On 18 May HarperCollins publishers, through their 4th Estate imprint, launched a new novel by Australian author Felicity McLean simply titled Red. The book is, in the words of the publishers:
…a spirited and striking contemporary retelling of the Ned Kelly story.
The story is set in New South Wales in the 1990s and follows a female protagonist, Ruby “Red” McCoy, as she falls foul of the law – or, rather, as the law’s vendetta against her family turns its focus onto her.
While the Kelly story provides a vague framework for the story, this approach gender-swaps the outlaw and drags the story into a setting that the target audience will be able to relate to. No doubt the book will employ the “blackly comic” sensibilities of her debut, The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone, a modern reimagining of Picnic at Hanging Rock.
The book has gained a very positive write-up from Brendan Cowell, writer/director of The Outlaw Michael Howe, who states:
This electrifying and unique revamp of the Ned Kelly myth will leave you breathless. The accumulative prose of rusted car doors and sliding suburban loyalties make way for an unforgettable female protagonist who is as fearsome as her life is young. Winton meets Tarantino in Woy Woy and it all makes perfect sense to me.
For more information, you can visit the HarperCollins website here.
Ned Kelly Game on Steam
Indie Game developers Tobop Productions have a new FPS (first person shooter) game coming to Steam on 28 June 2022 titled, Ned Kelly: Armoured Outlaw. The game is an alternative reality that allows the player to be Ned Kelly and fight their way out of the siege of Glenrowan.
The single-player game will be available for Windows and MacOS, and tasks the player with getting the Kelly Gang from Glenrowan to Melbourne. While it is not slavish to history, effort has been made to make the characters, buildings and weapons period accurate.
Sue Thompson has penned a short piece for the Star Mail wherein she introduces readers to the boy bushranger William Parsons. Though the article does not go into any considerable detail, it gives readers a flavour of the story. There is as much focus given to Redmond Barry (incorrectly named as “Edmond” in the article) as to Parsons, in particular a quote from Barry to Parsons from his trial:
It is almost incredible that you, with arms in your hands, should have stuck up three men. You could scarcely know how to use them; indeed you did wound yourself, and nearly blew your own brains out. It is almost incredible crimes like this should occur in our neighbourhood, and it would be laughable were it not lamentable.
On the 25 May 2022 edition of Self-Improvement Wednesday hosted by Richard Glover, Tom Wright was interviewed about the life and bushranging career of Fred Ward, alias Captain Thunderbolt. Wright, the artistic director of the Belvoir Theatre, spoke about the infamous outlaw on the anniversary of his death, with particular emphasis on the cultural impact of the story.
The Beetoota Advocate, a satirical news website, recently poked fun at both Ned Kelly and “cancel culture” in an article entitled Ned Kelly Cancelled After Discovery Of Controversial Anti-Police Tweets from 1875. The tongue-in-cheek article suggests that Kelly had made a series of anti-police Tweets in the 1870s that were uncovered by “internet sleuths”, causing quite a stir.
At the time of writing there has been no formal statement from Kelly’s PR team which is primarily made up of the type of volunteers who might throw a chair at you if you mention that Kelly killed police officers as well.
The following is extracted from Three Years With Thunderbolt by Will Monckton and Ambrose Pratt. It portrays Monckton’s first meeting with Thunderbolt after fleeing his abusive stepfather, and his attempt to join him in bushranging. The book (originally published as a serial in The Argus, Melbourne,) purports to be a memoir, though it is likely that more than a few liberties were taken by Pratt for dramatic effect. It reads as a novel from Monckton’s perspective and offers very important insights into the life of a bushranger as well as Captain Thunderbolt himself. – AP
Source: Three Years With Thunderbolt; Ambrose Pratt (ed.) 1905. Via: Project Gutenberg
I paused in the very heart of the forest, panting and almost spent. I was still fighting for breath when of a sudden at no great distance from where I strode unsteadily along a male voice burst forth in song. The notes were sweet and mellow, yet thrillingly distinct.
I stopped abruptly, spellbound, at first with astonishment, and then with a quick ensuing rapture. In one second I had forgotten my stepfather and my terror—everything in the world, indeed, except the wild, sweet music of the unseen singer’s voice, which poured forth in an unbroken stream of harmony, growing, nevertheless, momentarily more pathetic and melancholy. It seemed to me that the singer’s own heart was wistfully vibrating in tune with the touching little story that his song unfolded.
“Oh, don’t you remember sweet Alice, Ben Bolt? Sweet Alice with hair so brown, Who wept with delight when you gave her a smile, And trembled with fear at your frown!”
The tears started to my eyes as the verse approached its end:—
“In the old churchyard in the valley, Ben Bolt, In a corner obscure and alone, They have fitted a slab of granite so grey, And sweet Alice lies under the stone!”
To the last deep, vibrant note a heavy silence succeeded, during which I could hear my own heartthrobs, but nothing else. I was profoundly moved, and for a long while I did not even wish to stir from my position. Curiosity at length, however, mastered me, and, eager to discover who the singer might be, I stole through the forest with the noiseless caution of an aboriginal. In fifty paces I came upon the edge of a little glade, whence, peering from behind the trunk of a gnarled old red-gum, I beheld, within a dozen feet of me, a man bare-headed, who lay among the grasses, upon the broad of his back, gazing steadily up into the sky’s cloudless blue. Quite near him was a saddle, a silver-bitted bridle, and a swag. A magnificent chestnut horse, evidently a thoroughbred, stood nosing at his hobbles at a little distance off. At a glance I recognised the horse. It was “Combo,” Thunderbolt’s famous steed.
Was, then, the man lying so still before me Thunderbolt himself? The question flashed into my mind, and involuntarily I sighed, whereupon whatever doubts I had entertained were rapidly resolved.
With a speed that dazzled me, the man sprang from his recumbent attitude to his knees. One hand plucked a revolver from his belt, and, before I could move or speak I was looking over the muzzle of a cocked six-shooter into a pair of keenly watchful dark-brown eyes.
“Hands up!” he commanded curtly.
I obeyed him instantly, and yet, boy as I was, I experienced no fear. Some instinct told me that the man who could sing as I had heard that man sing a moment since would not harm one so friendless and miserable as I.
“Are you Thunderbolt?” I asked.
“I am Thunderbolt!” he replied. “Who are you?”
“I am Will Monckton,” I answered quietly. “I have been looking for you, sir!”
Thunderbolt got slowly to his feet and leisurely surveyed me, without, however, ceasing to keep me covered with his pistol. I returned his regard respectfully and yet curiously, for I was more than anxious to discover what manner of man he might be from whom I had been driven to seek help and protection.
