The Aussie Jesse James
The Australian Western, or ‘Western’, has a long history, and we on this blog have already looked at Westerns set in the Antipodes, such as Quigley Down Under, or more Aussie pictures like The Proposition and Sweet Country. To those purists who object that a true Western must be set in a certain time and place, west of the Mississippi, for example, I offer the argument that Australia is really quite far west of the Mississippi.
According to the IMDb entry on The Story of the Kelly Gang, the picture was the “First dramatic film to run for more than 60 minutes; feature-length documentaries of boxing matches had been made before this, but this was the first dramatic full-length film.” That could be true.
Sadly, though, only about fifteen minutes of the runtime remains to us now, and even some of that footage is damaged almost beyond repair. Fortunately, however, in 2006, for the centenary, the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia restored what frames remain and there is enough extant to make an interesting watch.
Ned Kelly was ideal material for a dramatic motion picture in the Western vein. The noted bushranger was an Aussie Jesse James, Billy the Kid and Butch Cassidy all rolled into one. Even the armor he wore in his final shootout with the law was copied here and there in the American Western (notably by Clint). Horses and guns, bank robbery, attempt to derail a train and final death by hanging: these Kelly activities and others were standard tropes of the Western movie.
Graham Seal in Outlaw Heroes in Myth and History writes, “Ned Kelly has progressed from outlaw to national hero in a century, and to international icon in a further 20 years. The still-enigmatic, slightly saturnine and ever-ambivalent bushranger is the undisputed, if not universally admired, national symbol of Australia.”
There have been novels, dramas and ballads about Kelly. There’s ‘Kelly tourism’ and a thriving market in ‘Kellyana’. There have been many screen Kellies – we think in particular of Mick Jagger in 1970 and Heath Ledger in 2003.
The 1906 one seems to have been a Tait family affair. It was written and directed by Charles Tait and produced by John Tait, it starred Elizabeth Tait and John Tait, with other parts played by EJ Tait and Frank Tait. It was really pretty Taity.
No Tait was Ned Kelly, though. That part was taken by an American, Michigan-born Frank Mills, who made 27 films that we know about. The Kelly Gang was his first. Unfortunately, very few scenes with him remain but we do get a glimpse of him in the last reel in his armor.
IMDb says that there were no intertitles; instead, actors provided live narration, dialogue and sound effects. The National Film and Sound Archive commentary, however, says that there were explanatory cards, and reproduces what it has, creating new ones (in italics, to differentiate them) for where they are missing.
The film cost the then considerable sum of £1,000 to produce. It proved so popular that it continued to be shown for the next twenty years, and is estimated to have earned over £25,000 at the box office. The film was banned in parts of Australia for some years, however. Ned is quite heroic and the policemen are nasty, brutal and cowardly by turns (they even shoot parrots for amusement) so I suppose it was considered immoral.
You can get a full summary of the different scenes at http://www.acinemahistory.com/2020/04/the-story-of-kelly-gang-1906.html if you want it.
According to DVDBeaver.com, “This first true feature film established the medium’s potential to deal with a complex narrative, and also established Australia as the world’s leading player in the motion picture business before World War One.”
Worth a look, I’d say.