From our first feature film to Justin Kurzel's blockbuster adaptation, we explore Australian cinema's enduring fascination with our most infamous bushranger.
Iconic images of Ned Kelly are familiar to many Australians – from the horse-stealing to the holding up of coaches and banks, and from the unjust arrest of his mother to that final doomed iron-clad figure advancing in the early morning mist.
Through word of mouth, newspaper print and the famous Jerilderie letter (which stipulates Ned's justification for his criminal actions), these events have since entered the realm of myth, celebrated in songs, ballads, poems, plays and artworks. Think of Sidney Nolan's series of starkly simplified depictions of Kelly iconography, which have arrested the attention of one generation of viewers after another.
Given Kelly’s ubiquity in our public imagination, it is little wonder that his story figures prominently across Australian cinema history. Our first feature film, The Story of the Kelly Gang (Charles Tait, 1906), traces the key events leading up to the downfall of the 19th century bushranger:
The above nitrate-damaged fragment from the film features a re-enactment of the famous last stand at Glenrowan. It’s hard to appreciate the full power this scene would have had on audiences, but we can see Ned firing away gallantly, then taken down by Victorian police, and finally troopers struggling to subdue him once he has fallen.
In another sequence, we encounter the despised constable Fitzpatrick (whose devious actions drove the Kellys to become outlaws). Fitzpatrick visits the homestead of Kate Kelly (Ned's sister). After he attempts to kiss Kate, a scuffle ensues. Ned steps in and shoots Fitzpatrick – and the gang escapes on horseback. The portrayal of Fitzpatrick as a corrupt drunken officer conveys sympathy for the Kelly struggle under colonial oppression.
Released just 26 years after Ned's hanging at the Old Melbourne Gaol, the film was a great success, touring the country for several months. However, state authorities soon banned the movie, proclaiming it glorified criminal activities.
Read about the discovery and NFSA restoration of the landmark film, The Story of the Kelly Gang.
Harry Southwell directed 3 films focusing on the Kelly story. The clip below – taken from Southwell's first film, The Kelly Gang (1920) – is a humorous scene with Ned (played by Godfrey Cass) and his accomplice Joe Byrne (Horace Crawford) holding up a bank.
Dressed as police, the 2 laugh mischievously as they knock on the door. Discovering the manager is not there, they go to his home – only to find him in the bath. The relatively early silent film relies on fluid visuals to tell the story with an economical use of inter-titles:
Perhaps a result of pressure from police and politicians, Southwell’s films generally paint a less romanticised picture of the Kelly story. When the Kellys Were Out (1923) and When the Kellys Rode (1934) both take the side of law and order and, at times, blatantly admonish the subverting of authority by the outlaw gang.
The clip from When the Kellys Rode (1934) captures the famous confrontation at Stringybark Creek, where the gang kills 3 officers. The theatrically staged gunfight and lack of musical score characterise it as an early sound film. Sergeant Kennedy is portrayed here as a noble – if melodramatic – hero, while the brutal and charismatic Ned (Hay Simpson) appears as a cold-blooded killer:
Following these efforts came The Glenrowan Affair (Rupert Kathner, 1951). Starring Bob Chitty, a well-known Australian rules footballer, the film traces the Kelly gang's journey of betrayal, violence, murder and terror – told from the perspective of an aging Dan Kelly (Ned's younger brother).
In the clip below, we see a depiction of the infamous moment where Ned and Joe (Albie Henderson) enact revenge on their traitorous friend Aaron Sherritt (played by director Rupert Kathner):
Ned and Joe have a believable brotherly rapport in the opening dialogue and seem very much at home in the panoramic bush landscape. The swelling score adds to the sense of doomed heroism in the Kelly brothers' story.
The next cinematic interpretation of the Kelly story took an unexpected turn. Ned Kelly (Tony Richardson, 1970) featured Mick Jagger (the Rolling Stones superstar) in the leading role. The film garnered criticism for being shot in the New South Wales town of Braidwood – far removed from the Victorian Kelly country central to the story.
Jagger's casting made some commercial (and symbolic) sense, given his status as an iconic rock'n'roll outlaw of the 1960s. In this lively clip, the film presents Ned as a rising revolutionary bent on establishing a republic of North East Victoria. But the fresh-faced Jagger, with his boyish enthusiasm and lilting Irish accent, bears out audience criticisms of the time that he was too English in the part, and lacked the rough physicality fundamental to the image of a feared and famous bushranger:
Ned Kelly (Gregor Jordan, 2003) features Heath Ledger, one of our most celebrated actors. Ned is not presented here as the usual hard-minded rugged individualist, so intertwined with the Australian legend, or as the revolutionary of Jagger's interpretation. Instead, Ned embodies the romantic revisionism found in some prior cultural depictions – a kind of Robin Hood archetype, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor:
In the clip above, Ned is romantic, poetic, fair-minded and fearless – and also has a love interest, Julia (Naomi Watts), an invention of the novel Our Sunshine (Robert Drewe, 1991), a key inspiration for the film. As noted by Paul Byrnes on the NFSA's australianscreen website, the addition of Julia also gives Ned a clear alibi – as seen above, for instance, he is not present during the altercation with Constable Fitzpatrick (Kiri Paramore). Another essential element in this clip is the film's score, which employs melancholic strains evocative of the Kelly family's Irish heritage, struggle and resistance.
Read more about Heath Ledger's portrayal of Ned Kelly.
The most recent Kelly film to emerge is True History of the Kelly Gang (2019), a film inspired by Peter Carey's Booker-winning novel and featuring in the Australians & Hollywood exhibition at the NFSA.
Kurzel's adaptation, starring English actor George MacKay, delivers an alternative postmodern vision complemented by an anachronistic score and rock'n'roll-influenced aesthetic:
Unashamedly blurring the line between fact and fable, the above sequence switches between Ned's voice-over diary entries and his riling up the gang as they forge their metal suits, and then attempting to derail the train filled with Victorian police. It makes for a thrilling combination of character-building and action. Thanks to MacKay's memorable central performance, Ned's forceful call to arms and idiosyncratic actions mark him out as a believable leader for disaffected young men.
The frocking up of bushrangers seen in the above clip is a recurring element throughout the film. Through this imagery – and a homoerotic subtext found in other scenes – director Kurzel playfully challenges typical heteronormative depictions of Kelly as a macho folk icon.
Ned Kelly has become a powerful point for articulating identity in Australian cultural imaginings. The events surrounding his remarkable life are perfectly suited to cinematic storytelling. But as we can see in the many films of his life, determining fact from fiction is becoming increasingly complex.
What can be said is that the Kelly story responds to a post-British settlement Australia under-endowed by, and in desperate need of, myths of belonging. Here we remember, of course, that this country is blessed with First Nation myths, predating European arrival by many tens of thousands of years. Furthermore, as Australian society becomes more pluralistic, our collective identity is ever-changing.
As seen in more recent portrayals – such as True History of the Kelly Gang – we can expect future films to continue to challenge, reimagine and reinvent the Kelly story.
Dr John Milner completed his PhD at the ANU School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics and has published widely on the aesthetics of film, music and art, including with Cambridge Scholars Press, Media International Australia and Screening the Past. His work is used in various institutions across Australia and abroad, including as a teaching resource.