“In 2003, Margaret Titterton discovered her uncle’s suitcase of film memorabilia under her Vaucluse home, including this portrait of her uncle Leslie Hay-Simpson in his first screen role. Titterton told the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘I don’t think it was his dream to be an actor. I think his dream was to follow in the family footsteps and be a good, solid solicitor.’ In October 1936, Hay-Simpson disappeared at sea. After finishing filming for Mystery Island (1937), he was sailing back from Lord Howe Island in a small skiff called the Mystery Star with fellow actor Brian Abbot when the two men hit bad weather.”
The great talkie dealing with one of the skeletons in our historic cupboard has been made. Photographs of Messrs, and Miss Kelly in their habits as they are supposed to have lived are beginning to appear in Sydney shop windows. Do they bear any relation to the truth?
Well, here’s the scene as it appeared to an American, one Augustus Baker Peirce, whose Australian adventures are described in a handsome memorial volume on the foundation of the Read Memorial fund, by the Yale Press (1924).
About the second year of my stay in Geelong, I was surprised by a hurried and excited call of my old friend Joseph Nash, a reporter on the Melbourne “Age,” who informed me that the notorious Kelley [sic] brothers had been captured at Greta and that he was going up to investigate and write up the affair. He asked me to go with him and make the sketches.
The Kelley boys and their companions, well-known outlaws — all of whom had prices on their heads dead or alive, among them Burns and Sherritt — had swooped down on Greta the day before and, having bailed up the town and torn up the railroad, proceeded to gather the principal townspeople into Jones’s Hotel and make merry. Word, however, was sent to the police; and a large body of troopers came up, surrounded the house, and demanded the surrender of the outlaws. On their refusal the police shot into the house, and the Kelleys returned the fire. Then the Greta priest appeared at the door and informed the police that if they would withhold fire the Kelleys would allow the townspeople to leave the premises. This was done and a second demand of surrender made. But the Kelleys refused to move, and the police were at a loss what to do.
They contemplated burning the house, and even sent to Melbourne for a cannon to blow it down. Finally, they charged the place, firing heavy volleys into it as they advanced. Receiving no answer, they broke in and found the outlaws dead or dying — all of them, except Ned Kelley, their leader, who had disappeared. Early the following morning he was discovered by Troopers O’Callaghan and Steele, who were watching in the fog. They saw something of gigantic size rise in the mist and move away. Taking no chances they fired. The object returned the fire and then fell; whereupon they rushed upon it and found it to be Ned Kelley, dressed in full armour of ploughshares, later found to weigh some 200lb.
We arrived soon after Kelley was taken and witnessed the placing of the dead bodies of the outlaws in the courtyard to be photographed. Ned Kelley was taken to Melbourne, where his trial was the sensation of the time. After it I saw him hanged; on the scaffold he turned coward….
It sounds unpromising, even as an alternative to “The Squatter’s Daughter” type of picture. As a matter of fact, there was a much better story in Morgan. He ended by holding up a station at Peechebla and, according to Peirce (who arrived there a few weeks after and had the story from Rutherford, the manager), the manager’s wife had to entertain him by playing the piano all night. “In fact, after the first fright had passed away, the whole family did their best to propitiate their unwelcome guest.” A servant-girl managed to send a message to the local police camp, and Morgan was shot in the back as he was going towards the horse paddock in the morning.
Peirce has quaint drawings, by himself, in his book which should gladden the hearts of our local directors. And listen to this :—
The outlaw was hardly dead when the police, brave enough now that there was nothing to fear, bounded into the path, followed by a large number of people. Among them was an excited photographer who, in his eagerness to secure a portrait of the body, broke his camera while climbing a fence. However, with the aid of some brown paper the damage was soon repaired, and the corpse, propped up against some wool-bales in the shed, was photographed between the Macphersons. The Superintendent of Police at Beechworth ordered that Morgan’s face be skinned, so that he might preserve the magnificent black beard as a trophy.
Christian burial was refused. They laid the de-bearded corpse outside the fence of the large cemetery on the road from Wangaratta to Peechebla. Here surely is a ready-made drama of the mellowest hue all ready for local consumption. Think of that last shot, the lonely grave and, above all, the face-skinning incident! I doubt if Hollywood itself could have thought of that.
[Source: The Bulletin, 23 May 1934, page 5.]
WHEN THE KELLYS RODE.
‘When The Kellys Rode,’ the Cinesound Feature Film production, which is listed for presentation at the Tivoli Theatre on Saturday, centres around the exploits of ‘The Kellys,’ the most notorious of all Australian bushrangers. ‘When the Kellys Rode,’ filmed against the glorious background of Australia’s natural beauty, features a splendid cast of young Australians, headed by Hay Simpson as Ned Kelly, Regina Somerville, John Appleton and Norman Walt.
When The Kellys Rode
IT’S ABOUT: Bushrangers.
YOU’LL SEE: Hay Simpson.
THIS woefully comic curiosity is 14 years old.
The Chief Secretary’s Department banned it in New South Wales as a bushranging drama, lifted the ban a few years ago.
Made in Burragorang Valley and the Blue Mountains, When The Kellys Rode is a raw and crude piece of work.
Even in 1934, its year of production, it must have been an anachronism.
It is a pure old silent in technique.
Writer-director Harry Southwell has not captured any of the high adventure in the Kelly saga — an adventure that is still waiting for the right Australian film-maker.
His bushrangers and police lollop up and down the one stretch of mountain. His unfortunate actors, a couple of whom are well-known today, are grotesquely stilted.
Only the late Hay Simpson, as Ned Kelly, shows a rude vigor in the role. The women in the cast are lamentable.
But why go on? The film is worth preserving in some museum.
The past twelve months have been, for want of a better word, tumultuous. In amongst it all we got two films tackling the Kelly story – True History of the Kelly Gang and Stringybark. The two productions could not have been more different in every aspect, but both made it over the finish line just before the fires and the pandemic took hold. Now the smaller of the two productions, Stringybark, has made its way onto the Ozflix streaming service giving home audiences that missed its limited cinema screenings an opportunity to check it out.
There’s no doubt that Stringybark will be confronting for some viewers, but behind every story told there’s a storyteller with a message they want heard. With this in mind I reached out to the film’s director, Ben Head, to discuss the process of creating his cinematic vision of one Australia’s most controversial true crimes and his take on the incredible Kelly story.
Thank you, Ben, for taking the time to have a chat about Stringybark. I think it goes without saying that the road this far has been quite an odyssey for you.
With Stringybark now available on Ozflix, you’re about to have your work accessible to an enormous audience, perhaps far greater than the film was intended for. Given that this is your debut feature, that’s a lot of pressure. How are you feeling about it all?
First of all thank you, Aidan, for giving me this opportunity, it’s much appreciated. Actually I always intended the film to have as broad a reach as possible and this has come to some fruition. I am feeling very chuffed with the response the film has had from all over the country. I’ve had fantastic messages of support and goodwill from many, and it’s heartening to read. I am feeling very proud of the fact that a story I have brought to the screen is touching the hearts of the many people who watch it.
This of course began life while you were still a film student. How did you settle upon the idea of doing something so ambitious as a depiction of one of Australia’s most infamous historical crimes?
Stringybark wasn’t a student film and was completely independent of my university studies. I just had to find time to squeeze it in between university commitments.
I had always wanted to tell this story, in fact ever since the story captivated me as a 10 year old boy after a holiday stopover in Glenrowan.
It’s clear that the intention was always to portray the story as authentically as possible. When developing the screenplay, what were the main sources that you referred to in order to learn and understand the story?
We read widely and sourced as much primary evidence as we could. I always wanted the film to be tackled in a scholarly way rather than basing it on the myth. It’s a story that’s never been told with any historical accuracy in a dramatic context, so I wanted to take a step up. Just by way of example, we consulted the royal commissions, original correspondence, cables, the autopsy reports of Doctor Samuel Reynolds, who performed the post-mortem examinations, and the memoir of Thomas McIntyre. And of course there are at least half a dozen novels all claiming historical insights and we read all of these as well.
There are some moments that are lifted almost identically from McIntyre’s account of the events, while others are clearly fictional but intended to fill the gaps in the historical narrative. How did you approach the process of adapting the known history and knowing where to draw the line with the moments where you had to invent a scene in order to make a workable film narrative?
We realised that the only part of the Stringybark tale that had been documented thoroughly was the ambush itself, and the events that followed. There was very little written about the lives of the police before the incident. We needed to show these men with their families and friends in order to create an audience connection with them, and to show them as real people. In constructing the scenes such as the relationship between the Kennedys, we relied on conversations with Leo Kennedy, the great grandson of Sergeant Michael Kennedy, as well as a written statement by Bridget Kennedy made years later.
This is a very decidedly pro-police film, or rather it has a strong anti-Kelly Gang/anti-crime stance. Was this a response to the overwhelmingly pro-Kelly stance pursued in popular culture or was the story of the police just that much more compelling for you?
