Film Popular Culture

Glenrowan on Film: Ned Kelly (1970)

A look at how Glenrowan and its lead up are portrayed in the infamous 1970 Ned Kelly movie

As we have explored the big screen adaptations of the Kelly story it has become abundantly clear that not a single one of them has steered clear of controversy. Perhaps the most controversial is the 1970 film, simply titled Ned Kelly, directed by Tony Richardson and starring Mick Jagger. This is a film that has a few firsts attached to it. For example, it’s the first feature film about the Kellys to be shot in colour. It is also the first on-screen depiction to suggest that Ned Kelly was attempting to establish a Republic, the first with sound to depict the trial and hanging, and the first to use a POV shot from inside the helmet, which has become a staple of screen depictions of Kelly ever since. The initial screenplay was written by Ian Jones, who is well known to Kelly enthusiasts. The screenplay was then reworked by Richardson to suit the sort of film he wanted to make, which was more akin to an American western. Though there are some strange musical interludes and the Euroa and Jerilderie sequences are turned into comedic farces, complete with Benny Hill style sped up footage in one instance, the Glenrowan sequence is treated with much more gravitas. Let’s take a look at what makes the 1970 interpretation stand out from the rest of the big screen versions.

The cinematography in Ned Kelly is often quite adventurous, demonstrating a unique visual approach to telling the story. In order to convey the claustrophobia of wearing the helmet we see out of it through Ned’s eyes. This works so well that it has been replicated in basically every film and documentary about Ned Kelly in some form ever since.

Ned Kelly suggests that the motivation for the Glenrowan plot is the formation of a republic. This is no doubt due to Ian Jones’s involvement as he was the biggest champion of the theory. The Kelly sympathisers are all signified by the wearing of green silk scarves, evoking the Irish Catholic rebellion in Northern Ireland. The seditious element is somewhat softened by the joviality of the rebels in the aftermath of the release of the sympathisers from gaol. During the celebration Ned declares a desire to declare war on “the entire English world” and make the land and the law theirs in a republic of Victoria.

Ned Kelly addresses his sympathisers like someone giving a speech at someone’s 21st, which is probably more accurate to how such a moment would have played out. However it is unlikely that such a large gathering of Kelly sympathisers would go unnoticed by the police.

The Aboriginal trackers are introduced and in their first outing they tell the white officer accompanying them that the Kellys are near. The officer decides to turn back for fear of a confrontation. From a perch high above, the gang watch them, worried that they are about to be found by the police. Dan suggests picking them all off as they leave to stop them regrouping but Ned refuses. He tells the gang that next time there’s a confrontation it will have to be different to Stringybark. Joe points out that the trackers may end up getting them first. The historical Ned’s fear of the native police is well known, but as is sort of par for the course in this film the less virtuous aspects of Ned’s personality (in this instance his racist tendencies) are given to others to make him more likeable. By having Ned dismiss Dan’s apparent bloodlust also makes Ned seem far more reasonable, though given the plot he’s about to concoct there’s some pretty heavy duty cognitive dissonance happening here.

By portraying the other members of the gang as cruel or ruthless it allows Ned to be shown as the level-headed leader who exercises benevolent judgement and has to keep the others in line. To put it another way, instead of elevating him based on his own virtues the writers simply cut down those around him to give the illusion of elevation.

It is at this point that Ned begins to put things in motion for his next scheme. He forces his lover Caitlin, yet another fictional love interest, to leave and becomes withdrawn and sullen, supposedly because he dreads the trackers finding him. We are given a montage showing Sherritt spying with the police, intercut with Ned formulating the idea of the armour which is shown through flash-forwards of what is to come (including yet another shot that would be borrowed by a later film with a camera fixed to the helmet looking in at Ned’s face through the eye slit.) Simplifying Aaron’s involvement with the police as outright betrayal may make for more emotionally satisfying viewing for some, but it does nothing to encourage an appreciation for the complexity of the situation.

Yet another inventive camera trick to give the impression of the claustrophobia of the helmet, this same shot would be used to greater effect fifty years later in True History of the Kelly Gang, albeit swapping Mick Jagger’s impassive face with George Mackay making crazy eyes.

The song The Shadow of the Gallows plays throughout and sets the tone of foreboding and morbidity. The lyrics include phrases such as “you never get no nourishment, never see the sun
when you’re living in the shadows of the gallows” that create a sense of hopelessness and implies that Ned’s fate was predetermined (a notion enhanced by showing the hanging at the beginning of the film.) We get the impression that Ned is giving in to his melancholic mindset because of the desperation he is experiencing, when we are suddenly shown what he has dreamed up.

