“Nothing you’re about to see is true” the title card of TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG tells us, giving fair warning that, despite hitting familiar beats of his childhood, lawbreaking and armour-plated last stand, this is no straightforward biopic of the notorious, sometimes sainted, Australian outlaw Ned Kelly.
Adapting the Peter Carey’s 2012 novel, the film instead filters Kelly’s own retelling of his mythos through a punk aesthetic blended with homoerotic and Oedipal imagery that transforms it into electric Shakespearean tragedy, fittingly following director Justin Kurzel’s 2015 MACBETH.
This postmodernism presents a fresh take on an iconic anti-hero who has been a staple of Australian cinema from the very outset, but it also allows TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG to explore the very specifically Australian frontier folklore it brings right up to date.
First, some actual history. Defeat in the American Revolutionary War left Britain in need of a location for its penal colonies and the new-found land down under had plenty of prime real estate to offer, so between 1788 and 1860 some 162,000 convicts were transported to the freshly-minted Australia and set to work forging a nation in the image of the motherland. Those who objected to this arrangement and escaped into the wide empty outback soon became Australia’s homegrown highwaymen and Wild West outlaws: the bushrangers, many of whom were of Irish descent and saw in the brutality of the convict system a continuation of historical persecution.
It wasn’t uncommon for bushrangers of this era to style themselves as freedom fighters or even wage war on the colonial government, and they became icons of the cultural identity settlers were creating for their new nation. As the convict era gave way to a prosperous period of gold rushes, a second generation of bushrangers became the folk heroes of ballads and plays which entwined their exploits with romantic depictions of the landscape, encapsulating the uniquely Australian larrikin culture of loveable rogues whose defiance of authority is to be celebrated even if they do commit the odd violent crime along the way.
Ned Kelly was a self-confessed larrikin of this later era, the son of a transported Irish convict whose family was well-known to the law and ran in bushranger circles even before he became one himself. His legend was built on fearless leadership, the extraordinary document known as the Jerilderie Letter in which he detailed his grievances, justified his crimes and pleaded for social justice, and the epic armed siege at Glenrowan during which Kelly and his gang donned the armour forged from iron ploughshares that struck supernatural fear into the attacking police.
The bushranger era came to an end as Kelly hanged for his crimes in 1880, but he was immediately immortalised in verse, song and on the stage, and when moving pictures arrived they were quick to adapt this new folklore. Indeed, the first full-length narrative feature film was the hour-long Australian 1906 silent THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG, and in its wake the fledgling local film industry became among the most prolific in the world, with the bushranger film its most popular genre.
Concern grew that by glorifying outlaws these films would prove a corrupting influence on the populace, and the graphic violence of 1911’s Dan Morgan was the last straw: in 1912 the production and screening of the entire genre was itself outlawed. The Bushranger Ban devastated Australian cinema while drawing a veil over a period of history increasingly seen as unseemly, but silencing the bushranger narrative allowed the Hollywood Western to become the dominant frontier cinema, its righteous pursuit of the American Dream supplanting the individualistic bushranger mythology of survival in a harsh landscape.
Director Harry Southwell, who managed to sneak his 1920 THE KELLY GANG and 1923 WHEN THE KELLYS WERE OUT around the ban, celebrated its lifting by re-releasing his banned 1934 talkie WHEN THE KELLYS RODE in 1948, but the genre remained moribund as Australian cinema continued its decline: the majority of the early bushranger films are now considered lost.
1970’s NED KELLY attempted to inject some counter-cultural cachet by casting Mick Jagger in the title role, but it was 1976’s brutal, acid-washed MAD DOG MORGAN, a retelling of the Dan Morgan story starring Dennis Hopper during his Hollywood wilderness phase, that revived the bushranger film for the Australian New Wave. This state-supported renaissance of domestic cinema truly engaged with the country’s landscape, culture and history, establishing a new, distinctively Australian cinema.
Riding that New Wave was George Miller’s 1979 MAD MAX, a reinvention of the mythic Australian anti-hero laced with motorised Wild West imagery. Societal breakdown forces cop Max Rockatansky into vigilantism before transforming him over the course of three further films into a spiritual successor of the bushranger, fighting for survival in an increasingly desolate and lawless landscape. As his world reverts to feudalism, Max explicitly becomes a hero woven into the post-apocalyptic folklore of the groups he aids, the movies in turn becoming embellished, abstracted retellings of his core mythology.
Around this time Mark “Chopper” Read had attained notoriety as a Melbourne gangster, and Andrew Dominik’s 2000 CHOPPER uses this self-styled urban bushranger’s semi-fictional autobiography to examine a modern-day construction of mythology used as justification for criminality. Contrasting Read’s jocular storytelling with his brutality, Dominik deconstructs this legend much as he would with a Wild West anti-hero in 2007’s THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, a wistful examination of hero worship and the curation of an outlaw legacy that barely feels like a Western.
James and Ned Kelly were contemporaries who are identified in their respective folklore as Robin Hood-like figures, although neither seems to have given a great deal to the poor. 2003’s NED KELLY uncritically buys into the legend, casting Heath Ledger as Kelly and smoothing his political and social positions into a slick Hollywood-style biopic complete with a romantic subplot and some random circus animals, in stark contrast to John Hillcoat’s 2005 revisionist bushranger film THE PROPOSITION.
This original story of frontier violence in the colonial era neither admits to heroes nor offers neat character arcs, and it’s a measure of the bushranger film’s forgotten status that contemporary reviews largely identified the film as an Australian Western even as Hillcoat spoke of reimagining the nation’s lost cinema as it might have evolved without the Bushranger Ban, both updating the genre and bringing it full circle.
TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG shares this mission: using the Jerilderie Letter as a template but otherwise detaching the legend from history gives the film latitude to equate Ned’s betrayal by his highly sexualised mother with rejection by a mother country personified by depraved oppressors, to use a steady stream of inadequate father figures as fuel for his rejection of society, to find in his ragtag gang of equally lost boys a redefinition of masculinity, to cast his urge to carve his name into history as a descent into madness, and his last stand as a furious battle with his inner demons.
This Ned Kelly is no folk hero, but instead a survivor of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, desperately composing a manifesto by which he hopes to be remembered and from which his legend will ultimately arise, only to be appropriated as entertainment for polite society.
Myths are never static: they evolve in the retelling as new attitudes, perspectives and voices emerge. Cinema is one of those voices and while it has the power to create new mythologies, using it to retell the old ones can tell us just as much about our present as our history, some of which is even true.