I would say that this film doesn’t take sides – it just tells the story for what it was. Yes – our protagonists are the police officers, but we didn’t need to embellish the story – it’s fascinating all on its own. I’ve had a lot of correspondence from Kelly supporters agreeing with this. I also wanted to tell the story from the perspective of the victims because it hadn’t been done before, and for such a brutal crime it’s curious that it’s always glossed over in popular culture. Perhaps it’s because it’s a bit too uncomfortable. Truth is so often stranger than fiction and this story is no exception: literally 3 young men, all in their mid 30’s, respected and well known members of the communities in which they lived, two with wives and families, shot dead.
Would it be fair to say that the character that was most compelling for you in this was Sergeant Michael Kennedy?
It would be fair, yes. Michael Kennedy’s life captured my imagination. He was a devoted family man with 5 children and in a happy marriage. It would have made for an anxious and trying time for him knowing he had to carry out a military style mission – that is, commanding an armed covert operation into the bush in search of dangerous criminals who clearly had the upper hand, both in terms of their intimate familiarity with the location and the benefit of local support. On top of this, his party was underprepared, under-resourced and untrained for the task.
Michael Kennedy is also easily aligned with the concept of what it means to be the Australian that we look up to today – working class, family man, made ends meet on a meagre salary and all in a law-abiding way under tough circumstances.
Doing a period piece is always a daunting task for a filmmaker, let alone doing it with such limited resources. Was there ever a time during production where you felt like you had bitten off more than you could chew?
Never. It was a big bite for sure but never more than we could chew! We strictly managed our time and budget and were blessed with an incredible cast and crew. The whole production experience was a pleasure from start to finish and we have forged fantastic friendships and professional relationships in the process.
One of the things that serves Stringybark well is that it really feels like it’s own thing. In the lead up to making the film did you study any of the other existing Kelly films?
My intention was always to focus on creating something new so I really avoided looking at previous films during my contemplation and writing of this story. The real stimulation came from unearthing a cable or some other piece of written correspondence from the time and using those fragments to underpin the feel of the film.
How did you go about getting the sets and costumes given that you weren’t really able to hire costumiers and set builders?
Wardrobe was supplied exclusively by Warwick’s Militaria in Melbourne and we avoided set building by using existing locations.
One shot that really stands out in my mind is the bodies being brought back from the shooting site. It really looks like the contemporary illustration brought to life. Did you find it at all difficult to manage strapping bodies to the side of an animal with bags over their heads?
Thank you! That shot was very important to me – I really wanted to recreate that old woodcut of the bodies strapped to the horses and bring it to life. It is such a tragic and brutal image and speaks to the finality of the event. Contemporary accounts describe the pack horses being very unsettled when the bodies of the police were roped to the harness. During shooting, our pack horse also became very unsettled when the dummy was attached to the saddle. The scene that unfolded before us that day won’t be forgotten in a hurry.
The first public premiere of the film was at the Lorne Film Festival. What was it like seeing the fruit of your labour on the big screen at such a big event?
Stringybark had been shown at an investor only event at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne in April 2019 so I’d seen it on the big screen already but the premiere at Lorne was a fantastic validation of the effort that had gone into the production. Having a cinema full with an interested, intrigued and supportive audience watching the film was an awesome experience and one I’ll never forget.
One of the things we’re seeing becoming increasingly a trend with Australian film is the use of crowdfunding to get things off the ground. What was the motivator to have a media and crowdfunding campaign for this film?
Film finance is a complex domain and Australia isn’t awash with support for independent film, especially for those without a track record like us. We needed a budget and crowdfunding was a straightforward way to kick it off. Crowdfunding as an approach isn’t a sure fire way of achieving a budget though – word of your project needs to reach investors other than through the crowdfunding site. We were very fortunate to have received media support early on and this really made the difference.
Are there things that you wish you had approached differently or things that you wish you had been able to include but had to cut due to time or budget?
There were technical learnings along the way but I’m generally happy with how things came together. I would have liked to explore some of the relationships in greater depth, particularly the longstanding friendship between Michael Scanlan and Michael Kennedy. The pair had been mates for a long time and it would have helped create a stronger on-screen bond. I would also have liked to explore the Kennedy family dynamic some more.
The Kelly Gang in this depiction could be seen as quite over the top in some respects. They are far more aggressive than are usually shown and seem to enjoy bullying McIntyre in a way that even goes beyond the way McIntyre himself described. Can you explain a bit about what steered you towards that portrayal?
The gang’s portrayal is based on contemporary descriptions of the characters – even by their own words. The Jerilderie letter in particular provides an invaluable insight into the prevailing psyche. I also had them approach the camp in the way McIntyre had described – weapons drawn and intent on the business of the day. They were hard men intent on winning the day by force of arms. We know this. To portray them as some latter day gentlemen of the bush would have just perpetuated the popular story that really doesn’t align with their own personal histories.
One of the most impressive aspects of the film is the armoury. It’s clear from your other film projects that you have a keen interest in militaria, did that play a part in helping you track down and get a hold of accurate weaponry?
I’ve always had the view that if you go down the path of making an authentic period production, then every aspect of it should be as authentic as you can reasonably make it. This goes for wardrobe, saddlery and tack, language and of course firearms. We had the services of an excellent armourer who thankfully also shared an interest in historical accuracy.
Your dad, Tim, gets the starring role as Sergeant Kennedy – and does a sterling job too. What was it like directing him?
Fortunately no different to any of the other actors! Everyone that was a part of the project brought everything they had to it and a little more.
Naturally a film that tackles such a divisive story in a very partisan perspective is bound to get critics based purely on the side you’ve chosen. Unfortunately it’s a nasty trap that people often get stuck in where the Kelly story is concerned. What do you hope Stringybark can bring to the table to help bring some equilibrium and perspective back to how we examine these events, and what do you think that the pro-Kelly people can gain from watching your film?
I like to think that I’ve simply looked at the story through a different lens – one that nobody has previously wanted to look through. There’s a lot to reflect on if we can get past the mythology. Primarily we could focus on the impact of violence in the community that’s almost always felt first hand by our women and children. Kelly’s actions resulted in the deaths of 3 men, leaving 2 women widows and 9 children fatherless. The cost to the community of such an outcome is hard to reconcile. It’s also a situation that’s as relevant today as it was back in 1878.
Once again, thank you so much for taking time to answer my questions and give people a bit of an insight into the process and the ideas behind Stringybark. Hopefully this is a first step into a fruitful future for Ben Squared. If people would like to keep tabs on your future projects what is the best way to do that?
Thanks, Aidan, really appreciate the time! Follow us on instagram @bensquaredfilms to keep up to date!
Stringybark is available to rent on Ozflix now HERE
A massive thanks goes out once again to Ben Head for taking the time to be interviewed and for providing production stills for this article.
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
What is it about we Australians, eh? What is wrong with us? Do we not have a Jefferson? A Disraeli? Might we not find someone better to admire than a horse thief and a murderer?
It took Justin Kurzel, on the back of two financial and critical flops, seven years to get enough funding to make this film, and then the budget got halved just as they went into production. They didn’t even have enough money to buy adequate rice to feed Russell Crowe, resulting in the Hollywood heavyweight storming off set after a rant at the caterers. Not exactly an auspicious start for what was slated to be one of the highest profile Australian films of the decade. With big name stars Crowe, Charlie Hunnam, Essie Davis and Nicholas Hoult, as well as rising stars George Mackay and Thomasin McKenzie to draw the crowds in, and based on an award-winning and internationally lauded novel by one of Australia’s most popular authors to boot, this should have been a grand slam and something to write home about – and it is, but for all the wrong reasons.
In this review we will be discussing major details of the film, which some refer to as “spoilers”. If you want to go into the film blind, I suggest you rethink the decision to read reviews before watching the movie. There’s a lot to unpack here but, in short, this is not the film we wanted and is likely to cause distress amongst many potential viewers in a number of ways. It is incoherent both visually and in terms of plot; some key technical aspects of the film are little better than amateurish; and the whole thing is underscored with utter antipathy towards essentially the entirety of the audience that would want to watch a Ned Kelly film. This film has no reverence or even a modicum of respect for history, nor indeed the source text. To call it a mockery gives it too much credit.