Oh the jailer looked me in the eye, said be straight and true
And read me rules I swore I’d follow
But I pinched his watch and lever for what else can you do
when you’re born in the shadows of the gallows?

When we see the armour being formed for the first time Ned gives an impassioned speech about his plan to turn ploughshares into armour and take down all the traps in Victoria. He demonstrates the imperviousness of the steel but Dan still has his misgivings. However Steve at least seems to be keen. Though he has invented bulletproof armour, Ned still has not developed a plan beyond wiping out the police despite the republic idea being planted earlier on. When compared to the earlier scene where Ned refuses to allow Dan to murder the small group of police that were close to finding them, it seems more than a little odd, and downright hypocritical, to have Ned suddenly pushing for mass slaughter.

“If you kill one you’re a murderer; if you kill a hundred you’re a hero!”

The murder of Sherritt is here used as the lure for the police as is traditionally accepted. After an ill-fated visit to his mother, Joe realises that Aaron has been spying on the house for the police. Ned sees this as the perfect opportunity. The implication is that the decision to kill Aaron and derail the train at Glenrowan was a spur of the moment thing rather than the product of months of planning, and that Joe and Dan are sent out immediately to sort out Aaron. The oversimplified Sherritt arc in this film is unrewarding for anyone invested in learning more about Joe Byrne and Aaron Sherritt. The reality is that you could easily make a whole film just about the Sherritts and their dramas as they helped the police in the hope of getting a slice of the reward, and how Aaron became the scapegoat. There were many twists and turns that lead to the decision to kill him and there are still questions about what actually happened.

Joe spots Aaron and Nicolson watching his mother’s house in broad daylight. While this makes for a more simplified version to keep the narrative tight, in reality Joe spent a year testing Aaron’s loyalty before information from Joe’s brothers and girlfriend sealed Aaron’s fate.

When we cut to the fateful night, Aaron is curled up on his wife’s lap as she sings to him and he strokes her belly. A knock on the door alerts him to Anton Weekes outside. The police in the bedroom playing cards are perturbed but not alarmed. Aaron opens the door with a smile and is quickly blown away by Joe who has his shotgun poking out from under Anton’s arm. The women are dragged into the bedroom by the police, and rather than linger, Joe dashes away into the night where Dan waits on horseback. The moment is almost comical in its brevity, but conveys what needs to be conveyed in a very concise way that doesn’t veer so far from the truth as to be fantasy (or omit it completely.) Here, as in most depictions, the murder is robbed of its importance for the sake of pacing. Unfortunately many people underestimate how difficult it is to put everything into a 90 minute film, and this interpretation of the climax of the story is probably the best case study in how a director will streamline events to make it more cinema-friendly.

“You lost your way, Anton?”

We then immediately smash cut to Joe and Dan arriving in Glenrowan the next day, where the armour and skyrockets are brought in on horseback. The rockets, as Ned explains to two Chinese men (one of whom appears to be named Jack), are to act as a signal for the sympathisers waiting in the hills. The inclusion of the Chinese and the rockets ticks off more firsts for the film. Though it is Ned who is shown interacting with the Chinese, it is more likely that it was Joe Byrne who organised the skyrockets through his links with the Chinese in Beechworth and Sebastopol. Yet again a quality that may have made another member of the gang seem more important or interesting is given to Ned to make him a more likeable protagonist. In all probability Ned probably felt much the same about the Chinese as he did about Aboriginals – not very highly. His encounter with Ah Fook is a prime illustration of his animosity towards them, the “Parkes letter” attributed to him also expresses some particularly racist opinions about the Chinese, but in fairness that is speculation. We have no verified information proving Ned’s attitudes towards the Chinese.

There may have been a slight mistake in this scene where Ned calls to “Jack” and one of the Chinese men responds. In probability this was meant to be Ned trying to get the attention of Jack Lloyd who oral tradition states was the person that fired the rockets.

When the train line is being pulled up, the depiction is mostly accurate. We do see a group of men working on the rail, guarded/motivated by Ned and Steve. It is apparent that the men do not comply willingly by the death glares they give Ned. Though the chronology is out (the sabotage was done before Dan and Joe had arrived), this change doesn’t alter things too drastically and allows the basic information to be demonstrated in such a way that it doesn’t chew up too much screen time and keeps the audience following along.

