THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG, THE
(Charles Tait, 1906, Australia, 70m, BW)
Directed by Charles Tait
Produced by William Gibson
Written by Charles Tait
Starring Elizabeth Tait
Distributed by J & N Nevin Tait
Release dates December 26, 1906
Running time – approx. 60 min
The Story of the Kelly Gang is a 1906 Australian silent film that traces the exploits of 19th-century bushranger and outlaw Ned Kelly and his gang. It was directed by Charles Tait and shot in and around the city of Melbourne. The film ran for more than an hour with a reel length of about 1,200 metres (4,000 ft), making it the longest narrative film yet seen in the world. It was first shown at Melbourne's Athenaeum Hall on 26 December 1906 and premiered in the United Kingdom in January 1908. A major commercial and critical success, it is regarded as the origin point of the bushranging drama, a genre that dominated the early years of Australian film production. Since its release, many other films have been made about the Kelly legend.
Australian bushranger Ned Kelly had been executed only twenty-six years before The Story of the Kelly Gang was made, and Ned's mother Ellen and younger brother Jim were still alive at the time of its release. The film was made during an era when plays about bushrangers were extremely popular, and there were, by one estimate, six contemporaneous theatre companies giving performances of the Kelly gang story. Historian Ian Jones suggests bushranger stories still had an "indefinable appeal" for Australians in the early 20th century.
The Story of the Kelly Gang was made by a consortium of two partnerships involved in theatre—entrepreneurs John Tait and Nevin Tait, and pioneering film exhibitors Millard Johnson and William Gibson. The Tait family owned the Melbourne Athenaeum Hall and part of their concert program often included short films. Melbourne film exhibitors Johnson and Gibson also had technical experience, including developing film stock. Credit for writing the film scenario is generally given to brothers Frank, John and sometimes Charles Tait. At a time when films were usually shorts of five to ten minutes duration, their inspiration for making a film of at least sixty minutes in length, and intended as a stand-alone feature, was undoubtedly based on the proven success of stage versions of the Kelly story.
Film historians Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper have noted that at the time, the filmmakers were unaware of the historical importance of the film they were making, and only much later "poured forth their memories." Unfortunately, "with the passage of time and the desire to make a good story of it" they "created a maze of contradictory information."
For example, in later years, William Gibson claimed that while touring through New Zealand showing the bio-pic "Living London", he noticed the large audiences attracted to Charles McMahon's stage play The Kelly Gang. Film historian Eric Reade claimed the Taits themselves owned the stage rights to a Kelly play, while actors Sam Crewes and John Forde later also claimed to have thought of the idea of a making a film of the Kelly Gang's exploits, inspired by the success of stage plays.
There is evidence that at least one other bushranging film had been made before 1906. This was Joseph Perry's 1904 short Bushranging in North Queensland, made by the Salvation Army's Limelight Department in Melbourne, one of the world's first film studios.
There is considerable uncertainty over who appeared in the film and a number of unsubstantiated claims have been made regarding participation. According to the Australian National Film and Sound Archive, the only actors positively identified are;
John Forde as Dan Kelly
Elizabeth Tait as the stunt double for the actress playing Kate Kelly
Others thought to be in the film include
Frank Mills, as the title character Ned Kelly
John and Frank Tait, Harriet Tait, members of Charles Tait's family.
In her memoirs, Viola Tait claimed the part of Ned was played by a Canadian stunt actor, who deserted the project part way through.
Shooting of the film reportedly involved a budget variously estimated between £400 (Gibson) and £1,000 (Tait) and took six months. While it is now commonly accepted that the Tait's experienced older brother Charles directed the film, only ten years after it was made, pioneer Australian director W. J. Lincoln claimed it was actually "directed by Mr Sam Crews [sic], who... worked without a scenario, and pieced the story together as he went along." Lincoln also claimed that "the principal characters were played by the promoters and their relatives, who certainly made no pretensions to any great histrionic talent."
Viola Tait's memoirs, published in the early 1970s, identifies Charles as being chosen as director because of his theatrical experience. Her account confirmed that many of the extended Tait family and their friends appeared in scenes. Millard Johnson was camera operator.
Much of the film was shot on the property of Elizabeth Tait's family (Charles' wife) at Heidelberg, now a suburb of Melbourne. Other scenes in the film may have been shot in the suburbs of St Kilda (indoor scenes), and possibly Eltham, Greensborough, Mitcham, and Rosanna. The Victoria Railways Department assisted by providing a train. Costumes were possibly borrowed from E. I. Cole's Bohemian Company, and members of the troupe may have also performed in the film. According to Viola Tait, Sir Rupert Clarke loaned the suit of Kelly armour his family then owned for use in the film.
The Kelly gang inspects a reward notice for their capture.
The police descend on Glenrowan.
Film historian Ina Bertrand suggests that the tone of The Story of the Kelly Gang is "one of sorrow, depicting Ned Kelly and his gang as the last of the bushrangers." Bertrand identifies several scenes that suggest considerable film making sophistication on the part of the Taits. One is the composition of a scene of police shooting parrots in the bush. The second is the capture of Ned, shot from the viewpoint of the police, as he advances. A copy of the programme booklet has survived, containing a synopsis of the film, in six 'scenes'. The latter provided audiences with the sort of information later provided by intertitles, and can help historians imagine what the entire film may have been like.
According to the synopsis given in the surviving programme, the film originally comprised six sequences. These provided a loose narrative based on the Kelly gang story.
Scene 1: Police discuss a warrant for Dan Kelly's arrest. Later, Kate Kelly rebuffs the attentions of a Trooper.