But, before we get into the unpleasant things, let’s discuss the tiny glimmers of light in the Lovecraftian murk. The cast are phenomenal. George Mackay, if given a better script, could have easily become the essential on-screen Ned Kelly. He absolutely embodies the man and is utterly magnetic whenever he’s on screen. He comes across as a director’s dream; readily able and willing to do whatever the role requires of him, whether that be chanting obscenities at police or dancing like a monkey after a brutal boxing match. Despite being an Englishman, he nails the Australian accent, which lends an unusual slice of authenticity to the character. Meanwhile, Russell Crowe certainly earned his hefty paycheque with a delightfully camp portrayal of Harry Power that leaves the audience wanting more. His personality shift from jovial and fatherly to brutal and nasty veers the closest to the source text of any roles that make it into the film. Essie Davis is powerful as a twisted, Kath Pettinghill-esque interpretation of Ellen Kelly in tight pants and hair beads. Rather than a hard-done-by Irish widow, this version of Ellen crackles with religious fervour and primal fury. Her intensity and effortless transition from adoring mother to bloodthirsty harpy and back throughout the film demonstrates just why Davis is one of the best actresses on the scene. Charlie Hunnam gives a great performance as Sergeant O’Neil, despite his often incomprehensible accent early on. There’s an authenticity and believability in his performance that leads one to believe that he had crafted a narrative for his character that wasn’t present in the script, just so he had some idea of how to play the part from scene to scene. The three Kelly Gang members – Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan), Dan Kelly (Earl Cave), and Steve Hart (Louis Hewison) – are all engaging and entertaining in the fleeting glimpses we get of them, but they are criminally underused. For a film with “Kelly Gang” in the title, there’s bafflingly little screen time dedicated to the titular gang. Cave and Hewison in particular had the potential to be some of the best characters in the film, especially given their characterisation in the source text, and both have flashes of brilliance in the limited moments where able, but spend most of the time they are on screen out of focus, out of frame, or in the background. Sean Keenan creates a version of Joe Byrne that wears his heart on his sleeve and carries the burden of fully comprehending the gravity of Ned’s bloodthirsty actions when his friends don’t, which is another underplayed aspect that could have made for compelling character moments in a better written film. When he breaks down in tears after seeing the slaughter at Stringybark Creek that results from Ned ignoring his pleas, or when he’s slapping Ned for dooming them all at Glenrowan, one can’t help feel for the guy. Thomasin McKenzie is a delight as Mary Hearn, portraying the character as far more tender and overwhelmed by the crazy world she has been whipped up in than comes across in Carey’s novel, which makes her far more endearing. Orlando Schwerdt as a young Ned Kelly portrays a gravitas and strength well beyond his years in a career-making performance that will see him go places if there’s any justice in the world. Nicholas Hoult impresses as Fitzpatrick, who in this version is an English “Libertine” type who frequents a bizarre brothel, tries to lure Kate Kelly into a paedophilic relationship, and becomes Ned’s arch-enemy, who apparently can analyse the man better than anyone else, yet still struggles to catch him. Hoult displays excellent comedic chops, but unfortunately the humour is frequently misplaced and falls flat through no fault of the actor. Other standouts were Jacob Collins-Levy as Thomas Curnow, and Claudia Karvan as Mrs. Shelton, both of whom are the most realistic human characters in the piece. It is clear that all of the performances were crafted with passion and care, but one can’t help but get the sense that the film we got was not the one they signed up for.
The costumes are quite interesting to look at and the design work is absolutely superb, with Mackay’s signature look of scarlet shirt, hobnail boots, moleskins and monkey jacket a standout with a contemporary look and old world vibes. In conjunction with the mullet it makes him look like a Sharpie (a Melbourne street gang from the mid-20th century), which seems to match up with the very 1970s aesthetic given to young Ned. The same for the police uniforms and Harry Power’s suit, which create a sense of being of the time while being very contemporary to the present. Alice Babidge definitely created a unique style that should have made the film iconic, but the outfits rarely get shown off and there seems to have been far less effort put into the rest of the production design to reinforce the visual flair. Of course, there are some head-scratchers like Joe Byrne’s outfit of short shorts, knitted cardigan, Akubra hat, Blundstones and nothing else. Poor Sean Keenan had to wear this Manpower Australia costume in the snow for most of the film. Then there’s the glowing police ponchos that make the cops visible in the Glenrowan scene but make them look like the ghosts of the press photographers from particularly rainy football games. The wardrobe was evidently shaped by the garbled visual sense Kurzel’s wanted to portray, and one cannot fault Babbidge for rising to the task and creating beautiful costumes within the enforced guidelines – just like any decent professional.
The casting of Marlon Williams as George King is clearly to get a known singer on the soundtrack, because apart from singing he has very little else of significance to do (excepting a baffling monologue about habitually abusing a dog), and Russell Crowe even manages to get a filthy song in so he can show off his vocals, primed after his years in TOFOG. Jed Kurzel’s score is droning and tense, which works really well to create a tense atmosphere in some of the quieter scenes, but it isn’t very memorable and comes across as the Aldi version of the score to The Proposition. The much promoted punk songs performed by the actors playing the Kelly Gang pop up far less frequently than they deserve, and if there had been more of that it would have really tied the punk aesthetic together and made for something truly memorable, but instead it really just gets used to make some transitions seem slightly more interesting than they really are.
As for the use of sets and locations, the decision to make all of the buildings look like repurposed sheds from Bunnings is odd to say the least. The recurring visual motif is slot shaped windows (because obviously that’s an homage to the armour) but it isn’t interesting enough to warrant lauding it. The Glenrowan Inn interior looks like the public toilet at Abu Ghraib, complete with half a dozen people wearing bags over their heads. The environments used do not reflect the historical locations at all, even when they film in places like Old Melbourne Gaol, which they digitally altered, and seem to have been picked for their remoteness, sparseness and harshness on the eye. The Kelly family live in a swamp, Harry Power lives in the snow and the Glenrowan Inn is built in the middle of a dried out pasture. Several shots are lit in such a way that it resembles a stage set from a production at the Malthouse Theatre rather than a film shot on location. Perhaps the praise many gave this amdram styling and emphasis on stylised visuals with little to no substance indicates the state of arts criticism in the present day more than anything else in relation to this film.
The biggest talking point though has been the dresses. In the film Dan Kelly and Steve Hart wear dresses because they heard about a band of Irish rebels called the “Sons of Sieve” who used to do unspeakable things to the English, and the implication is that the adoption of the quirk occurred during Ned’s time in prison for shooting Sergeant O’Neil. In Carey’s book Ned beats the snot out of the pair for wearing the dresses and tells Steve Hart to leave their camp in Bullock Creek believing he is a corrupting influence on Dan. Ned’s anger towards the dresses in the book stems from the triggering of memories of being bullied by Sergeant O’Neil over Red Kelly being one of the aforementioned rebels. This literary incarnation of Red had murdered a man through the activities of the rebels, but used the pig stealing story to cover up the real reason he was sent to Australia. In Carey’s writing this is important as it invokes historical rebellion in Ireland as well as touching on the reality that many Irishmen were sent to Australia as political prisoners – details that don’t factor into the film version. But further to that point, Red’s deliberate efforts in the literary version to obscure his own history is one of the driving factors in Ned’s decision to write his memoirs in the first place. In the film, however, the “Sons of Sieve” are more like a cult than a rebel band, even to the extent of Ellen forcibly telling Ned “You’re a Son of Sieve!” as if that should have some significance to him. Then with Ned and Joe adopting the dresses and blackface themselves, it goes completely against what Carey established in the book about how the very notion of the rebels and their way of doing things was offensive to them. This point, above all else, highlights that Kurzel not only did not understand his source material, but also leapt upon any opportunity to draw a link between machismo and homoeroticism – especially when he has Fitzpatrick talking about the joys of having sex while wearing a dress. This, of course, also ties in with the undercurrent of sexual tension between Ned and Fitzpatrick, as well as between Ned and Joe. Ned and Joe can barely keep their hands off each other and always seen about two seconds away from snogging. Meanwhile, Fitzpatrick is introduced admiring Ned’s physique during a boxing match, which he later compliments him on with bedroom eyes. Of course, this doesn’t gel with Ned’s relationship with Mary Hearn, not the Oedipal undercurrent of his relationship with Ellen. Furthermore, it should be noted that the female Kellys in the film are prone to gender bending too, with Kate Kelly sporting short hair and boyish clothes, and Ellen favouring a Patti Smith inspired pants and jacket. There is something very Freudian about the director’s fixation on having Ned Kelly act in a very queer manner, but there’s also an intellectual dishonesty in effectively shouting “no homo” by dismissing it as merely the intimacy of strong friendship, deliberate attempts to signify madness, or the result of opium use. It’s a situation that requires either full commitment to the idea or none at all.
Let’s talk technical. There are two extremely important aspects of film that can make or break a production: cinematography and editing. On both counts this movie demonstrates that you can get a job in the industry even if you’re not great at what you do, so long as the director or ptoducer likes you. The camera movements leap between pointlessly kinetic and totally static without rhyme or reason. If you aren’t motion sick by the ten minute mark it would be miraculous. There is no discernible attempt at mise en scene, with shots either too close to the actors, too cluttered, poorly framed or boringly sparse indicating that the sets were not built around what the audience should be seeing, but rather the shots were dictated by a checklist – wide shot, mid shot, close up, extreme close up. The lighting ranges from stark and bright to gloomy to the point that it’s like watching with a case of optic neuritis (that is when there’s not pointless strobe lighting). As for the editing, the lack of flow between scenes and even within them owes much to the incomprehensible attempt at slapping together shots without any respect for continuity. Constantly throughout the film characters completely change position from shot to shot, which is something even amateur editors know not to permit. The effect is that the attentive viewer is distracted because, for example, Ned will be holding a pipe and looking out of frame then suddenly holding nothing and looking at Fitzpatrick. It’s one of the cardinal sins of editing and it cheapens the whole enterprise.
