Film Popular Culture

Glenrowan on Film: Ned Kelly (2003)

A look at how the Glenrowan siege and the events directly leading to it were portrayed in the 2003 film.

Gregor Jordan’s second feature film was an adaptation of Robert Drewe’s rambling novel Our Sunshine. The film was not terribly well received by Kelly enthusiasts for the liberties it took with history, and studio meddling resulted in changes that turned the film into a toothless, milquetoast biopic (according to the screenwriter) that flew under the radar outside of Australia. Not even huge stars like Heath Ledger and Orlando Bloom were enough to put bums on seats, yet the film still has a small, dedicated fanbase mostly driven by fans of Ledger and Bloom. The writer of the original screenplay, John Michael McDonagh, has expressed great anger for what was done to the script in an effort to make it more appealing for mainstream audiences. The director, however, has never really spoken of it since the film was released.

This tiny glimpse says so much about this filmic interpretation of the Kelly story.

The Glenrowan sequence of the film succeeds in capturing a sense of the terror and calamity of the siege with superb cinematography and taut editing. It is incredibly atmospheric and makes for an intriguing and highly fantasised interpretation of the siege and definitely the highlight of the film after the Euroa bank robbery. Let’s look at how Gregor Jordan interpreted the climax of the Kelly story.

Police flares illuminate the inn. This is an unusual and clever interpretation of why the skyrockets were set off during the early stages of the siege though completely wrong.

The plan for Glenrowan in this interpretation seems to be to escalate a declared war between the outlaws and the British Empire by taking out as many police as possible in one hit, and holding Superintendent Hare hostage in exchange for Ellen Kelly’s release. There is no indication in this screen adaptation of what the gang are planning on beyond this goal of freeing Ned’s mother. When asked what he’s up to, Ned simply states they are going to give the police “a show they’ll never forget.”

Looking like blood soaked barbarians, the Kelly Gang reemerge from exile to seek revenge.

After emerging from the wilderness, where they have narrowly escaped a bushfire and poisoned waterholes by drinking the blood of their horses, the gang are washed and groomed and begin assembling their arsenal. They construct armour in preparation for a large scale conflict with police. It seems that the desperation they were driven to has made them vow to put a sharp stop on further police efforts to eliminate them. There is no reference to a republic, with the gang’s desperation being seen as adequate motivation to spawn the plot.

Dan shows disbelief that the armour is completely unaffected by bullets.

Joe receives word from his girlfriend Maggie that Aaron has been hanging around with police. To test his loyalty, Ned and Joe tell Aaron of a plan to rob a bank in Beechworth and that they want him to be their scout. When they see police arrive in town they know the gig is up (it is unclear how long they were waiting on the hill to see if police showed up.) They are now convinced Aaron is a traitor and decide to kill him.

Maggie is a rare character in the film that is actually portrayed fairly close to their historical counterpart. The real Maggie was a maid at the Vine Hotel and Joe would visit her every Saturday night for carnal exchange. Aaron’s involvement with the police was exposed when he gave her away to a constable that had gotten him drunk. She very quickly fed the information back to Joe just before the Glenrowan plot unfolded.

An undefined span of time later, Aaron Sherritt is lured outside by Joe in a dress and shawl. The police in the hut play cards and exhibit disdain for Sherritt. When Aaron recognises Joe he is promptly shot. It is never explained in the film why there was a need to put Joe in a frock and a headscarf, though it was likely a nod to the myth that members of the gang wore drag as a disguise (see also: True History of the Kelly Gang.) As he and Ned ride away from the scene, Joe questions why Aaron betrayed them. Ned responds that Aaron probably got ideas above his station.

An eerie vision to be sure, but not a logical one.

In Benalla, Superintendent Hare gives a rousing speech on the train platform to his troopers and volunteers that explains the dangerousness of the bushrangers. Historically speaking, no such speech was made and Hare’s party was a sliver of the size. The real police were all in plainclothes, including O’Connor and his trackers, who don’t appear in the film, because they were anticipating having to go searching for the gang in the bush where uniforms were impractical. Most film depictions seem to think that there must have been dozens of troopers all at once, though the truth is that there were actually four seperate parties of police that arrived at different times. Hare’s was merely the first to head off as he was leading the pursuit.

