out of her hands and smashed the baby’s head against a tree until it was dead, before dumping the body in the scrub to be eaten by wild animals. Jefferies went deeper into the bush with the traumatised woman and raped her before releasing her to walk home two days later. It was this crime that earned him his nickname. Jefferies also killed and ate one of his gang members when they got lost in the bush, later admitting that he had cut the remains into steaks that he would fry up with bits of mutton, adding to his horrendous reputation. Later he also murdered a constable by shooting him through the head. When he was finally captured by John Batman, he was sentenced to death. Lynch mobs formed to try and break him out of prison so they would have the joy of administering the punishment themselves. There was supposedly an elderly woman that was so enraged she tried to stab him with a butcher’s knife through the cage of the wagon he was being transported in. Even bushranger Matthew Brady, who had been a former associate of “The Monster” and was captured after Jefferies had given the authorities information about his whereabouts, refused to be kept in a cell with him, telling the guards that he would decapitate the villain if he was not relocated. When Jefferies was hanged many sighed with relief that justice had been served.

The notorious Thomas Jefferies was the most despised man in Van Diemens Land.

4. Dan Morgan: The story of Dan Morgan’s life is a complex one to retell due to so many decades of misreporting and folklore obscuring the truth. The film Mad Dog Morgan is a perfect illustration of how difficult it is to tell the story with adherence to the facts. Yet, if one was to create a narrative based on the folkloric Morgan, it would have be one of the most violent and perverse stories put to film. Morgan has no definitive backstory, the only reliable account of his life starts when he was imprisoned on the prison ship Success for highway robbery in the 1850s. Success and its sister ship President were reserved for the worst criminals in Victoria. On these ships prisoners were isolated, kept in undersized cells with poor ventilation, and subject to cruel and unusual punishment. During the day Morgan was ferried to the mainland to break rocks, which is where he lost the tip of a finger when his hand was crushed. Morgan was also a witness to the murder of prison inspector John Price by convicts, who bludgeoned him to death with their tools over the harsh conditions he enforced. When Morgan was released he became a swaggie and never used his real name. He worked for a time breaking horses on stations around Victoria and New South Wales but eventually went rogue. He was joined by a man called German Bill or Fancy Clarke and began a career of robbery. One of their victims was Henry Baylis, the magistrate of Wagga Wagga, who they bailed up but quickly released. Baylis, accompanied by a party of police, located the bushrangers and engaged them in a shootout. During the battle, Baylis was shot but survived, but depending on which version you believe German Bill was either mortally wounded by police or by Morgan attempting to create a diversion to facilitate his escape. The more damning accounts of Morgan’s exploits tend to be based on hearsay and exaggerate his bloodthirstiness. He was accused of tying people naked to trees and leaving them to die from exposure; threatening a woman by backing her so close to a fireplace that her dress caught alight and badly burned her legs and back; branding people; making an old man dance on a table for him under threat of death; shooting a shepherd in the groin over a perceived slight; and tying people to fences and flogging them. While some of these may be grounded in actual incidents, albeit loosely, most are not. Even popular understanding of his known crimes portrays him as an unhinged monster. Most accounts of his visit to Round Hill Station suggest he got drunk on rum, then started shooting at people. He was supposed to have threatened the station manager whose wife begged for mercy so he shot the man in the hand instead, either putting a hole through it or blowing off one of the fingers. He then shot one of the staff who had gone for help, believing he was fetching the police. During another robbery, Morgan shot a Chinese man in the leg and in another he forced a station manager to write cheques at gunpoint.

Dan Morgan’s death mask

Eventually Morgan’s reign of terror ended when he was shot in the back at Peechelba station. His body was displayed and photographed then mutilated. A police superintendent had the jaw skinned so he could souvenir the beard; locks of hair were cut off and so was the head. There were also descriptions of the ears being hacked at and the scrotum being sliced off to be turned into a tobacco pouch. A film depicting Morgan as folklore describes him could indeed be a very grisly and twisted experience for the kind of director who wants to make a film that will shock and mesmerise.

The infamous murder of Sgt. McGinnity by Dan Morgan.

5. Jimmy Governor: Governor’s life was the basis of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, which was first written as a novel by Thomas Kenneally then adapted by Fred Schepisi as a feature film. Both stick remarkably close to Governor’s real life. Governor was an Aboriginal man who worked briefly as a black tracker for the police. Undoubtedly he was used in acts of state sanctioned aggression against fellow Aboriginal people. Governor was part white on his grandmother’s side, which no doubt created some identity confusion. He then became a labourer for the Mawbey family, living in a hut on the edge of their property with his wife, a white woman, and their son, who was probably not Jimmy’s. Jimmy worked hard but was paid poorly and at the same time his wife complained about living in squalor away from her family, begging scraps from Mrs. Mawbey. She was also subjected to bullying from the Mawbeys and their associates for having married a black man. This reached breaking point when she threatened to leave Jimmy. He snapped and took his uncle with him to the Mawbey house where they slaughtered the women and most of the children with a nulla nulla (club) and a hatchet. Immediately afterwards they went on the run, but Jimmy decided to strike back at the white society that had bullied and demeaned him.

Jimmy Governor after his capture.

A murder spree began, where Jimmy targeted farms where he knew the families and murdered any women or children that were there, usually with his club. Jimmy had a list of around thirty names that he was systematically working through on his murderous vendetta. Jimmy and his brother Joe were made outlaws by act of parliament and stayed on the run for almost two years. Huge posses were formed to track them down as the murder count came to double digits. Governor was ambushed and shot in the jaw, but escaped. He survived by eating honey he took from a farmer’s beehive. He was soon caught and nursed to health so he could stand trial. He was found guilty of murdering the Mawbeys and hanged at Darlinghurst Gaol.

The murders committed by Jimmy Governor prompted one of the biggest manhunts in New South Wales history.

As can be seen, there are far more gory and gruesome stories in bushranging history than that of the Kelly Gang, though none are as easy a sell as a movie. Still, we have already seen some of these stories adapted to screen in some form: The Outlaw Michael Howe, The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce, Mad Dog Morgan and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Whether any of these horror stories would get the exposure of Kurzel’s punk-gothic homage to A Clockwork Orange with Ned Kelly helmets is unlikely, however.

The Director Speaks: Matthew Holmes Interviewed

In 2017 Matthew Holmes’ dream to create a bushranging epic for the big screen was finally realised with the theatrical release of The Legend of Ben Hall. Though it was a limited release, it gained a strong following and has since added fans from around the world to its fanbase. Now the call to action has rung out as Holmes endeavours to create a new cut of the film that is closer to his original intention than was previously possible. However, in order to make this project come to fruition he has taken to Kickstarter to raise the funds needed. Those who have followed the journey of the film will know that it was crowdfunding and an army of volunteers that made it possible to make the original film. A Guide to Australian Bushranging sat down with Holmes to discuss this monumental project, what he hopes to achieve and how.

