Updated June 19, 2004

Marian is an enthusiastic amateur historian whose obsession with the Kelly story began on 21st October 1980 - the evening the first episode of "The Last Outlaw" was screened. She has a simple ambition - to know everything about Ned.

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"...films are made to get bums on seats, not to make an insignificant bunch of history freaks feel good."

Truth, Lies, and Kelly fiction Continued...

Sandwiched between fact and fiction is dramatised biography, which in this case is pretty much limited to the 1980 TV miniseries The Last Outlaw and the 1969 Tony Richardson/Mick Jagger film. I include the film because at its heart was a script that was quite historically accurate. Not surprisingly, the first draft was written by Ian Jones and the various deviations from fact were largely the work of Richardson. Ian wrote about the process of bringing the project to fruition in the article "Re-Enacting The Past" in a book called Historians At Work. He wrote, "Every interpretation of history - from any viewpoint or any distance - is purely personal and cannot achieve absolute or empirical truth. In re-enacting the past, we are committed to a concreteness of interpretation that allows little contribution from the viewer. If he believes what he sees, the burden of responsibility is heavy. If he doesn't believe what he sees, all the research in the world is down the drain and he'll never retain or retrieve one jot of it." Critics of the recent film should read this article and see how even the most dedicated and knowledgeable Kelly historian can be thwarted by the movie-making process.

With The Last Outlaw, however, Ian Jones and Bronwyn Binns had complete control over virtually all aspects of the production. This brilliant series was my introduction to the full story of Ned and the gang, and I found it thrilling, absorbing and utterly convincing. Long before the last scene rolled (Ned's still-hooded body being wheeled away on a hand-trolley down the length of the gaol) I had become a fully paid up, lifetime member of the Kelly fan club. But as the months passed and my personal research progressed, I began to realise that even The Last Outlaw had presented - could only present - one version of the story, albeit a superb and reasonably even-handed version. Ian and Bronwyn's personal interpretations, budget constraints, TV requirements and so forth meant that things could never be presented perfectly. Even locations played their part - that last scene, moving and dramatic as it was, couldn't be filmed correctly; Ned's body must have been taken - probably carried - to the waiting handcart through the narrow door beneath the gallows as shown in the famous illustration of the execution scene. The door is still there but it no longer opens up to the outside world. Does it really matter? Probably not, especially in such a trivial case. My point is that, whether it's respected biopic or scorned fiction, the reader or viewer can't take every little "fact" at face value.

As any good biographer admits, it's impossible to portray someone's life with absolute accuracy. There are always things that we simply do not know. In a written biography, a number of possibilities can be suggested and the author has the opportunity to state that certain scenarios are just well-informed assumptions but in a biopic the action has to keep going from A to B. The writer must make educated guesses as to certain sequences of events or the protagonists' motives - that "concreteness of interpretation" that Ian mentioned. These moments do not appear on screen with a flashing sign "Warning: This is conjecture" and if the viewers don't make the effort to research the story themselves, they'll never know what was rock-solid fact and what wasn't. Take, for example, the famous boxing match between Ned Kelly and Wild Wright. We all know the story - one Saturday afternoon in August 1874, Ned knocks off work and heads into Beechworth where he encounters Wright whose earlier actions had caused Ned to do a three year stretch. A grudge match is soon arranged, with the help of Edward Rogers, proprietor of the Imperial Hotel. He decks out the contestants, bets are no doubt laid, and after twenty brutal rounds, Ned is triumphant. If we've seen The Last Outlaw we're probably half-convinced that the silk shorts Ned wears in the famous photo are green and that the match ended at sunset! Now go back to the sources and sort out what is known fact, what is reasonable conjecture, what is supposition and what is just plain fiction. You may be surprised.

