The Story of the Kelly Gang DVD and “The Picture That Will Live Forever”: The Story of the Kelly Gang

The Story of the Kelly Gang DVD
Ina Bertrand and William D. Routt,
“The Picture That Will Live Forever”: The Story of the Kelly Gang.
National Film & Sound Archive, 2007.
The Moving Image 8
ISBN: 1 876467 16 9
(Review copy supplied by National Film & Sound Archive)

The first thing to note about this ambitious DVD-Book project is the post-modern pastiche of its box and covers, the same image, repeated in various psychedelic day-glo shades of orange-red, coral sea blue and lemon-lime: A spectre of Ned Kelly in iron helmet and armour, gun right-handed, floats out from the decomposing nitrate image behind him, recalling the scene of Ned Kelly’s capture after appearing out of the fog, while simultaneously inscribing metaphorically the film’s physical journey out of the mist of history. On the box cover, Ned Kelly is barely recognizable in the surrounding violent colours, reminding us that nitrate decomposition has taken its toll on film history in general, and The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), in particular. And just as the film restorationists at the National Film & Sound Archive have not attempted to fill in the gaps, to (re)create a narrative whole of the surviving fragments, so, too, have the authors/editors of the text, Ina Bertrand and William D. Routt, given us a work that interrogates history, while making visible the gaps and fissures within that history, continually informing readers of their own subject positioning in a multiplicity of subjectivities. In other words, the new film historiography at its best is brought to bear on one of Australia’s most mythic films.

Now remembered as one of the first feature length narrative films in the history of world cinema, The Story of the Kelly Gang was not only considered lost for decades, it had literally fallen out of history, known only through anecdotes to a few local Australian historians. Reading classical histories of world cinema by the likes of Paul Rotha (1930), Maurice Bardeche/Robert Brasillach (1935), Georges Sadoul (1961), Enno Patalas/Ulrich Gregor (1962), and Jerzy Toeplitz (1973), finds no mention of The Kelly Gang. That is not surprising, given that all these histories practice a film historiography, whose central structuring myth is the almost organic rise and fall of national cinemas. Classical film history’s privileging of the national as an aesthetic value, – German Expressionism, Soviet montage, French Poetic realism, etc. – meant that Australia entered the stage of world cinema, only when its moment as an internationally recognized ‘brand’ had arrived in the 1970s, inaugurating the ‘golden age of Australian cinema’.

If The Story of the Kelly Gang was not canonized in world cinema histories, it was also invisible, at least until its rediscovery through two publications in 1970 on Australian film’s genesis. While the reception of Eric Reade’s Australian Silent Films: A Pictorial History of Silent Films from 1896 to 1929 was limited to Australia, John Baxter’s monograph, The Australian Cinema, introduced foreign readers to the subject, discussing the film’s production as “the first Australian story film,” but also noting in a caption that a printed booklet “is the only graphic evidence surviving of this film.” [1] In fact, as Graham Shirley and Brian Adams note in their Australian Cinema. The First Eighty Years, all prints had disappeared by World War II.[2]

An interesting early reference to The Story of the Kelly Gang turns up surprisingly in Terry Ramsaye’s highly anecdotal, but nevertheless influential early history of North American film, A Million and One Nights(1926/1964). There we find the following passage about the independent American film showman, J.D. Williams: “Williams prospered in Australia with his old pictures, which were new there. Then he got the current epics of the screen from the United States, like The Great Train Robbery and an Australian sensation in three reels, entitled The Kelly Gang. Ned Kelly, the hero of this stupendous feature, was an outlaw hero of the Australian bush, partaking of the same glamorous fame as our own Jesse James, and Robin Hood.”[3] Ramsaye’s use of the term ‘feature’ adds evidence to the authors’ claims about the film’s length. Just how did Ramsaye come upon this information? I suspect the author interviewed James Dixon Williams, who was prominent in Australia as builder of the Crystal Palace in Sydney in 1912, and in the United States as a co-founder in 1917 of First National Exhibitor’s Circuit, a distribution and later production company that lured Chaplin away from Mutual, and eventually merged with Warner Brothers at the end of the 1920s. Williams did not arrive in Australia until sometime in 1909, so we can conclude that the film was still in distribution at that time, a point corroborated by the traces found by Bertrand/Routt in newspapers in 1910 through 1914.