It’s been almost three years since The Legend of Ben Hall was first released, and since then it has been distributed on DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming all around the world and has met with a great reception. What made you decide to bite the bullet and have a crack at making the definitive version of the film?

Holmes – I was committed to the idea of a Director’s Cut while I was editing the Theatrical Cut in 2015-2016. It was clear that we were going to have to lose a lot of great material in order to bring the run time closer to 2 hours. After all, our first assembly edit was 3 hours and 40 minutes long. Because we only had the money to finish one version of the film, the theatrical release version took priority and any scene that had to go, I would say “that’s one for the Director’s Cut!”

Now three years since its release, the film has done really good business in the home entertainment market, especially in the USA. I pitched the concept to my distributor Pinnacle Films and they really liked the idea. So it seemed like the right time to try to get the Director’s Cut completed. Plus the fanbase has really grown and there definitely seems like there’s a demand for it. I ran a poll on Facebook last year and 500+ people said they would support a crowdfunding campaign, so that showed there was definitely interest in the possibility.

What will the director’s cut bring to the table that is different from the version that we’ve already seen?

Holmes – There will be around 30 new scenes and 48 expanded scenes in the Director’s Cut. Essentially it’s the same story as the Theatrical Cut, but there’s more stops along the way. The film will move at a less frenetic pace. In the Theatrical Cut, my editor Caitlin Spiller and I were editing each sequence within an inch of its life to bring down the overall run time. People thought were absolutely crazy for releasing a 139 min version as our Theatrical Cut and were telling us to cull it to 90 minutes. So a lot of great character moments and little nuances got lost in the edit simply for timings sake.

My plan with the Director’s Cut is to make a far more immersive and sensory film experience. It will cement the audience more in Ben Hall’s world and allow them to sit with those characters in the environment, rather just punching along to the next event. I think it will give me the chance to really play with sound design as well, to get a feeling of what it was like to live in the bush. The Director’s Cut will absolutely be one of those films you watch over the course of two or three nights, rather than all in one sitting. The experience of the two versions will be vastly different.

Jack Martin as Ben Hall

Are there any particular parts of the original screenplay that you wish you had been able to film?

Holmes – There are many historical moments I wanted to include, but couldn’t. I only wrote scenes that I thought we could achieve with our very limited budget. Some historical moments had to be scaled down or omitted completely. There’s a great moment where four brothers fought off the Hall Gang from the back of a travelling wagon – that would’ve been an amazing action set piece to include. But it would’ve taken three days to film and cost a fortune.

I did write an interesting scene where the Hall Gang pillage a camp of Chinese miners and we really see the cruelty and racism inflicted on the Chinese in that period. It showed Gilbert to be a really nasty piece of work – as he really was to the Chinese. But ultimately I just didn’t have the time or budget to do it. But I promise – if we get over $110,000 on the Kickstarter Campaign – I will film that scene and put it into the movie. So get pledging, folks!

To outsiders, it might seem strange that you’ve gone to Kickstarter to get the money together for the director’s cut when we see Hollywood movies getting director’s cuts of films all the time with no apparent fundraising. Can you explain why Kickstarter was the best option to enable you to make this new edition?

Holmes The Legend of Ben Hall is in a totally different league to Hollywood films. Hollywood productions have the budget, time and resources to make both a Director’s Cut and a Theatrical Cut simultaneously. I really don’t think people realise how little we made The Legend of Ben Hall for. Our budget was barely a million dollars. For a film of that scale, that is unheard of. In the end, I was dipping into my own pocket just to complete it. For example, I paid for half of the miniature set build simply because we’d run out of money at that time. So the only way we can afford to produce a whole new version is if the fans support it. Raising money for films is even harder than it was when we filmed the movie back in 2015. People often assume that just because we made a film that we have this bottomless pit of money to draw on. It’s quite the opposite actually.

Among the rewards on Kickstarter are brand new books about the film and the weapons used by the bushrangers and their pursuers. Can you talk a little about what pledgers should be expecting from these books?

Holmes – The weapons book will cover many of the unique guns that feature in the film, which are different than your average Western. Because it’s set in 1865, the guns were a little older than those you’ll typically see in Clint Eastwood films. The guns used in Australia at the time were largely from English gunsmiths rather than from America. I think The Legend of Ben Hall may be the first film to show someone using a Tranter Revolving Rifle. I’m certain it’s the first Australian film to ever show the Tranters being used on screen.

The A Visual Journey book will be filled with images. No text. We have so many amazing photographs from the movie, they deserve to be in a coffee-table style book. Like the Director’s Cut, that book will be an immersive piece.

Why did you choose Kickstarter over similar crowdfunding websites like Pozible and GoFundMe?

Holmes – I’ve run several campaigns in the past and the ones that succeeded were on Kickstarter. I prefer their website and the way they do things. They also have better international reach.

I don’t approach my crowdfunding campaigns as a charity. I’m offering a product to my fans, I’m not asking for a handout. That’s where most crowdfunded film projects get it wrong; they treat their film like a charity cause and beg for people to help realise their dream. Their focus should be on what the pledgers stand to get out of it. With my campaign, the pledgers are essentially pre-ordering the Director’s Cut before it hits the shelves.

In the last decade we’ve seen a big increase in independent Australian genre films such as Occupation, Arrowhead, Wyrmwood, and Stringybark getting off the ground thanks to crowdfunding. These are films that frequently get overlooked by federal funding bodies, yet there’s obviously a demand for them, especially as some of them even got sequels. Do you think that it’s a sign that the Australian film funding bodies need to evolve to meet the demands of the audiences?

Holmes – Crowdfunding has been a saving grace for many indie filmmakers like myself. It allows us to go straight to our audience. When you have government funding bodies standing between you and your audience, that’s a no-win situation. They hold the keys and their opinion of the market (and your film) will dictate if you get their funding or not. Crowdfunding allows filmmakers the chance to bypass them, which I love.

The Legend of Ben Hall would not exist if it wasn’t for those wonderful people who pledged on my Ben Hall short film campaign back in 2014. That was the catalyst that ignited the feature film. Screen Australia was never going to get behind a Ben Hall feature film, and certainly not one directed by me. When we approached them to help us with some post-production funding, they refused to support the film even after it was shot and edited. 

Also, the funding bodies typically avoid genre films in favour of whatever is socially or politically popular at the time. So sci-fi, horror, western, action, comedy – or any combination of those – are not going to be looked at favourably. Most of Australia’s most interesting, upcoming directors have had to launch their careers outside of the government funding system. Crowdfunding is a big key to doing that.

At around three hours, it’s going to be quite a long film.

Holmes – Yes, but it’s not going to be abnormally long. Wyatt Earp, Dances with Wolves, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Once Upon a Time in America – these are all very long films. Perhaps too long for theatrical release, but perfect for the home entertainment scenario where you can pause the movie, get a cup of tea and snacks and come back.