On a script level, there’s nothing of considerable substance on show. The plot is merely a collection of events with no connective tissue and no motivation. Any resemblance to Carey’s book comes across like it was taken from SparkNotes about the novel rather than an actual reading of the literature. Characters are, at best, one note and rudimentary, leaving it up to the actors to do the heavy lifting. Any point to the story is almost impossible to discern until Curnow’s closing monologue makes clear that the whole thing is about how Australians make an embarrassing spectacle of themselves because they put criminals in pride of place for a lack of decent human beings of their own to look up to. In the book, Curnow is a self-important elitist who gives his comments about Jefferson and Disraeli in a train as he and his family are being escorted away from Glenrowan by police to protect them from reprisals from the Kelly Sympathisers. It is portrayed as a snide aside taking a dig at the colonials. In the film, it is delivered as a grandiose speech to an enormous crowd in the State Library of Victoria who give it rapturous applause. While this transposition may seem trivial, it actually underscores the whole point of the film succinctly. By making the statement indicating that Australians are intellectually inferior a lauded public statement rather than a quiet comment it suggests that Grant and Kurzel see this as the key message of the film. The book’s key message is actually about the subjectivity of “truth”, and plays with the concept of what is true or not by blending pure fiction with historical fact (Carey spoke in glowing terms of Ian Jones’ work, much of which is directly paraphrased in the novel). On the other hand, none of this idea seems to have occurred to the duo of Grant and Kurzel, though perhaps earlier drafts of the screenplay were quite a lot closer to the source text in this way.
The dialogue ranges from the needlessly prosaic to coarse and vulgar. As a result, many of the snatches of dialogue lifted from Carey’s book feel out of place, especially when voiced by Mackay as Ned, as it results in a lack of character consistency. The overuse of the words “fuck” and “cunt” render the words meaningless, which is probably yet another jab at the “bogans” that Kurzel and Grant appear to have a chip on their shoulder about. While these words were used at the time, it is unlikely anyone would have spoken in this way without being arrested. It comes off as merely a hamfisted attempt at making the Kellys and their ilk come across as yobbos.
One thing in particular that makes the film a slog is that there are no likeable characters. Every single character is crude, violent, insane or effete. Harry Power blows two men to kingdom come so he can steal their guns and a trinket box from their mail coach, then later tries to make Ned shoot Sergeant O’Neil’s penis off (the latter, admittedly, derived from a similar scene in the novel). Ellen Kelly acts like a deranged priestess, grooming her eldest son to be some kind of “chosen one” and allowing Dan to adopt the garb of the cult as if prepping him to become a zealot for her mysterious cause. Her absolute belief that Ned worships her to the point of being willing to sacrifice himself for her is incredibly uncomfortable to watch, especially when she gives Ned a briefing on how he will be executed and how he is to behave during it to make her proud after a kiss that is far too passionate for a mother and son to share. Then, you have Fitzpatrick as a predatory paedophile who has no qualms in grooming girls, threatening to shoot babies, or attempting to rape Ellen in a train carriage. That he somehow ends up leading the pursuit for Ned despite only being a constable is a stretch of reality that is almost passable. Joe Byrne is off his face throughout most of the film (the only one to date that depicts him using opium) but he seems to be the voice of reason nonetheless. His most memorable moment is his impassioned monologue where he tries to convince Ned to escape to America because they have donuts there.
In terms of the characters that were left out of the film completely you have people like Aaron Sherritt; Tom Lloyd; Wild Wright; Ned’s siblings Maggie, Jim, Grace, Annie, Alice, Ellen and Jack (though an unnamed baby is featured); all of the senior police officers like Standish, Hare, Ward, Nicholson and O’Connor; all of the native police and on, and on. The character of Bill Frost, a major character in the book, is amalgamated with Sergeant O’Neil to justify Charlie Hunnam’s time and wages. The inclusion of cabaret singer Paul Capsis as a transgender brothel madam isn’t out of place in this film, but one has to seriously question why more of an effort wasn’t made to allow him to use his exquisite voice, which is what he’s famous for.
As for Ned, he seems to be four different characters rolled together. At first he’s a young boy who is more mature than his years out of necessity. He’s headstrong and assertive but still prone to the deep emotional trauma that his lifestyle would leave on any child. Then he’s a wild man who punches people for the entertainment of others and gets high on the adrenaline before doing a monkey dance and howling. Then he’s a quiet, unassuming young man who is awkward around women, unsure of his sexuality, suspicious of most men and resentful of his mother. Finally there’s the Ned that we see at Glenrowan who is utterly unhinged and unpredictable. One second he’s mumbling about how there’s errors in the parsing of his writing, then the next he’s bashing tables and throwing chairs, then he’s back to writing. This is the same Ned that finds the (unnamed) Sergeant Kennedy dying in the long grass after Ned ambushes the police, waits for him to stop moving and then hacks his ear off with a pocket knife. No doubt this queer, violent and unhinged portrayal will be welcomed by certain individuals that have a particular aversion to the popularity of Ned Kelly.
The mystery of why Ned has blonde hair in the film becomes apparent when we see that Red Kelly is thus called because he wears a red dress, not because of his hair colour. All of the Kelly family have brown or black hair except for Ned, who shares his golden locks with Sergeant O’Neil who seems unusually affectionate to young Ned, and swears to look after the family when Red mysteriously dies in custody (and is somehow taken back to the family in his red dress, which we had seen Ned burning earlier). Just what it is that Kurzel was trying to imply by having this lovechild subplot that amounts to nothing is unclear, but it is one example of the many aborted themes, motifs, subplots and characters. Throughout the film things that have been set up as being of note go nowhere. A good example is Ned using a locket he stole as a bullroarer in the first act is mirrored by Ned spinning a rope while breaking in a horse in the second, but is never followed up. George King simply vanishes, as do O’Neil and Harry Power. Not enough effort is made to demonstrate how cause and effect shape the three acts (Boy, Man and Monitor), which results in Ned suddenly going bonkers and dressing in a sheer dress and recruiting an army of teenagers to help him commit mass murder. This “army” also amounts to nothing as mere minutes later, when they are supposed to join the gang at Glenrowan, they just never appear. There’s no scene showing the children throwing away their armour upon realising their folly or anything, just an absence. It would not surprise if huge chunks of the film were cut at the last minute to conform to the running time that cinemas demand in order to fit more advertising in at screenings, but, regardless of the excuse, this tendency to not bother following up on threads or connect ideas is the biggest flaw in the film as it compromises any attempt to justify many of the creative decisions.
Modern films, of course, require at least a couple of scenes that rely heavily on CGI, and this is no different. Of note, we see Ellen Kelly blow the brains out of a CGI horse with a shotgun. We also see the gates of Melbourne Gaol blown apart by an American Civil War ship (“The Monitor”), the most baffling aspect of which is why Melbourne Gaol is partially submerged. The final bit of CGI that really stands out is in the hanging sequence. Rather than using the actual gallows for the hanging, Kurzel decided he would rather they push Ned over the railing to hang him. For this, they filmed next to the actual gallows (out of shot, naturally) and used CGI to make the gaol look bigger, as well as put a wooden beam across the walkways so that Ned can dangle in the middle of the gaol. There’s nothing wrong with using CGI to achieve what cannot be achieved practically, but one has to wonder why they chose to do things like set the gaol gates in a river.
From a historical perspective, apart from the obvious elements, there are a great many baffling things. A prime example is the inclusion of “Mad Dog Morgan” who Harry Power and Ned Kelly find in the bush. Morgan is portrayed as a craggy old man who has been lynched to death, tied halfway up a tree with his testicles cut off and shoved in his mouth. Despite the fact that Morgan wasn’t an old man, nor was his corpse tied to a tree with its own genitals hacked off and shoved in the gob, there’s the issue of Dan Morgan having been killed four years before Ned even met Harry Power. There is only one bank robbery shown, depicted with Joe Byrne, still dressed in hot pants and Blundstones, scrambling in the snow for a handful of crumpled banknotes, while inside Ned orders the bank manager to publish his letters. In fact, the sheer amount of snow in the film is baffling, considering that Australia is not exactly known as a winter wonderland. The only Aboriginal we see is Jack Charles as a waiter and there are no Chinese characters of note, despite their huge presence in the Kelly story and Australian history, though we do see some Asian characters as prostitutes in the brothel sequences. There is a ball scene that comes out of nowhere and doesn’t seem to have a point other than to make Mary Hearn cross paths with Ellen Kelly and George King, and to show Fitzpatrick trying to get groom Kate Kelly into a sexual partner. This sequence features a number of extras wearing animal masks and costumes with a strong Eyes Wide Shut vibe. The meaning of these creative decisions is rarely easy to discern, but Kurzel has demonstrated time and again in his filmography that he only cares if his films it look cool.
In the end, the best things you can say about this are that there are some wonderful performances and that it might cause people to rethink their attitude towards letting writers and directors have Carte Blanche to use historical figures to secure an audience upon which to push their own agendas. There is a supreme cognitive dissonance in the text, which tries all it can not to be a Ned Kelly film but reminds you at every opportunity that it is one (usually with slotted windows). This is an utterly misanthropic and mean spirited attack on not only the historical figures on both sides of the law, but also anyone that takes an interest in them. The majority of those praising this postmodern deconstruction of Ned Kelly are doing so out of a sense of solidarity with Kurzel, all of them of opinion that only their intellectual interiors have an interest in this story. It’s the typical modus operandi of the “intelligentsia”. It leaves one at the end of the grim spectacle with just one question for Justin Kurzel:
Who hurt you?
