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The Bootleg Files: The Story of the Kelly Gang

BOOTLEG FILES 620: “The Story of the Kelly Gang” (1906 Australian production that is widely credited as the first feature-length narrative film).

LAST SEEN: A reconstruction using the surviving film fragments is on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It is nearly unknown outside of Australia.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: There is an Australian DVD of the reconstructed version, but it is not commercially available in the United States.

On December 26, 1906, film history was made in Melbourne, Australia, with the premiere of “The Story of the Kelly Gang,” a cinematic retelling of the rise and fall of that nation’s most colorful 19th century outlaws. At the time, however, no one realized they were witnessing history in the making. And even at this late date, many people are not aware of the film’s importance to the development of the motion picture industry.

“The Story of the Kelly Gang” ran about one hour, which was uncommon in an era when most narrative films rarely exceeded 15 minutes. Today, historians identify “The Story of the Kelly Gang” as the first feature-length narrative film. Whether its creators intended to set a running-time record is unknown – and, for that matter, there is still some question about the people who were on both sides of the camera. Most scholars credit the film’s direction to Charles Tait, a pioneering Australian filmmaker, and it appears that Tait was influenced to make his film after screening the landmark 1903 American Western “The Great Train Robbery,” which found its way Down Under. Tait and his brother John are believed to have written the screenplay for “The Story of the Kelly Gang” and cast family members, along with theater actors and maybe circus performers to appear on camera.

It is difficult to appreciate “The Story of the Kelly Gang” because only 15 minutes of footage is known to survive. The film had been considered lost for decades until several fragments were discovered in a private collection in 1976. Additional footage turned up in another private collection in 1978 and (amazingly) in a garbage dump in 1980, and more footage was located in a British archive in 2006. Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) pieced together a reconstruction of “The Story of the Kelly Gang” in 2006 using the surviving scenes plus still photographs and a surplus quantity of intertitles to explain what sequences remain missing.

From what survives, “The Story of the Kelly Gang” bears a marked stylistic resemblance to “The Great Train Robbery”: scenes are framed for wide shots, with the camera kept at too great of a distance from the actors. Much of the surviving footage was filmed outdoors, which captures the gritty outlaw life of the gang, and the cinematography was excellent for these scenes. But the interior sequences have flat lighting and the actors are trailed by rather prominent shadows, which suggests these indoor settings were actually constructed outdoors and used sunlight for illumination.

Even more puzzling is the depiction of Ned Kelly – he is distinguished from his comrades due to the excessive length of his beard. One could believe the missing footage gives him far more attention and depth. A major surprise involves the prominent role given to the character of Kate Kelly, Ned Kelly’s rough-and-tumble gun-slinging sister. The director’s wife Elizabeth Tait was the stunt double for the actress playing Kate, whose place in the story involved a fair bit of horsemanship in her efforts to save her brother from capture.

There are points in “The Story of the Kelly Gang” where the primitivism of the very early cinema can create unintended giggles today, especially when the actors struggle to give the impression of being seasoned gunfighters – their weapons are conspicuously pointed above the heads of their enemies. One scene involving the hold-up of a peddler’s wagon is thrown slightly off when a boy who is traveling in the wagon nonchalantly exits the vehicle and walks casually into a house while the wagon’s owner pleads melodramatically with the outlaws for his life.

But the film has some extremely effective moments. When the gang is surrounded by police in a hotel after their attempt to derail a train is foiled, the constables try to evict them by burning down the building. But a priest bravely ignores the warning of the constables and enters the hotel, emerging with an injured railway worker carried over his shoulder. In the film’s climax, the injured Ned Kelly is encased in his heavy armor suit and engages in a gun battle, but he is not up for the fight and is brought down when the police shoot his unprotected legs. His collapse and his placement into manacles is brilliantly chilling.

Production on “The Story of the Kelly Gang” lasted for a then-unprecedented six months and the film cost £1,000 to make. When first presented, “The Story of the Kelly Gang” was a major success in Australia, although some localities banned its screening out of fear that it would contribute to miscreant behavior. Screenings took place in New Zealand, Ireland and Great Britain, and its 1907 London engagement included the promotional highlighting that this was “the longest film ever made.” It appears that there was even a quickie Ned Kelly film made by enterprising Australian filmmakers trying to cash in on the success of this work. There is no known record that American audiences ever saw “The Story of the Kelly Gang” during its theatrical release; most American film scholars were unaware of the film’s existence until the 1970s. It is not clear how long the original nitrate prints and negative survived, but by the late 1940s it was considered a lost work.

The NFSA released a DVD of its reconstructed version for the Australian market, but the organization only put a couple of brief clips from its edition on YouTube. However, some enterprising bootleggers posted the NFSA work on YouTube: one has the complete reconstruction with the new intertitles and still photographs, while another just included the surviving footage and no intertitles, which makes the film almost incomprehensible. To date, the NFSA DVD has never been made available in the U.S. home entertainment market.

It seems unlikely that the complete version of “The Story of the Kelly Gang” will ever reappear – only a limited number of prints were made during its theatrical run, although the film was still being screened into the early 1910s. In the event that such a miracle could occur and the full version is located, this groundbreaking work may finally receive the level of admiration that it deserves.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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