We’ve seen that films like the Avengers films and the Lord of the Rings trilogy increasingly have hefty run-times that people are happy to sit through. Do you think that this signifies a return to movies being a kind of event rather than the disposable entertainment that has flooded the market in recent times?

Holmes – I believe an invested audience is happy to sit through a longer running time. In the case of The Avengers or the Lord of The Rings, those films have a hardcore, established fanbase who want as much as you can give them. The Legend of Ben Hall has such a fanbase that is, of course, more niche but no less enthusiastic. People will binge 3 or 4 episodes of television in their homes, so I don’t see a 200 minute movie as being any different.

The Director’s Cut is not being made for the regular film goer; this is absolutely one for the fans or for those who love these types of sprawling, historical epics. Impatient or casual viewers should stick to the Theatrical Cut! Personally, this will give me the chance to make The Legend of Ben Hall the way I always wanted it to be, which is not very commercial.  This version will let history play out rather than be driven by movie conventions. Not having to argue or debate with anybody as to what should stay or go gives me full creative expression as a filmmaker, which I felt I lost making the Theatrical Cut.

I believe people will find the Director’s Cut a very different movie because of that. 

Jamie Coffa as the “flash Canadian”, Johnny Gilbert

Adapting history for film is not easy; how do you go about selecting what gets shown and what is left out?

Holmes – In my case, it came down to budget and what I could afford to show. But I also knew that the film had to focus on Ben Hall’s inner journey as much as his outer journey, so I selected historical moments that had a profound impact on his personal life. That was my best guide as to what should stay and what should go. In the end, a film is about characters, not plot. I focused the scenes more on the characters rather than worrying about the external narrative drive. Sure that made it more episodic, but I don’t think that’s something to be criticised. Many of my favourite films are hugely episodic, yet they are considered modern classics.

One of the more noticeable changes that you made that history buffs would notice was that you merged the characters of “Old Man” Gordon and John Dunleavy. Was that always the intention or was it a matter of practicality come production time?

Holmes – That is something I wish I could go back in time and fix. Adding John Dunleavy to the First Act would’ve added another character in an already burgeoning cast and I was forced to make some cuts due to our constricted budget. 

If you were able to, would you do a “George Lucas” and digitally insert an actor portraying Dunleavy into those scenes retroactively, or indeed use digital magic to add shots that you had not been able to first time around?

Holmes – Absolutely. If we over-finance on the Kickstarter campaign, I’ll magically weave John Dunleavy into the Director’s Cut – that’s another promise! I’d pay Jack Martin and Andy McPhee to reprise their roles and actually film some bonus scenes to make that work. It’s entirely possible if I have the funds for it. So get pledging, folks – the sky is the limit! The more money we raise, the better the Director’s Cut will be. In fact, I might make Dunleavy’s appearance and the Chinese Miner scenes as Stretch Goals.

There’s dialogue in the Theatrical Cut where Johnny Gilbert explains that he would dress in women’s clothing as a disguise. Given that this is something that he was known to do, was there ever any thought to finding a way to include Gilbert in a dress in the film?

Holmes – We actually had a scene written with Gilbert disguised in women’s clothing. We even had a yellow dress picked out along with a silly bonnett. But on the night we planned to shoot it at the Maldon Historical Village, a huge storm blew in and rained us out. It shut production down for several hours, so we had to abandon the scene. It was at the head of the ‘Forbes Brothel’ scene (which will be restored in the Director’s Cut.) 

Gilbert often dressed in women’s clothes when going into a populated town, as 2 or 3 flashy young men riding down the main street would catch the attention of local police. Dressing as a woman to disguise oneself was common practice amongst bushrangers in those days. There was nothing more to it than disguise and practicality. I find it very silly that a certain other bushranger film has attempted to make wearing dresses out to be a bigger deal than what it was.

Father McCarthy is a character that plays a significant role in the story of the gang, historically having directed John Vane of the original Gilbert-Hall Gang to turn himself in to Superintendent Morrisett. He was included in early promotional material for The Legend of Ben Hall, but didn’t make the final cut. Are you glad you have the opportunity to reinstate those scenes?

Holmes – I’ll be hugely excited to see that scene reinstated. I always felt it was a pivotal one. It was one of the last and one of the hardest scenes to delete, because it carried so many of the film’s central themes: choice and the consequences of it. It had so much foreshadowing and let the audience see what was driving Ben Hall’s decisions, to understand the difficult position he was in. It was heart-breaking to remove, but we were being heavily pressured to get the first act moving faster. I know actor Peter Flaherty, who played Father McCarthy, is very happy about its return, as he gave a wonderful and earnest performance. And he really nailed the Cork accent.

The theatrical cut of The Legend of Ben Hall tended to show Hall as essentially a good man who is driven to change his ways because he realises the consequences of his own behaviour and doesn’t want his son to think of him as a villain. Will the director’s cut explore that aspect any further?

Holmes – The Director’s Cut will show a much darker side to Ben Hall, that’s for sure. There were certain moments and lines of dialogue that were lifted from the Theatrical Cut because we had feedback that viewers were losing empathy for Ben Hall, particularly during the middle of the film. I showed Hall to be quite ruthless at times and revealed that war between good and evil raging in his soul. Personally, I loved that aspect of the character and Jack Martin showed both sides of his personality really well. I wanted to show Ben Hall as he was – torn and conflicted. But that doesn’t bode well with those who are used to having their movie protagonists portrayed as squeaky clean. For the Director’s Cut, I won’t have any of those restrictions. That will be liberating and I think will make for a far more complex and engaging character.

Jack Martin and Zane Ciarma as father and son, Ben and Henry Hall

Has there been any movement regarding the other films in the proposed “Legends” trilogy?

Holmes – Just in the last two months, we’ve received some really solid interest from the USA in the first prequel film The Legend of Frank Gardiner. Ironically, there’s been no interest from Australian investors or funding bodies. I also have two new producers onboard who are working on sourcing the finance and attaching cast. That film will introduce three new lead characters – Frank Gardiner, Sir Frederick Pottinger and Kitty Brown, Biddy’s younger sister.

If that film goes ahead, many original cast members will be reprising their roles such as Jack Martin, Jamie Coffa, Joanne Dobbin, Nick Barry, Angus Pilakui, Gregory Quinn, Adam Willson and Tom Beaurepaire. It will be an absolute dream come true if Gardiner happens. We’ll be able to show things that weren’t possible in the first film. Plus we are also planning to film it all up in Ben Hall country in the Central West of New South Wales. So fingers crossed!

When will the Kickstarter campaign be winding up for those looking to make a pledge?