He was about five feet nine or ten inches in height, strongly and yet gracefully built. He wore a full dark beard, but his head was a little bald, which made me think him older than he was. He seemed to me very good-looking. His nose was straight and shapely. He had a kind, yet grave expression, and I thought his mouth resembled my mother’s, and I was glad; also his eyes, although they were larger and darker than hers.
My poor mother! I know now that Thunderbolt’s expression resembled hers merely by reason of its sadness. But I was too young then to understand that melancholy marks even traces on its victims, although their fates be as widely separated as the Poles.
“I have heard of you,” said Thunderbolt presently. “I saw you this morning with Charley, didn’t I?”
“Did he tell you where to find me?”
“You are alone, of course?”
“What do you want with me?” he demanded.
“I have run away from home, sir. If my stepfather catches me he will half kill me. Even if he didn’t I would not go back to him. He is a brute, and I hate him.”
“Let me stay with you, sir—will you, please?”
Thunderbolt quietly uncocked his pistol and returned it to his belt. He looked me up and down for another full minute, and then, without saying a word, he sat down upon the ground. Leaning backwards, he put his hands behind his head and rested thus against his saddle, staring up at me.
“Please let me stay with you, sir,” I entreated.
“Do you want to be an outlaw?” he demanded.
“Anything!” I cried. “Anything rather than let my stepfather catch me.”
Such was my reply to his question, and I was sincere in what I said. But in very truth, at that moment I had never even dreamed of becoming a bushranger.
“Rob coaches?” asked Thunderbolt.
I nodded, feeling myself grow pale.
“Fight the police?”
I felt completely frightened at that prospect, but the die was cast, and I nodded again.
“Risk hanging, Will Monckton? You’d be hanged if you were caught, boy.”
“So would you,” I cried. “But they have been after you for years.”
“Bah! they’ll never take me—alive,” he retorted fiercely. “But with you it would be another matter. I have had two boys already. The first—poor young Thompson—was shot last April twelve months near Bathurst in a fight with the police. The other—Mason—was taken a month ago, and he is now in gaol. You had better go home, Will.”
“I will never go home. I’ll die first,” I said desperately.
He shook his head. “I’ve heard a good deal about the way your stepfather has treated you,” he said quietly. “But tell me your story, Will, and we shall see.”
Nothing loth, I poured out the full history of my wrongs, and did my best to prove to him how desperate I felt, and how utterly impossible it was that I should go home.
He listened to me very gravely without once interrupting, but when I had finished and was silent, he sat up, and pointed a finger at my breast. “Your stepfather is a cruel ruffian,” he said quietly, “but listen to me, Will Monckton——” he paused.
“Yes, sir,” I said anxiously.
“You are in the right of it now, lad,” replied the bushranger. “But you’ve no excuse to become a criminal. A few beatings more or less, what do they matter to a hard young rip like you? Why you’ll soon grow too big to beat—big enough to beat your stepfather, in fact. Take my advice, Will, and go back home. Remember, you have a mother to think of. How would she feel if you turned bushranger?”
I was silent, for mention of my mother had brought a lump to my throat.
“Let me tell you my own story,” went on Thunderbolt, after a little pause. “When I was a boy, not much older than you, Will, I got mixed up with some bad companions—cattle-thieves they were, though I didn’t know it then. One day I was with them in the bush, and the police came on us, and arrested us all. We were tried for stealing cattle, and though I tell you before God, Will, that I was innocent, I was convicted with the others, and sentenced to a long term of imprisonment on Cockatoo Island. I think I felt then pretty much as you do now—just as if the whole world was against me, and I against the world. Well, boy, I swore to be revenged on the world that had treated me so badly; and I have. You have heard, no doubt, how I broke out of gaol, and swam from Cockatoo Island to the mainland, and how I made good my escape. Well, that was years ago, and I’ve been a criminal ever since. For the last four years I have been outlawed—every man’s hand against me, I alone against them all. I’m not denying I have had a pretty fair time—and the life is full of pleasure and excitement to a man of spirit. But I tell you this, Will Monckton—if I had my time to come over again, I would serve out my sentence on Cockatoo Island, and try afterwards to lead an honest life. I would, so help me, God!”
He spoke with such solemn earnestness that I was deeply impressed. But at the same time I felt such a sympathy for him, and admired him so much, I did not wish to leave him at all. Beyond and above that, I was of a very stubborn disposition, and I had always had a great pride in sticking to my word.
“I have left home, and for ever,” I muttered.
Thunderbolt gravely shook his head. “Be guided by my advice, boy, and go back!” he said.
“I have left home for ever,” I repeated doggedly.
The outlaw shrugged his shoulders and got to his feet. Paying me no further heed, he took up his bridle and strolled over to where his beautiful horse was feeding. Two minutes later Combo was saddled, and Thunderbolt had climbed to his back.
“You are not going to leave me?” I cried out in alarm.
“I am going to my camp,” replied Thunderbolt. “It is about a mile and a half down the creek.”
“Let me go with you.”
“No, not now. Think over what I have told you, Will, for a few hours, and then, if you are still in the same mind, come to my camp. I like your looks, boy, and I’d be glad to have you for a partner, for I’m cursed lonely sometimes. But, for your own sake, and for the last time, I advise you not to look me up again. Go home, boy! Good-bye.”
He touched Combo with his heels, and the horse bounded away at half a gallop through the trees.
I shouted out to him to wait, to stop for one moment, but the outlaw did not even turn his head. I watched until the trees had shut him from my view, and then, my brain whirling with excited thoughts, I threw myself down in the grass where Thunderbolt had been lying, and buried my head in my arms.
It has been a while since a dedicated post reviewing media on A Guide to Australian Bushranging, but what better time than the present to look at some of the recent releases and currently available literature pertaining to this broad field of interest?
Tommy Bell – Bushranger Boy, books 1-3 by Jane Smith
It is often said these days that getting kids to read is one of the hardest things to do as a parent, especially with younger children. With the Tommy BellBushranger Boy series by Jane Smith, we have books about bushranging that are a perfect balance of fun and education for primary school aged readers. All too often books on the subject for this demographic are very dry and uninspiring, and at times wildly inaccurate or oversimplified, but not so with this imaginative series that uses a splash of magic to transport the reader to key parts of bushranger history. Tommy Bell’s magical cabbage-tree hat is just the trick to allow kids to have a relatable character to follow through the olden days.
Book one is Shoot-out at the Rock, and sees Tommy transported back in time for an encounter with Captain Thunderbolt. After Tommy Bell falls behind in his history lessons and steals a donut from a classmate, he is sent to stay with his grandparents near Uralla. Here he discovers the magical cabbage-tree hat inside Thunderbolt Rock that transports him back in time to when Captain Thunderbolt and Fred Britten had a chase and gunfight with the police there. The experience gives Tommy a bit of perspective on his own troublesome behaviour, and stokes a passion for history and bushrangers.
