Ned Kelly

In the 1960s I saw a Czech comedy (1), in which a detective showed a witness a book of mug shots that included an image of Ned Kelly’s helmet. I was amused by the visual joke but at the same time astounded that our local hero should turn up in such a place – obviously the filmmaker was not only confident that the international audience would get the joke, but also that they would recognise the helmet! How had our Ned managed such international recognition?

There was never any doubt of his legendary status among Australians. However, the myth comes in two, mutually exclusive, versions. One has him the vicious outlaw, murderer of policemen who are just doing their duty in protecting the citizenry against his depredations. The other has him the noble defender of the rights of the underprivileged against a ‘justice’ system which has been rigged in favour of the wealthy. This is a story that has entered the Australian psyche, but that also seems to need to be reinvented for each new generation.

The process began with the newspaper reports of his career, capture, trial and execution (in 1880). Most of these were on the side of law and order, though Ned’s own ‘Jerilderie letter’ made a major contribution to the view of him as hero. By the beginning of the twentieth century, there had been at least a dozen stage plays around the events. Kate Kelly toured with a stage show which staunchly defended the gang: other stage plays came down hard on the side of law and order, showing Ned as a criminal – though reviewers were frequently disturbed (even scandalised) at the tendency of audiences to cheer him inappropriately. The plays were followed by more than thirty books (fiction and non-fiction) and at least ten films.

The Story of the Kelly Gang

The earliest film (The Story of the Kelly Gang) was produced in 1906, making history as the first feature-length dramatised fiction film made in Australia (and possibly the world). Only a few minutes have survived of this production, and a copy of the programme booklet, containing both extracts from contemporary newspaper reports of the capture of the gang, and a synopsis of the film, in six ‘scenes’. The latter provided audiences with the sort of information later provided by intertitles, and now helps historians imagine what the film may have been like. Its tone is one of sorrow rather than anger, describing Kelly as ‘the Last of the Bushrangers’, presenting the police hiding under the bed when Aaron Sherritt is shot (‘This is the Only Blot on the Police’), and Curnow’s action in warning the train as heroic (‘Thank God, he Saved the Train’). Among the surviving images are two scenes that suggest considerable sophistication for that time. The scene of the police shooting parrots in the bush skilfully positions the shooter in the middle ground to the left of the image, firing upwards toward the far right, with the gang watching him from close foreground. The capture of Ned is shot from the viewpoint of the police, as Ned advances, an impressive figure weaving towards them under the weight of his armour and the shock of the bullets. The film was hugely successful, touring Australia for more than twenty years, and also being presented to great acclaim in New Zealand and Britain.

Other bushranging films followed, till in 1912 the New South Wales police, who had the responsibility at that time for film censorship in the state, banned all such films, apparently because they might encourage disrespect for the police and the law. After this ban, several Kelly films sought to evade the police proscription by showing the gang as vindictive criminals and ennobling the police: in The Kelly Gang (1920), there is a touching scene of Constable Lonergan farewelling his wife and child before going off into the ranges to be killed by Kelly, and it may have been this empathy with the police that helped the film get past the censors. But such tactics did not always work: When The Kellys Were Out (1923) and When The Kellys Rode (1934) were both banned.

Ned Kelly (1970)

Much later, The Glenrowan Affair (1951) made Ned a hero, while Ned Kelly (1970) turned him into a pop idol by casting Mick Jagger as Ned and including jazzed-up folk songs on the soundtrack. Though the latter film had a certain raw energy, it still offended the purists: how dare they cast anyone but an Aussie in such a role, and anyway Jagger (though the right age) was far too puny for ‘our Ned’! Yahoo Serious’s Reckless Kelly (1993) treated the subject ironically, but Australians seemed to be not yet ready for such levity surrounding a national icon, and the film had only limited success.

So any new Kelly film has a heavy responsibility – both to the nation and to the national film industry. Director Gregor Jordan seems fully aware of this. The advertising for his film proclaims “You can kill a man. But not a legend.” Based on Robert Drewe’s novel Our Sunshine, it comes down unequivocally on the side of the Kellys, constructing Ned as rebel hero and the gang as Irish-Australian patriots taking on the full weight of the Anglo-Australian establishment.

The pre-credit sequence shows the ten-year-old Ned (Cody O’Prey) rescuing another schoolboy from drowning and being rewarded for his bravery with a green sash, edged with gold braid. Young Ned is equally delighted at the sash (which he wears often for the rest of his life) and at the approving gesture of his father, in calling him “Sunshine.” The film ends with the 25-year-old Ned (Heath Ledger) captured after an heroic battle, in which his gang are outnumbered by more than ten to one, yet stand and fight bravely, while the police are depicted as stupid, cowardly and unconcerned at the welfare of the civilians caught in the crossfire. In between, there is no doubt that Ned is driven to crime by circumstances – by poverty as well as a corrupt police and judicial system. His exploits are, like those of Robin Hood, designed both to right wrongs and to ensure his popularity with his own people (the Irish immigrant community in the north-west of Victoria, but also any other Australian who shares his ideals), even while they punish and humiliate those who would keep these people in their ‘place.’ His demise is inevitable – all Australians know at least the end of the story; but instead of depicting the criminal trial and the awful finality of the execution, the film-makers choose to end with his capture, leaving Ned at least still alive, and still defiant.

This particular version is very dark, showing in graphic detail the barren and isolated farm, the family’s dirty and crowded living quarters, food that looks more like pig swill, and yet fierce loyalty to each other and to their neighbours. The darkness extends to the design – dimly-lit interiors and frequent night scenes; even scenes in daylight such as the aftermath of the bush-fire have a nightmarish quality.