Holmes – Our Kickstarter ends on March 29th, 2020. I’m running it longer than usual because it’s a big target to reach. If we don’t reach $90,000, the Director’s Cut won’t ever happen – it’s that simple. That would be a tragedy, because I believe this Director’s Cut will be a superior film to the Theatrical Cut in every way.

But in the end, it really is up to the fans. But that’s the way it’s always been with this film. The fans kickstarted The Legend of Ben Hall back in 2014; I just hope five years on, the fans are still with me for one last ride. We shall know in a few weeks time!

Ben Hall (Jack Martin) and Mick Coneley (Adam Willson) in a deleted scene from The Legend of Ben Hall

To learn about the rewards on offer and make a pledge to the Kickstarter campaign for The Legend of Ben Hall Director’s Cut, follow this link: http://shorturl.at/fnuPY

True History of the Kelly Gang (review)

What is it about we Australians, eh? What is wrong with us? Do we not have a Jefferson? A Disraeli? Might we not find someone better to admire than a horse thief and a murderer?

It took Justin Kurzel, on the back of two financial and critical flops, seven years to get enough funding to make this film, and then the budget got halved just as they went into production. They didn’t even have enough money to buy adequate rice to feed Russell Crowe, resulting in the Hollywood heavyweight storming off set after a rant at the caterers. Not exactly an auspicious start for what was slated to be one of the highest profile Australian films of the decade. With big name stars Crowe, Charlie Hunnam, Essie Davis and Nicholas Hoult, as well as rising stars George Mackay and Thomasin McKenzie to draw the crowds in, and based on an award-winning and internationally lauded novel by one of Australia’s most popular authors to boot, this should have been a grand slam and something to write home about – and it is, but for all the wrong reasons.


In this review we will be discussing major details of the film, which some refer to as “spoilers”. If you want to go into the film blind, I suggest you rethink the decision to read reviews before watching the movie. There’s a lot to unpack here but, in short, this is not the film we wanted and is likely to cause distress amongst many potential viewers in a number of ways. It is incoherent both visually and in terms of plot; some key technical aspects of the film are little better than amateurish; and the whole thing is underscored with utter antipathy towards essentially the entirety of the audience that would want to watch a Ned Kelly film. This film has no reverence or even a modicum of respect for history, nor indeed the source text. To call it a mockery gives it too much credit.


But, before we get into the unpleasant things, let’s discuss the tiny glimmers of light in the Lovecraftian murk. The cast are phenomenal. George Mackay, if given a better script, could have easily become the essential on-screen Ned Kelly. He absolutely embodies the man and is utterly magnetic whenever he’s on screen. He comes across as a director’s dream; readily able and willing to do whatever the role requires of him, whether that be chanting obscenities at police or dancing like a monkey after a brutal boxing match. Despite being an Englishman, he nails the Australian accent, which lends an unusual slice of authenticity to the character. Meanwhile, Russell Crowe certainly earned his hefty paycheque with a delightfully camp portrayal of Harry Power that leaves the audience wanting more. His personality shift from jovial and fatherly to brutal and nasty veers the closest to the source text of any roles that make it into the film. Essie Davis is powerful as a twisted, Kath Pettinghill-esque interpretation of Ellen Kelly in tight pants and hair beads. Rather than a hard-done-by Irish widow, this version of Ellen crackles with religious fervour and primal fury. Her intensity and effortless transition from adoring mother to bloodthirsty harpy and back throughout the film demonstrates just why Davis is one of the best actresses on the scene. Charlie Hunnam gives a great performance as Sergeant O’Neil, despite his often incomprehensible accent early on. There’s an authenticity and believability in his performance that leads one to believe that he had crafted a narrative for his character that wasn’t present in the script, just so he had some idea of how to play the part from scene to scene. The three Kelly Gang members – Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan), Dan Kelly (Earl Cave), and Steve Hart (Louis Hewison) – are all engaging and entertaining in the fleeting glimpses we get of them, but they are criminally underused. For a film with “Kelly Gang” in the title, there’s bafflingly little screen time dedicated to the titular gang. Cave and Hewison in particular had the potential to be some of the best characters in the film, especially given their characterisation in the source text, and both have flashes of brilliance in the limited moments where able, but spend most of the time they are on screen out of focus, out of frame, or in the background. Sean Keenan creates a version of Joe Byrne that wears his heart on his sleeve and carries the burden of fully comprehending the gravity of Ned’s bloodthirsty actions when his friends don’t, which is another underplayed aspect that could have made for compelling character moments in a better written film. When he breaks down in tears after seeing the slaughter at Stringybark Creek that results from Ned ignoring his pleas, or when he’s slapping Ned for dooming them all at Glenrowan, one can’t help feel for the guy. Thomasin McKenzie is a delight as Mary Hearn, portraying the character as far more tender and overwhelmed by the crazy world she has been whipped up in than comes across in Carey’s novel, which makes her far more endearing. Orlando Schwerdt as a young Ned Kelly portrays a gravitas and strength well beyond his years in a career-making performance that will see him go places if there’s any justice in the world. Nicholas Hoult impresses as Fitzpatrick, who in this version is an English “Libertine” type who frequents a bizarre brothel, tries to lure Kate Kelly into a paedophilic relationship, and becomes Ned’s arch-enemy, who apparently can analyse the man better than anyone else, yet still struggles to catch him. Hoult displays excellent comedic chops, but unfortunately the humour is frequently misplaced and falls flat through no fault of the actor. Other standouts were Jacob Collins-Levy as Thomas Curnow, and Claudia Karvan as Mrs. Shelton, both of whom are the most realistic human characters in the piece. It is clear that all of the performances were crafted with passion and care, but one can’t help but get the sense that the film we got was not the one they signed up for.


The costumes are quite interesting to look at and the design work is absolutely superb, with Mackay’s signature look of scarlet shirt, hobnail boots, moleskins and monkey jacket a standout with a contemporary look and old world vibes. In conjunction with the mullet it makes him look like a Sharpie (a Melbourne street gang from the mid-20th century), which seems to match up with the very 1970s aesthetic given to young Ned. The same for the police uniforms and Harry Power’s suit, which create a sense of being of the time while being very contemporary to the present. Alice Babidge definitely created a unique style that should have made the film iconic, but the outfits rarely get shown off and there seems to have been far less effort put into the rest of the production design to reinforce the visual flair. Of course, there are some head-scratchers like Joe Byrne’s outfit of short shorts, knitted cardigan, Akubra hat, Blundstones and nothing else. Poor Sean Keenan had to wear this Manpower Australia costume in the snow for most of the film. Then there’s the glowing police ponchos that make the cops visible in the Glenrowan scene but make them look like the ghosts of the press photographers from particularly rainy football games. The wardrobe was evidently shaped by the garbled visual sense Kurzel’s wanted to portray, and one cannot fault Babbidge for rising to the task and creating beautiful costumes within the enforced guidelines – just like any decent professional.