Some police are shown wearing the leather shako that had been phased out by 1880. The police uniforms are reasonably accurate, especially compared to previous films.

We see the gang putting the rest of the plan into effect and bailing up a travelling circus. This is taken from the novel, which in turn was seemingly based on a throwaway comment attributed to Ned at Glenrowan, wherein he expressed a desire to capture a local circus to bring to the inn to keep his prisoners entertained. The inclusion of the circus adds a level of fantasy to the sequence that is baffling to anyone expecting a historical take. The caged lion is an important symbol in the novel, hence its inclusion.

The Great Orlando is far more avuncular in the film than in the novel, seemingly happy to play along with Ned’s plans. This reflects a lot of the changes that made the adaptation far less edgy than the source material.

The stationmaster spots a camel and is bailed up when he goes to investigate. The tracks are pulled up in the middle of the day by two men only, with Ned and Joe keeping watch. In reality, Ned and Steve were attempting to pull up the rails while Joe and Dan were at Aaron’s place. There was much back and forth as the prisoners deliberately made things difficult for Ned. It was the early hours of the morning by the time the rail was actually torn up. It makes sense for a director to cut a lot of that running around out for the sake of keeping the audience engaged

The Glenrowan Inn is visible behind the camel. It is far larger than the real inn, presumably because an accurately proportioned inn was far less filmic. We also see that this version of Glenrowan is a mud pit and far more built up than the real town was. Sadly we see so few views of the town that we never get a clear sense of space.

With the track damaged, the gang casually take control of the Glenrowan Inn to house prisoners. The events are streamlined to keep things taut for the purposes of pace. It is a little odd that the film chooses to relegate Glenrowan to this tiny end piece whereas the novel is essentially a stream of consciousness depiction of the life of Ned Kelly told through his reminiscences at Glenrowan while waiting for the train. It would have been easy to have the rest of the film’s scenes as flashbacks, cutting back to Ned at Glenrowan, and still have the same linear storytelling in essence.

A captive audience.

Ned gives a speech to his prisoners about how he and his gang are the most wanted men in the British Empire. This scene has a very low energy and seems almost awkward as the crowd stares silently at Ned who mumbles his way through the speech. The moment feels unrehearsed, but not in an intentional way. Following this there is a party and while everyone drinks, dances and dines Ned sits on a bed with his pistols. Jane Jones enters with refreshments and they reminisce about the time Ned took her riding (a scene from the beginning of the film.) Of course, as the real Jane Jones was fifteen during the events of June 1880 and never knew Ned up to this point, this horseriding moment would never have happened. This interpretation of Jane is merely a device to allow a moment of reflection on Ned’s character development.

The dance at the Glenrowan Inn as portrayed here accurately conveys the sense of how cramped and noisy it would have been in the bar room during a dance and imbues the event with a joviality that is in keeping with the popular perception of the occasion.

In an intriguing deviation from history, Thomas Curnow doesn’t bother trying to butter Ned up to get free passage home. In this version of the story Curnow secretly escapes to warn the train, which is noticed by Joe as he does the rounds checking on the prisoners. We never see Curnow stop the train but we do cut to the train having stopped, the police inspecting the track and Curnow talking to Hare. We catch a glimpse of Ned in the bushes assessing the situation. When he returns he tells the rest of the gang they’ve failed. Joe says there will be at least a hundred troopers about to attack. This hugely exaggerated number has echoes of The Glenrowan Affair from 1951.

Ned delivers the bad news.

Ned tells the prisoners they are being let out as the police surround the inn. When the prisoners exit the police open fire killing at least one man. The prisoners retreat inside and mayhem ensues. Hare stands at the edge of his ranks like a British general with a subordinate on hand to hold an umbrella over his head to keep the rain off. Police send up flares to illuminate the front of the inn and soon the gang emerge in dramatic fashion.

