Glenrowan on Film: True History of the Kelly Gang

“Nothing you are about to see is true.”

So begins Justin Kurzel’s avant garde re-imagining of Peter Carey’s novel True History of the Kelly Gang. It begins as a semi-faithful adaptation before going off the rails into something that has divided audiences into the love/hate categories. This is Ned Kelly through a film school filter that cares nought for history and puts all of its chips on shocking imagery and vulgarity in the name of creative expression. It’s Ned Kelly 2020 and as such the iconic outlaw’s life has to have its edges shaved off to fit modern social commentary about toxic masculinity. It’s a bold plan but though fortune, they say, favours the bold, this was a gamble that didn’t really pay off. It most definitely wasn’t as well received by the punters as it was by the critics, which highlights who the intended audience was. Some saw it as the fresh new take on the myth that we needed, others saw it as an insult to the memories of all involved in the actual events.

Justin Kurzel set out to turn the popular perception of the Kelly story on its head.

Apart from the reception, the film is objectively a strange beast. The story seems to be set in some bizarre fantasy world with one foot in the present and one foot in the past and a third foot reaching out into the rabbit hole from Alice in Wonderland. It is a story full of twisted and unlikeable characters doing awful things to each other. Yet but in the film exemplifies the chaotic and incoherent approach to the story better than the Glenrowan sequence, so let’s break it down.

You’re bloody bulletproof, boys!”

The lead up to Glenrowan is unlike anything we’ve seen before. Ned recruits an army of teenagers to fight his next battle. They swear on a Bible then take up a dress as their uniform. They each get a suit of armour, decorated to reflect the wearer (which usually means crude or vulgar graffiti or sloppy paint jobs) and line up to be shot at. Ned explains to his army, while marching along a replica train track made of sticks, that they will derail a train full of police. The ultimate aim seems to be mass murder. The sequence culminates in Ned hyping up his followers who are standing around a bonfire.

The Glenrowan Inn.

There is no talk of a Republic, which is a reasonable position to take if you’re trying to be accurate to recorded history. Yet, there’s also no sense of a plan beyond the massacre. We never find out who the kids in the army are or why they joined up, which would have helped to give what follows more of an emotional punch. Like with the Stringybark Creek sequence earlier in the film there doesn’t seem to be any character driven motivation for the escalation. We’re told that Ned is crazy much in the same way that a teenage girl looking for attention might declare “I’m so random!” It is hard to tell if it’s all an act on the part of Ned in order to make himself seem more dangerous, or merely sloppy storytelling. The growth of his character from being a child who refuses to kill to being an adult who wants to kill indiscriminately makes no sense based on what we see in the film, it is left to the audience to just go with it. If we look at the historical Ned Kelly it is clear that he always believed that lethal force was an acceptable course of action if a situation escalated. We see this in his consistent defence of his actions at Stringybark Creek being in self-defence, as well as the constant threats to that nature that he would bark at his victims at Euroa, Jerilderie and Glenrowan. It is not hard to believe that he would go from Stringybark Creek to Glenrowan, but it’s obvious that Glenrowan does not match the modus operandi of the two raids the gang carried out between those two points. It is important to note that between Jerilderie and Glenrowan the hunt for the gang escalated; a network of spies had been formed, sympathisers were targeted by police, and a team of highly efficient trackers from Queensland were brought in. The gang were not only suffering from physical ailments, they were also unable to rob banks as they were now guarded by armed soldiers. In order to avoid the trackers they had to mostly travel on foot, which limited the amount of movement they could do. The desperation must have been incredible, and desperation does strange things to people. We never see Kurzel’s Kelly Gang struggle at all. They seem to be incapable of being caught, so why would Ned escalate things?

The Kelly Gang.

As Aaron Sherritt had been removed from the film a hastily thrown together alternative to his murder was created to give the police a reason to be heading to Glenrowan. Ned and Dan enter the brothel from earlier in the film, dressed in frocks and warpaint, and track down Constable Fitzpatrick. After singing a vulgar ditty to him, Ned shoots the trooper offscreen. One could be forgiven for missing that part of the scene as it happens during the transition. Needless to say this never happened. Historically speaking, by this time Fitzpatrick had been transferred out of the district. Moreover the gang and the police were not known to visit brothels. The very idea of Ned returning to Fitzpatrick to kill him may be satisfactory to the narrative, but it is outright fiction.

Bumping in.

The gang then proceed to the Glenrowan Inn, which is built in a clearing in a forest. While the outside is wood panels, the inside is clad in metal (decorated with graffiti scratched into it.) And not only has it got electric lights, it also features a pool table with a support beam for the roof going through the middle of it. All of the windows are shaped like slots because it’s a conspicuous visual nod to the Kelly helmet. Standing still inside are the gang’s prisoners with white sacks over their heads. There is probably around a dozen people at most and all are dressed in modern clothing, including Thomas Curnow who looks like he has been clothes shopping at R.M. Williams. The number of prisoners in the inn during the actual events was over sixty, and there were no pool tables. We don’t see any of the dancing or sports that the gang used to keep the prisoners occupied while waiting for the train, though we do see Steve Hart drumming on an oil drum while Dan Kelly dances to the beat.

Prisoners litter the interior of the Glenrowan Inn. This has been compared to photographs from the Iraq invasion that showed the mistreatment of prisoners in Abu Graib by American soldiers.