The casting of Marlon Williams as George King is clearly to get a known singer on the soundtrack, because apart from singing he has very little else of significance to do (excepting a baffling monologue about habitually abusing a dog), and Russell Crowe even manages to get a filthy song in so he can show off his vocals, primed after his years in TOFOG. Jed Kurzel’s score is droning and tense, which works really well to create a tense atmosphere in some of the quieter scenes, but it isn’t very memorable and comes across as the Aldi version of the score to The Proposition. The much promoted punk songs performed by the actors playing the Kelly Gang pop up far less frequently than they deserve, and if there had been more of that it would have really tied the punk aesthetic together and made for something truly memorable, but instead it really just gets used to make some transitions seem slightly more interesting than they really are.

As for the use of sets and locations, the decision to make all of the buildings look like repurposed sheds from Bunnings is odd to say the least. The recurring visual motif is slot shaped windows (because obviously that’s an homage to the armour) but it isn’t interesting enough to warrant lauding it. The Glenrowan Inn interior looks like the public toilet at Abu Ghraib, complete with half a dozen people wearing bags over their heads. The environments used do not reflect the historical locations at all, even when they film in places like Old Melbourne Gaol, which they digitally altered, and seem to have been picked for their remoteness, sparseness and harshness on the eye. The Kelly family live in a swamp, Harry Power lives in the snow and the Glenrowan Inn is built in the middle of a dried out pasture. Several shots are lit in such a way that it resembles a stage set from a production at the Malthouse Theatre rather than a film shot on location. Perhaps the praise many gave this amdram styling and emphasis on stylised visuals with little to no substance indicates the state of arts criticism in the present day more than anything else in relation to this film.

The biggest talking point though has been the dresses. In the film Dan Kelly and Steve Hart wear dresses because they heard about a band of Irish rebels called the “Sons of Sieve” who used to do unspeakable things to the English, and the implication is that the adoption of the quirk occurred during Ned’s time in prison for shooting Sergeant O’Neil. In Carey’s book Ned beats the snot out of the pair for wearing the dresses and tells Steve Hart to leave their camp in Bullock Creek believing he is a corrupting influence on Dan. Ned’s anger towards the dresses in the book stems from the triggering of memories of being bullied by Sergeant O’Neil over Red Kelly being one of the aforementioned rebels. This literary incarnation of Red had murdered a man through the activities of the rebels, but used the pig stealing story to cover up the real reason he was sent to Australia. In Carey’s writing this is important as it invokes historical rebellion in Ireland as well as touching on the reality that many Irishmen were sent to Australia as political prisoners – details that don’t factor into the film version. But further to that point, Red’s deliberate efforts in the literary version to obscure his own history is one of the driving factors in Ned’s decision to write his memoirs in the first place. In the film, however, the “Sons of Sieve” are more like a cult than a rebel band, even to the extent of Ellen forcibly telling Ned “You’re a Son of Sieve!” as if that should have some significance to him. Then with Ned and Joe adopting the dresses and blackface themselves, it goes completely against what Carey established in the book about how the very notion of the rebels and their way of doing things was offensive to them. This point, above all else, highlights that Kurzel not only did not understand his source material, but also leapt upon any opportunity to draw a link between machismo and homoeroticism – especially when he has Fitzpatrick talking about the joys of having sex while wearing a dress. This, of course, also ties in with the undercurrent of sexual tension between Ned and Fitzpatrick, as well as between Ned and Joe. Ned and Joe can barely keep their hands off each other and always seen about two seconds away from snogging. Meanwhile, Fitzpatrick is introduced admiring Ned’s physique during a boxing match, which he later compliments him on with bedroom eyes. Of course, this doesn’t gel with Ned’s relationship with Mary Hearn, not the Oedipal undercurrent of his relationship with Ellen. Furthermore, it should be noted that the female Kellys in the film are prone to gender bending too, with Kate Kelly sporting short hair and boyish clothes, and Ellen favouring a Patti Smith inspired pants and jacket. There is something very Freudian about the director’s fixation on having Ned Kelly act in a very queer manner, but there’s also an intellectual dishonesty in effectively shouting “no homo” by dismissing it as merely the intimacy of strong friendship, deliberate attempts to signify madness, or the result of opium use. It’s a situation that requires either full commitment to the idea or none at all.


Let’s talk technical. There are two extremely important aspects of film that can make or break a production: cinematography and editing. On both counts this movie demonstrates that you can get a job in the industry even if you’re not great at what you do, so long as the director or ptoducer likes you. The camera movements leap between pointlessly kinetic and totally static without rhyme or reason. If you aren’t motion sick by the ten minute mark it would be miraculous. There is no discernible attempt at mise en scene, with shots either too close to the actors, too cluttered, poorly framed or boringly sparse indicating that the sets were not built around what the audience should be seeing, but rather the shots were dictated by a checklist – wide shot, mid shot, close up, extreme close up. The lighting ranges from stark and bright to gloomy to the point that it’s like watching with a case of optic neuritis (that is when there’s not pointless strobe lighting). As for the editing, the lack of flow between scenes and even within them owes much to the incomprehensible attempt at slapping together shots without any respect for continuity. Constantly throughout the film characters completely change position from shot to shot, which is something even amateur editors know not to permit. The effect is that the attentive viewer is distracted because, for example, Ned will be holding a pipe and looking out of frame then suddenly holding nothing and looking at Fitzpatrick. It’s one of the cardinal sins of editing and it cheapens the whole enterprise.


On a script level, there’s nothing of considerable substance on show. The plot is merely a collection of events with no connective tissue and no motivation. Any resemblance to Carey’s book comes across like it was taken from SparkNotes about the novel rather than an actual reading of the literature. Characters are, at best, one note and rudimentary, leaving it up to the actors to do the heavy lifting. Any point to the story is almost impossible to discern until Curnow’s closing monologue makes clear that the whole thing is about how Australians make an embarrassing spectacle of themselves because they put criminals in pride of place for a lack of decent human beings of their own to look up to. In the book, Curnow is a self-important elitist who gives his comments about Jefferson and Disraeli in a train as he and his family are being escorted away from Glenrowan by police to protect them from reprisals from the Kelly Sympathisers. It is portrayed as a snide aside taking a dig at the colonials. In the film, it is delivered as a grandiose speech to an enormous crowd in the State Library of Victoria who give it rapturous applause. While this transposition may seem trivial, it actually underscores the whole point of the film succinctly. By making the statement indicating that Australians are intellectually inferior a lauded public statement rather than a quiet comment it suggests that Grant and Kurzel see this as the key message of the film. The book’s key message is actually about the subjectivity of “truth”, and plays with the concept of what is true or not by blending pure fiction with historical fact (Carey spoke in glowing terms of Ian Jones’ work, much of which is directly paraphrased in the novel). On the other hand, none of this idea seems to have occurred to the duo of Grant and Kurzel, though perhaps earlier drafts of the screenplay were quite a lot closer to the source text in this way.

