The Ned Kelly Films: A Cultural History of Kelly History

By Dixon, Ian | Metro Magazine, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

The Ned Kelly Films: A Cultural History of Kelly History


Dixon, Ian, Metro Magazine


THE NED KELLY FILMS: A CULTURAL HISTORY OF KELLY HISTORY

STEPHEN GAUNSON. INTELLECT, 2013.

As Australians, we are brought up with the mythology of Ned Kelly: this iconic man in a 'ploughshare suit' who rose from the mists, guns blazing--who, in the words of singer Sonny Curtis, 'fought the law' ('and the law won'). However, in his thoroughly researched monograph The Ned Kelly Films: A Cultural History of Kelly History, Stephen Gaunson of RMIT University opines that many 'facts' about Kelly are not necessarily true.

Concentrating on the plethora of films that dramatise Kelly's history into narrative entertainment, Gaunson pits historical phenomena against filmic representations, which often boil down to hagiographic interpretations rather than factual analyses. This is the great strength of the book, which puts a much-celebrated yet questionable mythical figure under the microscope of research. Needless to say, some readers will bristle at this, but such is the pleasure of reading the monograph: debating with the author.

In outlining his contention, the author wastes no time in separating his own voice from those of hagiographic interpretations of Ned Kelly, which rely less on fact than on adulatory invention, and which idealise rather than interpret their subject. Compounding the problem is the fact that Kelly's reign coincided with the proliferation of newspapers and journals. In his age of emerging propaganda, Kelly transformed from a figure with a (questionable) mission into a product of commodification. Although Gaunson acknowledges that the Kelly phenomenon dragged Australia into the modern world, he adds: 'Despite such plaudits, however, [Kelly's] paradox is that he neither achieved nor changed anything, politically nor socially.' With this, Gaunson further divides himself from our nation, which clings steadfastly to the mythical status of Ned Kelly. Gaunson illustrates that cinema eschews fact in favour of inciting audience passions for entertainment purposes, thereby contributing to the creation of 'meta-history, meta-narrative, meta-tradition'. Again, Gaunson throws down the gauntlet, announcing that viewers desperately need critical discipline and 'conversations about historicity' rather than 'common knowledge' (which can be notoriously wrong). The result is a gradual shift in cinematic representation: as 'history-Kelly transforms into cinema-Ned', we move from demonising Kelly to worshipping him.

One glance at Gaunson's bibliography reveals his research prowess. He covers written history, novels, bush ballads, films, television, contemporary and historical theatre, and pictorial history, including cartoons in period news sheets. Given this unwieldy array of reference material, organisation is paramount--and Gaunson achieves this expertly. Indeed, his considered division between pre-1951 and post-1960 films comes down to a cultural divide--a fundamental difference in the treatment of the narrative material. The 'shoddy' early films eschew 'right/wrong-good/bad binaries' in favour of 'cautionary tales about the perils of bushranging', thus presenting cinema-Ned as roguish. By contrast, the later films adulate Ned and celebrate his Irishness. Likewise, as Kelly is promoted to hero, so do the police face a reversal of signification from heroes to scoundrels, and hostages are depicted more like sympathisers than victims. To tackle such complexity, Gaunson begins with a chronology of the films, detailing their relative merits (or apocryphal failures). Consequently, the book has a slow start, but this proves necessary for understanding Gaunson's intricate argument, and his analysis soars from this point on.

In a major strand in his discussion, Gaunson points out that, over time, depictions of Kelly increasingly stress his character as a 'social bandit' (in historian Eric Hobsbawm's terms). In early films, 'Ned dies a broken and sorrowful criminal', whereas later films chronicle his veneration into a folk hero with a mission that extends beyond his own death. …

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