‘True History of the Kelly Gang’: Crafting an Australian Legend

Images: Porchlight Films

Every country has their own stories that, once solidified as national obsessions, are repeatedly retold and come to hold an almost mythic place in the cultural imagination. Growing up in Australia it’s pretty well understood that our national obsession revolves around the infamous and perennial tale of bushrangers and outlaws that surrounds the Kelly Gang as, like clockwork, every few years a new rendition of Ned Kelly is once again enshrined in film, with each interpretation of the tale bringing with it a further layer of mythology to add to the historic narrative.

Justin Kurzel’s anachronistically punk rendering of the Kelly Gang in True History of the Kelly Gang does just that, as he manipulates both the time-line and documented events of Ned Kelly’s life, from childhood to his eventual execution, becoming a revisionist biography that joins a long lineage of Bushranger films within an historically important genre. However, as the retelling of this story has called into question the relevance of yet another rendition of such a widely told tale it bears discussing how the view of Ned Kelly as a protester against police injustice and an advocate for the downtrodden rural poor taps into the cultural vein of the moment, remaining timely as long as there is structural injustice in society. This is because at its heart, the story of Ned Kelly is one of minority persecution and the yoke of capitalism — issues that have continued to be relevant throughout every epoch of Australian history — with Ned coming to symbolise the fight against injustice as a last stand against a force too powerful to overthrow, doomed from the start but yet, in those immortal words, “such is life”.

The polarising figure has continuously stirred debate around what exactly he was, Ned the horse thief, Ned the murderer, Ned the hero but, the continued romanticisation of the last of the outlaw gangs suggests that the vast majority identify Ned as a national figure to be proud of, a testament to a rebellious sentiment that understands Ned Kelly at heart, and refuses to think he was anything other than a glorious rebel, this time one with a cause. In this age of climate crisis and denial, and coming out of one of the worst bushfire seasons in history which saw country-wide devastation while the Prime Minister remained on holiday, the disconnect between government priority and those that they supposedly serve is severe, making sure that stories such as the True History are forever relevant and that a new cinematic rendition of the tale of Ned Kelly is just as timely as ever.

Bushranger films were at the heart of early Australian film-making and as writer Stephen Vagg has described, composed ‘their own, uniquely Australian genre, deriving from local history and grounded more in Australian than American literary tropes’ distinguishable from the American Western and being by far the most popular genre of their time. These films focused on issues of class warfare, miscarriages of justice and were usually in a tone sympathetic to those who the government saw as dangerous criminals. In this way, the Kelly Gang was thus first thrust onto the screen in Charles Tait’s 1906 The Story of the Kelly Gang just 26 years after the real-life execution of Ned Kelly, a film which has now been recognised as the world’s first full-length narrative feature film. Tait’s early treatment of Ned Kelly as an Irish victim of British colonialism, as well as the subsequent retelling of the story of a polarising figure who in his time inspired an extensive network of sympathisers, cemented Ned in folklore as the lasting outlaw figure fighting government persecution and injustice. Due to these sympathies, the film was subsequently banned in the regions the Kelly Gang was prominent (Benalla and Wangaratta) and the films popularity was largely responsible for the 1912 ban of bushranger films in general throughout the states of New South Wales and Victoria.

Since the death of Ned Kelly there has been at least eleven films dramatising his life story with varying degrees of accuracy and fictionalisation and it is perhaps due to the blurring of fact and fiction, the various romanticising of a struggle against villainous power structures, with film-makers creating Ned Kelly as they want him to be, history be damned, that the Kelly legend persists to this day. Kurzel’s take on the Kelly Gang adapts Peter Carey’s Booker Prize winning novel of the same name, a first-person account stylised as letters from Ned Kelly (George MacKay) to his fictionalised daughter, differing from the majority of Kelly films as it begins in Ned’s childhood before moving towards his notoriety. The first half of True History outlines the hardships that the Kelly family faced as a selector family in the face of extreme poverty, police harassment and in their relationship with the English with Ned’s ascension to outlawed gang leader in the latter half being presented by Kurzel as an almost predestination of his actions as a child. In outlining his destiny, Kurzel substitutes Ned stealing a horse for the (fictional) non-fatal shooting of Sergeant O’Neil (Charlie Hunnam) when he was a child, with the scene following this act showing Ned escaping on horseback as he laments “a man can never outrun his fate, nor the crimes of his past” — a manipulation of the truth to further a prophetisation of what is to come. 