The dialogue ranges from the needlessly prosaic to coarse and vulgar. As a result, many of the snatches of dialogue lifted from Carey’s book feel out of place, especially when voiced by Mackay as Ned, as it results in a lack of character consistency. The overuse of the words “fuck” and “cunt” render the words meaningless, which is probably yet another jab at the “bogans” that Kurzel and Grant appear to have a chip on their shoulder about. While these words were used at the time, it is unlikely anyone would have spoken in this way without being arrested. It comes off as merely a hamfisted attempt at making the Kellys and their ilk come across as yobbos.


One thing in particular that makes the film a slog is that there are no likeable characters. Every single character is crude, violent, insane or effete. Harry Power blows two men to kingdom come so he can steal their guns and a trinket box from their mail coach, then later tries to make Ned shoot Sergeant O’Neil’s penis off (the latter, admittedly, derived from a similar scene in the novel). Ellen Kelly acts like a deranged priestess, grooming her eldest son to be some kind of “chosen one” and allowing Dan to adopt the garb of the cult as if prepping him to become a zealot for her mysterious cause. Her absolute belief that Ned worships her to the point of being willing to sacrifice himself for her is incredibly uncomfortable to watch, especially when she gives Ned a briefing on how he will be executed and how he is to behave during it to make her proud after a kiss that is far too passionate for a mother and son to share. Then, you have Fitzpatrick as a predatory paedophile who has no qualms in grooming girls, threatening to shoot babies, or attempting to rape Ellen in a train carriage. That he somehow ends up leading the pursuit for Ned despite only being a constable is a stretch of reality that is almost passable. Joe Byrne is off his face throughout most of the film (the only one to date that depicts him using opium) but he seems to be the voice of reason nonetheless. His most memorable moment is his impassioned monologue where he tries to convince Ned to escape to America because they have donuts there.

In terms of the characters that were left out of the film completely you have people like Aaron Sherritt; Tom Lloyd; Wild Wright; Ned’s siblings Maggie, Jim, Grace, Annie, Alice, Ellen and Jack (though an unnamed baby is featured); all of the senior police officers like Standish, Hare, Ward, Nicholson and O’Connor; all of the native police and on, and on. The character of Bill Frost, a major character in the book, is amalgamated with Sergeant O’Neil to justify Charlie Hunnam’s time and wages. The inclusion of cabaret singer Paul Capsis as a transgender brothel madam isn’t out of place in this film, but one has to seriously question why more of an effort wasn’t made to allow him to use his exquisite voice, which is what he’s famous for.

As for Ned, he seems to be four different characters rolled together. At first he’s a young boy who is more mature than his years out of necessity. He’s headstrong and assertive but still prone to the deep emotional trauma that his lifestyle would leave on any child. Then he’s a wild man who punches people for the entertainment of others and gets high on the adrenaline before doing a monkey dance and howling. Then he’s a quiet, unassuming young man who is awkward around women, unsure of his sexuality, suspicious of most men and resentful of his mother. Finally there’s the Ned that we see at Glenrowan who is utterly unhinged and unpredictable. One second he’s mumbling about how there’s errors in the parsing of his writing, then the next he’s bashing tables and throwing chairs, then he’s back to writing. This is the same Ned that finds the (unnamed) Sergeant Kennedy dying in the long grass after Ned ambushes the police, waits for him to stop moving and then hacks his ear off with a pocket knife. No doubt this queer, violent and unhinged portrayal will be welcomed by certain individuals that have a particular aversion to the popularity of Ned Kelly.


The mystery of why Ned has blonde hair in the film becomes apparent when we see that Red Kelly is thus called because he wears a red dress, not because of his hair colour. All of the Kelly family have brown or black hair except for Ned, who shares his golden locks with Sergeant O’Neil who seems unusually affectionate to young Ned, and swears to look after the family when Red mysteriously dies in custody (and is somehow taken back to the family in his red dress, which we had seen Ned burning earlier). Just what it is that Kurzel was trying to imply by having this lovechild subplot that amounts to nothing is unclear, but it is one example of the many aborted themes, motifs, subplots and characters. Throughout the film things that have been set up as being of note go nowhere. A good example is Ned using a locket he stole as a bullroarer in the first act is mirrored by Ned spinning a rope while breaking in a horse in the second, but is never followed up. George King simply vanishes, as do O’Neil and Harry Power. Not enough effort is made to demonstrate how cause and effect shape the three acts (Boy, Man and Monitor), which results in Ned suddenly going bonkers and dressing in a sheer dress and recruiting an army of teenagers to help him commit mass murder. This “army” also amounts to nothing as mere minutes later, when they are supposed to join the gang at Glenrowan, they just never appear. There’s no scene showing the children throwing away their armour upon realising their folly or anything, just an absence. It would not surprise if huge chunks of the film were cut at the last minute to conform to the running time that cinemas demand in order to fit more advertising in at screenings, but, regardless of the excuse, this tendency to not bother following up on threads or connect ideas is the biggest flaw in the film as it compromises any attempt to justify many of the creative decisions.

Modern films, of course, require at least a couple of scenes that rely heavily on CGI, and this is no different. Of note, we see Ellen Kelly blow the brains out of a CGI horse with a shotgun. We also see the gates of Melbourne Gaol blown apart by an American Civil War ship (“The Monitor”), the most baffling aspect of which is why Melbourne Gaol is partially submerged. The final bit of CGI that really stands out is in the hanging sequence. Rather than using the actual gallows for the hanging, Kurzel decided he would rather they push Ned over the railing to hang him. For this, they filmed next to the actual gallows (out of shot, naturally) and used CGI to make the gaol look bigger, as well as put a wooden beam across the walkways so that Ned can dangle in the middle of the gaol. There’s nothing wrong with using CGI to achieve what cannot be achieved practically, but one has to wonder why they chose to do things like set the gaol gates in a river.

From a historical perspective, apart from the obvious elements, there are a great many baffling things. A prime example is the inclusion of “Mad Dog Morgan” who Harry Power and Ned Kelly find in the bush. Morgan is portrayed as a craggy old man who has been lynched to death, tied halfway up a tree with his testicles cut off and shoved in his mouth. Despite the fact that Morgan wasn’t an old man, nor was his corpse tied to a tree with its own genitals hacked off and shoved in the gob, there’s the issue of Dan Morgan having been killed four years before Ned even met Harry Power. There is only one bank robbery shown, depicted with Joe Byrne, still dressed in hot pants and Blundstones, scrambling in the snow for a handful of crumpled banknotes, while inside Ned orders the bank manager to publish his letters. In fact, the sheer amount of snow in the film is baffling, considering that Australia is not exactly known as a winter wonderland. The only Aboriginal we see is Jack Charles as a waiter and there are no Chinese characters of note, despite their huge presence in the Kelly story and Australian history, though we do see some Asian characters as prostitutes in the brothel sequences. There is a ball scene that comes out of nowhere and doesn’t seem to have a point other than to make Mary Hearn cross paths with Ellen Kelly and George King, and to show Fitzpatrick trying to get groom Kate Kelly into a sexual partner. This sequence features a number of extras wearing animal masks and costumes with a strong Eyes Wide Shut vibe. The meaning of these creative decisions is rarely easy to discern, but Kurzel has demonstrated time and again in his filmography that he only cares if his films it look cool.