Ironically, one of the first agendas of the authors is to justify the work they have invested in this project, defensively noting that no other film from early cinema has engendered similar efforts. They go to great lengths to establish that The Story of the Kelly Gang may be the first, feature-length narrative film in history, noting that it was longer than all other previous story films, a non-biblical subject, and always distributed as a whole, not in chapters, like the French Passion films. Having quoted a basket full of film historians to bolster their case, Bertrand/Routt then deflate their argument by concluding that international film historiography could not care less whether the film was the first or not. Yes and no. While film historians are less concerned with ‘firsts’, the new historiography has taught them to pay keen attention to the gaps and fissures of film history, to the roads not taken: Certainly, the preponderance of multi-reel films in Australia’s national cinema between 1906 and 1912, long before such film lengths became the norm in America and Europe, needs to be analyzed in the context of the world-wide development of cinema. To this foreign film historian’s mind, the fact that The Story of the Kelly Gang is part and parcel of Australia’s founding film history and its foundational myth as a people, is all the justification needed for a monograph length study. And I would certainly encourage other film historians to begin documenting further Australian examples of long film narratives in the period before 1912, demonstrating an industry practice conceived, then supressed, before its eventual international acceptance.

Following the author’s introduction, Bertrand and Routt’s monograph consists of three sections: First, Ina Bertrand traces the production and exhibition history of the film, as reflected in contemporary sources; secondly, William Routt reads the film itself, at least as far as that is even possible, given the fragmentary surviving footage and other solitary, visual documents; thirdly, Bertrand edits all known documents, reviews, and press references to the film, covering the period 1906 to 1949. Bertrand/Routt’s methodology is exemplary in that they work from original documents to draw historical conclusions, rather than exploiting available evidence to support a preconceived historical thesis.

For example, while Shirley and Adams state unequivocally that “at least ten prints were made for the first release of The Story of the Kelly Gang and one was sent to Britain,” (19) Bertrand calculates that because of overlapping screenings in Melbourne and Adelaide, as well as three specific newspaper reports, “it seems not unreasonable that there may have been five or even six prints” (23). She goes on to analyze advertisements, newspaper reports and critiques, as well as the program booklet, published in conjunction with the film. In her attempt to piece together the film’s production and distribution history, separating fact from fiction, Bertrand points out extremely cautiously that some sources are too ambiguous and may be referring to other Kelly Gang and/or bushranger films from the period, which she discusses briefly. Her descriptions of the actual screenings of The Story of the Kelly Gang, which often included live sound effects, music, dialogue spoken from behind the screen, and colour effects (red tinting for the burning of the hotel) add more details to the cacophony of early cinema screening practices. Not only was this a feature length story film, great pains were taken to make the experience as ‘live’ and real as possible, even while it copied various stage play versions.

Finally, Bertrand looks at the published comments and reports of participants and journalists in later years, mapping out the gradual obfuscation of the original events as they became mythologized in contradictory historical narratives. She concludes that the original film was produced by Charles, John, and Nevin Tait, but possibly also with the participation of Frank Tait; that it was originally at least 4,000 feet long, but may have grown to 5,000 feet as the Taits added scenes after its premiere; that it was shown as the latter half of a film program that also included other short films; and that the film was eventually leased to other exhibitors and itinerant showman, after the Taits completed their tour. What remains unclear is who actually starred in the film, given conflicting sources and the lack of credits on the film itself.

William D. Routt is no less careful with his sources, as he tries to read the various film fragments and other visual material that are all that survives of the film. Bill Routt’s self-proclaimed task of analyzing the film is particularly difficult, given that a mere seventeen minutes of actual film footage survives, footage which may have originated in a release print of some sort, or may simply be out-takes. As Routt notes pointedly, “…an analysis of the film will have to repair that damage by imagination, or, to be blunt, guesswork” (55). Indeed, Routt reconstitutes The Story of the Kelly Gang’s narrative as a collage or the surviving footage, textual descriptions in an original programme, photographs, descriptions in reviews of the ‘live’ sound/dialogue, accompanying the performances.