Johnny Jones is hit by police fire during the terrifying opening stages of the siege. As is common in these depictions, he is shown as much older. The real John Jones was only thirteen when he died. Despite what the film depicts, there were only two civilians killed by the police at Glenrowan – Johnny Jones and Martin Cherry – though there were more who were injured by police fire.

After taking a barrage of bullets, the gang mechanically raise their arms and begin shooting at police. One after another is slain as the outlaws fire blindly into the rain and gloom. Ned also manages to spot Hare through the gloom and shoots him. Hare is taken away wounded. It’s a small victory. The idea that any police were killed at Glenrowan is absurd and seems to get plonked in film adaptations simply because it’s more exciting to see people get hit by bullets and fall over than to have people shooting at each other ineffectually. This inherently misses the point of why the Glenrowan siege is so memorable. It’s not because it’s exciting that it deserves to be remembered but because it was a terrible tragedy.

Though not written exactly accurate, this depiction of the armoured outlaws firing at police really captures the mystery and terror that one gets from the historical accounts of the gang’s initial attack. The visuals here are also pretty close. We see just enough of the gang in the gloom to get a sense of their presence but not enough that it should be obvious they are armoured. Sadly this is immediately undone by Hare telling the police to aim for the arms and legs as the gang have armour on their bodies.

After Ned gets shot in the arm everyone goes back inside to reload. Prisoners are being shot as bullets year the inn to pieces. Even the Great Orlando’s monkey cops it. Eventually Ned decides to be honorable and provides a distraction out front so the prisoners can escape out the back. This is where the timeline of the siege really gets confused. It seems that there was a mistaken belief that the famous last stand, where Ned Kelly emerged from the most to terrify police, must have been at this moment and not the direct lead-up to Ned’s capture. At any rate, Ned stumbled around in the gloom, see the camel walking past and collapses.

This clumsy staggering onto the night is as close as this film gets to Ned Kelly’s last stand. In reality, at this stage of the fight Ned escaped via the back of the hotel, leaving the rest of the gang behind, and fell unconscious in the bush where he was almost discovered multiple times.

Meanwhile, back in the inn Joe gets thirsty and goes for a drink. Orlando Bloom does a great job of showing Joe as being rattled by the carnage he has seen in a wonderfully understated moment. For whatever reason this version of Joe was not shot in the leg, an injury that forced the real Joe to have to get around on his hands and knees. Joe never gets to have his drink or his famous toast as the glass is shattered in his hand and immediately after a bullet hits him in the groin through a gap in his armour. Blood spills out over the apron and Joe slumps to the floor dead.

To date, this is probably the most accurate on screen depiction of Joe’s death despite the various inaccuracies. Joe’s sense of hopelessness is very powerful in this moment.

There’s a time jump and we are now in broad daylight. Ned wakes up on the opposite side of a log barely a hundred metres away from the hundred or so cops that have been taking the inn with bullets. It’s almost comical to think that in all those hours nobody walked away from the fight to find Ned unconscious within sight of the inn. This version also commits the age old error of having the inn burning before Ned’s capture. Inside we see Dan and Steve sitting in the floor crying. They only have two bullets left so they shoot themselves. There are obvious things wrong with this depiction, not the least being that Father Gibney is completely absent. It seems to be an accepted truth that Dan and Steve committed suicide by shooting themselves though those who saw the bodies, especially up close, stated there was no sign that this was the case. For a dramatic retelling, suicide by shooting is far easier and more exciting to portray than poisoning, and even the very first film of the story in 1906 portrayed the deaths in this manner. It’s a frequently perpetuated myth.

In reality, Dan and Steve were both dead long before the fire was lit. Their bodies were also found in a bedroom, not by the bar as seen here. Father Gibney described them as “beardless youths” and stated their heads were resting on makeshift pillows.