True History of the Kelly Gang is in selected Australian cinemas until Australia Day, when it will premiere on Stan.It will be in UK cinemas from 28 February.
We could be getting a three-hour director’s cut of The Legend of Ben Hall
by MATTHEW EELES
The Legend of Ben Hall will become an even bigger spectacle with the possible release of a three hour director’s cut if things go to plan for the filmmakers behind the ambitious bushranger epic.
On December 4, The Legend of Ben Hall director Matthew Holmes posted to the film’s Facebook page asking fans if they would support a crowdfunding campaign for an extended director’s cut which would restore almost an hours worth of unseen material back into the film featuring thirty new scenes and forty-eight expanded scenes.
“If we get 500+ votes for ‘Yes’ then we have a real shot at making it become a reality!!!,” the post read.
Twenty days later Holmes’ dream to release his original vision for the film came one step closer to reality with another Facebook post announcing he had received over 500 votes in support of his ambitious venture.
“In early 2020, we will be launching a crowd-funding campaign so we can make the definitive director’s cut of this film,” the post announced.
The Legend of Ben Hall is based on the true story of Australian bushranger Ben Hall, played by Jack Martin, who reforms his old gang with newcomer John Dunn in tow. After killing two policemen in a botched holdup the government declare the gang outlaws and they’re now outrunning do-gooders eager to fill them full of bullets in return for an attractive cash reward.
If the crowdfunding campaign is to meet its target, it wouldn’t be the first time for Holmes. In 2014 the director launched an ambitious Kickstarter campaign to raise $75,000 for a short form version of The Legend of Ben Hall. The film went on to raise over $145,000 using crowdfunding. Six months later the project had secured an international sales agent, an Australian distributor and multiple private investors, including state funding and The Legend of Ben Hall was expanded into a two hour feature film.
In September Holmes received public support to release a digitally remastered version of his sophomore feature film, Twin Rivers. That campaign saw $7906 pledged of a $4000 goal.
Unfortunately, not all of Holmes’ crowdfunding campaigns have been realised. Glenrowan, a feature film about the infamous last stand of Ned Kelly with Walking Dead actor Callan McAuliffe tipped to star, was not successful. The project is now being developed into a 6-part mini-series.
As one of Australia’s most eager filmmakers, Holmes is also working on a remake of Blue Fin based on Colin Thiele’s story of tuna fishing in Port Lincoln. Holmes is also developing a new horror film called The Artifice, based on his short film of the same name. You can watch that short film here.
Keep an eye on Cinema Australia and The Legend of Ben Hall’s Facebook page for more announcements regarding the 2020 crowdfunding campaign.
Cinema Australia wishes Matthew and his team all the best.
The most anticipated project at present is Justin Kurzel’s adaptation of True History of the Kelly Gang. The Booker Prize winning novel has had an awful time reaching the screen as detailed in previous articles. With this outing by the Assassin’s Creed director, there has been very little news since production wrapped in 2018. Repeated attempts by A Guide to Australian Bushranging to contact the production and distribution companies connected to the film to gain any information was been met with resounding silence. However, on 24 July we finally got a release date and the first official images from the film.
According to reports, the film will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019. This means that it will have been over a year since production wrapped when audiences first get a chance to see it. It also means that Australian audiences will have to wait even longer to see the film, which naturally has some people scratching their heads. Whether Canadian audiences will respond to the film will be interesting to see.
Available information for the film states that it remains in post-production. For months, rumours abounded that it would premiere at Cannes, which it did not as it was not ready in time to qualify, then more recently it was speculated to be premiering at the Venice Film Festival. What is clear is that regardless of where it was to debut, it was always intended to play to international audiences at a film festival first. There is still no word on the release date for general audiences or if it will be a limited release.Oddly, the film has already been nominated for best film adaptation at the 52nd AWGIE awards, despite not having been screened or released, which begs more questions than it answers. Shaun Grant’s screenplay seems to only have one other contender – another as-yet unreleased Essie Davis vehicle in Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears – to duke it out with, so that remains a curiosity.
Essie Davis, who will be playing Ellen Kelly, has mentioned the film several times in interviews about her latest project, Lambs of God. Davis in one interview talks about how a scene in THOTKG saw her thrashed about and bruised, while in another interview she talks about having to keep her hair during the making of Lambs of God because of her role as Ellen. This makes one curious as to what scene could possibly see Ellen thrashed around and beaten.
Another cast member that has spoken of the film in interview is Sean Keenan, who was asked about the film on The Project while promoting his stage production of Cosi. During the brief and awkward interaction Keenan described filming on the snow, Winton Wetlands and in Wangaratta. He also confirmed that he is playing Joe Byrne and that the film is a “contemporary mix” and “modern retelling” of the story.
Artwork used on sites associated with the film’s production and distribution around March appeared to depict something of a concept for the poster design. With a pink colour scheme, the only graphic was an assortment of half-naked young men holding firearms and wearing dresses or ladies underwear. None of the faces of the men Were shown, indicating that these are not the actors from the film, but rather stand-ins. It is unlikely that this will reflect the final poster design.
The production images are not very specific in what they depict but there are perhaps some clues as to the style of the film, it’s attitude to the source material and some of what we can expect to see in the film. It is a little strange that for a film titled True History of the Kelly Gang there are no images of the eponymous bushrangers. It is also strange that Nicholas Hoult, one of the bigger international stars in the film, is not included while two of Russell Crowe were despite the former likely having a more significant role.
Meanwhile, Ben Head’s short feature Stringybark debuted at the Lorne Film Festival on 26 July. The film, centred around the ill-fated Mansfield party rather than the bushrangers, has had an interesting production history; starting out as a student film then getting a huge boost from crowdfunding that allowed the team to get closer to their vision. After an investor screening of the film, things went quiet while the team tried to tee up screenings. Several official photographs from the film were released as well as a trailer, giving audiences a good sense of what to expect ahead of time. Beyond its Lorne premiere there is no further word yet on when there will be other opportunities for people to see the film on the big screen or via streaming, but according to Ben Squared Films they are currently looking at independent cinema screenings in the next few months.
Matthew Holmes’ Glenrowan remains in development, but is now being pitched as a six-part mini-series, intended for streaming. This will allow the story to expand to include elements previously unable to be included due to time constraints. Whereas the original screenplay focused almost entirely on the actual siege, the expanded format will include more of the prelude and aftermath, including an entire episode to open the series based on an expanded version of the short feature screenplay Blood and Thunder, and more emphasis on Aaron Sherritt and the politics that led to the formulation of the Glenrowan plot. The new format also allows more focus to be put on the people outside of the outlaws and the police such as Ann and Jane Jones, the Kelly sisters and key sympathisers like the Lloyds and Harts. It follows the structure and content of the novel that was written parallel to the development of the initial screenplay (by yours truly) more closely than was previously possible.
As details come to hand about any films or other bushranger related productions, you will be able to find them at our Facebook page.
Stuck on what to get that special bushranger lover in your life? Here are some things to look at that might give you some ideas with links to buy online. Just remember: if you see a portly old man with a big white beard carrying a sack full of goodies it may just be Harry Power…
In 1970 a film was released that has become infamous in Australian pop culture. It was directed by one of Britain’s most acclaimed stage directors, featured music by some of America’s greatest country musicians of the time, was written by a man who would in later years become known as the authoritative voice on the film’s subject (who himself had an illustrious career in Australian television), and starred one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll stars of all time. Yet, despite all of these ingredients that should amount to a legendary film, somehow it created the exact opposite reaction to what was expected and it seems to boil down to two words:
Yes, the 1970 film Ned Kelly has become a byword for bad adaptations of the Kelly story based purely on the unfortunate miscasting of the lead singer of the Rolling Stones as Australia’s favourite bank robber. So is it really as bad as it is made up to be? When compared with other stand alone films the answer may surprise you.
Films usually live or die on their cast and this film is a prime example of this. Any Ned Kelly film is expected to have Ned as a lead match the appearance of Ned in the popular consciousness: tall, muscular, heavily bearded – a bushman fit for the cover of a Harlequin romance. Mick Jagger did not fit the bill. His average height seems diminished by his weedy frame and awkward gait and his trademark pouty lips are far from the thin determined mouth Ned sported in all known images. In reality Ned Kelly stood at around 5’10” to 6′ tall, average by modern standards and tall in his own day, and as demonstrated by his commemorative boxing photo his physique was rather odd. The Ned of history is long limbed and a little pigeon chested with small hands and feet, likely very toned beneath the white long johns and undershirt from years of manual labour but certainly not adorned with washboard abs like most people would imagine (very few men of the time had access to gyms and protein shakes). By comparison, Mick Jagger at 178cm (5’10”) is actually Ned’s height but at around 73kg (161lbs) is much lighter. At the time of the film’s release Jagger was 27 years old, making him the closest in age to Ned at the time of his execution than any actor in the role in a major production so far, most actors being 28 or over (Godfrey Cass who portrayed Ned Kelly in several productions was in his forties the last time he portrayed Ned on screen).