This book starts the series off strong, and sets up the character of Tommy Bell, as well as his family and his horse Combo, very effectively. Young readers will undoubtedly get a kick out of this exciting tale of highway robbery and a dramatic clash with police, and gain a history lesson and a moral lesson at the same time.
Following the narrative is a guide to the history that the story is based on, and a mock Q &A with Thunderbolt. The inclusion of the non-fiction section sets this up as an educational text as much as an entertainment for young readers, and these are features of the subsequent books as well.
Book two, The Horse Thief, sees Tommy becoming mixed up in the early exploits of Frank Christie, alias Gardiner. The Gardiner narrative is interspersed with Tommy travelling to and from a riding competition with his parents and his horse Combo. We are also introduced to Tommy’s new classmate named Francis, who seems to want to get Tommy mixed up in his mischief, setting up a point of comparison with Gardiner roping his friends into horse theft.
Whereas book one’s strength was in its simple story and fairly tame depiction of bushranging, thanks largely to Thunderbolt being a far more “family-friendly” outlaw, book two is a bit more ambiguous. Thematically, it still hovers around the morals of the bushrangers (or lack thereof), and how sometimes it isn’t so straightforward as seeing criminals as inherently evil or nasty, and everyone else as good and pleasant. Frank Gardiner is a scary horse thief who Tommy is clearly afraid of, but as villainous as he is the squatter, William Lockhart Morton, doesn’t seem any better, and even Tommy Bell finds it hard to justify the sorts of punishments that the criminals are subjected to. That the book doesn’t talk down to its readership and make everything clear-cut and black and white is one of the things that elevates it over the usual fare that children are given.
Book three is The Gold Escort Gang, and acts as a direct follow up to its predecessor by exploring the infamous Eugowra Rocks heist. It runs the story of Gardiner assembling his heist crew parallel to Tommy’s schoolmate Francis, from the previous installment, trying to rope him into stealing the rich kid’s bike with his “gang”. As with the prior books, the comparison between past and present is key to making the stories relatable, and therefore informative.
While most children’s books these days try to incorporate some form of gross out gag or toilet humour, these books are thankfully a little more high-brow, with the closest to this bring Tommy encountering Gardiner and Johnny Gilbert skinny dipping in a lake, then having to ride away naked when they couldn’t get dressed in time to evade the police who come up on them unexpectedly. This should hopefully endear the books a bit more to parents who struggle to find books for primary aged readers that aren’t about poo, bums, farts or other bodily fluids and functions.
In this tale, Tommy is right in the thick of the action during the robbery, and attention shifts away from Gardiner to Ben Hall, who is portrayed sympathetically. Again, the moral of the story is more nuanced than what you would normally find in a children’s book; Tommy uses his experience with Gardiner and Hall to reflect on his relationship with Francis in the present and comes to the conclusion that there is a compromise to be made between doing the right thing and being someone’s friend.
All three books feature bold, fun illustrations that are very stylised but suit the vibe of the text perfectly. The only criticism to be made on that front is that the costumes and such as illustrated tend to be based on American Westerns rather than the very distinct Australian style of the era. Nonetheless, it adds a little something to spice up the reading experience.
The first four Tommy Bell Bushranger Boy books are available in a boxed set from Big Sky Publishing (book four, Outback Adventure, featuring Harry Readford, alias Captain Starlight), and form a really neat set to get kids interested in bushrangers. From an educational standpoint, as much as a parental one, it is very hard to go part these books. If you have kids, or know someone who does, then these cone highly recommended.
Books four to six will be reviewed in a future Book Club.
If you would like to purchase the Tommy Bell Bushranger Boy books, you can find them online here.
In the Company of Madness by R.B.R. Verhagen
Few recent novels on the subject of Australia’s history focus on the light side, and In the Company of Madness is no exception. This is an intertwining narrative that takes the disparate strands of the lives of a bushranger, a priest and a soldier and braids them into a poetic, tragic and powerful human story about the foundations of Van Diemen’s Land and the human suffering that they were built on. What’s more, this is based on real people and events, and portrays them faithfully and in detail, which seems like more of a novelty than it should. Specifically, In the Company of Madness is about Alexander Pearce, Rev. Philip Connolly, Lt. John Cuthbertson and all their struggles in the fledgling southern colony.
Some bushranger enthusiasts will go into this book with at least a superficial knowledge of Pearce and his reputation as a cannibal; a fact that is handled artfully. They may also be familiar with the brutality of Macquarie Harbour, but Verhagen makes the suffering all the more savage by framing it through the lived experiences of convicts as well as through the tyranny of the overseers. The feeling of dread and hopelessness is palpable as one reads the artfully constructed prose. As for the murder and cannibalism, that is well handled as well, leaving most of the horror to the reader’s imagination, rather than revelling in the gruesome or gory.
The narratives chop and change throughout the book from chapter to chapter, while the whole is divided into three acts, a prologue and an epilogue. The text itself is rich and dense, and requires the reader to really take in what is being conveyed. This is not a book to be flicked through mindlessly while waiting at the airport, it demands the reader’s full attention.
Verhagen has evidently done diligent research in preparation for this book, and as a result his characters are not only authentic, but engaging. Enthusiasts of Tasmanian history will be pleased to see many important figures popping up such as Robert Knopwood and Lieutenant Governors Sorell and Arthur, as well as detailed descriptions of key environs such as Macquarie Harbour and Hobart Town. This interpretation of Van Diemen’s Land is alive and immersive, riddled with vice and full of people from all walks of life tumbled together in a barely functional penal colony.
It should come as no surprise that this is not a book for the faint-hearted as it contains a considerable amount of adult material. In the hands of a lesser writer this would come across as exploitative or merely titillation, but Verhagen uses the sordid side of the tales he is telling to highlight core truths about the human condition and the respective struggles faced by each core character. Pearce struggles against the brutal oppression and tyranny that he is subjected to, his humanity reduced to a crude approximation somewhere a little above a wild animal; Cuthbertson’s hubris and bigotry allows him to dehumanise those in his charge and torture them to death if only to scare the rest into compliance; Connolly struggles with his human urges and his devotion to Catholicism that requires their suppression. Readers should be aware that some of these moments are very confronting indeed and some may go so far as to find them distressing, so discretion is advised. For those who persevere with the book, it will be a rewarding and moving experience.
To supplement his book, Verhagen has curated a page of his website with maps, music and imagery to help round out the experience, which you can find here.
If you would like to procure a copy of In the Company of Madness, there is only very limited stock left, but can be purchased online here.
A special thanks to Jane Smith for providing copies of the Tommy Bell Bushranger Boy books for this review.