Carey’s novel was inspired by the Jerilderie Letter, the real-life manifesto Ned Kelly wrote and the very same one we see him attempt to get published within the film. Within this 8000 word letter, Ned attempts to justify his actions and declares that he was forced to become an outlaw due to police persecutions of himself and his family, arguing that the police killings were in self-defence, that ‘I could not be more sorry for them this cannot be called wilful murder for I was compelled to shoot them, or lie down and let them shoot me’. Ned calls for justice for poor families and denounces the British Empire in such a poetic way that Carey was propelled to let the world know that ‘the famous bushranger was an avant-garde artist with hardly a comma to his name’, attempting to transform the culturally held ideas surrounding the legendary figure. This aim moulded the narrative trajectory of both the novel and the film as Carey reshapes Ned’s manifesto into narration which attempts to justify what Kurzel then presents on screen, mimicking the coarse yet artistically distinct prose of the original. However, in almost direct opposition to this sentiment True History gets caught up in the act of myth making itself through offering a contradictory depiction of Ned, feeding both his advocates and denouncers alike and in some instances, comes mighty close to an assassination of his character.

True History opens with the warning epigraph that “nothing you are about to see is true”, quickly followed by dialogue from Ned declaring, “I know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand what I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false”, a contrast which pierces to the very essence of Kelly’s status as a cultural icon and figure of legend. The ambiguous blurring of truth and myth —outlaw and hero— that cements Kelly in folklore is pushed to its extreme in the most visually pleasing yet devastating ways proving that in cases where historic figures grow larger than the boundaries of the text-books that try to contain them, the masses take it upon themselves to mould them into a narrative that they are willing to believe. Carey’s novel is also heavily interested in the act of storytelling itself as it relates to myth-making and the distortion of history, a distinct point of view that drew Kurzel to his source material rather than merely adapting a more conventional history.

In Kurzel’s own words he describes how he “loved that [the novel] was about your history being stolen and the idea that no matter what, when you pass you can easily have your story twisted and turned for anyone’s agenda”, precisely what happens to Ned within the context of the film and also what both Carey and Kurzel do to his story themselves. In one of the quieter scenes Ned, still as a young boy, watches outlaw Harry Power (Russell Crowe) writing his own history and when asked why he replies “When a man farewells this world all that he’s got left is his story. Don’t leave it for the English to tell it, they’ll only fuck it up and steal the proceeds”, referencing the way in which the story of Ned Kelly has been changed and adapted throughout the centuries to the point of being more folktale than historic absolute.

In true postmodern style, True History calls attention to its own fictionalisation while at the same time professes itself as being factual, becoming a self-aware manipulation of a man’s life story that is no longer alive to tell it himself. In Carey’s novel, after Ned has been wrongly accused of turning Harry Power over to the police he writes ‘my daughter please understand I am displaying your great uncles in a bad light they was wild and often shicker they thieved and fought and abused me cruelly but you must also remember your ancestors would not kowtow to no one and this were a fine rare thing in a colony made specifically to have poor men bow down to their gaolers’. As it shows,  Ned may indeed have needed help with his parsing, but in a scene after his execution these very letters are chalked up to “the writings of a mad man” in a parliamentary setting, the violently political truth of his story and the way that it is presented once again falling out of his hands, manipulated to justify an execution that in reality caused thousands to protest for his reprieve.

Whether clad in stylised evening gowns to make their enemies think they were crazy or not, the Kelly Gang were indeed “flies in the ointment of the English” that much we cannot deny and Kurzel’s latest addition to the lineage of Kelly films shows that, when it comes to the legacy of Ned Kelly, he was right – sometimes “a myth is more profitable than a man”. 

by Adam Buckley

Originally from Western Australia, Adam is a recent graduate of London’s University of Westminster with an MA in English Literature. Like all well adjusted people, he has an unhealthy obsession with early 20th century French modernism, Allen Ginsberg and any film that features Brad Pitt. His favourite films include My Own Private Idaho, Into the Wild and Kill Bill (Vol 1 and 2), although The Lighthouse has taken up permanent residency inside his brain ever since he first saw it. Twitter: @aadmpeter.

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