As for the remainder of the cast, while many are far from the most striking likenesses of the people they play they are generally well acted. Mark McManus as Joe Byrne is a remarkably good likeness for Joe despite being more than ten years older than his real life counterpart was at the time of his death. Allan Bickford is also surprisingly accurate as Dan Kelly with his black hair and blue eyes and a performance that has him being at times forceful, playful and often at odds with his big brother, which is absolutely spot on. Clarissa Kaye depicts Ellen Kelly with gravitas, strength and dignity while presenting her as a witty and fiery force of nature, again just as the role calls for. Other standout roles include Diane Craig as Maggie, Frank Thring as Judge Barry, Ken Goodlet as Nicholson and Martyn Sanderson as Fitzpatrick. While most of the roles are not 100% accurate in terms of appearance and the police characters are often mere approximations of their historical counterparts it is a very strong cast for the time and perform admirably.
2. Production design
Perhaps one of the weaker elements of the film is the production design that tends to be quite inconsistent. The costumes, sets and props feel authentic and look magnificent but are often very lacking in accuracy. The prime example is Ned Kelly robbing the Euroa bank in a black tuxedo and white frilled shirt. No doubt this look, which was featured heavily in promotional material, was meant to represent Ned’s flashness and add a touch of theatricality to the portion of the film which is deliberately farcical, but is rather a jarring direction even for the late 60s. However the costumes worn by Ned in other scenes that usually consisted of dark coloured woolen clothes, grubby shirts, heeled boots and felt hats were far more accurate and were a great improvement over the high waisted moleskins, tall boots, shirts with rolled up sleeves and rumpled hats that seemed to be the extent of the bushranger costume in the majority of films on the topic such as The Glenrowan Affair or When the Kellys Were Out.
The towns in the film felt like real places of the time and they all felt very similar to the locations they were mimicking. The sets felt lived in and grubby without resorting to dim lighting and a desaturated palette to emulate the ambience of a house in the 1870s.
Nobody can deny the appeal of the soundtrack to this film. With songs written by the legendary Shel Silverstein (who wrote Johnny Cash’s legendary ‘A Boy Named Sue’) and performed by artists like Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson (though, strangely, the latter’s songs don’t make it into the film, only the soundtrack album), it’s a perfect blend of lyrical cleverness and folksy musical arrangements that perfectly underscore the film. The refrain ‘The Shadow of the Gallows’, the jaunty ‘Blame it on the Kellys’ and the soulful ‘Lonigan’s Widow’ are just a tiny sample of the stunning musical content that accurately reflect the tone of the film.
“Shadow of the Gallows”
“Blame it on the Kellys”
Ned Kelly is undoubtedly one of the best film versions of the story thanks to Gerry Fisher (The Island of Dr. Moreau, Highlander, Yellowbeard). The imagery is full of soulful ambience, texture, colour and contrast from the beautiful silhouetted stock thieving scenes to the eerie, foggy last stand. The tones feel authentic, the earthy colours of the clothing and buildings drab without resorting to desaturating the shots to create a false sense of the dusty, worn out and dreary existence of the characters. Yet there are bursts of colour such as the inclusion of bright green ribbons to signify Kelly sympathisers, which break up the gritty realism. No other Kelly film to date has managed to feature such beautifully cinematic images while remaining authentic to the time and place. This Kelly story is full of fun moments as well as dark and moody ones.
Perhaps the crowning glory of this film visually is the atmospheric shots of Glenrowan during Ned Kelly’s last stand that show the iron-clad outlaw walking through eldritch mist, monolithic against the swirling plumes of gun smoke and fog as swarms of police descend upon him. This captures the feel of how the event was described by witnesses in a way that no other on-screen version seems to have managed to date. It was also the first film depiction of the last stand to effectively incorporate the helmet interior perspective shots that have become a staple of Kelly films ever since.
The beats of the screenplay are precisely accurate thanks to the original screenplay having been written by Ian Jones, who would later inspire generations of Kelly enthusiasts with The Last Outlaw as well as his books The Fatal Friendship (aka The Friendship that destroyed Ned Kelly) and Ned Kelly: A Short Life. The dialogue is often very theatrical, probably due to Toby Richardson’s theatre background, and often rather clever but at times this gets lost when the performances or film making are weak. Where it falls down, however, is where it was later tinkered with by the director who reshaped it into more of a depiction of the spirit of the story than a faithful recreation. Yet, despite these rewrites (which includes the addition of an invented love interest for Ned named Caitlin O’Donnell, odd moments such as James Whitty offering Ned work as a stockman and having Ned’s last stand in a railway cutting) it still remains more accurate than the vast majority of other depictions, including the Heath Ledger film. If you can move past the emphasis on condensing characters and events, there’s a decent screenplay in there.
6. Historical accuracy
This film, despite lording over the majority of adaptations in this regard, is prone to historical inaccuracy. As a foreigner, Tony Richardson can be somewhat forgiven for not adhering strictly to history. However there are glaring inaccuracies worthy of pointing out.
The costumes, despite generally having the right feel and look are often wide of the mark. The police uniforms seem to be mostly based on the real deal but with some artistic flourishes to make them look better as costumes. The gang’s apparent fondness for bandoliers has no basis in fact, but rather takes its cues from Westerns. Most of the inaccuracies here are minor and don’t distract from proceedings – except for the outfits the gang change into at Faithfuls Creek that are so loud, gaudy and flamboyant they could only have come from a film made in 1969.
The collapsing of Nicolson and Hare into one “super cop” called Nicholson was likely done to streamline the story for film and was replicated in the 2003 ‘Ned Kelly’ by creating a “super cop” in Geoffrey Rush’s Hare. To include all police in the way many would like is not a possibility in a theatrical release. Sergeant Steele, Captain Standish, Sadleir and Bracken all make appearances but are not always made a point of. It should be noted that emphasis was placed on key aspects of the pursuit that other adaptations glaze over or omit entirely such as the temporary arrest of sympathisers, the watch party at the Byrne house and the black trackers.
The buildings, such as the Glenrowan Inn, look fairly close but are approximations rather than loving recreations as seen in The Last Outlaw a decade later. This is, again, forgivable as despite not being 100% accurate they feel accurate and reflect the sort of environments that the story took place in, a far cry from the mud soaked huts in the bleak. flat and drab environs of Gregor Jordan’s 2003 film.
There are many things woven throughout the script based on oral history and rumours that can’t be qualified such as the Republic, the army of sympathisers in the hills at Glenrowan, the secret wedding on the eve of the execution and Ned Kelly’s girlfriend “Caitlin O’Donnell”.
Many of the inaccurate moments are very minor for the most part but done for artistic reasons such as Ned’s last stand taking place on the train tracks in a gully to show the police piling in on him or the gang bailing up the staff at Younghusband station at dinner to expedite the narrative of the bank robbery rather than spend ages having the gang round people up into a shed. It must be remembered that this was meant to be a film that captured the spirit of the story rather than a slavish recreation. Yet despite the occasional divergence from history it fares a lot better than the 2003 film that is so rife with inaccuracy it requires its own article!
7. The Little Things
Repeat viewings of the film reveal small touches that show a surprising level of detail likely thanks to Ian Jones’ influence.
Little moments like Maggie and Tom Lloyd staring lovingly at each other during the party to celebrate Ned’s return from gaol, the camera lingering on Aaron Sherritt when Ellen makes a disparaging comment about “orange men”, or the way that the boys hoot and holler when they take the bull Ned caught to the pound to demonstrate their larrikinism help the film feel that little bit more understanding of the story than overt appearances might portray. There are many lovely nods towards the history that will reward the attentive viewer, such as when Ned sings The Wild Colonial Boy and is cautioned when Constable Fitzpatrick enters the pub because it was prohibited to sing the song in public, then he just keeps on singing (what a rebel!) before sculling a beer.
Ned Kelly is far from a perfect film and wasn’t without its controversies but it is hardly worthy of being the “bad” Ned Kelly film, especially seeing how much it got right in comparison. It looks gorgeous, it has fun and engaging moments, a killer soundtrack and one of the most accurate screenplays on the subject co-written by one of the most important Kelly scholars – all things that should elevate it in popular culture. It is a film deserving of more respect and at least a watch all the way through and all it takes is getting past the fact that Mick Jagger is a little too skinny and awkward to look like Ned Kelly.
One of the most anticipated Australian films at the moment is the film adaptation of Peter Carey’s novel True History of the Kelly Gang directed by Justin Kurzel. The film, currently in production, has been through development Hell (a term that refers to films that have gone through a long and torturous process in order to be made) which was covered in a previous article that you can read here. Now that it’s underway, what do we know?