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…
This entry was written by playwright Gabriel Bergmoser, creator of the musical Moonlite. Gabriel’s passion for bushranger tales is evident in his work and I am very glad to present this personal account to you. ~ AP
It’s impossible to write this without giving a bit of personal context, so please bear with me.
I went to primary school in Mansfield, about a hundred metres from where Sergeant Kennedy, Constable Scanlon and Constable Lonigan were buried after being shot by Ned Kelly at Stringybark Creek. With its relative proximity to the creek itself, Mansfield is a major Kelly Country location, and there is a reasonable thread of fascination with the events in the town.
I was totally Kelly obsessed from the moment I was old enough to have any kind of understanding of the story, and as such I was thrilled when, in primary school, my class spent a few weeks studying bushrangers. To tie in with this theme, every lunch our teacher read us a little bit of the only novel she had on the topic – a book from the 1920s called The Girl Who Helped Ned Kelly. At the time, being around ten, I was utterly transfixed by the book, looking forward to the next instalment every lunch, outraged when the book was snapped shut and we had to go and play.
We never finished the book, much to my consternation, and as my teacher’s copy was an antique she wasn’t about to lend it to me, so I resolved to find my own. Every weekend trip to Melbourne I would beg my parents to let me scour second hand bookstores to try and find it. But it didn’t matter how many places I searched (a lot); I never saw the book.
Over the years I kept looking. Not super seriously, eventually more just out of habit. But as more and more time passed, a strange kind of fervour grew. It had to be somewhere, right?
Apparently it didn’t. Even online searches yielded nothing. The book evidently existed, it was just very, very rare.
It wasn’t even like I was driven by genuine memories of how good it was. If you’d asked in the past couple of years, I doubt I could recount any of the book with any accuracy. But the fact that I couldn’t find it was maddening.
Then, a few weeks ago, I was walking through Adelaide when a second hand bookstore caught my eye. I wandered in and set about trying to find the book. No luck. But there were a couple of other gems in the bushranger section and as I took them up to the counter the lady who owned the shop commented on an evident obsession. I mentioned my ongoing search for The Girl Who Helped Ned Kelly and the response was immediate; “oh, it’s in that cabinet over there.”
That book was first read to me in 2002. It took sixteen years to finally get my hands on it.
Honestly, after all of that I wasn’t sure if I would even read it. Carrying it out of the store with immense reverence, the idea that the book wouldn’t be worth it was a bit of a concern. But upon flicking through it became evident that I wouldn’t be able to help myself.
Beyond that, I was fascinated by what the book might represent. Originally serialised in the 1920s, a disclaimer in the front of the book says that the names of many of the supporting characters had been changed “for obvious reasons”: the book was written within the life spans of people who knew the Kellys. Ellen Kelly died only a few years before it was published. With that in mind, does this book represent one of, if not the earliest romanticised fiction of Ned Kelly? If so, what, if any, was its role in his growing canonisation? And aside from anything else, is it actually a good book?
Told largely from the perspective of fictional drifter Jack Briant, The Girl Who Helped Ned Kelly chronicles his tangential involvement with the gang during the last year of their lives, and… well, actually that’s about it.
The character of Briant, despite some early intrigue regarding his backstory that is resolved in the most toothless, predictable way possible, feels very much like a not particularly subtle stand in for the author. It’s hard to state this with much veracity; I couldn’t find much information on writer Charles E. Taylor, but the character of a wealthy man from Melbourne who wins Ned’s trust, confounds the police and flirts with Kate Kelly seems very much like a way for an author brought up in the aftermath of the Kellys’ time to play out a kind of wish fulfillment. By extension, this makes him an audience surrogate and, perhaps, indicates why the book had such an impact on ten year old, bushranger obsessed me.
As a character however? Briant is kind of annoying. He stands out badly due to the fact that he never existed and yet in the book he is at least tangentially present for much of the gang’s doings. But the fact that he has no real place in the history also means that he’s largely inactive as a protagonist; his contributions to the plot essentially extend to teaching the gang how to conceal their campfires (because that’s exactly the kind of thing a rich bloke from Melbourne would know rather than Ned) and distracting the police once or twice.
Adding to the character’s artificiality is an occasional propensity to remind the audience, via his inner monologue, that Ned is bound for a sticky end and that the police are just doing their jobs and plenty of them are noble. This doesn’t really track with his actions and as such feels like the work of a nervous editor ensuring the book doesn’t glorify the Kellys too much. Even the foreword insists that ‘no attempt has been made to canonise these young criminals’ despite the fact that, well, that’s exactly what the book does.
Make no mistake; this novel exists squarely in the tradition of Ned as a romantic, Robin Hood like figure. He’s presented in the text pretty much exactly how you’d expect; noble, imperious, wily with occasional flashes of larrikin charm. The rest of the gang get essentially one note personalities, with Dan being The Angry One, Joe being The Sad One and Steve being The Other One.
Beyond the gang, Hare and an almost pantomime villain version of Aaron Sherritt, most of the characters are either loose analogues for people like Wild Wright or Tom Lloyd or, like Briant, made up entirely. Weirdly, some of those characters are actually among the book’s most endearing, from crotchety old Kelly sympathiser Sam Jackson to Briant’s love interest, mercurial farmer’s daughter Nita. Even some of the fictional policeman show moments of surprising depth, like one particularly evangelical trap standing silently side by side with sworn enemy Ned at a funeral out of respect for the deceased.
And then there’s the titular ‘girl’. Jim Kelly was apparently outraged by this fabrication in particular, vehemently claiming that Ned ‘had no girl’. As it stands, the character is barely there, a fictional lover of Ned who only appears in the second half of the book and barely warrants supporting character status, let alone the title. The relationship is so thinly sketched that it’s hard to see why it was included at all.
It’s honestly difficult to say what the book is really about. Jack’s fledgling romance with Nita gets the bulk of the attention, but neither of them are the title characters or, y’know, real people. Their will they-won’t they thing is surprisingly engaging, but it ends up being far more dominant than major events like the death of Aaron Sherritt, which happens within a page of Joe discovering he’s a traitor, or the siege of Glenrowan which gets maybe two pages at the end. As it stands, it reads more than anything like the author just really wanted to hang out with these characters.
Except, of course, they’re not characters, they’re real people. The changed names are the most telling aspect; this book was written at a time where the events were not so long in the past as to rightly be considered legend yet. Given those circumstances, it’s hard to see the book as one written in particularly good taste, and it’s even harder to understand why it makes some of its more egregious diversions from history; namely the Siege of Glenrowan occurring several weeks after Sherritt’s murder and Dan dying well before Joe and Steve at the siege itself. You could chalk this up to ignorance, were it not for the afterward that includes many of the correct dates and details.
