Mark Juddery has claimed that, without film, Edward “Ned”Kelly could not be the national icon he is today (1). When viewing Kelly’s cinematic legacy, it is hard to disagree. Kelly has appeared on the big screen at least ten times since the birth of the movie camera. His appearances range from the iconic “first feature-length film” (2), The Story of the Kelly Gang (Charles Tait, 1906), to the run of Harry Southwell misfires in the 1920-30s, and by way of Mick Jagger in the much-derided 1970s version, Ned Kelly (Tony Richardson, 1970), to Yahoo Serious on a motorbike in Reckless Kelly (Serious, 1993). Ned has certainly stamped his image on Australian celluloid and the Australian consciousness. A specific shot in Gregor Jordan’s underrated Ned Kelly highlights this relationship between man, myth and movie. It is a shot from inside Kelly’s iron helmet.
As the climatic siege at Glenrowan rages on, Ned Kelly (Heath Ledger) staggers through the downpour, walking towards the camera with determined steps. The camera sways through the rain in time with the bush ranger and, in voiceover, Kelly says he best recalls “riding alone with the sun behind [him]”. But here he is not alone. For a few seconds the camera cuts to a point of view shot. The image itself may be rough and the edges of the image crooked, but the frame is instantly identifiable as the gap in the plough shears that has always served as a window into and onto Kelly. It is the helmet that is familiar from print, paint and moving picture, but shot from the reverse angle. The Victorian bush is framed by the widescreen of the helmet which, in turn, is framed by the widescreen of cinema. The audience is allowed to see the world through Kelly’s lens, if only for a moment. It is a distinctly Australian shot that resonates throughout Kelly’s cinematic legacy.
The story of the Kelly gang being told from Ned’s perspective is nothing new. Previous cinematic incarnations have placed the audience both narratively and spatially hovering over Kelly’s shoulder, while the Jerilderie letter (along with the novels that have used it as inspiration) has revealed to us Kelly’s voice. A variation of this shot even occurs in Tony Richardson’s Ned Kelly but its impact is dampened by the film’s reputation as an outsider’s view of an Australian icon (3). In Jordan’s shot, however, we are no longer just viewing the narrative from the outlaw’s perspective:we are implicated right there in the helmet and we hear his voice echoing inside the iron. The strength of the Kelly legend comes from the sense of kinship (be it organically grown or carefully nurtured) we, as Australians, have to Ned. He is us and we are him: an immigrant’s son, a settler, distrustful of the law and dusted with the larrikin spirit that is now ingrained in the Australian identity. This shot in this movie incarnation explicitly states that we – as spectators, as Australians – are bound inside the helmet, as vital a part of the legend as Kelly himself.
In this, his defining moment, Kelly saw the world though the focused gaze of his home-made armour. We witness socially, culturally and historically defining moments through a spatially and ideologically similar focused gaze, the gaze of the movie camera. Ned Kelly was and is an outlaw, a bush ranger, a national anti-hero and a piece of national iconography. In this simple yet defining camera shot, the icon and his audience are synthesised with the camera that helped create them both. It would seem we are trapped with Ned to view the world in widescreen, both metallic and cinematic.
- Mark Juddery, “The Story of the Kelly Gang”, History Today, vol. 58, no. 1, 2008, p. 24.
- Although this is now a widely accepted fact, details on how the film attained this title can be found in Ina Bertrand and William D. Routt, “The Picture That Will Live Forever”: The Story of The Kelly Gang, Australian Teachers of Media, St Kilda, 2007.
- For further details on the production and critical reception of this film, see Geoff Stanton, “Like a Rolling Stone: The Making of Ned Kelly”, Filmink, vol. 8, no. 35, 2010, pp. 64-67.