In the end, the best things you can say about this are that there are some wonderful performances and that it might cause people to rethink their attitude towards letting writers and directors have Carte Blanche to use historical figures to secure an audience upon which to push their own agendas. There is a supreme cognitive dissonance in the text, which tries all it can not to be a Ned Kelly film but reminds you at every opportunity that it is one (usually with slotted windows). This is an utterly misanthropic and mean spirited attack on not only the historical figures on both sides of the law, but also anyone that takes an interest in them. The majority of those praising this postmodern deconstruction of Ned Kelly are doing so out of a sense of solidarity with Kurzel, all of them of opinion that only their intellectual interiors have an interest in this story. It’s the typical modus operandi of the “intelligentsia”. It leaves one at the end of the grim spectacle with just one question for Justin Kurzel:

Who hurt you?

True History of the Kelly Gang is in selected Australian cinemas until Australia Day, when it will premiere on Stan.It will be in UK cinemas from 28 February.

“We could be getting a three-hour director’s cut of The Legend of Ben Hall” — via Cinema Australia

We could be getting a three-hour director’s cut of The Legend of Ben Hall


The Legend of Ben Hall will become an even bigger spectacle with the possible release of a three hour director’s cut if things go to plan for the filmmakers behind the ambitious bushranger epic.

On December 4, The Legend of Ben Hall director Matthew Holmes posted to the film’s Facebook page asking fans if they would support a crowdfunding campaign for an extended director’s cut which would restore almost an hours worth of unseen material back into the film featuring thirty new scenes and forty-eight expanded scenes.

If we get 500+ votes for ‘Yes’ then we have a real shot at making it become a reality!!!,” the post read. 

Twenty days later Holmes’ dream to release his original vision for the film came one step closer to reality with another Facebook post announcing he had received over 500 votes in support of his ambitious venture.

“In early 2020, we will be launching a crowd-funding campaign so we can make the definitive director’s cut of this film,” the post announced.

The Legend of Ben Hall is based on the true story of Australian bushranger Ben Hall, played by Jack Martin, who reforms his old gang with newcomer John Dunn in tow. After killing two policemen in a botched holdup the government declare the gang outlaws and they’re now outrunning do-gooders eager to fill them full of bullets in return for an attractive cash reward.

If the crowdfunding campaign is to meet its target, it wouldn’t be the first time for Holmes. In 2014 the director launched an ambitious Kickstarter campaign to raise $75,000 for a short form version of The Legend of Ben Hall. The film went on to raise over $145,000 using crowdfunding. Six months later the project had secured an international sales agent, an Australian distributor and multiple private investors, including state funding and The Legend of Ben Hall was expanded into a two hour feature film.

In September Holmes received public support to release a digitally remastered version of his sophomore feature film, Twin Rivers. That campaign saw $7906 pledged of a $4000 goal.

Unfortunately, not all of Holmes’ crowdfunding campaigns have been realised. Glenrowan, a feature film about the infamous last stand of Ned Kelly with Walking Dead actor Callan McAuliffe tipped to star, was not successful. The project is now being developed into a 6-part mini-series.

As one of Australia’s most eager filmmakers, Holmes is also working on a remake of Blue Fin based on Colin Thiele’s story of tuna fishing in Port Lincoln. Holmes is also developing a new horror film called The Artifice, based on his short film of the same name. You can watch that short film here.

Keep an eye on Cinema Australia and The Legend of Ben Hall’s Facebook page for more announcements regarding the 2020 crowdfunding campaign.

Cinema Australia wishes Matthew and his team all the best.

via We could be getting a three-hour director’s cut of The Legend of Ben Hall — Cinema Australia

The Nightingale (Review)

Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to her breakout film The Babadook is a brutal tale of revenge set in the early days of Australian colonial history. Following a female convict who goes bush on a vendetta to bring justice to the men that defiled her and killed her family, The Nightingale captures a truly authentic sense of life in 1830s Van Diemens Land and the desperation shared by the convict class and indigenous peoples during the height of the frontier wars.

The protagonist of the piece is Clare (Aisling Franciosi), an Irish convict who lives with her husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) and infant, waiting for the day that Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) fulfills his promise to let her go free, now her sentence has ended. However, Hawkins is infatuated with Clare and refuses to let her go, using his position to dominate and rape her without suffering the consequences. When Clare’s husband stands up to Hawkins it spells doom for the family and as a last act of vengeance before having to head to an assignment in Launceston, Hawkins takes his underlings Ruse (Damon Herriman) and Jago (Harry Greenwood) to have their way with Clare. In the chaos the men murder the husband and infant and viciously assault Clare, leaving her for dead. When she comes to, Clare is determined to seek revenge and goes bush, using a tracker named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to find the soldiers in the vandiemonian wilderness.

The performances in this film are absolutely top notch. Aisling Franciosi is absolutely mesmerising as Clare; every emotion is raw and real and conveys the strain and pain of her struggles in every haunted expression and angry snarl. There are some scenes where it is unclear what is acting and what are genuine reactions, so immersed in the role is Franciosi. On top of this, the beautiful songs, which earn Clare her nickname “the little nightingale”, are performed by Franciosi who is a trained opera singer. Another absolutely stand-out performance is from Baykali Ganambarr as Billy/Mangana. Bringing life to Billy with humour and gravitas in equal measure, we see a young man who has experienced more than his fair share of tragedy and horror in his lifetime, desperate to find the last of his people. Sam Claflin is stomach-churningly devious as Hawkins, Damon Herriman as Sergeant Ruse is a nasty and pathetic bully, and Harry Greenwood’s Jago is weak and terrified, the trio conveying the disorderly nature of the infantry in the country at the time. With many of the cast having to be bilingual, either shifting into Gaelic or Indigenous languages, it ratchets up the authenticity all the more.

The film debuted with no small amount of controversy, with filmgoers allegedly storming out of the theatre in disgust at the violence and critics attacking Kent’s use of said violence as exploitative and gratuitous. Many of those who watched the film felt drained by the end due to the relentless grimness, but overall responses were that it was a very powerful and well made film.