But look, accuracy is not what makes this book fascinating and nor, realistically, is narrative. What makes it worthy of discussion is the fact that it represents a blithe fictionalisation of the Kelly story written at a time when the events were still very much within living memory. And despite Jim Kelly’s consternation, it would be far from the last. From Our Sunshine to True History of the Kelly Gang; the literary class might have evolved, but the fundamental ethos certainly hasn’t; this story is our defining cultural myth, so writers and artists will always be drawn to create their own version.
I don’t know whether I would attribute much if any of the history’s ongoing romanticisation to this book. The process of consolidating the facts into legend had long since started, but to my knowledge The Girl Who Helped Ned Kelly represents the first in a long tradition, the moment when writers started to feel comfortable twisting the story to suit their own ends, in the process creating new versions of the legend that would ensure it was kept alive for generations to come. Whatever your opinion on the practice, that fact alone gives it a place in the canon.
It’s hard, in the end, to know how to feel about this book. I didn’t remember enough of it to be especially nostalgic in reading it. It was certainly entertaining and rarely less than fascinating. But it is very much of its time and as a novel, isn’t much more than mediocre. A forgotten classic this absolutely is not.
Of course, my stake in the whole endeavour always went deeper than simply reviewing a piece of Kelly esoterica. After a sixteen year search, am I glad I finally found and read the thing? Yeah, I’d say so. I would have been immensely surprised if it was anywhere near as good as my 2002 self remembered it so its overall quality didn’t count as much of a disappointment. More than anything, having and holding an original copy of the book dating from the 1920s is really special, and a piece of Kelly history I’m proud to own. But in terms of whether you should embark on your own multi year hunt to track down and read it? Unless you’re a hardcore collector, there are probably better uses of your time.
The small army of women and children Ned had decided to shift from the Stanistreets’ house moved into the inn quietly – or at least as quietly as children have the capacity for. Dan kept the door open for everyone to enter, his revolver tucked prominently in his belt. Ned peeled away from the group and strode across the verandah to the whitewashed sign that proudly proclaimed that the tiny inn had the best accommodation. He looked beyond and saw Joe resting his elbows on a fence rail behind the inn near the stables. Ned shifted the slip rail and walked past the bonfire where prisoners warmed their hands against the bitter cold and joined his mate, who was puffing thoughtfully on his pipe. Smoking like a chimney, Ned thought.
“This train is running awful late,” Joe said without looking up.
“Aye, but Hare won’t miss the chance to take another crack at us with a fresh trail. As sure as mud after the rain.” Ned ventured reaching into the pouch on his belt that held his pipe and tobacco.
“What’s he waiting for, then?” Joe’s lips pursed and he fell quiet. Ned used his clasp knife to shave a plug of tobacco to the right size, catching the shavings in his palm. He’d never gotten used to cut tobacco since leaving Pentridge. He put away the plug and knife and rubbed out the shavings, the rich aromatics of the tobacco, like wine, cherries and wood, wafting through the cold air from his warm hands. Joe’s silence began to make Ned uneasy.
“How are you holding up, mate?” asked Ned. Joe didn’t respond immediately.
“I’m just thinking.” said Joe behind tiny curls of smoke that unfurled from his lips. Ned barely glanced at his best friend, plugging the bowl of his pipe and attempting to light it with a match. The cold air made Ned’s fingers less useful than he’d like. It was just another annoyance in a long line of annoyances since Friday night.
“I keep seeing Aaron there on the floor bathed in blood. Can’t breathe, can’t speak. I blew my best friend apart in front of his wife. He knew it was me. His eyes…” Joe trailed off. He was devoid of the colour of health that usually painted his countenance, but instead bore dark rings under his eyes and a blotchy redness that stained his face from his almost constant consumption of gin and whiskey since his arrival. His shoulders sagged as if in defeat. Ned was defiant, however, clasping Joe’s shoulder.
“He chose his side and he’s paid for it.” he said, tiny plumes of smoke carrying each syllable from his mouth.
“Aye, and so shall we if this plan succeeds.” Silence fell briefly between the pair.
“Do you ever think about them – the police you killed?” Joe asked. Ned’s eyes glazed just for a moment as the echoes of gunshots from Stringybark Creek filled his head. He envisioned Kennedy’s watch and the letter, smeared with bloody fingerprints, that would never reach Kennedy’s widow. He felt his own hands releasing the clasp on Lonigan’s gun belt and wrapping the leather around his own waist. He pictured the way the letter’s pages had curled and turned black in the fire.
“Every day,” Ned said calmly, “that’s why I carry Lonigan’s gun and this watch – so I never forget that my own liberty has not come cheaply. After today we’ll never have to look over our shoulder again.”
Joe coughed to clear his throat. “See that mountain there?” he said softly. Ned nodded. “Aye, that’s Morgan’s Lookout. What of it?” Joe shifted to lean against the fence with his back, sucking the last of the smoke through his pipe and letting its woody tones paint the inside of his mouth. “Remember why it’s called that?”
Ned looked at Joe with befuddlement – the story was common knowledge, of course he remembered. “That’s where Dan Morgan hid after he crossed the border from New South Wales. He bailed up everyone from here to Benalla.” Ned bore a smirk of admiration. He’d always had a soft spot for Morgan growing up. He would read the papers with his father to learn of the latest of Morgan’s depredations and occasionally his father would come back from the pub with the latest news on the grapevine. He idolised Morgan for his one man war on unfair employers and the police. To him as a child of poverty nothing was more romantic than an outlaw challenging the very people who he felt oppressed his family and kept them poor. The thought of highway robbery took him back to his days riding with Harry Power. Ah yes, Harry Power, remembered by those who didn’t know him as a funny old rogue and a teller of tall tales, the self-proclaimed friend of the poor and reliever of burdensome purses, the tutor in crime of the notorious Edward Kelly (of course in those days he was simply ‘young Kelly’). How much had changed in the ten years since those days when Power taught him how to smoke a pipe or change a horse’s brand with iodine in between cursing him and hurling whatever was at hand at his head because his stricture was playing up. The smirk faded.
“What happened to him then?”
Joe’s question seemed pointed in a way Ned was not comfortable with. Joe tipped the ashes of his spent tobacco out of his pipe with a dour expression.
“What are you driving at?” asked Ned impatiently.
“Don’t you remember Peechelba Station? They shot him like a mad dog without a fight then they skinned his face, cut off his head and anything else that made him a man before dumping what was left in an unmarked grave, forgotten and unloved.” Joe went quiet.
“Aye, and if I ever find that Wendlan who put the bullet through him I’ll return the favour.” Ned rumbled. Joe scowled.
“This is our problem, Ned. Here we are at the foot of the monument to Dan Morgan’s final days about to do something even he would never dream of, and you’re shooting your mouth off about killing another person. Don’t you see how that makes us look?” Joe’s voice trembled slightly. He’d never gotten angry like this at Ned before – not to his face.
