The first postwar on-screen depiction of the Kelly story was Rupert Kathner’s clunky The Glenrowan Affair. Like almost every film about Ned Kelly, it struggled to get off the ground and in this case once it did it failed to really nab an audience the way it was expected to. This version of the story was designed to better fit in with the Westerns of the era. One of its most notable features is the use of stock characters like the wise priest and the old soak who spends basically the whole story at the pub. The story, inspired by the infamous James Ryan (a swaggie who pretended to be Dan Kelly to make money off telling his story), tells of how Dan Kelly escaped from Glenrowan. That this is the starting point for the film, it becomes very clear what kind of film we’re in for. As is typical of most retellings of bushranger tales of the period it generally does away with annoying things like truth and realistic or relatable characters. The acting is non-existent and the editing is jarring, which makes sense given that the Australian film industry had basically shrivelled up and died over the course of the Great Depression and WWII. What was once one of the most esteemed countries in terms of producing marketable, popular and innovative cinema had become non-existent on the film scene and clangers like The Glenrowan Affair did nothing to reinvigorate the industry.
The film’s depiction of the events that unfolded at Glenrowan start with the Kellys recognising Aaron Sherritt as a traitor. In this film Aaron is portrayed as the world’s youngest middle-aged man; greasy, nasty and shifty. The Kellys send a note to Sergeant Steele that tells him that they know what Sherritt is up to, resulting in a police guard being stationed with him.
There is a short scene where Joe Byrne refers to Sherritt multiple times as a “dirty dingo” and tells Ned a story about one time in his childhood when he rescued a dingo pup from a trap, healed it and cared for it then it bit him and took a chunk out of his leg – the moral of the story being that dingoes can’t be trusted. It’s a clumsy, heavy-handed attempt at a metaphor, but perfectly in keeping with all the ridiculous dialogue that preceded it. Joe then vows to murder Sherritt. Ned agrees to help him at daybreak.
The scene in which the murder takes place is a strange beast. As with most aspects of the film it feels staged and directed like a play or pantomime. Joe stalks through the garden in broad daylight, planting his rifle in the garden bed. Aaron peeks out of the window. Joe calls to Aaron, saying he has something important for him. When the door is opened Joe fires his pistol. We never see Aaron on the other side of the door and he dies offscreen, which is obviously meant to have dramatic effect, leaving the viewer guessing as to how horrific the death must have been, though the film shows many police dying bloodless deaths throughout. Joe then turns, grabs his rifle and leaves. He and Ned then ride off to Glenrowan.
In response to the murder, the police send 100 reinforcements and a cannon to find and exterminate the Kellys. The cannon and the reinforcements are to be sent up by a special train at midnight on Saturday, though it never becomes clear why that time and day specifically. It is also mentioned that Curnow, the schoolteacher, is working for the police.
The greatest point of difference in this film to others depicting the Kelly story is that the Glenrowan Hotel is effectively Ned Kelly’s hangout. We frequently cut back to the characters in the pub talking about the gang’s exploits and filling the audience in on various aspects of the plot. At this point we see Joe grumbling to Ned as Kate Kelly arrives to tell them that a special train is coming. She explains that she heard it from Father Gibney who gives sermons to the police. Joe says Gibney is a police spy, presumably because anyone that spends any length of time interacting with police is obviously a spy. Kate begs Ned to escape but he refuses.
After waving goodbye to Kate, the gang ride to the train tracks and break them up using a crowbar. We also see a lot of stock footage of train conductors and an old steam train. Despite the train supposedly travelling under cover of darkness it is blatantly obvious that the sequence was filmed in the middle of the day.
After this the gang start gathering people into the pub, though it’s not clear why. Ned makes a show of shouting the drinks for the prisoners. It is at this time that Curnow approaches Ned and asks to go home because his wife is pregnant and waiting for a doctor. Ned lets him go, and Joe immediately suspects Curnow of being a spy (of course.)
Dan and Steve watch for the train and upon seeing it run into a creek. Curnow goes into a shed by the tracks and takes a lantern. As Ned is told the train is coming, Curnow stands on the tracks to stop it.
Immediately upon realising the train has stopped, the bar patrons panic. Ned suggests that he can go outside and draw fire away so that people can escape, but instead stands reloading his pistol and chatting to Joe as the police surround the pub. Dan starts firing out of the window and shooting police dead. Shot after shot hits its mark and sends troopers toppling. This is the first depiction of Glenrowan wherein there are police plucked off, one after another despite the fact that no police were ever killed at Glenrowan.
We see an inexplicable fire visible through the bar room window as the bushrangers fire at the police, likely a continuity error as we later see a man with a flaming torch setting fire to the verandah before being shot. Chaos ensues. Ned Kelly goes outside in his armour, but Dan runs outside and mounts his horse so he can ride away as fast as he can, leaving his mates behind to perish.
Ned, now dressed in his armour, and quite clearly portrayed by a different actor, stomps around and taunts the police. He stands still for prolonged bouts of monologuing while gunshots are going off everywhere. The police soon realise his legs aren’t protected and they shoot him. He tumbles over and is captured without fuss.
The hotel is burnt down and we see the portly Father Gibney talking to a policeman while covered in ash. Though it looks like someone threw the remnants of a campfire at the actor, it is meant to represent him having gone through the fire. The policeman interrogates him and the priest awkwardly attempts to draw out the tension by avoiding answering whether or not he saw Dan Kelly in the pub. After revealing that he didn’t and meaningfully looking at a hat he is holding (presumably Dan’s, though it looks exactly the same as everyone else’s) he turns dramatically and says he must go to Ned.
The film ends with a return to the framing device: a mysterious old man with distinctive burns on his hand telling the story of how he escaped from Glenrowan. It certainly seems that the director felt this would have offered more of a shock to the audience than it actually does. Any sense of intrigue is destroyed by the janky, lopsided pacing and atrocious acting.
The Glenrowan Affair is the sort of film that might appeal to the sort of person that gets a giggle out of Neil Breen movies or MST3K. It has moments that are so bad they’re funny, but mostly they’re just bad. There is no interest in telling the story accurately or competently, the gunfights and horse riding presumably deemed interesting enough not to necessitate a decent plot or characters. There’s so much wrong with it that it’s not worth doing a proper comparison between fact and film.