The Rear-View Mirror: The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

When The Story of the Kelly Gang opened in Melbourne Australia on Boxing Day 1906, it was standing room only. Advertised by its producers as “The longest film ever made”, the reels ran over 1200 metres, about an hour. Today there are those who claim it was the very first narrative feature film ever made. Of course films were made before that time, mainly shorts; the Salvation Army, for example, had released many short biblical films in Australia by 1900. Whether they were Australian, American or European films, however, they rarely exceeded 30 minutes, or about 600 metres of film.

The Story of the Kelly Gang told the familiar story of Ned Kelly, last of the bushrangers, outlaw and subject of many plays and histories. Despite the film’s popularity, it soon ran into problems with censorship. In April 1907, the film was banned in Benalla and Wangaratta by the Victorian Chief Secretary, as it was thought to incite violence. It was also decided the movie showed the Victorian police in a negative light: it favours the side of Kelly, who had been hanged only 26 years previous. (Some of his family members were even still alive at the time of the premiere.) Consequently, the film had to be adapted several times to comply with different state laws, but despite these setbacks it went on to enormous financial success and acclaim, both domestically and abroad.

Kelly’s last stand

Australia, during the filmmaking boom of 1910 to 1912, mainly served its own audiences, not much encumbered by American or European influences. Bushranger films proved extremely popular and by that time producers had gotten around to the narrative length and format pioneered by The Story of the Kelly Gang in 1906. By 1913, however, the boom was already over. This was possibly due to lack of financiers willing or able to produce these genre pieces, but also undoubtedly due to egregious censorship laws. Bushranger film were banned in New South Wales from around 1912, and the ban persisted until as late as 1940. These circumstances stifled what could have been the cradle of Australia’s very own genre, a pool of talent all its own, with a scope and sweep rivaling the American Western. With their own stories, stunts and adventures, set in the bush, they competed not with imported content, but mainly with each-other. Currently, Australian films of that era, bushranger films in particular, are almost completely lost.

At the very beginning of cinema, there was little appreciation of the impact film would have on the culture. Film stock was expensive, and additionally, the nitrate film on which these films were shot was fragile and extremely flammable. Consequently a heartbreaking amount of footage simply self-destructed. The history of how we are able to watch even a little bit of The Story of the Kelly Gang now is almost as adventurous as any of the exploits of its famous protagonist.

Until 1976 The Story of the Kelly Gang was presumed lost. But then, second by precious second, from then until 2006, snippets of the film were found and rescued. In ’76 Collector Vic Reeve found a few short fragments in one of his acquisitions. In 1978, when contractors cleaned up the estate of collector Ernest Goldhawk, they found a small can with nitrate film. They showed the footage to a friend and experts, and it was confirmed: another few precious seconds of The Story of the Kelly Gang had been recovered. In 1980 some of it was even found by some kids on a Melbourne rubbish dump! When, in 2006, key footage was recovered from the UK (the robbery of Younghusband’s station), a restoration was made. Because so little was left, the National Film and Sound Archive used a program booklet, written for the original release by Frank Tait, as a guideline. To remove dirt and scratches, the resulting film was sent to a lab which resulted in the cleaner version we have now, although the damage is still extensive. The remaining film currently totals about 17 minutes, the version I watched by the NFSA had additional pictures and inter-titles and ran for about 30 minutes in all.

Example of nitrate damage

The footage, or what remains of it, shows mostly mid-screen action. Like on a stage in the theatre, the action is shown in wide shots, as you would expect from a film this early. There are innovations, however. A scene in which a minister saves a labourer from a raging fire shows him approaching the camera, passing it – and us. This is an effect which only works in film, not in the theatre, and it is interesting to speculate how many of these innovations were used in the original.

Time is not a friend to old films. The original film stock is perishable, and many old films are already truly lost, or beyond repair. As they are an integral part of our cultural heritage, it is important to be aware that some of them might still be found and partly rescued by organisations such as the NFSA. As the spectacular story of its preservation shows: it might even be possible that an integral, one hour long, version of The Story of the Kelly Gang is still out there … somewhere.

This article owes a debt to Australia’s Lost Films, The loss and rescue of Australia’s silent cinema (PDF) by Ray Edmondson and Andrew Pike, and
The Story of the Kelly Gang by Sally Jackson and Graham Shirley for the NFSA.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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