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The Legend of Ben Hall


Review by © Jane Freebury

A refusal to submit to authority has pride of place in movies from down under. Here we expect a film about a 19th century bushranger, who robbed the banks and the filthy rich, to be a spirited journey with a man of the people. A man like Ben Hall, whose reputation has for some reason faded over time against that of bushranger turned folk hero, Ned Kelly.

When at large, Australian bushrangers were feared for the brutal criminals they were, but some were charismatic rogues who people were prepared to hide when the police came knocking. And the authorities weren’t clean skins either which helps explain why early last century when bushranger films appeared on screen, the audience cheered them on. So boisterously, the authorities banned them. Too popular.

Some of the bushranger—mostly blokes, though there is at least one woman on the record—weren’t complete blaggards either. Hall, who was mown down by police in 1865, had some land he leased and a wife and child before he took to a life of crime. He has some cachet in having never shot a policeman dead, though the same cannot be said for other members of his gang, John Gilbert and John Dunn.

The newspapers of the day reported quite a crowd at Hall’s funeral in Forbes, NSW. A revealing observation. Hall was on the wrong side of the law, but he was reputedly courteous, brazen, loyal and often a step ahead of the police. Moreover, he was handsome and a daredevil horseman. All in all, an appealing package. It explains why Hall became an object of interest for writer-director Matthew Holmes and the subject of his recent film, The Legend of Ben Hall.

Unfortunately, the fascination does not translate into the result the filmmakers clearly hoped for. The action-adventure locations look fabulous but, critically, Ben Hall’s character is seriously underwritten. As for the case for Ben Hall as legend? We’re not there yet.

As the central character, Jack Martin does his best to be well-meaning and dashing, but he doesn’t have good dialogue to work with, and nor do most of the others. A hold-up of Cobb & Co coach, a key dramatic moment, is heavily over-played failing to ignite much tension. Nor do the scenes of the gang when they have their guard down inject the rollicking, irreverent humour we could all have done with. For a period film, the contemporary tone of the dialogue is jarring, and at odds with the effort that has been put into making costume and other period detail visually authentic.

The film achieves its vision to some degree with the action, in the stirring scenes of men on horseback, galloping through bushland and across high country. In this way, it becomes a valentine to the magnificent bush wilderness, like The Man from Snowy River, but falls short of showing us what Ben Hall means to us today. The film’s visual grandeur and lush heroic score insist on the man as legend, but it’s more a question of ‘tell’ than ‘show’.

The Legend of Ben Hall arrived on screen late last year and had a limited release. If the filmmakers are planning companion bushranger films as reported, they would do well to go for it by building flesh and blood characters of complexity and contradiction, and leaving the myth-making alone. There’s no reason to think the bushranger genre has played itself out yet.

2.5 Stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle


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