By Wiliam Bosley
The story of Ned Kelly is a story of innocence driven to avenge injustices. Ned Kelley (1855-1880) is as well known in Irish and Australian culture as William Bonney (Billy the Kid) is known in American culture, and the 2004 film by Gregor Jordan is a well-told story. Set in the late nineteenth century, the tale begins in Australia in 1871, where Irishmen in Australia are treated as lower class citizens just because of their heritage. Ned’s father has been known for his dishonesty which at that time automatically makes Ned a target. After time in prison for horse theft and assault, Ned goes to his mother’s home to attempt to live a peaceful life. Soon after, Ned is accused of shooting a constable who has expressed affection for Ned’s sister Kate and who survived to tell the story. Kate, however, does not share the same feelings as the constable. Ned, not at home when the constable comes by, is accused of having shot him at this time. Ned’s mother is soon imprisoned because Ned cannot be found, a situation which creates the conflict of injustice that begins the story of Ned Kelly.
In the film the historically-based characters seem eerily similar to photographs of the actual people. Heath Ledger appears in the title role with a beard and has the same piercing eyes as Ned himself. Kate Kelly, portrayed by Kerry Condon, also shares a similarity that is startling. Ned is portrayed as a quick-tempered, but honest young man accused of theft. Protesting innocence, Ned defends his family's honor. Colonel Francis Hare is responsible for the capture of Ned. The Colonel is depicted as a "by whatever means necessary" type. At one point, the Colonel’s fiery speech attacking the outlaws with Ned Kelly as being animals is a great piece of film drama. The representation of other characters is also accomplished extremely well. Ned's sister Kate is portrayed as a feisty girl unwilling to accept defeat even at the loss of her brother Ned. Ned's younger brother Dan is shown to be a follower, respectful of his older brother.
The acting of Heath Ledger as Ned is excellent as is that of Orlando Bloom as Joe Byrne, and of Geoffrey Rush as the Colonel.. There was not a character in the film, whether fictional or non-fictional who is not believable. However, Ebert and Roeper gave Ned Kelly the signature two thumbs down, and Jack Matthews of The New York Daily News gave the movie two and a half stars; despite less than stellar reviews, the movie still delivers.
The film is an accurate depiction of the way everyday life was lived: the home life of the Kelly household was typical of nineteenth century Australia. There was cooking over the fireplace, riding horseback or walking everywhere, and simple clothing. The weapons of the day were simple six shooters. There was also the standard Smith and Wesson rifle. This accuracy of historical knowledge lends believability to the story. The depiction of everyday life was accurate as could possibly be, even the placement of the bolts on Ned's armor. The accuracy of the historical content and the high caliber performances of the actors create the film's authenticity.
There were several pieces of history portrayed in the Gregor Jordan film, some that were well known and some that weren't. One example would be the Jerilderie letter. The letter is well known, but how it came about is not. This is the fifty-six-page letter by Ned, to the Australian government, which explains the extraordinary events that led to Ned becoming an outlaw. The letter was written while Ned and his outlaw buddies are robbing a bank. This is a less known historical detail in the film. The better known piece of history is the armor worn by the Kelly gang-the armor that was a revolution in combat clothing. The armor, made by the wrapping of steel around the body to deflect bullets, is similar to what would be known today as body armor or "flak jackets." The armor is what made the gang famous. At that time in history there had never been this type of revolution in body armor. The ingenuity of the armor and the fame of the Kellys only added to a bigger than life scenario. The armor enables the gang to resist the onslaught of bullets by the Australian authorities and allows them to return inside the home where they and many of the townspeople are holed up and where they can reload. The ingenuity of the armor, unfortunately, also allows Ned to survive long enough to be hanged. Despite the fact that a petition with thousands of signatures to set Ned free was put forth to the authorities, Ned was hanged on July 14th 1880 at Melbourne prison.
Ned Kelley, it seems, is almost always portrayed as a fellow who is reluctant to be caught in the glamour of being an outlaw. Ned is also often depicted as an honest boy turned bad by a system of injustice, one which is only defending the family honor. After viewing the film by Gregor Jordan, one might find it surprising how many variations of the story there are. The first film released in 1906, by filmmaker Charles Tait, The Story of the Kellys, was an instant success. Though the film is silent, the depiction of characters leaves no doubt about the action and the direction of the story. The film generated so much fanfare and made Ned into a hero of such legendary proportion that the film was banned in Australia in 1912. There were several more films released in the nineteen twenties though one achieved as much fame as the 1906 release. The next notable film The Kellys (released in 1970) featured Mick Jagger of the band the Rolling Stones as Ned Kelly. This film, well accepted less for the historical accuracy than for the rock star headliner, offered a slick version delivering an over the top, heroic performance rather than historical accuracy. Either way the movie was widely viewed. The last notable film is Gregor Jordan's. If film is not your forte, then a good book on this subject is. True History of the Kelly Gang by author Peter Carey. Another book suggestion is Robert Drewe's Our Sunshine. Both books are sure to delight the reader.
Whether you know who Ned Kelly is or if you are just learning about him the film by Gregor Jordan is an excellent way to enrich your knowledge while being entertained.