“Do you doubt me, Joe?” Ned narrowed his eyes. Joe could always tell when Ned’s pride was at risk of injury by the way his eyebrows knitted and his jaw clenched behind his dirty red beard.
“Ned, I’ve soaked my hands in blood for you, don’t you understand that? What we’re doing here… It’s almost unspeakable. If that train comes…”
“It will come.”
“…if it comes and our plan works, what does that make us? Where does it end?”
Ned sighed. His eyebrows met, his beard bristled and he puffed his chest out.
“The traps and politicians declared war on us. They’ve made it a crime to know us and they’ve shown there’s no depth they won’t drop to in order to get us. It ends when we win. They want a war? We’ll show them how we fight wars out here. This is Kelly Country!” Ned growled.
“Kelly Country…” Joe scoffed, “this is not a war; we have no army here. We have the four of us, a rabble of drunks in that inn as our prisoners and a quarter inch of steel between us and the might of Victoria’s Empire. You’ve not courted a fight, Ned, you’ve engineered a slaughter!” Joe’s countenance seemed suddenly shrouded in gloom. “Maybe we really are the monsters the papers make us out to be.” Ned balled his hands into tight fists as he wheeled around to put Joe back in his place but Joe was already walking away.
“Whether at the end of a rope or the end of a bullet, we’ll have to pay the piper for what we’ve done – what we’re about to do,” Joe adjusted his tatty, crocheted scarf. “And if I have a date with death, I’m going to get some more drinking in first.”
Ned sulked at the fence, in his head he raged about that bloody ingrate, that doubting Thomas, that cad with the larrikin heels and the barmaid lusting over him at the Vine. The cold air condensing against the breath jetting from his nostrils lent him the appearance of a furious dragon. As he gazed at the mountain a crow swooped low and landed on the fence next to him. He stared at the bird with its shiny black feathers and cold eyes. It stared back at him.
“Cawww!” the crow exclaimed. Ned remembered his granny telling him stories of the Morrigan when he was a little boy, the Celtic goddess of war and death who could transform into a murder of crows and protect warriors in battle – or claim their souls in defeat. With a flurry of its midnight wings, the crow left as suddenly as it had appeared. Ned then checked the time…
[Memories of Morgan is a creative interpretation of a discussion that may have happened during the events at Glenrowan in 1880. It is an opportunity to examine the characters of Ned Kelly and Joe Byrne during this critical moment in their lives and how their respective interpretations of their world can help to explain their motivations and later actions during the siege. As much as we know of this event and these people, there are many gaps in our knowledge and creative work such as this can help to fill those gaps if approached in the right way. – Aidan Phelan, author.]
The following article, published 21 November 1920, talks about an upcoming book release about Australia’s colonial days. Specifically it refers to the oral legends about Teddy the Jewboy and how they formed the basis of a novel called Castle Vane. If you are interested in reading the book you can access it free online here.
In his new book about pioneer life in the early days, Mr. Jack Abbott has got back to his old style and quality. The story is admirably told, and the interest is consistently sustained. Further, the novelist keeps reasonably close to the facts of history, and draws a picture that is obviously true to the life of the period he loves so well. Incidentally, he disposes once again of the Jewboy, and sees him satisfactorily hanged at the close of the last chapter. That is a- good thing. The tongue of calumny has often been busy with the Jewboy, to the great annoyance of many reputable living people named Davis. It has been roundly asserted that the Jewboy settled in a convict colony and founded a sort of first
family. All sorts of silly yarns have been put about. It is well, then, that the heartening truth should once again shine forth. The truth is that the Jewboy ended his life at the end of a rope while he was yet quite young, and that he left no progeny to pollute Australian earth. This will go on the shelf reserved for the good Australian novels that are of permanent value. Mr. Abbott works at times a trifle casually and at times he tires of
his characters before he can decently be done with them; but in this story nothing is cramped, and there are no traces of fatigue. The book is of especial interest to all folks who live in the fat lands alone the Hunter, where the Jewboy once roared and ravaged.
Castle Vane : A Romance of Bushranging on the Upper Hunter in the Olden Days, by J. H. M. Abbott. Australia, Angus and Robertson, 1920.
“Bushranger Yarn” Sunday Times (Sydney, NSW : 1895 – 1930) 21 November 1920: 25.
I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false.
Thus begins Peter Carey’s novel True History of the Kelly Gang, a fictionalised account of the life of infamous Australian bushranger Ned Kelly. Carey’s award winning book is a dense, thoroughly literary interpretation of Kelly’s life that emulates authentically the voice of the Jerilderie Letter and weaves in a swathe of completely fictional characters including a love interest and daughter to highlight the fictional aspect of the account – a detail that went over many readers’ heads. Carey’s book creates an air of authenticity by framing the story as a series of long forgotten letters archived in the fictional Melbourne Public Library, complete with made up reference numbers for each document. Of his inspiration for the book, Carey stated in one interview:
I was born in Australia and lived there until a few years ago … Australia still seems to remain the main subject and obsession of my novels. I lived in New York City for the past eleven years. I did once try to write a novel abut the United States, but it was with great relief that I abandoned it. The reason I abandoned it was that it somehow occurred to me that there was this great Australian story about an outlaw called Ned Kelly that had never been told. And what was very interesting to me from the perspective of the United States was not that he was just an outlaw like Jesse James, but that this outlaw’s story was the single most important story in our culture. It wasn’t like he was Jesse James. It was more as if he was Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln and George Washington rolled into one. In the perspective of New York this looked very strange, you know, living away from home one has this benefit of seeing what was familiar as strange to understand. For example, the lyrics of the song ‘Waltzing Matilda’, a famous song in Australia that politicians never seem to be able to accept as our national song, are about a homeless man who steals a sheep and commits suicide rather than go to jail. This is a song about heart, in Australia this seems normal, but from the distance of New York one can see how wonderful and peculiar this is. We love Ned Kelly in the same way that we sympathise and in a way identify with the homeless man who committed suicide. I thought Ned Kelly’s story was a great story and it seemed to me that we had never imagined it properly.
It is interesting to note that Peter Carey relied very heavily on Ian Jones’ Ned Kelly: A Short Life when writing his novel, a fact that seems kind of strange in light of how the story veers from the facts but even stranger in light of recent developments. Yet in that same interview Carey explains his stance on the facts in relation to his work:
I was not really interested in historical research about the Kelly Gang, I wasn’t interested in primary documents, I was interested in how we told ourselves the story, I was interested in what we haven’t bothered to imagine. I did a lot of research, but much of it was about the period and the place. For instance, for this story to work, you have to realise it was a story of poor farmers, of Irish people, of people who were madly in love with horses. So, to write about them, you have to be really able to write about horses to be totally convincing to anybody who spent a lifetime with them. I’m terrified of horses myself and I had to face research challenges like that rather than digging in the library finding primary documents.