For the average filmgoers that watch movies to switch off and have a good time, this film is decidedly incompatible. This is calculated to be uncomfortable and confronting; it is a film to be studied, not watched. While it does not portray historical events, it is drenched in such historical authenticity that it works better to describe history than many films that are at strains to portray themselves as true history. The life of the convict in Van Diemens Land was one of toil and suffering. Female convicts were often taken as concubines by authority figures such as guards, soldiers and employers. The female factories were equipped with facilities to deal with pregnancies and births that came as a result of the exploitation of the women imprisoned there. The horrendous treatment of the Aboriginals in Van Diemens Land/Tasmania is well known and has become a major point of historical discussion in recent decades as the tug of war between “white blindfold” and “black armband” perspectives vie for dominance in discussions of our past and Kent sought assistance from indigenous elders to ensure she was staying true to the experience of the Aboriginals in her story. Even the brutality of the violence is far from over the top when looking at events that happened in the Apple Isle in that period. The scene where Clare is raped, her husband shot and her baby killed by having its head smashed has echoes of the crimes of bushranger Thomas Jeffries, who gained the moniker “The Monster” due to his savage treatment of his victims in the 1820s in almost the exact same way. Moreover, the majority of the violence in the film is implied, rather than seen. This is not a gory movie, but the psychological effect of the implication of violence is hugely impactful, as it should be. This is not gratuitous violence, nor is it the kind of violence that one can revel in. It’s cold, it’s brutal and it’s unflinchingly real – it has consequences. No doubt such realistic horror was a frightening thing for the sort of people with a very sanitised and bourgeois view of history. There is no opulence here, no beautiful frocks or romance. This is the vandiemonian frontier in all its gloomy, savage and wild spectacle.

Where The Nightingale falls down somewhat is in the character of Clare. Her motivation is clear from the outset but as the film goes on it seems like she begins to lose focus as she bounces around between her hatred of the soldiers, her mourning for her family, her fear of Billy and her attempts to assert independence despite having no survival skills. As a result, she tends to sort of fluke her way from point to point more and more as the film progresses, which creates a meandering pace at the midpoint when the character seems to be wandering aimlessly along with those she is supposed to be pursuing. For a character that was so driven and capable at the outset of her journey, it seems bizarre that she should grow less sure of herself and less competent as her journey continues, but that is precisely what happens. The one saving grace of this unusual character development is that it helps allow Billy to step up and avenge his people, reclaiming his identity as Mangana the blackbird.

Another element that is puzzling is the decision to present the film in a 4:3 aspect ratio. The almost square framing is very odd given that the standard now is usually the much wider 16:9. To most people is just jargon, but the truncated view actually has a considerable impact on the viewing experience. While it often acts to forcibly grab the viewer’s attention and bring them uncomfortably close to the action, much of the gorgeous cinematography feels far more underwhelming than is deserved, especially when we are talking about the lovingly re-created period sets or the stunning Tasmanian wilderness. This is a minor gripe though and the stumpier screen shape is used effectively throughout, despite the shortcomings of the format (pun unintended).

The key theme of the film is the futility of revenge. We have our two protagonists, Clare and Billy, driven to seek revenge for all that has been stolen from them (Clare, her family; Billy, his entire nation). When Clare gets the chance to take her revenge she discovers that it does not alleviate the burden of her grief, merely adding to it. Where she falters, Billy steps in and follows through. There is a small degree of satisfaction in knowing that some form of justice has played out, but it is not a clean resolution. The uncertainty of the ending highlights this fact. The Nightingale highlights that debts paid in blood rarely set things to rights, they just perpetuate violence and suffering — an eye for an eye leaves the world blind.

Another core aspect of the film is class. The pecking order in colonial Van Diemens Land drives everything in the story. Hawkins is driven by his compulsion to climb the ranks, and when he fails he passes his anguish onto his underlings and the convicts by bullying them, violating them and denying them any freedom they’ve earned. Further below the convicts are the Aboriginals who are treated like vermin to be caught and put to death, with their heads taken as trophies by colonists. This is a land where laws are merely impotent words, where corruption has rotted the tooth of the law to the point that it has no bite. One need only scratch the surface of recorded Australian history from this time to see that it is no stretch of the truth to portray things in this manner.

The Nightingale is a film that some will be lucky to get through given its violent subject matter and relentlessness, but to those who enjoy the art of film and storytelling it is a piece that stands up to multiple viewings, as there is a lot to peel away and examine. It is not hard to see why it won over the judges at the AACTA awards who awarded it most of the big gongs including best director, best screenplay and best actress among others. It is safe to say this film has earned a place beside films like The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and The Tracker for daring to depict the uncomfortable truth of our past, even if it is through the filter of a fictional narrative.

The Nightingale is available to purchase in Australia on DVD and Blu-ray, as well as in digital format via iTunes, GooglePlay, Bigpond Movies, Fetch and Microsoft Network.

It is currently showing on screens in the UK and Ireland.

Film News: November 2019

It’s no secret that films related to bushranging are rare as hen’s teeth these days, though once they were the lifeblood of the Australian movie industry. For this reason, any time a new film comes out that fits the “bush western” genre it’s very exciting. Here are all the current updates related to upcoming releases.

The Nightingale

After a limited cinema release earlier this year, The Nightingale is rolling out across streaming and home video. Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to her breakout film The Babadook is set in the convict era and follows the story of a young convict woman who goes bush in pursuit of revenge. While not a “bushranger” film in the most easily identifiable sense, it most certainly presents elements that pertain to the early bushrangers and promises viewers a harrowing experience of Van Diemens Land in its formative years. Starring Aisling Franciosi and Baykali Ganambarr, The Nightingale is currently available on Hulu, Amazon Prime in the US, and will be available on VOD (video on demand) via Transmission films from November 27 and DVD and Blu-ray in Australia from December 4.

True History of the Kelly Gang

Already looking like a controversial flick, Justin Kurzel’s interpretation of Peter Carey’s novel of the same name will be getting a limited theatrical release in Australia from January 9 until its streaming service debut on Stan on Australia Day (January 26). The film was given mostly positive reviews when it was show in Canada earlier in the year but there was a profound radio silence thereafter. It wasn’t until Stan threw together a trailer for its summer programming that we got a first glimpse at clips from the film. No word has been announced regarding DVD or Blu-ray release.


News on Ben Head’s Stringybark has been slow coming since it’s premiere in Lorne, but it has now been given an official rating, which brings it a step closer to release to a wider audience. It was revealed during a podcast interview that Ben Squared Films are looking at a limited theatrical release, which will most likely come to fruition at some time in 2020.

Other news

Two Tone Pictures continues to pursue various bushranger projects including a proposed documentary about “bush westerns” where various directors, writers, actors etc. would help to tell the story of the last 50 years of Australian movies like Ned Kelly, Mad Dog Morgan, The Legend of Ben Hall, and The Proposition.

When more updates become available, be sure to keep an eye on A Guide to Australian Bushranging on Facebook and Instagram where they will be posted as they come to hand.