Routt’s analysis and interpretation of the film’s narrative is structured by the film’s original six scenes. Quoting the summary of each scene in full, as found in an original programme, he then closely reads the surviving footage in direct comparison to the summary, drawing conclusions along the way. Thus, Routt mentions that the Kelly Gang homestead disappears as a location after the first scene, noting: “The permanent separation of young men from their home seems to hint at a parallel with their forced exile of criminals from a British homeland to the wilderness of Australia… (It) is one of the founding myths of Australia” (71). Reading other scenes in the film, Routt touches upon issues of race, gender, and class. For example, in discussing the role of the Aboriginal trackers in the film, he notes that they appear and disappear, without impacting the narrative, just as all Aboriginal people in later Australian films will be “a presence that is acknowledged and effaced almost in the same moment” (81). Presenting an almost Bakhtinian analysis of ‘larrikinism’, Routt analyses the film’s various ethnicities – Irish, English, Scots – in terms of their class markers.

One of his preliminary conclusions about the film’s reception is that even its original audience was intensely aware of the film’s performative aspects: The Kelly Gang story was well known in Australia at the turn of the 20th century. Many Australians either remembered the actual events from the 1880s, as described in newspaper reports or saw one the many popular theatrical re-enactments. In a subsequent section, Routt identifies various characters in the film, noting that the film’s style left much necessary information for the film’s legibility to be communicated by either a lecturer in front of the screen, or actors behind the screen, neither obviously accessible to today’s viewers. I think what Routt is suggesting, then, is that today’s historically determined reception of a fragmentary work demands an “avant-garde” reading, which far from being alien to the work, was at least partially imbedded in its original reception, even if more realistic conventions pulled the film in other aesthetic directions. This point is reiterated when Routt discusses the film’s mise en scene with its mixture of story-telling and spectacle/attractions. The latter’s privileging of long shots over close-ups projects outward, thus distancing contemporary viewers from the narrative, rather than drawing them in through identification with individual characters. (95) Finally, Routt’s very welcome look at the surviving fragment’s nitrate decomposition reads the film’s very materiality as an avant-garde work, thus encouraging a reception that mirrors efforts by avant-garde filmmakers to transform nitrate decay into visual symphonies of cinematic art.

The monograph’s final ninety pages consist of documents and references, edited by Ina Bertrand. This is an invaluable historical resource, including advertising, reviews, as well as anything published on the film and its reception. Apart from allowing the reader the luxury of checking many of the texts cited by the authors in their respective essays, this section of the monograph allows for further research. For example, reading the various descriptions of the Ned Kelly films and stage plays, I was intrigued by how much the two modern-day Ned Kelly films (1970, 2003) relied essentially on the original scene structure for their story construction. Furthermore, the gathering together of retrospective texts from the period 1920-1950, allows us to see the step-by-step transformation of the film’s own production history into myth.

Like many recent DVDs, The Story of the Kelly Gang, offers a menu with several features. (1) The restored version of fragments includes two separate audio track commentaries of the film by Ian Christie and Graham Shirley, respectively, as well as two different musical tracks by Mauro Colombis (traditional piano accompaniment) and the experimental music group, Endorphin (percussion based modern music). (2) The study version adds numerous explanatory intertitles, as well as all stills and other surviving visual material from the film to create a synthetic “complete” version, while Graham Shirley and National Film and Sound Archive restorationist, Sally Jackson, discuss the ins and outs of the restoration. (3) A ‘Before and after’ demonstration of Haghefilm’s digital clean-up of the surviving footage, visualizing the process by which image quality was improved. Through a split screen (tinted blue and yellow) and an audio commentary, we see the digital removal of artifacts in the emulsion. (4) An image gallery includes high quality digital reproductions of all the photographs, stills in publications, nitrate frames, and other visual material held at the NFSA, only some of which are also reproduced in the monograph. A certain amount of information provided in Bertrand and Routt’s monograph is necessarily repeated in the various DVD commentaries, but the audio commentaries also discuss further issues not addressed by the authors.

