A lot of people don’t know that the first feature length film was Australian. Australia used to have a thriving film industry but with American studios owning cinemas and block booking, the industry was killed off til the New Wave in the 70’s ushered in a new era. But in 1906, The Story of the Kelly Gang was the first feature length film at 70 mins.
To most Australians, The Kelly Gang and their leader Ned Kelly needs little introduction. THe exploits of the outlaw and his gang were famous in their own day and have filtered down to become legend. Ned was the child of Irish immigrants who were generally looked down on in the New World and in the Old World too. At the time, the general consensus was that the family was targeted by police and treated unfairly, which led to Kelly and his brother becoming outlaws. There was huge protests and public outcry about arrests in the case and many wanted Kelly to not be hanged. And quite a few of the police and troopers involved in the case were later prosecuted for corruption. However, some modern opinions side against Kelly, feeling that he was a common criminal. Kelly was hanged in 1880 for his crimes, which was only 26 years before this film was made.
As you can see in the poster, Ned Kelly is often recognised for the unusual armour made for the final shoot out of his career, that included a helmet and breastplate that could stop bullets.
This film tells the story of the Ned Kelly, starting with police harrassing his mother to the final shoot out. It tells of how Ned Kelly did not harm or rob women and children and only went on a crime spree once he had no choice, only shooting in self defence. It puts the Kelly gang in much the same light as Robin Hood or Bonnie and Clyde, criminals who are pushed by circumstances into a life that they didn’t choose. It also feeds into the Australian notion of a “fair go”, an idea that is an important part of national identity, that people should get a fair chance and not be bullied or conned or discriminated against, something which many people did not feel they got in their home country of Great Britain.
Sadly much of the film is lost or damaged and what you can see now is fragmented but it seems that the film was so popular in it’s time that it was played in cinemas and on tours for almost a decade. It’s a pretty exciting film with plenty of action and drama. Kelly’s mother and sister are beautiful and brave, holding police at gun point. There are plenty of shoot outs with smoke and gunpowder, and of course, the final scenes of Kelly in his armour which are still pretty powerful. The composition of the shots and the way they capture the scenes is quite innovative, giving us a strong sense of timme and place, even though the camera had to be quite static at the time. There are some closer shots that allow you to see faces and details, though most is in wider shot to capture the action. Through out the film you can definitely tell that you are in Australia and not anywhere else in the world.
There have been many films made about the Kelly Gang and I think there will be many more, but this one feels special. Many people watching this and the people who made it would have been alive when Kelly was active, some of them were probably from areas where he was known. Some of them may have been petitioning the government and protesting about the case, others may have been friends or family of the police who were killed. It’s also special as the first feature film, which showed studios that movies didn’t have to be shorts but could be used to tell whole stories, that cinema was not a fad or a side show but a powerful medium of story telling and entertainment. It’s also a good story and well told, even if it does glorify an outlaw (or bush ranger to we Australians). If you’re interested and you can find this film, it’s worth watching.
See It If: you can find it. It’s a powerful watch full of action and drama and has an important place in cinema history.