As previously mentioned elsewhere, Ned Kelly will be played by English actor George Mackay (Captain Fantastic), Ellen Kelly by Essie Davis (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries), Joe Byrne by Sean Keenan (Lockie Leonard), Constable Fitzpatrick by Nicholas Hoult (Mad Max: Fury Road) with Earl Cave (son of musician Nick Cave) as Dan Kelly. In addition we have Mary Hearn (Ned’s fictional love interest) played by Thomasin McKenzie, Steve Hart played by Lewis Hewison, Mrs. Shelton played by Claudia Karvan (Puberty Blues) and Jacob Collins-Levy (The White Princess) as Thomas Curnow. It should also be noted that Travis Fimmel and Dacre Montgomery appear to have left the project, likely due to scheduling conflicts but a reason was never given.
Headlining the cast is Russell Crowe (Gladiator) and Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy), though neither is playing a major role. Both actors have been in Victoria filming, Hunnam spotted by many adoring fans around Wangaratta. While Crowe has been confirmed as Harry Power, Hunnam’s role is still mysterious, though it appears that he is stepping in to fill the void left by Travis Fimmel who left abruptly just before production began. Fimmel was slated to be playing Sergeant O’Neil, a fictional policeman who appears at the beginning of Carey’s book, who was characterised as an older man who tries to put the moves on Ellen Kelly while her husband is absent (and cops a mighty slap for his trouble) and proceeds to cryptically tell Ned about what will later be revealed to be the “Sons of Sieve”, an Irish group of rebels that Ned’s father was a member of (in this narrative but not in reality). O’Neil is the first police antagonist in the story and bullies and mocks Ned but disappears within the first twenty pages. Possibly though, Hunnam could be playing Bill Frost, who is a major character in the book and whose scenes occur during the Harry Power section of the story over the course of multiple chapters.
Crowe meanwhile baffled many by posting videos of himself combing his beard and singing ‘In the Sweet By-and-By’ (one of Ned Kelly’s favourite songs). Those in the know were excited to get a glimpse of only the second ever on-screen incarnation of Harry Power (the first being Gerard Kennedy in The Last Outlaw in 1980). This week Crowe also posted another video, again featuring him singing ‘In the Sweet By-And-By’, to show off his new haircut and short beard. Crowe’s singing does raise the question of whether he will be singing in the film, Crowe having tried a career as a musician several times in his younger days and also having to sing for his part as Javert in Les Miserables. On the plus side Crowe seems to be excited by his part in the film and hopefully this translates well to screen. Power was portrayed in 1980 as a jolly highwayman with sparkling wit and charm by Gerard Kennedy but the historical Power was far more irascible and intimidating, and though he never shed blood or took a life he could scare a coachload of people into doing exactly as he said. In the book Power is characterised as an erratic, verbose alcoholic with an explosive temper. It is unlikely that Power’s relationship with Ned’s uncles Jack Lloyd and Jimmy Quinn will be featured given how time consuming it is.
There are many characters that appear in the book whose parts have not been announced yet including Red Kelly, Captain Standish, Superintendents Nicolson and Hare, Sergeant Whelan, George King and James Whitty. Whether these characters, vital to the Kelly story in history and also in Carey’s book, are translated to screen or amalgamated in some way (as with Superintendent Hare in Gregor Jordan’s Ned Kelly) will be interesting to see.
No official stills have been released to date though some sneaky set photos have been published from the location shooting. These shots show us the costumes for Harry Power and Ned Kelly from the portion of the story where Ned is a fifteen year old. Crowe sports a tweed suit with a printed shirt and a striped waistcoat as well as a very authentic bushy grey beard. This Harry Power is clearly a far neater dressed individual than his historical counterpart. A shot of Crowe’s foot from his own social media shows off a shiny black boot that looks a far cry from the oversized boots curling at the toes Power favoured due to his bunions. This gives us no insight, however, into how Power will be portrayed on screen.
The other character we have had a glimpse of is Ned Kelly. Since arriving in Australia George Mackay has been seen sporting a rather distinctive mullet. The first image of him in costume confirms that this is part of the look for his version of Ned along with a bright red shirt and sand coloured moleskin jeans. Rather than resembling fifteen year old Ned Kelly, this costume resembles the hair and outfit of the Sharpies, a violent youth gang from the Melbourne suburbs during the mid to late twentieth century. Some assumed this was merely an outfit from Mackay’s own wardrobe but a look through Carey’s book confirms that Ned should be wearing a red shirt and moleskin trousers at this point in the story – expect to see him sporting elastic sided boots as well. It will be interesting to see what look they go with for an older Ned – will he get the famous pompadour and beard combo that everyone associated with the bushranger?
Of course, no Ned Kelly film is complete without a rendition of the iconic armour. For the Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger films, efforts were made to replicate the real suits, the former letting the faithfulness slip quite a bit when they decided Joe Byrne’s helmet with Dan Kelly’s backplate would look better as Ned’s helmet and breastplate among other alterations. To date, the armour seen in the 2003 film is the most accurate seen in a feature apart from the 1906 film that used Joe Byrne’s actual armour for a costume, the suits very closely resembling their real life counterparts save for a few aesthetic flourishes. New Zealand born Guido Gouverneur, a horticulturalist, was given the task of creating Kelly Gang armour for this film. The result, made from sheet metal, bears a reasonable resemblance to the real armour at a distance but is definitely far from identical. The armour is almost emblematic of what this production threatens to be – from a distance it seems almost passable but up close it doesn’t hold up.
So far the hair and costumes are underwhelming, not demonstrating any discernible care for period accuracy or accuracy to the characters. It will be intriguing to see how the police uniforms look as well as the hair and costumes for the other gang members and the Kelly family. Will True History of the Kelly Gang make the oft repeated mistake of putting the police at Stringybark Creek in their uniforms? Will the police at Glenrowan also be in uniforms? These two incidents, extremely important in the story, involved police in plainclothes, not uniforms that were ill suited to bush work. Unfortunately, to date The Last Outlaw is the only screen depiction to adhere to this fact. The 1970 film had the police in plainclothes at Stringybark Creek but uniformed at Glenrowan, while the 2003 film had uniformed police in both incidents. It will also be interesting to see if we get enough of the Jerilderie operation to see the gang in NSW trooper uniforms. For a Ned Kelly film to feel right it needs to look right and thus far it’s not looking right at all.
After a number of delays and Travis Fimmel quitting the film, production began on 22 July 2018, with the bulk of location filming being undertaken this month. The filming took place around Wangaratta. Filming has since moved on to Clunes where a dance hall scene is set to film, callouts for extras having gone out before production began. Clunes was used in the 2003 Ned Kelly due to its main street retaining many old fashioned buildings and having underground powerlines, thus retaining the overall appearance of an old frontier town. It is probable that the Euroa and Jerilderie scenes will be filmed here as they were for the 2003 film.
The screenplay for True History of the Kelly Gang has been written by Shaun Grant who previously wrote Justin Kurzel’s debut feature Snowtown. As in all book adaptations there will be some straying from the source text as the tricks and style that a book format enables don’t always translate well. What will be interesting to see is whether it strays closer to fact or closer to fantasy as a film that trades on the name “true history” carries with it an expectation that it tells the real story.
Production is still underway, hopefully publicity shots or production stills are released soon to give people a sense of what is happening with the production. A trailer will not become available until post-production is underway which is likely several months away at this stage. What people can expect as further details emerge is a film that strays away from historical fact given what we’ve already seen. The real test will be in how faithful the film is to the novel from which it takes its name. Carey’s book relies very heavily on the people, places and events from history he uncovered in his own research to tell his vision of the Ned Kelly story. Whether this production not only stays faithful to that approach but conveys Carey’s themes of the unreliable narrator and subjective truth could make or break the production.
In other news Ben Head’s short film Stringybark is still in development with Ned and Dan Kelly to be played by Joshua Charles Dawe (37) and Shane Palmer (26) respectively. Head’s film will tackle the killings at Stringybark Creek in a revisionist interpretation that positions the Kelly Gang as the villains, a move that is likely to cause great consternation with the vocal members of the pro-Kelly community. Little other information has been released about the film.
The third Kelly production in development, Glenrowan, recently scouted for locations, which featured in videos on the film’s Facebook page, and is in the process of attaching actors and investors to the film. The Walking Dead actor Callan McAuliffe is in negotiations to star as Ned Kelly, other publicly available details are scarce at present but updates can be found on social media.
With multiple film productions about Ned Kelly underway, it’s clear that bushrangers are becoming a popular topic once more. However, there are many bushrangers who deserve their own films as well and here are some of the great stories waiting to be brought to life. Some have been brought to the screen before in silent films that have since vanished, some were slated to be filmed but the projects never got off the ground and some just had bad outings in the past.