Ian Christie, a well-known British film historian, provides a close analysis of the surviving footage, focusing in particular on the mise en scene and the ways the director’s camera set-ups and staging conform to or deviate from other films of the period. Looking at the confrontation between the gang and the police in the outback, Christie states boldly that the staging is indeed more complex than any other similar film. He also draws parallels to western and gangster film genres, which may be a bit more speculative, especially given the fact that many historians now agree with Charles Musser that The Great Train Robbery was not a western, but of the railroad genre.

Australian film historian and NFSA Senior Curator Graham Shirley’s commentary provides a historical context for the film, and names the various ‘archival’ sources for the surviving fragmentary footage. The first scenes came from an Australian collector, while the longest fragment, consisting of approximately ten minutes from the Young husband’s station scenes, was found recently at the British Film Institute. The final, heavily decomposing sequence from the Glenrowan Inn and Ned Kelly’s capture, was found on a ‘rubbish heap’. Here Shirley successfully communicates film’s fragility as a medium to the general public that needs to understand our losses, gains, and challenges as film archivists. Interestingly, Shirley provides another clue to the mise en scene by referencing the ‘Heidelberg School’ of Australian painters, who privileged nationalist subject matter. And, as he notes further, the film was actually not shot in Victoria’s outback, where the original events took place, but rather on an estate in the Heidelberg district. Shirley also discusses the problematic issues of whether the surviving footage includes outtakes, and the origin of the surviving original intertitles, which were probably added to the film after its first release. I’m also intrigued by his thesis that the banning of bush-ranging films six years after this film’s release lead to the demise of a nascent Australian film industry.

After viewing the fragments of the surviving footage, the study version gives an inkling of what the full length film may have looked like, utilizing new inter-titles, as well as other visual traces of the film. Meanwhile, on the soundtrack, Jackson and Shirley’s Q&A reveals many interesting details about the film’s restoration, e.g. that the restorationists had neither a script nor any other documentation about the exact order of shots. Indeed, as they make clear, placement of shots and intertitles is based on educated, curatorial guesswork, rather than hard evidence. Communicated through their dialogue is again the notion of film’s fragile materiality, indicating that a ‘restoration’ will always involve curatorial subjectivity, even when much more footage survives. Jackson and Shirley ask, who the director may have been, what is the film’s real title, where were its locations, what was its original length, the placement of shots and intertitles, as well as other essentially unknowable facts – unknowable, at least until a complete print of The Story of the Kelly Gang is possibly discovered at some future date. The hope of finding more footage is of course not out of the question, given its broad dissemination.

In conclusion, this DVD and monograph provide not only the most complete version of what is Australia’s most important early film, but also a wealth of discussion material for film historians, film archivists, and the general public. Unlike previous generations of film historians/archivists, the authors and curators here refuse to suture over the gaps and fissures in the work and in the surviving historical texts. Neither the construction of film history, nor the reconstitution of lost and damaged film is conceived of as a final narrative product that creates the illusion of a whole, but rather as processes, continually subject to revisions, once new information or material become available. In this sense, The Story of the Kelly Gang package points the way for a more flexible and open-ended historiography, one which will enrich the work of both Australian and international film scholars and archivists.

Jan-Christopher Horak,


[1] See Eric Reade, Australian Silent Films: A Pictorial History of Silent Films from 1896 to 1929, Melbourne: Landown Press, 1970; John Baxter, The Australian Cinema, London: Angus & Robertson Ltd., 1970, 12.
[2] Graham Shirley and Brian Adams, Australian Cinema. The First Eighty Years, London: Angus & Robertson Ltd., 1983, 19.
[3] Terry Ramsaye, A Million and One Nights. A History of the Motion Picture Through 1925, New York: Simon & Shuster, 1964, 680.

Created on: Sunday, 9 December 2007 | Last Updated: 22-Dec-07

About the Author

Jan-Christopher Horak

About the Author

Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is Director, UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, UCLA Critical Studies. PhD. Westfaelische Wilhelms-Universitaet, Muenster, Germany. Publications include: Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995). Presently writing a book on the American designer, Saul Bass.View all posts by Jan-Christopher Horak →