From its original duration of 70 minutes, sadly, only 18 minutes of The Story of the Kelly Gang remains. Thankfully though, the final spectacular scene of bushranger Ned Kelly’s capture still exists, albeit in a fairly damaged and fragmented form. The blurry and decomposed image that, at times, completely eclipses the on-screen action is terribly frustrating. But it is also peculiarly filmic, moving from the “represented life” of the famous bushranger to the “cinematic life” and material history of the film itself. In fact, this footage, which melts, burns and obscures the on-screen action, literally and figuratively illustrates the delicate nature and limited life-span of nitrate film stock, a form that was known to self-combust and decompose within years of production. Actually, considering that this remaining footage was found on a rubbish tip, it is a wonder that it has survived at all.
However, despite its shockingly decomposed form and lucky escape from the scrap heap, the existing footage of an armoured Ned Kelly battling a number of police officers still constitutes enthralling cinema. At the opening of this scene, an intertitle states that this is “Ned Kelly’s last stand and capture”. Also included within this intertitle are the printed initials “J & G”, which stand for Johnson and Gibson, who co-produced the film together with the Tait brothers. Now whether this intertitle was part of the premiere screening, on 26 December 1906 at the Athenaeum Hall in Melbourne, or was inserted later, remains contentious. Sally Jackson, who worked on the restoration of this film for the National Film and Sound Archive, is convinced that the film had intertitles from the beginning, though many others such as Ina Bertrand and William D. Routt – in their monograph on the film, The Picture That Will Live Forever – provide evidence of screenings that did not include intertitles. It seems that intertitles were included for audiences more unfamiliar with the Kelly story, even though a print that toured around Britain in late 1907 is also believed to have not included intertitles (2).
Cocooned by his amazing armour suit, which the program booklet boasted was “the actual armour as worn by Ned Kelly” (3), the bushranger swaggers from side-to-side towards the camera that sits stationary behind a fallen log. Actually, Kelly’s forward momentum allows the camera to change perspective from long shot to mid-shot and then to medium close-up. With a blazing pistol in each hand, the armoured bushranger, dressed in riding boots and a long jacket, approaches a line of police officers who stand between the camera and a fallen tree. As Routt declared, this image is an “instantly recognisable Australian cinematic icon” (4). Indeed, it is certainly remembered as a momentous moment in Australian film history. As Kelly staggers closer to the fallen log, the cowardly police run out of shot, and seemingly behind the camera, for protection, only to emerge after Kelly steps over the log and is brought to his knees (a result of a bullet wound to his leg, as the program booklet explains). This particular log represents an important artefact in the Kelly “outbreak” as it marks the exact location of Kelly’s capture. And naturally, the film’s promotional materials boasted that the filmmakers had used the “actual” log from the “outbreak”.
According to the program booklet, once captured Kelly begs that his “life be spared”, and certainly, the broken expression on his face suggests a sad and remorseful man. Disarmed and stripped of his armour, the police officers walk him even closer to the lens. The camera then pans, for the only time in this sequence, to show one final glimpse of Kelly before he disappears into history. Interestingly, the final character shown is not the star but an anonymous police officer who points towards the camera as if he is announcing the film’s conclusion. As he also walks out of shot, Tait leaves us with one final image of the thick and mysterious bushland that spawned the figure of Ned Kelly.
- Ina Bertrand and William D. Routt, The Picture That Will Live Forever, The Moving Image/ATOM, St Kilda, 2007, p. 98.
- Bertrand and Routt, p. 27.
- John Tait and Nevin Tait, The Story of the Kelly Gang: Theatre Program, Syd. Day, Melbourne, 1906.
- William D. Routt, “The Story of the Kelly Gang”, The Oxford Companion to Australian Film, ed. Brian McFarlane, Ina Bertrand and Geoff Mayer, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 1998, p. 473.