Published in print and online in the Canberra Times, 2 & 3 December:
Feature © Jane Freebury
Such is life, or is it? Bushranger films, one of the most popular films ever made in Australia, were banned in three states by the police in 1912, for fear of their impact on law and order. And yet the figure of the strapping, bearded outlaw who emerged from the bush and melted back into it just as quickly, may have been erased from the cinema screen but he was never killed off.
The bushranger never quite vanished from local popular culture. His (and on occasion, her) exploits outside the law continued to be celebrated in ballads and in theatre and on occasion there were relatively bland bushranger roles in films about squatter’s daughters or robberies under arms during the decades before the ban was lifted in the early 1940s.
Things were however never quite the same as they were at the start. Neither for bushrangers, nor for the local film industry. It is a widely-accepted fact that Australia’s first narrative feature, The Story of the Kelly Gang of 1906, wasn’t an isolated event. Australia was making a lot of feature-length films at that time, and in 1911 it made more than any other country in the world. Fifty-two movies were released, many of them bushranger stories, made before Hollywood began exporting its westerns in deadly earnest, and these bushranger films were a direct response to audience demand. An output of 50-plus films was not attained again until the 1970s when local film production began to re-emerge from decades of inactivity.
It was during that decade that bushrangers began to re-emerge in title roles. Ned Kelly made a bizarre re-appearance on the screen, in the form of a slight and effete rock star in 1970. It did not go down well. The swaggering Mick Jagger just didn’t cut it as the iconic outlaw, his attempt at an Irish accent didn’t work, and the production was beset with problems from the start.
Much better received were the series on the bushranger Ben Hall that appeared on Australian television a few years later, and the movie about bushranger Dan Morgan in 1976. Philippe Mora, the director of Mad Dog Morgan director, apparently thought that his lead actor, Hollywood wild man Dennis Hopper, identified with the role. High on drugs and booze, Hopper threw himself into the part, and took his method acting to an extreme. He didn’t wash, and got so drunk after the shoot that he was arrested with a blood alcohol reading that belonged to the clinically dead.
There was a further hiatus in bushranger movies until the better behaved and milder-mannered Heath Ledger donned the metal mask in Gregor Jordan’s Ned Kelly in 2003. Still today, the bushranger show just keeps rolling on, attracting new generations of filmmakers. A new independent Australian film, The Legend of Ben Hall, directed by Matthew Holmes, has opened with screenings across the bushranger’s patch in country NSW, and beyond.
TLOBH is the result of tremendous commitment by its dedicated team of young filmmakers. I interviewed key cast and crew as they made their way across Ben Hall country to open their film in cinemas from Griffith to Tamworth and Wollongong, and from Melbourne to Adelaide during November. The was financed with crowdfunding through Kickstarter. ‘It would not have been possible to make it without social media’, says Holmes.
A new take on Ned Kelly is also likely to make a reappearance at some point soon. There are reports that Justin Kurzel (The Snowtown Murders; Macbeth) is working on an adaptation of the book by expatriate Australian novelist Peter Carey, The True History of the Kelly Gang, which won the Booker Prize in 2001.
When audiences clamoured for more anti-authoritarian bushranger fun early last century, they got their wish, but within two years, bushranger film production was suppressed. The ban of 1912 effectively removed bushranger folklore from popular cultural expression. The police considered they made a mockery of the law and glorified the highwaymen to audiences largely composed of young adults and children. The genre became a victim of its own popularity. Impossible to imagine the impact of such a draconian move. Was the mood early in federation really so febrile?
Besides being skilled horsemen, Australian bushrangers had little in common with the characters who took part in the American western. It wasn’t the frontier that they sought to extend or tame. Their patch was the bushland peripheral to settlement that gave them cover, beyond the arm of the law.
Ned Kelly, whose iconic status was certainly contributed to by the famous series of Kelly paintings by artist Sidney Nolan, has become a national icon, but there were other popular bushrangers besides him. Ben Hall for example. Alongside films about Kelly, Frank Gardiner, Captains Thunderbolt and Midnight, Hall was popularized in films as early as 1911, like Ben Hall and his Gang, and A Tale of the Australian Bush: Ben Hall the Notorious Bushranger. TLOBH director Holmes discovered during his research that none of the early films about Hall have survived.
Hall was born on the Liverpool Plains, NSW, in 1865, the son of transported convicts. He apparently took to bushranging when life turned sour for him but was a somewhat reluctant outlaw who is said to have taken up armed robbery after wrongful arrests, and his wife left him taking their child with her. During the three years that he was on the road he never took a life despite more than 600 crimes to his name and that of his gang. ‘He was definitely a criminal and his criminal career definitely exceeds Kelly’s by more than a country mile. He was definitely doing wrong, but there was also a decent man under it,’ says Holmes. It was the contradiction and the conflict that attracted him to the character.
Was there anything that Holmes and his team decided they would avoid, having seen what the other bushranger films did in the past? Without a moment’s hesitation: ‘Yeah, the Irish accent.’ As lead actor Jack Martin observes, ‘We talked about it ad nauseum and we are in total “agree-ance”.’
Early in the life of the colonies, it was convicts who escaped into the bush and became bushrangers. By the middle of the 19th century, it was the Australian-born who were holding up the coaches of Cobb & Co.
‘One of the things I have never liked about bushranger films—even The Proposition, which I love, was guilty of it—was that everyone’s talking like they were from Belfast. It grates because we have very strong evidence that the Australian accent was forming quite rapidly by the 1860s […] So what we decided with this film is that we were going to talk “Australian”.
‘It’s probably the biggest point of difference’, but then this latest version of the Ben Hall story may well be one of the first to pay much attention to the facts, as far as they can be known, anyway.
The Legend of Ben Hall premiered in Forbes on 12 November.