Ned takes up residency in a back room to write. By now he has become completely insane. When Curnow is brought to him he rambles, shouts, threatens to stab Curnow in the eye with his pen, throws furniture and pounds his head on the table. After much badgering from Curnow, Ned allows the teacher to go with a kiss to fetch some English books from the school so he can teach Ned how to fix the errors in his parsing. What was, historically, a day of subtly trying to butter Ned up to allow him to leave the inn is summarised by a couple of minutes of nagging and insincere compliments. Unfortunately, this is something that all depictions of Glenrowan have fallen victim to due to the nature of storytelling on film.

The lace dress Ned Kelly is clothed in creates the impression that the outlaw is wearing a Rorschach test – perhaps symbolic of how the perception of Ned Kelly is subjective, and we bring to our understanding of him whatever we subconsciously want to project.

Shortly after this the train arrives but is flagged down by Curnow in a flurry of strobe lights. Ned has Joe Byrne duct tape his writings to his chest before they grab their armour and weapons, which they carry toward the train line. As they exit the inn there are fireworks set off, which baffles the gang. They realise their army has deserted them. We are left to assume this was from fear of the police. The gang retreats to the inn where they switch off the lights, Joe Byrne pukes on the floor and the gang arm themselves (still not wearing their armour.) Ned stares out of the window as the police begin to move towards the inn. There are more strobe lights. It is unclear what they represent.

This shot emphasises the slotted windows and creates a feeling of claustrophobia and voyeurism.

As the police disembark, they March in formation holding lanterns. The effect is like watching an old arcade game like Space Invaders. When we finally see the police themselves, they are in glowing white ponchos. The gunfight breaks out with the outlaws firing through the windows and the inn becoming riddled with bullet holes which shafts of light inexplicably come through. It is tense, explosive and utterly incoherent. Both Dan and Joe are mortally wounded.

Chaos reigns at Glenrowan as the army of spectral police officers punctures the wall with bullets, their supernatural luminance pushing through the holes, emphasising their suppression of those trapped inside – alternatively it just looks cool.

Though the gang have been shot, it is unclear where they have been injured as there is blood everywhere, especially all over the floor like an abattoir. Joe is drenched in blood like he has been reenacting Carrie. A little boy is killed (though unnamed it is obviously meant to be Johnny Jones.) Joe slaps Ned and berates him for getting them into this mess and Ned orders the prisoners to leave. There appears to be no issue with the people leaving the building as nobody is shot at or affected in any way as the exit. Ned puts his armour on over his lace frock and struggles with his weapons, his thumbs apparently having been broken. He kisses his dying brother Dan goodbye after a barely audible conversation and heads to the door just as a fire starts.

The floor of the inn, awash with blood like a slaughterhouse.

Ned marches out of the inn firing at the police and cussing them out. His eyes are wild within the helmet. We get the obligatory POV shot from within the helmet as well as many close ups of George Mackay’s eyes and a shot mounted behind his head like he’s wearing a GoPro or a playable character in a video game. Suddenly he turns and shrieks as he sees the Glenrowan Inn is now an inferno. A bullet hits the side of his helmet and he hits the ground a few feet away from the burning inn and falls unconscious. The police sit still and watch the fire from afar.

Ned transcends his captivity, the steel clad interior of the inn replaced with his ironclad exterior. He is the Monitor, off to bring death and destruction to his enemies.

Morning comes and Ned wakes up surrounded by police who seem to mostly be wandering past him. The inn has burned down. We see the police posing with the gang’s armour and the charred bodies of Dan and Steve, then more police posing with Joe Byrne’s corpse tied to a tree. It seems befitting given his previous films (Snowtown, Macbeth, and Assassin’s Creed) that of all the parts of the historical Kelly story he could incorporate, these grisly moments would be the things Kurzel would find a way to riff on.

Police pose with the fruits of their labours.

To say that the sequence is a streamlined account of the siege is an understatement. To say that it has no substantial resemblance to reality is even more of an understatement. Obviously it was intended to be stylistic, but it is unclear exactly what the meaning behind the style was. After the build up around the armour the decision not to show the gang wearing it was bizarre. After all, we see shot after shot throughout the movie referencing the helmet in some way (usually through slotted windows) so it implies that the armour will be a major part of the climax. We even have Ned instructing the gang as they head to the train line to stick together when they are in their armour in order to maximise the efficiency of it, implying that we should see them wearing it at some point. Alas, no, it seems to be included merely out of obligation. A baffling decision, but one that the director obviously felt was appropriate.

A not-so-subtle reference to the sort of image that appears on mudflaps and bumper stickers all over Australia.

There are some elements that do work though. The epilogue to the scene with the police posing for the camera is powerful and striking while being a nod to the actual history. The sense of danger and terror is captured well, mostly through the excellent performances. Mackay as Ned captures the fury and recklessness that is implied by the historical accounts of Ned’s actions at Glenrowan, especially during his last stand, but never really rendered on screen in other depictions. Sadly, as a depiction of the Glenrowan Siege this really veers wide of the mark, bogged down in obscure symbolism and favouring stylistic choices over storytelling. As a piece of interesting filmmaking it fares far better.

This quote appeared in the Peter Carey novel. Its meaning can be taken to signify how the things that happened in the past still affect the present. This is emphasised visually in the Glenrowan Inn by the electric lights and the prisoners being dressed in modern clothing.

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