It is an angry version, with tension rising from the very first confrontation with the police over the stolen horse to the final cathartic shoot-out. Ned expresses his frustration in emotional outbursts, that draw the audience into the family’s grief and despair and resentment. The narrative is built on the string of beads principle – a series of set pieces, some tragic, some romantic, some even comic.

In many ways, Jordan’s 2003 film has brought the wheel full-circle. Like the unnamed actor who played Ned in 1906, Heath Ledger is the right age and build for the historical figure, and carries himself with the kind of presence that could convince poor farmers to forego the reward rather than betray their hero. Neither the much older and rather portly Godfrey Cass (1920) nor the scrawny Mick Jagger (1970) come close to this kind of charisma. The rest of the gang all look authentic also, and move with the kind of swagger that we expect from fit, young bushmen. They also ride convincingly, even if they don’t wear their hats tied under their noses (a Kelly trademark gesture of contempt for the world).

In 1906, the producers claimed authenticity, but apologised to the public for dressing the police in uniform, which they would not have worn while out in the bush. This was explained as necessary to enable the audience to distinguish between the outlaws and the police, in a time before colour film and when close-ups (allowing distinctions among characters) were rare. In 2003, the marker of authenticity seems to be the accents of the gang. The gang members are played by an Australian (Heath Ledger as Ned Kelly), two Englishmen (Orlando Bloom as Joe Byrne and Philip Barantini as Steve Hart), and an Irishman (Laurence Kinlan as Dan Kelly), with another Australian as Aaron Sherritt (Joel Edgerton). In a film intended for an international audience – as this one clearly is – that should be a marketing strength: in terms of authenticity, however, it remains a problem. Irishman Gerry Grennell was appointed Dialect Coach, even though he said himself that in Australia in the 1880s “it was too early for any accent to have settled.” Ned was not born in Ireland, but could be expected to have picked up intonations and inflections from the Irish immigrants among whom he was raised, so inconsistencies of accent could still be interpreted as authentic, though some hyper-sensitive critics have not been so generous.

Ned Kelly

In many ways, however, this is a new filmic rendition of the story – following Drewe’s novel rather than the historical narrative. There are hints that the Kellys were seen by the authorities as the leaders of a more general rebellion, that is, that their exploits were considered to be subversive rather than merely criminal. This is not new, and is not developed very far within the film – mainly in a few comments by Superintendent Hare (Geoffrey Rush) as he gives chase. What is new is the connection of this anti-establishment attitude with issues more relevant to the present day. The gang are associated with knowledge of the environment, signified by the (rather excessive) depiction of native birds and animals as well as by their familiarity with the land and their ability to disappear into it. The authorities (particularly the police) are associated, on the other hand, with destruction of the environment: they deliberately set fire to the bush to ‘smoke out’ the gang, and poison waterholes to limit the gang’s capacity to hide.

For the pivotal scene at the Kelly homestead which leads eventually to the arrest and imprisonment of Ellen Kelly, the 1906 film opts to believe Fitzpatrick’s account that Ned shot him in the wrist, rather than Ned’s own (inconsistent) claims that either he was not there at all, or that he was there when Fitzpatrick’s gun went off accidentally. The present version provides an apocryphal – but surprisingly convincing – love story, to support Ned’s claim that he was not there and at the same time to account for his inability to produce an alibi in court.

In fact, women in general are presented rather differently from earlier versions. Kate Kelly has always been something of a heroine – the one who carried messages to and fro through police cordons, who resisted the advances of a blackguard, who held the family together while her mother was in prison and her brothers on the run. But the 2003 version offers us several such feisty females, and a wholly new sexual element. The nearest former versions came to any mention of sex was to admit that Ellen Kelly had a new baby while Ned was in gaol, though they were careful to make clear that she married the baby’s father. The baby is necessary to highlight the despicable attitude of the magistrate. It is bad enough that, when the police cannot find Ned and Dan, they arrest and sentence their mother: but it is far worse that they should do so when she was breast-feeding! In the 2003 version, Ellen Kelly (Kris McQuade) is still earth mother, but there is a whole new pleasure-oriented female sexuality in other characters – not only Ned’s paramour (Julia Cook played by Naomi Watts), but also Mrs Scott (Rachel Griffiths) who makes a move on Joe Byrne, and the various women interested in the other gang members and in Aaron Sherritt. It is an admission that however shocking the exploits of the gang may be, they also have a romantic aura, and that for as long as the gang are successful they are also sexually attractive.

Another major departure is the introduction of the circus into the final dramatic showdown. As if the chaos of the gang confronting the police, with the townsfolk caught in the hotel, was not enough, we have circus vans parked outside with the lion pacing up and down till killed in the cross-fire, and the Great Orlando with his monkey on his shoulder inside the hotel until that, too, is killed. All this, whether taken literally or metaphorically (there is certainly a temptation to see the lion as the representative of the British crown, or as the embodiment of British justice), makes the final sequence just too crowded and chaotic – diminishing, rather than enhancing, the drama of the ending.

The current wave of interest in the Kelly story seems to have started with the international success of Peter Carey’s award-winning novel, The True History Of The Kelly Gang. Ned: The Exhibition appeared for several months at the Old Melbourne Gaol in the middle of 2002 and then went on tour for several months more, and in early 2003 a Kelly retrospective went on display in the Keith Murdoch Gallery at the State Library of Victoria. The present film has both contributed to this wave of interest, and benefited from it. A ‘definitive’ Kelly film is probably not possible – but this one at least presents the story compellingly once again, reinventing it for a new generation, and for an international as well as an Australian audience.


  1. I have forgotten the title, so I would be grateful for a reminder from a more observant film buff.

About The Author

Ina Bertrand is a freelance writer and also a Principal Fellow in the Cinema Studies program at the University of Melbourne.

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