The core of the book is an exploration of Carey’s favourite theme – the “Unreliable Narrator”. This pops up in a number of texts but here it is driven by the idea that truth is subjective – Ned Kelly’s “truth” is not the “truth” accepted by everyone else, which is reflected in the title. An oft-overlooked piece of artifice is that Carey deliberately doesn’t include “The” in the title of the book. A definitive article would be a lie as this text is clearly not a historical account, but that doesn’t matter to some people, which brings me to the focus of this piece.
Justin Kurzel, director of Snowtown, Macbeth and Assassin’s Creed has seemingly finally gotten his adaptation of Carey’s book off the ground and it has hit the headlines again. This is a film that has had immense trouble getting off the ground. The last time that a Ned Kelly film was successfully made was 2003’s Heath Ledger vehicle Ned Kelly, which was an adaptation of the novel Our Sunshine by Robert Drewe. At the same time Gregor Jordan began his film Oscar-winning Irish director Neil Jordan had acquired the rights to Carey’s book but abandoned his adaptation, which was rumoured to be starring Nicole Kidman and Brad Pitt, when the other film went into production first.
Kurzel had been sitting on this project for some time before it gained traction and funding bodies started approaching and actors signed on. Kurzel, by some miracle, has been able to sign up international stars Russell Crowe, Nicholas Hoult, Travis Fimmel, Dacre Montgomery and his own wife Essie Davis. As the iconic native-born, dark haired, dark eyed, Aussie outlaw Kurzel has cast a blue eyed, ginger, Englishman named George Mackay. Given the considerable backlash caused by casting English rock-singer Mick Jagger as Ned in 1970 (locals allegedly chasing Jagger and the film’s director Tony Richardson out of Glenrowan after watching the film) it seems bizarre that this casting hasn’t raised more eyebrows, though perhaps this has something to do with the fact that many reporting on the developments have incorrectly asserted Vikings star Fimmel is going to taking the role of Ned (he will in fact be playing a fictional policeman called Sergeant O’Neil). The casting, star studded as it may be, highlights that Kurzel seems to have gone with glamour over suitability for his cast. Furthermore Kurzel describes his take on the story as a “Gothic Western for our times”, a genre that is typified in an Australian context by The Proposition, a grim and ultra-violent story of morally ambiguous characters doing awful things to each other with lots of blood and gore to go around. Kurzel expands upon his vision by stating:
Peter Carey’s book True History of the Kelly Gang always felt like the true spirit of Ned Kelly. Unsentimental, brutal, raw and visceral. His story is one of the great odysseys in history, and I feel excited to be bringing it to the screen with a fresh cinematic eye.
To suggest Carey portrays Ned Kelly in an unsentimental way is completely bizarre – Carey’s interpretation of Ned is anything but unsentimental. Carey’s Ned is a loving son who just wants to do the right thing by his family but is faced with injustices at every turn. The relationship is almost oedipal in fact and complicated by the inclusion of a fictional love interest, Mary Hearn, who has a child to his step-father (which Ned discovers during a sex scene involving him drinking Mary’s breast milk) and later bears Ned the daughter that provides the premise for the story. In fact the acts that made Ned infamous – the police killings at Stringybark Creek – don’t occur until over half-way into the book and is almost skimmed over in favour of exploring the relationships between Ned, his family and the antagonists (mainly police). But just to drive it home further, a new article has shone a little more light on the approach this film is taking:
“True History of the Kelly Gang” is a coming-of-age tale charting the rise and fall of the Australian rebel who swore to wreak vengeance and havoc on the British Empire. MacKay will star as the notorious bush ranger Ned Kelly and will depict the colonial badlands of Australia. Nurtured by another notorious bush ranger, Harry Power (Crowe), and fueled by the arrest of his mother, Kelly recruits a wild bunch of warriors to plot a rebellion.
Far from being the story of a mother and her son, which was the main focus of the book and one of the things Carey himself realised was the heart of his own story after manufacturing a love interest for his protagonist, it seems Kurzel’s Kelly has more in common with Che Guevara or Guy Fawkes. One of the things that rings alarm bells when looking at these comments is that we’ve heard this kind of thing before.
Ned (Heath Ledger) and Julia (Naomi Watts) in “Ned Kelly”
Australians will think what they’re seeing is fictional but the most of the movie is fact.
Between the omitted characters, the inaccurate period clothing and locations, the shoe-horned love story with a squatter’s wife, the fanciful sequence where the gang slaughter their horses and drink the blood because of an unexplained bushfire and poisoned waterholes, the sequence where the Jerilderie letter is written by Ned and his captives in the bank, and the circus at Glenrowan, this film is about as factual as an autobiography written by a jackalope. Furthermore Jordan’s attempts to describe the protagonist of his film are overly simplistic:
Ned was someone who was defiant in the face of corrupt officials. Ned was, you know, a working class man, you know, who was big and strong and fought with his fists, and cared for his family and his mates.
To say history is repeating it’s no exaggeration (and ironic). The film was a massive flop everywhere it went, only attracting a small cult fanbase mainly consisting of Orlando Bloom and Heath Ledger fanciers and no doubt that the main thing giving this new film traction is the fact that it’s riding on the coat-tails of the novel’s success – just like Gregor Jordan’s film did when it was released.
What baffles is that Kurzel – or at least his publicity team – are claiming that this film will shatter the Kelly mythology – a mythology they don’t actually define. To rephrase that, Kurzel and company are implying that this fictional account will destroy an existing fictional narrative around the Kelly story. Of course this is an important point to linger on for just a moment. The “mythology”, as it is usually referred to, is that Ned Kelly was a Robin Hood figure, an outlaw hero who wanted to overthrow the Empire in his pursuit of justice. Now, the term “myth” is distinct from the term “legend”, the former referring to ancient histories or wisdom usually handed down as oral tradition and the latter being exaggeration of something or someone famous but noted for its tendency to be untrue. Thus if we are to consider that the stories of Ned’s family being the victims of harassment and Ned being a self-proclaimed freedom fighter are in fact myth, then it concedes, by definition, that there is at least some basis in reality. So in effect what Kurzel’s production is apparently aiming for is to combat possibly accurate oral tradition with completely manufactured fictional elements, a stark contrast to Carey’s intention to re-examine our understanding of what the figure of Ned Kelly represents in our culture by infusing history with fictional elements to make it more relatable. Now, this may seem pedantic – and most arguments surrounding this issue tend to be – but if we want to discredit the validity of such notions of oppression and heroism wouldn’t using facts to attack the legends be more appropriate? At best this pro-fiction approach will just replace the existing myths with false information completely unfounded in reality. What is troubling is Kurzel’s apparent fundamental misinterpretation of who Ned was and the nature of the source material:
It is a true, unfettered, uncensored history of Ned Kelly, probably Australia’s most brutal bushranger. The book is about his history, what he did and how the country views him now. He is a very important part of our history. Set in colonial days, in the 1800s, I would describe it as a gothic western.
