Above: Clip from 'The Story of the Kelly Gang' (1906) in which Constable Fitzpatrick is visiting the homestead of Kate Kelly.
The producers worked for six months and spent £1,000 to complete the film before it officially premiered at Melbourne’s Town Hall. The first screenings were jam-packed, with one reviewer saying audiences would be lucky to get standing room. We believe the film was initially screened without intertitles but with a lecturer to explain the action, often accompanied by sounds from behind the screen, including dialogue from actors and sound effects such as gunshots and hoofbeats. Some performances were so filled with sound one reviewer complained of the ‘Kelly Bellowgraph’!
Despite the film’s commercial success, by the mid-1940s it was thought lost to history. The first remnants resurfaced in 1976, when Adelaide film collector Vic Reeve found five short fragments in a collection he had acquired some years previously. The longest was only 11 frames long, from a 35mm nitrate release print. Friend and colleague Ron Praite used a publicity photo from the film to identify the frames.
In 1978 the Melbourne contractors Peter Weinstock and James Swan were employed to clean the house of the late Ernest Goldhawk, a film collector and silent-era exhibitor. During the clean-up, Weinstock found and pocketed a small can labelled ‘nitrate film’. After leaving the house, he visited his friend Ken Robb and showed him what he had found. Robb recognised the film, when projected, as The Story of the Kelly Gang from stills he had seen, later confirming the film’s identity with film historians Eric Reade and Ina Bertrand.
In 1980 further footage was found on a Melbourne rubbish tip and delivered to the office of Cinema Papers magazine, before finding its way to the NFSA. The donor wished to remain anonymous.
No more fragments surfaced until 2006 when, during research for the NFSA’s centennial restoration, a new piece of footage was located at the National Film and Television Archive in the UK. The authenticity of the footage was confirmed when its content was found to be identical to a photograph in a poster for the film. The new footage, set on Younghusband’s Station, is by far the longest surviving sequence, giving us our most sustained look at the film’s shooting style.
Like many other films of its day, The Story of the Kelly Gang was filmed mostly in wide shot, duplicating the perspective that audiences were accustomed to from live theatre. Several years were to pass before a more fluid screen grammar emerged through the work of key overseas directors like DW Griffith, giving audiences a variety of wide shots, medium shots and close-ups. In only two of The Story of the Kelly Gang’s scenes – a priest carrying a wounded railwayman out of the Glenrowan Hotel and police escorting a captured Ned Kelly at the end of the film – do characters move from wide to closer shot, then past the camera and out of frame.
The NFSA’s centennial restoration of The Story of the Kelly Gang incorporates the newly discovered footage, and is as faithful as possible to the original film. To guarantee the restoration’s accuracy, the NFSA carried out research into the film’s background, including the examination of contemporary reviews and publicity, and a program booklet written for the original release by Frank Tait, which provided essential information on content and structure. For the first time the Wombat Ranges scenes have been placed in their correct order, while the frame fragments discovered in 1976 have been incorporated into the final scene, replacing damaged frames from the footage found in 1980. A few scenes (Dan Kelly and Steve Hart shooting each other for instance) had been printed in reverse at some stage in the film’s history, rendering all the actors left-handed. Since stills of these characters show them to have been right-handed in the original film, their scenes have been optically ‘flipped’.
The centennial restoration has also allowed The Story of the Kelly Gang to be digitally restored for the first time. The surviving fragments were digitally scanned by Haghefilm Laboratories in Amsterdam using the DIAMANT digital restoration system. This allowed major cleaning to remove dirt, scratches and other blemishes, and eliminated the jitter characteristic of the original footage. This digital approach also allowed for the re-creation of frame content which had otherwise been lost through physical deterioration. To achieve this, the Haghefilm restorers copied and modified content from adjacent frames to replace missing information in damaged ones. The result is the cleaner, clearer and much more detailed film we have today.
This new restoration of The Story of the Kelly Gang testifies to the vital work of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia in preserving Australia’s fragile heritage of moving images. The archive’s work has ensured that this valuable piece of Australia’s film history can now be enjoyed in the closest possible form to the one seen by audiences a century ago.
This article was first published in October 2006 to commemorate the centennial restoration of The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906).