Scene 2: The killings of Kennedy, Scanlon and Lonigan at Stringybark Creek by the gang.
Scene 3: The hold-up at Younghusband's station and a bank hold–up.
Scene 4: Various gang members and supporters evade the police and the gang killing of Aaron Sherritt.
Scene 5: The attempt to derail a train and scenes at the Glenrowan Inn. The police surround the hotel, Dan Kelly and Steve Hart "die by each other's hands" after Joe Byrne is shot dead.
Scene 6: The closing scenes. Ned Kelly fights hard but is shot in the legs. "He begs the Troopers to spare his life, thus falls the last of the Kelly Gang…"
Some confusion regarding the plot has emerged as a result of a variant poster dating from the time the film was re-released in 1910. The similar (but different) photos suggest that either the film was being added to for its re-release, or an entirely new version was made by Johnson and Gibson, as the poster proclaims. In addition, a film fragment (" the Perth fragment ") exists, showing Aaron Sherritt being shot in front of an obviously painted canvas flat. This is now thought to be from a different film altogether, perhaps a cheap imitation of The Story of the Kelly Gang made by a theatrical company, keen to cash in on the success of the original, or an earlier bushranger short.
The film was given a week of trial screenings in country towns in late 1906. This proved enormously successful and the movie already recouped its budget for these screenings alone.
Its Melbourne debut was made at the Athenaeum Hall on 26 December 1906. It ran for five weeks to full houses, local papers noting the extraordinary popularity of the film. Although the country screenings had been silent, when the film was screened in Melbourne it was accompanied by live sound effects, including blank cartridges as gunshots and coconut shells beaten together to simulate hoofbeats. At later screenings a lecturer would also appear explaining the action.
Many groups at the time, including some politicians and the police, interpreted the film as glorifying criminals. The film was banned in "Kelly Country"—regional centres such as Benalla and Wangaratta—in April 1907, and in 1912 bushranger films were banned across Victoria. Despite the bans, the film toured Australia for over 20 years and was also shown in New Zealand, Ireland and Britain.
The Story of the Kelly Gang is considered the first narrative feature film ever made. Filmed outside Melbourne when the Kelly legend was still fresh, it was believed lost for many years. The Australian National Film and Sound Archive and the BFI have restored parts of the original 1906 film to create an amazing package, which includes two commentaries on the national and worldwide significance of the film, alongside soundtracks and a variety of viewing modes.
Having just celebrated its centenary, The Story of the Kelly Gang is not just a fine example of early Australian film, but also proof that any suggestion that the continent’s cinema is no more than a ‘Hollywood photocopy’ is not simply derogatory, but born of ignorance. While the American film directors were trying to impress their audiences with ‘feature films’ that were running at just a quarter of an hour long, the Tait brothers in Australia were entertaining theirs with a story about a national celebrity (Ned Kelly), which ran for over an hour. 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.
Tait’s film, like most contemporary landmarks, was to become a double victim, first of censorship (for encouraging violence), and secondly of time. The recent discovery of a large excerpt at the National Film and Televison Archive in the UK, made it possible to understand what really made The Story of the Kelly Gang a unique popular experience: a film combining action, comedy and drama with a subtle ease, such that the story has space to breathe, but above all, is able to maintain the audience’s attention and good spirits.
Cinema’s first feature film, The Story of the Kelly Gang survives today only in fragments. Scraps of the film — sometimes no more than a dozen frames — have been discovered in various locations since the mid-1970s, before which it was believed to have been irretrievably lost. Claims about its actual running time are conflicting: original ads claimed it was 4000 feet, which would mean a running time of more than an hour, while other reports give a length of only 2000 feet (about 40 minutes). About fifteen minutes survive today. The longest piece of footage was found by kids playing on a rubbish dump in Sydney in 1980, while the BFI found seven minutes in a vault (as you do). Either way, what remains provides us with a frustratingly incomplete picture of the movie, although a restoration by Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive does a terrific job of filling in the gaps.
Inspired by seeing Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903), Charles Tait, joint owner of a theatrical company, was gripped with the insane (for the time) idea of producing a long movie detailing the exploits of Australia’s own folk legend, Ned Kelly, a Bush ranger who carried out a number of robberies in the 1880s. The film recreates these robberies in a rather humdrum fashion. Lacking the techniques to build suspense which we take for granted today, the film shows one scene after another in the same way that a child will recite the alphabet. It’s mostly filmed in long shots, so that we see the whole picture but none of the detail.
Of course, this isn’t really the fault of the movie, or even its director who, at worst, is simply guilty of being over-ambitious. Film language had not yet sufficiently developed to an extent that it was capable of supporting a long film, so while it was a sensation back in 1906, what remains of the film today is curiously dull — and yet fascinating at the same time. This isn’t where cinema as we know it began — it’s actually a false dawn, preceding the likes of Judith of Bethulia and Birth of a Nation, two D W Griffith movies which history shows us were made at exactly the right point in the cinemas’ development — and there’s little doubt the whole film, if it existed intact today, would be excruciatingly dull for most people; but it does at least illustrate the fact that an art form as complex as the cinema can’t be rushed, that it must develop at its own pace.
Independent Film, VOD Distribution, History of Film, Cinema Studies, Video Game Studies, Cultural Studies, Call-for-Papers, Communication, Jobs, Conferences, Workshops, Alumni etc.
©2017 Filmbay Ltd.
brands are the property of their respective owners. Use of this Web site constitutes
trademark owned by Filmbay Ltd. www.Filmbay.com