When compared to the other big screen depictions, this is the closest to fact. Having a gang of labourers working on the rail and guarded by Ned and Steve is much more in keeping with what really happened than having Ned and Joe force two men to do the job or to have an army of teens in drag doing it.

The wait for the train is shown to be a draining and boring exercise for the gang and the prisoners. The energy is low and languid. It is in this part of the sequence that we see Ann Jones, portrayed as a busty wench offering hot toddies to the gang and toasting their imminent success. This isn’t too far removed from the real Ann who seemed to be eager enough to mingle with the gang and get flirtatious with Ned and Joe. No doubt this was a deliberate attempt to get the outlaws to see her as an ally and therefore hopefully treat her and her family well. We never get a sense of that here. Rather, this Ann Jones seems to be completely enamoured with Ned. Ned meanwhile seems both concerned that the train hasn’t come yet and dismissive of its lateness. This may have been written to show Ned trying to hide his anxiousness but it plays out like the characterisation is inconsistent either due to the acting or the direction.

The gang all wear bandoliers, likely to make them more closely resemble characters from a cowboy movie. Such an accessory was not typically worn at the time.

We are also introduced to Thomas Curnow who hobbles around wearing a boot with a strange metal fixing attached to it to compensate for his bad hip. Ned appears to show pity for Curnow, calling him a “Poor little bloke.” This Curnow is more calculating than we usually see, though not so villainous as in The Glenrowan Affair. He nervously tells Ned the stationmaster has a gun in his belt. Ned grabs the weapon and tells the stationmaster that he ought to shoot him with it. Curnow plants the seed of what will follow by asking to let him take his wife home, though Ned defers a decision until later. Though it is a very condensed and simplified version of what happened it is adequate for storytelling purposes and doesn’t veer far from what is known.

This incarnation of Curnow gives off bad vibes. Everything about him seems shifty and untrustworthy, yet we’re led to believe that because he told Ned of the stationmaster’s pistol that Ned would trust him or even feel obligated to return the gesture. In reality, Curnow spent the whole time he was in the inn attempting to convince Ned to let him go and even slipped up on at least one occasion when someone ratted him out to Ned.

The dance is portrayed brilliantly with the inn full of people hopping around to vivacious piano music, though during the historical events being depicted here it was concertina music, not piano. The shelves clink as the shaking floor rattles the bottles, and the lights hanging from the ceiling rock with the vibrations, the room is hot and sweaty and thick with people. This is one thing the film consistently gets right. Every time there is a dance it’s full of energy and it is clear that people are enjoying themselves. Even though the people in the inn were prisoners, according to witness accounts the enthusiasm for the dances was genuine. It must be remembered that dancing was the pinnacle of entertainment in the region at the time, along with hunting and watching horse races. This would have been a welcome relief from the boredom of waiting.

This version of the dance is cramped and chaotic, just as it would have been in such a tiny space. It is often forgotten how tiny the real Glenrowan Inn was, and certainly any festivities where all 60+ prisoners were dancing in the bar room would have been a horrendous squeeze.

During the dance we also see Ned becoming introspective. He is quiet and disengages from the festivities. He gazes at himself in the mirror as if he can’t even recognise his own face, the man he has become is a stranger. No doubt the prolonged wait for the train has caused him to be concerned and distracted, and as his anxiety has mounted so too has his melancholy.

The Shadow of the Gallows is reprised at this moment to underscore Ned’s emotional state. The use of Ned’s reflection illustrates an important turning point in Ned’s character development. He is finally seeing himself the way others see him and it reminds him of the terrible fate that awaits him if his plan fails.

During this montage we also see the police train speeding through the night towards Glenrowan and Thomas Curnow rushing to the ideal spot along the train line in his buggy with his wife next to him. The incredible speed and recklessness sees the buggy bouncing around like strips of bacon in a frying pan, Mrs. Curnow looks absolutely terrified as she’s tossed about like cucumber in a salad.

The sense of urgency in this moment is intense, enhanced by the dangerous bouncing around of the buggy. Though in reality Curnow snuck out of his house alone to stop the train, the way it is portrayed here really highlights the desperation to stop the approaching train.

