The Kelly Films

These remarks were originally delivered as part of a series of panel presentations. They are very brief and appear here, as they did at the time, unillustrated.



The "Cinematic Kelly"part of the Kelly Culture exhibit is so good that it seems pointless for me to go over what you can learn there. So I thought it would be best for my contribution to this evening's panel if first I told you about some things that the exhibition doesn't show, and if then I suggested how the films seem to image a change in how Australia once thought of Ned Kelly and how we regard him today.

There have probably been ten films about Ned Kelly which were featured in cinema programs. As you will realise in a moment I had to choose my words carefully for this sentence so as not to mislead you - and the weasel words in the sentence are "probably", "featured" and "cinema".

"Probably"- because we can't be sure. Many people today think that there were just eight Kelly features. It would be a good idea if I listed those eight now and identified them briefly for you:

1. The Story Of The Kelly Gang (1906) - this is the one that some people, including me, would call the world's first proper feature film.

2. The Kelly Gang (1921) - this is the first Kelly film made by the English film maker, Harry Southwell - who is usually noted for making cheap, exploitative and bad movies.

3. When The Kellys Were Out (1923) - this is Southwell's second Kelly film.

4. When The Kellys Rode (1934) - this is Southwell's third Kelly film and the first film about the Kellys with sound.

5. The Glenrowan Affair (1951) - this one was made by Rupert Kathner, an independent film maker, like Southwell. It too is pretty cheap.

6. Ned Kelly (1970) - this is the Tony Richardson film starring Mick Jagger (Ian Jones is credited with co-writing the screenplay with Richardson).

7. Reckless Kelly (1993) - this is the Yahoo Serious comedy, and I guess most people would rightly say that it isn't really about Ned Kelly, but about the Kelly myth.

8. Ned Kelly (2003) - this is the new one, with Heath Ledger, directed by Gregor Jordan.

These are all films that were "features" when they were released. They were long (an hour or more) and they were feature attractions in the cinemas which showed them. I am fairly certain that The Glenrowan Affair, for one, would not always have been the top-billed feature in a double-bill - but no one today would question that it was a feature. There are some Kelly-related films that are "shorts", like Gary Shead's Stringybark Massacre -and you can see parts of some of them in the exhibition. To be honest, I don't know how many Kelly shorts there are. We do not have an authoritative study of Australian short film production (and are not likely to): there are just too many shorts, and short films are just not well documented, so finding out even the number of short films that have dealt with the Kellys would be very hard indeed.

And all of my Kelly items are movies. Perhaps the most thoroughly researched and most ambitious audio-visual production about Ned Kelly has been the Ian Jones-Bronwyn Binns'television mini-series, The Last Outlaw. It would be good to know what kind of a television presence Ned Kelly has had in addition to this. But, if short films are hard to research, television is almost impossible. I simply have no idea how many other television programs may have dealt with Ned or the other Kellys - and no idea of how to find out.

So you have to deal with a pretty limited sample here (not to mention someone with an American accent who claims to be an Australian film historian, and who doesn't seem to know how to find things out about short films or television). I should also tell you that my interest as a film historian is primarily in the films themselves and what goes on in them, not in what went on when they were produced or how they did at the box office and that kind of stuff. Maybe you ought to take everything I say with a large grain of salt.

Now I will tell you about the two Kelly features which I reckon are missing from that list of eight.

The first one is the remake of The Story Of The Kelly Gang. The original 1906 Kelly Gang feature was remade by its original producers in 1910. I actually played a minor role in establishing this back in the eighties by examining posters for The Story Of The Kelly Gang from 1906 and from 1910 and determining that some of the roles were played by different people on each poster and some scenes were shot on different sets. In fact, on the 1910 poster it even says "An entirely new and exquisite representation" - but still Australian film histories persist in acting as though there was only one film called The Story Of The Kelly Gang and it was made in 1906.

We know nothing about the production of this remake. All we have is what the posters show and what can be gleaned from some footage identified as coming from it by the National Film and Sound Archive, but it does look like the 1910 version is likely to have been a very different film. Not only are all the actors different, but the scenes which survive do not correspond to the scenes we know were in the first version - some of them contain characters and incidents which do not appear in the accounts of the Kellys I have read - and the whole thing is photographed far more "artfully", usually played somewhat closer to the camera and in the style of 'teens melodrama rather than the more "primitive" style of the decade before, which characterises the first Kelly film. In sum, a different film, worthy of listing on its own.

The second addition I would want to make to the list of Kelly features does not really have a title, although the exhibition catalogue identifies it as "Kelly Gang". You can see a bit of this film in the exhibition, but there is not space there to point out the things that make it worth our attention.

Some years ago footage was discovered from a melodrama apparently produced in Western Australia during 1906 which featured some of the escapades of the Kelly Gang. Chris Long, an Australian film historian with an impressive track record for research, believes that this film actually predates the 1906 The Story Of The Kelly Gang. This means that it would be the first Australian film about the Kellys - produced on the other side of the continent, far from the East Coast centres of Sydney and Melbourne.

The footage looks nothing like the surviving footage from The Story Of The Kelly Gang, and it contains a couple of appearances of a plucky young woman (called Ada Waldron in the titles) who does a bit of heroic riding around. The Kellys are portrayed as vile bullies, while Aaron Sherrit is shown to have been a noble, conscience-stricken man, gunned down in his prime.