10. William Westwood: Few stories in bushranging are equal parts adventurous and tragic. William Westwood fills this to a tee. Westwood arrived in Australia as a teenage convict and soon became a highwayman, many oral traditions painted him as a gallant bandit who was courteous to women and more prone to larking about than committing robberies, his horsemanship considered second to none. However, the brutality of the penal system saw him lead a riot on Norfolk Island during which he murdered three men in cold blood. A film exploring just what causes a man not known to be violent to snap and commit a triple homicide would be gripping viewing and a tale that to date has never graced the screen. Potential Casting: Tom Hughes (Victoria)
9. Teddy the Jewboy: Edward Davis aka Teddy the Jewboy was Australia’s only known Jewish bushranger. Starting out as a street kid in London, he was transported for a failed shoplifting and absconded from Hyde Park Barracks to become a bushranger. Thanks to his father’s connections he soon joined a gang of bushrangers and rapidly climbed the ranks to become their leader. This diminutive, heavily tattooed Jew with a penchant for pink ribbons began a campaign to punish the cruel superintendents who brutalised the convicts assigned to them – but never on a Saturday, according to the legends, as that was the Sabbath. No doubt a colourful character such as this would make for exciting viewing as well as highlight the cultural diversity present in Australia in the 1800s, even if it is within the criminal fraternity. Potential Casting: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter)
8. Dan Morgan: Morgan has been brought to life on screen twice already, the first time in a silent film that has since disappeared and the second in 1975’s Mad Dog Morgan starring Dennis Hopper. Why, then, does Morgan deserve his own film when so many bushrangers haven’t had even one film? In short the true story of Morgan is yet to be shown on screen. Mad Dog Morgan took frequent and somewhat bizarre liberties with the facts despite using Margaret Carnegie’s Morgan the Bold Bushranger as a source. Examples of the weird liberties taken in the ’75 film include: Dennis Hopper’s Irish accent; making John Wendlan and Sergeant Smyth recurring villains; turning Success from a prison hulk into a fortress prison; the inclusion of Billy, an Aboriginal bushranger; removing Morgan’s moustache to make him look more like Abraham Lincoln and references to the Tasmanian Tiger as an “extinct animal” despite the last Tasmanian Tiger dying in captivity in 71 years later. The true story of Morgan would make for an incredible Gothic Western or psychological drama with the gaps in the history making room for some artistic license to explain what made Morgan the man he was. Potential Casting: Sam Parsonson (Gallipoli, Coffin Rock)
7. Jessie Hickman: Elizabeth McIntyre aka Jessie Hickman was commonly known as the “Lady Bushranger” in the Blue Mountains district. A former circus trick rider and champion rough rider, Hickman found herself in a life of crime, stealing cattle from the neighbouring farmers and hiding out with her gang of young men in her headquarters in the Nullo Mountain. Hickman was an amazing rider and master of disguise, she was a wild child who would rather give up her family than leave the bush. Hickman’s story is the subject of an in-development film entitled Lady Bushranger, so here’s hoping that production grows some legs so it can get up and running. Potential Casting: Teresa Palmer (Hacksaw Ridge)
6. Matthew Brady: He may not be a household name now but at one time Matthew Brady was the bushranger’s bushranger. Transported to Van Diemans Land in the early days of the colony, he and nine other convicts stole a boat and rowed from Sarah Island to Hobart where they took to the bush and set the bar for all bushrangers that came after. They robbed travellers and farms but Brady also enjoyed grander gestures such as breaking into the prison at Sorell and releasing the inmates then locking up the redcoats who had been hunting him. His chivalry towards women was famous and in his condemned cell he received letters and gifts from dozens of female admirers. Brady’s life was full of adventure and drama – perfect for a big screen experience. Potential Casting: Thomas Cocquerel (In Like Flynn, Red Dog: True Blue)
5. Martin Cash: Perhaps the best candidate for Tasmania’s patron bushranger is Martin Cash who is most famous for his memoirs, which were published in the 1870s. An Irish convict, he started fresh in New South Wales before a stock theft charge saw him flee to Van Diemans Land with his lover. After escaping from Port Arthur twice, he led the band of bushrangers known as Cash and Co. Cash is another character whose doomed romance forms a vital part of the narrative, his passion leading him to a long stint at Norfolk Island. Cash was handsome, cheeky, passionate and wild and with a good supporting cast to pad out the story it could very well be one for the ages. Potential Casting: Paul Mescal (God’s Creatures, Carmen)
4. Harry Power: Harry Power was Victoria’s greatest highwayman, gaining a price on his head of £500 at the peak of his career. Best remembered as Ned Kelly’s tutor in crime, to date he has only been seen on screen as a bit part in The Last Outlaw played by Gerard Kennedy and will be seen again in the adaptation of True History of the Kelly Gang portrayed by Russell Crowe. Power, however, was an intriguing character in his own right with robberies, chases, romance and prison escapes all part and parcel of the highwayman’s tale. While his association with Ned Kelly is what most people know him for, that association only lasted a couple of months leaving so much more of the story untouched and ripe or the picking. Potential Casting: Philip Quast (Hacksaw Ridge, The Brides of Christ, Picnic at Hanging Rock)
3. The Clarke Gang: Of all the bushranging gangs that held Australia in a state of tension and fear, few can truly compare to the Clarke Gang who roamed New South Wales in the mid 1860s. Stock theft, robbery, raids and murder are plentiful in the story of their brief and violent reign of terror that concluded on the gallows of Darlinghurst Gaol. To date this incredible story has never been brought to screen and perhaps is far too epic to contain in one standalone film, lending itself better to a mini-series given how numerous the depredations of the gang were. The Clarke story is one of family, lawlessness and the dark side of human nature. Potential Casting: Hugh Sheridan (Packed to the Rafters, Boar)
2. Frank Gardiner: Few bushrangers earned their place in the pantheon of bushranging like Francis Christie aka Frank Gardiner. Gardiner introduced many of the greatest bushrangers to the game including Johnny Gilbert, John O’Meally and Ben Hall. Gardiner’s greatest claim to fame was the robbery of the gold escort at Eugowra Rocks which was one of the largest gold heists in history. Gardiner’s ill-fated romance with Kitty Brown (Ben Hall’s sister in law) makes for brilliant drama and no doubt the mix of romance, action and sexy outlaws on horses would be a great combination. A film version of Gardiner’s career titled The Legend of Frank Gardiner by Matthew Holmes, the man behind The Legend of Ben Hall, has been in development for a time and would be a fantastic opportunity to bring this fascinating story to life. Potential Casting: Luke Arnold (Black Sails, INXS: Never Year Us Apart)
1. Captain Moonlite: Few bushranger stories have the potential to tug the heart-strings like that of Andrew George Scott aka Captain Moonlite. The tale of a well-educated pastor’s fall from grace into infamy is gripping, full of drama, humour and the highest profile LGBTI+ romance in bushranger history. From his romances in Bacchus Marsh and his alleged robbery of the bank in Mount Egerton with subsequent playboy lifestyle in Sydney to his grueling prison sentence in Pentridge full of misadventure and the desperation that led him to Wantabadgery Station, Scott’s story would captivate audiences. Throw in his love affair with fellow bushranger James Nesbitt and you have a scandalous and topical tale of forbidden love to boot. A Moonlite film by Rohan Spong went into production several years ago but was never publicly released, so as we reach the 140th anniversary of his hanging it would be nice to see him get some love. Ideal cast: Dan Stevens (Beauty and the Beast, Legion, Downton Abbey)
There are far too many bushranger stories to bring to life as standalone films, which makes a list of ten extremely difficult to choose. Here are some of the bushrangers who almost made the cut.
* Captain Thunderbolt and Mary Ann Bugg: The story of Frederick Wordsworth Ward and his family is perfect for a film. A loveable rogue with his tough and resourceful wife who frequently sacrificed her own freedom for his. It’s a love story and a tragedy.
* Captain Melville: The gentleman bushranger Captain Melville is one of Victoria’s most Infamous. From being a convictto a notorious brigand to getting busted in a brothel and beyond Melville is a colourful character who will keep audiences entertained.
* The Kenniff brothers: The tragic tale of Queensland’s most infamous bushranging family would make for a brilliant and gripping film. A movie that portrays the intense legal drama that unfolded at the turn of the century to prove that Paddy and Jim Kenniff murdered Albert Dahlke and Constable Doyle then incinerated the remains while trying to recreate what really happened would be incredibly moving and memorable.
* The Ribbon Gang: The uprising known as the Bathurst Rebellion led by Ralph Entwistle is epic and dramatic. Kicked off after Entwistle was unfairly punished for skinny dipping, it became one of the most incredible outbreaks of bushranging in history with Entwistle’s gang rumoured to have exceeded 100 men all raiding, pillaging and murdering in the district before a series of battles with the military saw the bushrangers vanquished, ten bushrangers meeting their end on the scaffold.
* The Gilbert-Hall Gang: The last days of the Hall gang were portrayed in the award-winning The Legend of Ben Hall, but aside from a long forgotten TV series from 1975 and several missing silent films, the glory days of the gang have not been committed to film – and none ever portrayed accurately. Hall and Gilbert with John O’Meally, John Vane and Mickey Burke were once the most formidable bandits in Australia, bailing up Canowindra and Bathurst multiple times and committing countless highway robberies. Few bushranging tales can compete with this one for sheer adventure, drama and tragedy.
* Henry Maple: The story of Henry Maple, the boy bushranger, would make for a tragic and spellbinding story. A taut and suspenseful film could track the brief, wild period that Maple struck terror into rural Victoria in the 1920s with his sidekick Rob Banks, culminating his fatal standoff against an armed posse in the bush. Unlike other bushranger stories it would have the unique aspect of modern technology such as automobiles and the startling youth of the lead character to make for a bushranger film unlike any other.