The train is flagged down by Curnow standing on the train tracks with a red scarf draped over a lantern that he is waving in a frenzy. His eyes and mouth are wide with terror and excitement. It is worth noting that the train used here is probably the most accurate one ever used in a Kelly film. Unfortunately most trains of the sort used at the time have long been decommissioned and scrapped, with more recent films using 20th century engines and carriages that look old fashioned enough to pass as the real deal.

One way to tell if the train is authentic to the period is by the placement of lights. The trains used at Glenrowan by the police had a larger lamp above the smokebox and two smaller ones mounted on the buffer bar. One of the smaller lamps on the pilot engine had been pulverised when it smashed through an iron gate.

In this interpretation, Steve Hart is on guard on the verandah (in reality he was still at the gatehouse at the time), and the rest of the gang are inside dancing, Dan appears to be quite drunk. Steve realises the train is coming and alerts the others. Lights are extinguished and the gang fetch their armour. Police disembark the train chanting like a SWAT team (unintentionally bringing to mind the climax of The Blues Brothers) and they surround the inn. The gang realise Curnow stopped the train and spread out. There’s a brief pause before the police open fire.

These troopers have ankles of steel to drop safely from the height they are at. Historically speaking this dramatic leaping did not happen as the train pulled into the station to allow everyone to safely disembark. Yet again we see an absurd number of troopers, all dressed in uniform.

The rockets are set off in confusion; the gunfire being taken as a sign that the train has derailed. We see the rockets exploding intercut with the sympathisers and Ned responding. The sympathisers then begin riding to battle, hooting and hollering. This “phantom army”, as it has been dubbed, is likely based on reports that there were armed sympathisers approaching the inn from behind just prior to the inn was burned.

At least four rockets are set off here, though in reality only two were observed. It is still not known precisely why they were set off, but it is generally accepted that it was some kind of signal.

While distracted by the fireworks, Ned is shot in the arm, and Johnny Jones (here referred to as Jack) is fatally wounded. It is unclear what Jones’s actual wounding is as he’s covered in blood in several places. The battle has a staggered, unrefined pace that feels more like how the actual event unfolded. There is panic in the inn as the prisoners realise that bullets are passing straight through the walls. It is worth noting at this point that the armour, though crafted to resemble the real suits, was actually jumbled up during production as certain pieces looked better worn together on Mick Jagger as Ned’s armour. This is why he wears Joe’s helmet and his breastplate is actually Dan’s backplate.

This depiction of the opening exchanges of gunfire is visually striking. Though it is dark we see enough of the people and objects to know what is happening, and there is still a strong sense of space that allows the audience to contextualise what they are seeing. It is gritty and realistic, not super stylised or heightened as in later depictions.

Ned goes to warn the army that they are about to ride into the police fire, leaving the others at the inn to fight. The image of Ned riding a white horse, dressed in his armour and oilskin is a dramatic one and perhaps one that could have been more iconic if Ned were portrayed by someone other than the lead singer of The Rolling Stones. He succeeds in halting the sympathisers but drops his helmet and falls unconscious in the bush while retrieving it.

While there is yet to be a consensus about the “phantom army”, which was portrayed on film for the first time in this production, it is difficult to accept that Ned would have succeeded in mounting a horse after being wounded in the arm and foot, dressed in his armour and attempting to mount a terrified animal in the middle of a gunfight. It is also worth pointing out that at least one police witness saw Ned following a horse into the bush, having failed to mount, which Ned himself stated on one occasion to have happened (though he frequently gave conflicting accounts of Glenrowan, so who knows for sure?)

The senior police, Standish and Nicolson, decide not to let the prisoners out. Unlike other portrayals of the siege, we actually get to see the Aboriginal troopers taking part in the battle. It seems strange that this aspect should be one of the few that is fairly correct given how much else of the depiction of the police here is totally wrong.

It feels rather odd to see a character that is an amalgamation of Nicolson, Hare and Sadleir, but it is a necessity to keep the story easy to follow for an audience with no knowledge of the history. Including Standish here to override Nicolson and provide an explanation for the police continuing to fire into the inn while knowing innocent people are trapped inside is problematic. As much as the real Standish’s response to what was unfolding was deserving of criticism, by perpetuating the myth that there’s always an out-of-touch toff at the top that makes things more difficult than necessary, the police actions at Glenrowan are way too oversimplified.

