Bushranger Ben Hall to step out of Ned’s shadow

© Jane Freebury

Bushranger movies did a brisk business early last century until the authorities put a stop to them. What influence were they having on an impressionable populace? The burgeoning genre included films about Ben Hall, Dan Morgan, Frank Gardiner, Captain Starlight, John Vane and Ned Kelly, who of course featured in the first film Australia ever made. The effects of these bans in 1911-12 across NSW, Victoria and South Australia lingered for decades.

The idea of men on horseback roaming the wilderness, beyond the law, has had an irresistible attraction for Matthew Holmes, a young filmmaker from Warburton, Victoria. ‘I’ve always thought there was an Australian version of the “wild west”, but it has been untapped,’ he says.

Perhaps he has a point. There has been a smattering of films. However Philippe Mora’s Mad Dog Morgan, Gregor Jordan’s Ned Kelly and John Hillcoat’s excellent The Proposition don’t a local western genre make.

Becoming a film director and making a movie about bushranger Ned Kelly went hand-in-hand for Holmes until Heath Ledger’s swaggered onto the screen as the bewhiskered outlaw in 2003. It put paid to his aspirations until he heard there were other bushrangers who could also carry a feature film, and realised he didn’t have to drop the idea at all.

Ben Hall came into focus. In the mid-19th century Hall and his gang conducted robberies under arms from Bathurst to Forbes and from Gundagai to Goulburn until he was shot dead by police in 1865. It was quite a fall from grace for a young man who once had a squatting run and a home with wife and child.

When The Legend of Ben Hall is released later this year or early in 2016, expect a film that steers close to the facts. ‘I wanted to make a movie that presents a real story,’ Holmes says. ‘A lot of films based on history tend to waver or wander away from the facts […] I wanted to do something that stuck as closely to the history as it could.’

He feels that the true story of Ben Hall can’t be bettered. ‘It’s not that difficult. It probably sounds more difficult than it really is.’ Author of books on Ben Hall and descendant of the bushranger’s brother, Peter Bradley, is an historical advisor on the project. He and the director have a shared perspective of the outlaw, that of a decent man ‘striving to be doing good, even though he was doing bad’.

Historical records have provided the best inspiration. Authenticity of detail has been observed, right down to what the gang were wearing when they committed a robbery! Each member of the huge cast represents a real person of the time. The more closely an actor resembled their historical counterpart, the more likely they were to be selected.

So did you try to get into Ben Hall’s mind? ‘Oh, absolutely. We tried to get into his mind in a very big way. It’s very much a character study of him […] and what he was going through and the things that were driving him…’

Although Ned Kelly had a limited education, he could apparently read and write. Hall was, on the other hand, illiterate and there was no one on hand to tell his story his way at the end. No Jerilderie letter like Kelly’s with which to make one’s voice heard, or to justify one’s actions in light of the treatment the authorities meted out to Irish Catholics.

Why does Ned Kelly continue to have such a hold on our collective imagination, but not other bushrangers? ‘I think Kelly has overshadowed Hall because he was political.’

The Legend of Ben Hall will focus on the last nine months of the bushranger’s life, when everything was at its ‘most chaotic, and most conflicted’. Holmes explains: ‘We don’t explore why he became a bushranger, we explore the effects, what happened to him as a consequence of being a bushranger.’

People who knew Hall were apparently surprised when he turned to crime. Something snapped? ‘Yes, he had a breakdown and his life spiralled out of control and it wasn’t long before he was being hunted. I call him a reluctant bushranger.’

When Hall was active, in his mid-twenties, was older than most. ‘Most bushrangers were under 21. […] They weren’t old and bearded, they were wild colonial boys. They were kids. Mischievous teenagers out and about doing what they wanted.’

More than $100,000 was raised for the production of The Legend of Ben Hall through the crowd funding platform Kickstarter. On release it will tour Ben Hall country—Goulburn, Bathurst, Grenfell, Forbes, Young, Parkes and other towns.

Published in the Canberra Times 27 June 2015