To claim Ned was our most brutal bushranger displays considerable ignorance of bushranger history. Any reference book worth its salt will, from a cursory glance, pull up names such as Dan Morgan, the Clarkes, Bradley and O’Connor, Thomas Jeffries and Alexander Pearce who left Ned for dead in the brutality stakes. Whether you’re pro or anti Kelly this is a problematic situation for people with an interest in the history.
We believe our film is different than anything that’s come before in terms of Ned Kelly films. To me his story is timeless and open to reinterpretation, like Shakespeare or Superman or many other tales.
What this makes clear is that for this team the story of Ned Kelly is not a matter of history – it’s a drama like a Shakespeare play or a fantasy like Superman. They don’t see that these are real events that involved real people who actually lived and died and have relatives alive today who are still affected by the fallout. This kind of view is the same line of thinking that led to casting a Carlton footballer as Ned in 1951, the lead singer of the Rolling Stones as Ned in 1970 and adding increasingly preposterous love interests in the 1970 film, The Last Outlaw in 1980 and the 2003 film.
The core of the problem is this: why bother to adapt someone’s life to film if you’re just going to dispense with the facts? If the facts are so boring or superfluous why would you even think of adapting the story? In most earlier Ned Kelly films there was almost no resemblance to fact apart from a few names and key events mostly due to the publication of highly inaccurate biographies at the turn of the century and an over-reliance on half-remembered stories that were handed down. To date the most accurate versions of the Kelly story on film have been the Mick Jagger film and mini-series The Last Outlaw and they have their own significant flaws regarding accuracy. Both were written (at least initially for the 1970 film) by Ian Jones who was mentioned earlier. Both films adhere to the general plot of the actual events and retain most of the characters, however the 1970 version goes for poor casting, inaccurate costumes and sets, rejigs certain events to make them seem more cinematic and slots in a love interest – Caitlin – complete with secret wedding on the eve of Ned’s execution. The Last Outlaw on the other hand has a strangely condensed plot that starts with Harry Power and skims through all of the dramas with the Quinns, Kellys and Lloyds in favour of an almost saccharine tale of “little Aussie battlers”, and pushes Jones’ pet theories about Kath Lloyd as Ned’s lover and the Republic of North-Eastern Victoria as categorical fact – complete with the so-called “phantom army” at Glenrowan despite the lack of solid evidence to corroborate all of these ideas (most of it stemming from interviews with Tom Lloyd Jr or other anecdotal accounts). That is not to discredit Jones’ incredible research, which has completely paved the way for all researchers that came after him on all sides of the debate. Truly, given the contributions Jones has made to the history as we know it – which is considerably more than perhaps any other historian – he can be cut a bit of slack for being so forthright in his convictions however flimsy they appear to be.
If you want to see a biopic done right you need to look at Spielberg’s Lincoln or Ron Howard’s Rush, which both have impressive casts that actually look like the people they are playing and adhere tremendously accurately to the facts with minimal dramatic license – especially Rush which has an eerily accurate depiction of Niki Lauda’s car crash. It is possible to tell a compelling story without altering or inventing major elements to make it more Hollywood friendly. And there are times when a small amount of fictionalisation, or creative license, is able to fill in the narrative gaps left by history and enhance what is an otherwise accurate depiction such as the darkly humourous Chopper which makes a bold choice to play up the unreliable narrator trope and the stunning The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which both tell intimate portraits of historical figures so shrouded in legend it is difficult to tell fact from fiction and exploit that ambiguity (in fact, with the latter also being based on a fictionalised novel adapted by the man who made the former it is perhaps the most apt comparison).
(Justin Kurzel’s previous films “Snowtown”, “Macbeth” and “Assassin’s Creed”) A representative from Kurzel’s distributor for “True History of the Kelly Gang” states the film will be “a burst of energy, buzzing with electricity, loud, brash and full of color.”
An adaptation of Carey’s book has the potential to emulate the success of that approach but based on what we have observed above this film runs the risk of upsetting people, and even being enough of a financial failure that it could cause considerable damage to the Australian film industry. We can also see Kurzel’s stylistic tendency showing through. The trend with Kurzel’s films to date seems to be to adapt a story but make it darker and grittier without much rhyme or reason, a trend he himself notes
I’ve become quite self-conscious about the darkness of the films I’ve done,
In fact this humourlessness was something many critics panned Assassin’s Creed for, one review from Empire magazine stating:
The assassins are deadly with a fork from 300 paces, but you suspect the thing that would really kill them is if someone asked them to crack a joke
Although Empire’s fondness for tearing directors to shreds with impunity means this should be taken with a grain of salt. What this all arrives at is the inescapable reality that in any past effort to make a Ned Kelly film that veers away from the history, the execution has been unpopular and the results widely panned. As someone who has a passion for history and yearns to see someone take this incredible story and do it justice for once, this film is seemingly yet another disappointment. We could have an intriguing study of a complex man and the turbulent society that defined his life but instead we seem to have what promises to be nothing more than an imitation of The Proposition. When a director and his team express a disdain for their source material or a fundamental misunderstanding of it the product that results is often the sort of thing to encourage a request for refunds on tickets. Kurzel, of course, has his work cut out for him given the nature of public opinion on this topic and he has, perhaps wisely, made a concerted effort to avoid historians (which can be divisive) and historical consultants, social media and all the potential audience interaction it entails. This is a film being made in a bubble, just as Gregor Jordan’s was. Of course, I dearly hope to be proven wrong.
Peter Carey’s novel True History of the Kelly Gang is widely renowned for its intriguing and colourful fictionalised depiction of the people and events of the Ned Kelly story. In this video he discusses his thoughts on the Kelly story and his approach to telling his own version of the story and reads a portion of the text as well.
Carey’s book plays, as many of his stories do, with the notion of the unreliable narrator, hence the deceptive title “True History” implying the subjectivity of truth. In emulating an essence of Ned’s voice from the Jerilderie letter he crafts a narrative that is emotionally charged and multi-layered, though not without questionable choices (the “Sons of Sieve” sub-plot is of note here). Carey’s understanding of the Kelly story is demonstrably strong and lends a sense of authenticity to the text, perhaps the reason why so many even to this day believe that this is a factual account. With Justin Kurzel, the man behind the recent Assassin’s Creed film, taking on the task of adapting this novel (a task abandoned by Neil Jordan in the early 2000s) it will be interesting to see if Kelly-mania once again sweeps the nation as it did when the novel won the Booker Prize in 2001.