The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), directed by Charles Tait, is an Australian silent film and the first ever narrative feature film (previous feature films were boxing matches) at 60 minutes long. It also kickstarted the bushranging genre which was popular in early Australian cinema. The film was shot in and around Melbourne and premiered there, December 26, 1906, at Athenaeum Hall. A Tait Brothers’ production, members of the Tait family wrote, produced, directed, and starred in the film. Athenaeum Hall was even owned by the Tait family. William Gibson and Millard Johnson, pioneering film exhibitors with technical experience, were also producers. There is still uncertainty over who appeared in the film as only 17 minutes of the 60 minute feature has been recovered. There are also several unsubstantiated claims over who starred and even who directed.
The real bushranger and convict Ned Kelly was executed only 26 years earlier in 1880. Ned Kelly’s younger brother and mother were still alive when the film was released. He is now one of the most famous figures in Australian history. Stage plays about the life of Ned Kelly, and other bushrangers, were all the rage with several different productions on the life of Kelly showing when the film premiered. It is possible the story was made into a feature-length film because of the success of those stage plays.
The film is made up of 6 different sequences.
- Scene 1: Police discuss a warrant for Dan Kelly’s arrest. Later, Kate Kelly rebuffs the attentions of a Trooper.
- Scene 2: The killings of Kennedy, Scanlon and Lonigan at Stringybark Creek by the gang.
- Scene 3: The hold-up at Younghusband’s station and a bank hold–up.
- Scene 4: Various gang members and supporters evade the police and the gang killing of Aaron Sherritt.
- Scene 5: The attempt to derail a train and scenes at the Glenrowan Inn. The police surround the hotel, Dan Kelly and Steve Hart “die by each other’s hands” after Joe Byrne is shot dead.
- Scene 6: The closing scenes. Ned Kelly fights hard but is shot in the legs. “He begs the Troopers to spare his life, thus falls the last of the Kelly Gang…”
*The reason I’m posting the synopsis is so that if you decide to watch the surviving film you could have some context.
The film had a long and successful tour initially running for seven weeks to packed movie houses. Many were able to make their fortunes by touring the film overseas. The film’s screenings were accompanied with live sound effects “including blank cartridges as gunshots and coconut shells beaten together to simulate hoofbeats.” It received much critical acclaim by local newspapers and critics. However, local authorities and politicians felt the film glorified criminals (as was the sentiment about gangster films in the 30s). The film was banned in certain areas but was still screened throughout Australia and eventually New Zealand, Ireland and Britain. It consistently made a large profit and similar films of bushranging stories would be made soon after.
The film was considered lost until 1975 when segments of footage were found. In 1978, more reels of footage were found in the collection of a former film exhibitor. In 1980, film reels were found on a rubbish tip in Melbourne. Finally, in 2006, film depicting the holdup at Younghusband’s station (scene 3) was found in the UK. It was then that the National Film and Sound Archive decided to release a digital restoration incorporating all of the footage found thus far, totalling a 17 minute run-time. This footage includes the iconic scene of Kelly’s last stand in scene 6.
This film is only available as 17 minutes of footage, but even with these small fragments, the film is just as exciting as it might’ve been. No scene is a dull moment as the Kelly gang roams free on horseback in the thick and wild bushland. With pistols in hand they fire shots at constables and hold civilians at gunpoint. In one scene we see a convict (possibly Ned) swim across a creek, mount his horse and gallop away, all in a single shot. Scenes where they are robbing passersby (highway robbery) seem to me, with my modern eyes, like a CCTV video. Without any sound and a blurred image, I feel like I’m catching them in the act.
And this film wasn’t just enthralling for me. After screenings around the country there were reports of crimes. Including five local children who broke into a photographic studio, stole money, and rounded up a group of schoolchildren at gunpoint, eerily similar to the Kelly gang’s highway robbery. The film’s depiction of the gang’s exploits was so realistic and thrilling that it prompted people to engage in these acts of violence. It’s no wonder then that the film was banned in some towns. The film also supposedly put a sympathetic light on the convicts which made the film even more unacceptable to authorities.
The final stand of Ned Kelly has him dressed in armour that resembles a cross between a knight and a space age robot. Press releases claimed that the armour was worn by a member of the Kelly gang, possibly even Ned Kelly himself. The image of Ned Kelly approaching the constables, pistol in hand, is now iconic in Australian cinema. As for the cinematography, I liked that subjects are frequently brought to close shot and then out of frame. It enhances the movement and action taking place. In one scene, horses ride right up the camera. This isn’t a unique cinematic technique, but I’m impressed by this movement of the camera rather than just a boring static shot. My favorite scene was one I didn’t even mention. It is a scene at the Glenrowan Inn pub where the gang is celebrating a success (maybe a robbery) with drink. Soon things go downhill when constables discover them and a shootout ensues. The constables even set the inn (or pub) on fire which I thought was funny. It’s one way to get the job done…
Overall, the film is able to capture the thrilling exploits of Ned Kelly and his gang in such a way that is still effective to this day. I would recommend giving it a watch even if just a small clip. The NFSA website has the best quality clips from the film.