While it's not exactly dramatised biography, the 2003 film should be mentioned here. To quote Ian Jones again, "Dramatic re-enactment of the past is a tricky business. It is the form of historical interpretation most likely to bear the stamp of the interpreter and his era." Whatever director Gregor Jordan's original intentions were, the film ultimately failed, in my opinion, because it suffered from an identity crisis. Jordan declared that "the actual historical events were secondary to the style and mood". It is one thing to carefully discard certain facts but it is another thing entirely to have no idea what it is you are throwing away. Jordan replaced authenticity with a peculiar faux-reality - lots of mud and miserable weather, soggy native animals, inappropriate use of real people's names (e.g. Anton Wick), extraneous Aboriginals, and odd-looking hovels plonked in the middle of nowhere - yet managed to stage the Stringybark Creek episode almost to perfection. The soppy, formulaic, boy/girl romance was nowhere near as erotic as Our Sunshine's original affair, with Ned as the "bit of Irish rough" plaything of an older, very interesting woman. Unfortunately, the script was written by someone who clearly didn't have a good grasp of the Kelly story which, in the right hands, has all the requirements for a gripping and successful film. The Last Stand became a Last Stagger-And-Fall-Over, although it should be acknowledged that Ned was shown heroically drawing police fire onto himself in an earlier scene to enable the "prisoners" to escape the carnage. Jordan was apparently not even aware of exactly how many police died at Glenrowan! Dave White makes the wry comment on www.glenrowan1880.com that the only fact Jordan got right about Glenrowan was that the Gang was actually there!

A big budget, fine technical skills and a potentially great Ned in Heath Ledger (bandy legs, lack of athleticism and physical grace notwithstanding!) went down the gurgler, taking with it the possibility of a truly excellent film being made for many more years. (Incidentally, Max Brown's view of Heath's performance was that "…he gets Kelly quite wrong. Ned was not a private person but one of the mob - open-hearted and open to every cat and dog." Given that Max spoke to many people who had actually known Ned, his opinion is most enlightening. However, he conceded that "each age will create a new Ned Kelly in it's own image." )

I should come clean and admit that I quite enjoyed the film and I certainly wasn't alone. It had merit but it just wasn't anywhere near as good as it could have been. But one thing I know for certain is that when that 'truly excellent film' does come along, it will still have its fair share of inaccuracies because that is the nature of cinema. Movie-making is a pragmatic multi-million dollar industry - films are made to get bums on seats, not to make an insignificant bunch of history freaks feel good.

 

 

There is one aspect of Kelly fiction that I do feel uncomfortable about and that is the effect it can have on the descendants of the Gang's families and others who played their parts. The family is such a strong element in the real story and one which has often been utilised by authors, yet it seems that many have paid scant regard to these descendants. Jean Bedford's 1982 novel, Sister Kate, spun a tale about an affair between Kate Kelly and Joe Byrne, the traumatic effect on Kate of Joe's death and those of his companions, her subsequent dissolute life and her descent into drink- and drug-dependence, ending in her puzzling death. As an account of a woman's post-natal depression and mental disintegration, it's a great book; as history, it's pretty shaky, with anachronisms (Kate dropping photos into a chemist for developing) and internal inconsistencies (Mrs Kelly riding off to visit Joe Byrne's mother at a time when, even by Bedford's reckoning, Ellen was supposed to be in prison); as an accurate retelling of Kate's life it's undoubtedly wide of the mark. Kate's great-granddaughter, Ellen Hollow, wrote about the book in the Writings On Ned section of www.ironoutlaw.com (In Defence Of My Great-Grandmother, 25th August 2001). Ellen's piece is well worth reading and I truly sympathise with her feelings. However, Ned, Joe, Dan and Steve long ago ceased to be just the personal property of their families, and people will continue to write about them, regardless of the results. We should also remember that the police involved had families too and yet Kelly supporters have quite frequently presented them as cowardly buffoons, vicious thugs or upper-class twits.

 

 

Some of us read or write Kelly fiction because we can't help it. We want to extend the story, fill in the gaps, think about the questions that can't be answered simply by studying the facts. Why did Ellen allow her 14-year-old son go off with a bushranger? How did his father's death affect Ned? What did he really think of his youthful step-father? What were the dynamics of the Ned-Joe-Aaron relationship? How did Joe feel before and after Aaron's murder? How did Dan cope with having two such physically impressive big brothers? How did Maggie cope with the impossible burdens placed on her? What did Joe and Ned talk about as they waited at Glenrowan? The Heath Ledger film has spawned at least one fan fiction site on the Internet, and in between the would-be-funny or mildly pornographic writings, there are a few pieces whose authors are trying to tackle the same sorts of questions. Their protagonists may more closely resemble Orlando and Heath than Joe and Ned but their desire to get to the heart of the matter is genuine.