In a bizarrely written scene, the gang tell the prisoners that they can’t leave or they’ll get shot. Joe then reaches up to the bar for a sneaky drink and is killed mid-swig. Here he is not given the dignity of an ironic toast, but simply mutters “Oh shit,” and collapses. Why Tony Richardson felt the need to make this moment seem comical in the heat of a very tense siege sequence is very difficult to determine.

It could be that an attempt was being made at bathos to give the audience some relief from the intensity of the siege, but it really doesn’t work and only trivialises the death.

It is at this point that the chronology gets squiffy. Shortly after Joe’s death the civilians are released. We are not shown the women and children escaping under fire, Stanistreet running to freedom, or Jack McHugh carrying Jack Jones to safety. We also do not see Sergeant Steele firing at the Reardons as they attempt to flee. No doubt this restructuring was done to allow Ned’s reappearance to be the big climax.

Having the prisoners released after Ned’s capture potentially would have lessened the impact of his capture. By keeping the focus on Ned it keeps the audience invested in what will happen to him. Accurate or not, this is the reason that we often see the last stand as the final part of the Glenrowan sequence.

Ned’s return and capture is perhaps the most memorable aspect of the film. We see him emerge from the mist as described in so many accounts, and the soundtrack is full of eerie winds and howling. The one thing that really detracts from this version is that Ned walks along the train tracks instead of through the bush. However, the change in location is used to great dramatic effect with Ned being swarmed by police who descend upon him, funneling down onto the tracks from the ridges along the train line. It may be inaccurate but it’s very effective cinema.

The last stand feels every bit as moody and intense as it is portrayed in the myriad of writings on the topic suggest. The swirling mist and use of chiaroscuro make for perhaps the most evocative depiction of the event yet portrayed.

By cutting to Ned’s perspective and hearing how the sound of gunfire is deafening, combined with his own laboured breathing, we get a sense of the struggle he has in fighting back. The battle is absolute mayhem with police coming out of nowhere to take a crack at the mysterious figure. Eventually Sergeant Steele blasts him in the leg and he collapses onto the tracks. When he is revealed, he is bloodied and grimy. The police seem almost unsurprised that the man in the iron mask was Ned Kelly.

The keen observer will notice that in various shots from this scene Ned’s helmet changes. Evidently the original helmet was used for wide shots, while Joe’s helmet was used in close ups. No doubt this has something to do with when in the production the footage was taken.

In this version, Dan and Steve commit suicide by counting down and blowing each other’s brains out during the last stand. Once again, this is to keep the focus on Ned right at the end. When Ned is asked to get the others to surrender he responds defiantly that “if they’re alive they’ll fight.” We see the inn lit up and blazing away before fading into the closing scene of Ned’s trial.

There is something disturbing in the cold casualness in which these two execute their suicide pact. The visual of the two men poking revolvers into each other’s mouth is one that will probably stick around long after it has outstayed its welcome.

We don’t see Father Gibney at all, nor do any of the gang’s friends or relatives appear. The police are all anonymous men in uniforms. There’s a strange feeling that there is no real closure at the end of this depiction of the siege. Joe’s body is never displayed for gawkers and photographers, Dan and Steve’s charred remains are not retrieved. There’s no onlookers to speak of either, which is important to note as a great deal of what made the Glenrowan siege such a memorable event in history was that there were so many people watching it unfold as it happened. It was watched and documented by hundreds of people, yet here it seems to be on such a small scale that it isn’t particularly clear why it should be remembered as such an important event apart from Ned Kelly’s capture.

Though slightly smaller than the real inn, this interpretation of the building feels quite a lot more authentic than the versions used on screen in 2003 and 2019.

This is probably my favourite version of Glenrowan on film because the inaccuracies are not necessarily that far off the mark in most cases and the changes are generally minor. It feels much more authentic to history, if not accurate, while also trying to create dynamic and exciting visuals. The pacing is tight and very effective. It is not particularly stylised, unlike the most recent depictions, nor is it trying hard to make Ned seem particularly heroic once we are actually at Glenrowan. The lead up to the Glenrowan sequence is probably the week point with the republic, the armour and Aaron’s betrayal all seeming like seperate threads that just happen to be linked without any particular effort made to explain why or how.

This shot shows that all you need for a powerful visual of Ned Kelly’s last stand is a bit of fog and backlighting.

Overall, this depiction holds up rather better than most of the rest of the film and more than holds its own against the other big screen versions. If you can get past the casting of Mick Jagger you will probably enjoy it. There are no strobe lights or lions to be seen here but there’s still plenty of great camera work on show.

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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