I can't be certain how long this film was. The story it intended to tell is not clear from the footage that survives, and so it is hard to judge how long it may have been from the plot-line. When you come right down to it, it is not very likely to have been as long as the 1906 The Story Of The Kelly Gang, which was at least 40 minutes when it was released - and 60 minutes later on (they kept on adding footage to the first version during the first year or so of its exhibition, presumably because it was proving so popular). There were very few commercial films produced anywhere in the world in 1906 which were as long as that - so I think it is more likely that this Kelly film with no title would have been intended to be only one or two reels, standard for the period. Still, I suspect it would have been THE featured presentation in any program on which it appeared - thus called a "feature" in those days.

But it is possible that what we have in this untitled Kelly fragment is footage from a film that was never ever released, maybe not even finished. Quite a large proportion of any early Australian film footage that survives may be from out-takes and other forms of unreleased footage. This is because no producers kept negatives for very long and few distributors or exhibitors cared what happened to the films they distributed or exhibited once those films had made all the money they thought they were going to. In addition, irreplaceable Australian film footage has been more than once burned to provide a production crew with a spectacular fire.

So far as I am aware, no mention of this Western Australian film has been found in newspapers or other print media. That is not at all unusual, the print media of the time covered films about as well as they cover comic books today. In 1906 most cinemas did not even advertise in the press. So all we have today are out-of-order bits and pieces of a Western Australian film featuring the Kellys which may or may not have been shown.

But I still want to include it on my list of Kelly features - if only to make people aware of how much film making was going on in Australia nearly one hundred years ago - even before we made the world's first proper feature - and how much of that film making was going on outside of Victoria and New South Wales.

Now as I said, this film showed the Kellys as villains. Moreover, the members of the gang are indistinguishable on screen: you can't tell one from the others. In the original version of The Story Of The Kelly Gang, on the other hand, it is easy to tell Ned from Dan in the first scene in which they appear: Ned is the one who has the lean, upright look of a true blue son of Australia. He seems to be of middle age - a tall man, a grave man - almost Lincoln-esque.

Surprisingly, Ned Kelly in the 1910 remake is shortish and rotund - he reminds me of Gimli, the dwarf in Lord Of The Rings.

Notoriously, Henry Southwell cast Godfrey Cass as Ned Kelly in his first two Kelly films. Godfrey Cass was a beefy man, in his 50s at the time, and he did not grow a long bushy beard for the part. Nevertheless, I have to say, he brought more charisma to the role than anyone before 1970 - even if it was a villainous, melodramatic charisma - and it is somewhat naughty of the exhibition's program to mention only that he was related to the Governor of the Melbourne Gaol when Ned was hanged, not that he was an experienced stage and film actor who had played Ned Kelly many times on the stage.

Bob Chitty, a famous footballer, starred as Ned Kelly in The Glenrowan Affair. He represents a return to the mature, wooden Abraham Lincoln type of the first Story Of The Kelly Gang.

I think there are two things that are surprising about these different versions of Ned. The first is that none of them is physically all that much like the actual Ned Kelly. Hay Simpson, who played Ned in Southwell's third Kelly film, is physically somewhat more like Ned - slighter but closer to the real thing than the others. The other ones who are lean and muscular as Ned is in the photos, Bob Chitty for example, definitely look older than 26, Ned's age when he was hanged. And then there is the round one, and Godfrey Cass, who looks like a mangy bear.

And that is the second surprising thing: the variety of body types in these early films - especially as compared with the remarkable consistency in the films since 1970 - all of them definitely young, lean, hunky guys like Ned himself: Mick Jagger, Yahoo Serious and Heath Ledger. Isn't it interesting that the earlier movie Neds were so often not like the real Ned, and not even much like each other? Can you imagine if Gregor Jordan had cast Bryan Brown as Ned Kelly - or if Eric Bana had played him in Reckless Kelly?

Since I am interested in interpreting historical films, I find myself wondering why there was all this variety in the first fifty years of Ned Kelly on the screen. But then I begin to wonder, perversely, why there should be so much consistency in the last 30-something years of Kelly screen representation. Of course, there is an obvious answer for that: the last three Neds look more like Ned than the first six or seven. But my next question is, "why is looking like Ned so important for films now and why was it so unimportant before?".

The answer, I think, is that these last three films themselves are more important than the earlier ones were. And, I think this is at least partly because the figure of Ned Kelly is actually more important now, more Significant with a capital S, more culturally central, more respectable even. If you have seen Gregor Jordan's film I think you will understand what I mean: the treatment of the Kellys in that film is adoring, bordering on hagiographic. In it we have the Australian Film Renaissance classic that Tony Richardson and Mick Jagger did not deliver (and probably never wanted to), a film from the golden seventies. It is as if Yahoo Serious' Reckless Kelly has returned to create the sober legend that gave him comic life.

By comparison, the Neds of the earlier films are a scrappy, higgledy-piggledy lot, finite beings plucked opportunistically from whomever could not get a real job on the day. And in this, they more certainly resemble the man himself and even the films in which they appear - all of them heterogeneous outlaws, spawned in poverty, defying the respectable, rough, unseemly and somewhat uncut. The principle of their selection has been, then, metaphorical - a resemblance of the unruly spirit, not the flesh. This is the sort of thing you can do with figures you know really well, the ones you understand and love, the ones whose sense is alive within you.

Nowadays, as Ned becomes less familiar and more a part of what we try to imagine rather than what we are, we feel the need to hold him fast and make him perfect. Now we want him all golden, forever young, purely good - tragic - enigmatic - absolute. And this is what the newer films have given us: an Australian icon, a cultural monument - a memory.

I would like to add a word about Bronwyn Binns. I did not know Bronwyn Binns, but I do know that my life, the lives of all of us, are poorer for her passing. The Australian screen will sorely miss her passion for accuracy, for truth, and for telling the story of our history. We really will not see her like again.