We hear the gunshots from outside and Ned, putting his helmet on again, stands and faces the police. He fires his guns into the air to attract their attention and is immediately fired upon. In only a few seconds he is brought down again. Many versions of the last stand suggest that the confrontation could have taken up to half an hour, though this is mostly due to inconsistencies in reporting on when Ned was captured. Regardless, it doesn’t make sense as to why Ned bothered to put his helmet back on and attract police attention here. All that resulted was his immediate capture. The police swarm around him and someone cries out that it’s Ned Kelly (that happens a lot in this movie.) Jane Jones pushes her way through the crowd to look at Ned who pushed his helmet off and states into middle distance looking vaguely confused.

We can infer that the real last stand occurred when Ned was attempting to get back to the inn to end the fight with his gang as at the time Dan and Steve were still alive, and the inn was intact. By burning the inn while Ned is still at large there is no motivation for him to be returning to it, especially when he can hear the others shooting themselves inside. The decision Ned makes here is not clear and it seems the only reason he is not shown being captured earlier is simply because of the writers being confused about what actually happened during the siege.

Having been taken to a train carriage for medical treatment, Ned lies still staring up as Dr. Nicholson removes the green sash. A priest stands nearby. Superintendent Hare enters, his arm in a sling, and takes the sash from the doctor. He asks Ned if he can keep it but Ned just stared at him. As the train pulls away Ned stares out the window at some children and that’s the end of the film. It’s a strange and unsatisfying conclusion.

Though Hare is shown to have been around to ask Ned for permission to souvenir his lucky sash, in reality Hare had been gone for hours before Ned was even captured. Due to his shattered wrist, Hare was evacuated around half an hour after the firing began. This enabled him to send telegrams to nearby police stations requesting backup in Glenrowan. He would not see Ned until the bushranger was being transferred to Melbourne Gaol.

The Glenrowan sequence is the climax of the film and as such a considerable chunk of screen time is dedicated to it. The pacing is quite taut and the sense of terror and confusion is excellently rendered. The cinematography is gorgeous and definitely gives this interpretation of the event a unique feel. Though there are obvious departures from history, if this were to be viewed simply as a piece of cinema it holds up reasonably well though it doesn’t quite stick the landing.

The lion is a key element taken from Drewe’s novel and is intended to be symbolic of Ned himself. It is worth noting that the lion is the heraldic animal of the Kelly clan as it represents deathless courage.

As with all things throughout the film, the sets and costumes are quite authentic but not exactly accurate. There are strange flourishes of accuracy such as Ned’s sash being an exact replica of the real one, and Joe being given a scarf and a ring to wear because the real Joe had a scarf and rings in the postmortem photographs taken of him (it’s worth noting that according to the screenplay we were meant to see Joe’s body being strung up for photographs but this was evidently cut out.) There has obviously been an effort made to emulate actual buildings like the inn and the train station, albeit with some creative liberties. Even the gang’s armour was crafted with effort being made to resemble the real deal quite closely. These little touches demonstrate that the production team seemed to care about doing a good job of depicting the story, though perhaps not realising where the screenplay veers away wildly from history. It is hard to argue that aesthetically this is one of the best film depictions of the siege regardless of accuracy.

The inn as portrayed in this version is huge compared to the real one. By adding two big extensions to the sides it effectively doubles the size of the building. This makes the inn seem like a much better suited building for storing all the townsfolk in, which makes sense from a storytelling perspective but sort of misses the point that the small size of the inn was part of the reason there were so many casualties.

Jordan’s Ned Kelly is a strange beast. It never seems to know how far it wants to go down the path of history or fiction, and feels like it is pulling its punches. It is neither as meaty as the screenplay set it up to be, not as adult and lyrical as the Robert Drewe novel that it is based on. Given that Heath Ledger famously argued with the executives who wanted to ditch the beard in favour of a more poster-friendly visage (the compromise was Ned’s mutton chops as seen in the early portion of the film), it is easy to make the assumption that studio interference played a key role in the way this one turned out. It may be rubbish insofar as depicting history but there are still enjoyable elements to find.

By AJFPhelan56

Father, writer, artist and bushranging historian residing in Melbourne, Australia. Author of 'Glenrowan' and the popular website A Guide to Australian Bushranging.

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