The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906)
“A thrilling moving picture from start to finish”
Director: Charles Tait
Cast: Elizabeth Tait, John Tait, Norman Campbell
Synopsis: The escapades of the notorious outlaw Ned Kelly.
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.
Perhaps most frustrating of all is the existence in a severely deteriorated condition, of the final scene in which Kelly, wearing his metal armour, is finally gunned down by police. Tait at least shows some artistry in having Kelly approach the camera as he fires his weapon, but the condition of the film is so poor that all we see, around the edges of the psychedelic disintegration, are a few tantalising glimpses…
(Reviewed 1st October 2014)