In his wonderful, evocative Foreword to Australian Son Max Brown wrote, "But dream as I can in the shadow of the Alps where these four young bushmen rode, I shall never savour the tang of their voices, hear them laugh or curse, feel with my hand against their hearts the impact of the first great disaster…" By reading and writing Kelly fiction we are striving, however vainly, to lay our hands on their hearts, to get inside their skins and experience what they felt. The Gang's story has become our own, part of our collective unconscious, our whitefella dreaming, a symbol of what it means to be Australian - sticking our fingers up at authority, being loyal to our mates, fighting to the end. Sure, most of us are pale, pathetic suburbanites but we'd like to think we carry a bit of that spirit. How could writers not want to work and rework the story?

Fiction is a great way to introduce people to a story which otherwise may pass them by, but in the end, it's the truth of Ned's story which is the compelling thing. At the State Library of Victoria's 2003 Kelly Culture exhibition, real Kelly artefacts and the art they inspired were displayed side by side and I observed that while people took time to look over everything, it was the real stuff which had them enthralled. The paintings, tapestries, ballet programs and what have you held the attention briefly but they were nothing when compared with the outlandish, hulking suits of armour. Peter Carey's drafts of True History were interesting but they faded into insignificance beside the passionate Jerilderie Letter, and the fragile, pathetic letter scrawled by 15 year old Ned, with its heart-rending coda, "Everyone looks on me like a black snake". Like many others I left face smudges on the glass cases above the letters and I became a traffic hazard as I crouched on the floor for ages, feeling like an extra out of the sandal scene in Monty Python's Life Of Brian as I gazed at The Boot. That surprisingly dainty, bullet-torn thing, soaked as it was with Ned's blood, bore mute testimony to the terrible night of 28th June 1880 when lives were lost and others shattered, when tremendous courage was displayed and a legend born during that magnificent, stupid, futile, glorious battle at Glenrowan.

 

 

I think I can still claim to be a purist. I enjoy Kelly fiction while recognising it for what it is - a side dish to a very substantial meal; I detest the lies and vitriol which led the general public to hold seriously distorted views; and I always strive to learn the truth.

Paradoxically, the further in time we are from the events of 1878 and beyond, the closer we seem to be getting to the real details. Thanks to the tireless efforts of hundreds of people - biographers, researchers, creators of websites, holders of public records and manuscript repositories, descendants, etc - the general public is now able to get to the facts without the filter of other people's opinions.

But in seeking to correct the mistakes of the past we should not allow the pendulum to swing too far. When I want a dose of reality, I read Constable Michael Scanlon's post-mortem report, "wounds...caused by the penetration of bullets, one on the right hip, one on the top edge of the sternum, one on the right shoulder and one on the right side...the [fourth] bullet had entered the body on the right side, crushing through the eighth rib, and pushed obliquely through the right lung, carrying with it pieces of fractured bone, and made a large wound through both lobes of the lungs." It's ugly but it's undeniable truth that the weapons of the embryonic Kelly Gang made those wounds.

And neither should we be too eager to describe Ned as a champion of the poor, a man who stood up for the downtrodden of the district. Based on what I've read, I believe Ned was at heart a kind, well-meaning man, a good neighbour to those who played fair, a hard worker when he wanted to be, a loyal and loving family man and friend (and no, I'm not going to list his bad qualities - someone is bound to do that for me!) but until he became an outlaw, there is no evidence to show his rebellion against authority had anything else but a personal base. Clearly, he knew and understood the class war that squatters and selectors were engaged in, and he saw and suffered the effects of unjust legislation and policing but his reaction - horse-stealing - only inflamed the situation and certainly didn't improve the lot of his family. I'm not putting him down. It should be clear that I really like him, but all our opinions should be based on fact. Kelly fiction can give us new angles, new ways of approaching the story but ultimately we have to learn the truth, no matter how unattractive it might be.

Given his social status, Ned has left us a remarkable collection of his thoughts, and there are clear themes running through everything he wrote and said. Above all, Ned didn't ask forgiveness for what he had done, only understanding. It's a courtesy we should extend to everyone involved. To the families, friends, sympathisers, enemies, police, Steve, Dan, Joe and especially Ned - we owe nothing less than the truth.

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First Published 19th June, 2004

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