To date the most accurate dramatic on-screen depiction of the Kelly story is the 1980 television mini-series The Last Outlaw. Though far from perfect, it comes very close at times to being spot on. The series was originally imagined as a sprawling epic over around a dozen movie-length episodes like the previous production by the creative team, Against the Wind, and unfortunately it is very hard to do a sprawling epic on a shoestring budget. The number of episodes was trimmed down to four feature-length installments, which meant sacrifices had to be made. Unfortunately, due to these constraints the Glenrowan sequence is severely compressed; but despite the shortcomings, there are some iconic elements within it that capture facets of this incredible chapter in the story very well indeed. However, once you get beyond some of the surface level stuff, the reputation of the sequence as a masterpiece of both storytelling and historical accuracy that has been pushed over the years doesn’t quite hold up.
The motivation for the Glenrowan plot in this incarnation is decidedly the alleged push for a North Eastern Republic. Ian Jones, the Kelly biographer who was also responsible for the original draft of what became the 1970 film, was clearly passionate about portraying Ned as a revolutionary more than an outlaw. Though the legitimacy of this perspective is questionable, this is actually one of the better handled elements in the series. We see this side of Ned gradually building throughout the series until he finally announces to Tom Lloyd, “We always knew it would come to this… Not just another fight; it’s got to be war!”
From here Ned embodies more of the pseudo-general role than we have seen previously, which was championed by Jones. It would not be difficult to imagine this character taking up arms during the Easter uprising in Ireland, or similar such acts of Fenian rebellion. Ned writes out his declaration for the republic and when informed that such an act is treason, he blithely replies that it isn’t if they win. Whereas in the 1970 film Ned’s republican ambition is conveyed through a speech at a party following the Jerilderie raid, here it is a more subdued depiction of Ned bringing everyone else on board by explaining his plans.
Stories of a plan to establish a Republic of North-East Victoria stem from oral tradition. Though there is no recorded evidence either in the form of documents or contemporary witness accounts, the claims have been widely accepted due to the reputation of the people who maintain the claim, specifically descendants of the Lloyds and in turn historians such as Jones and John Malony. The idea of the republic, which elevates Ned from outlaw to political revolutionary, has prompted furious attempts to discredit the notion from Kelly’s detractors, but here these political leanings are portrayed as a key facet of his character and are necessary for contextualising the elaborate and violent Glenrowan plot.
As with (almost) all depictions of the tail end of the story Aaron Sherritt has to be outed as a spy, or in this case a double agent. We see Tom Lloyd looking very sullen whenever Aaron is around until eventually he begins to try and convince Ned that Aaron is a traitor. Joe refuses to believe it, and even roughs up Steve Hart for insinuating that Joe is using a double-standard to protect his mate. The depiction of Joe’s struggle to accept Aaron’s betrayal here is the best executed of the on-screen portrayals, given that most never even attempt to show that side, but it still feels like there’s a bit of a rush from his denial to his acceptance. No doubt in the original version of the series this would have had time to percolate more.
It is not until Joe’s girlfriend is busted by Aaron when he gets drunk and spots her apparently flirting with a patron at the Vine Hotel that Joe’s loyalty wears thin. Here she is named Helen, as having another Maggie would be confusing, but otherwise she is identical to what we know of her historical counterpart. Constable Alexander questions her but gets no information – which is exactly what happened according to contemporary accounts, although the name of the real officer involved was never revealed in these statements. Subsequently we see Joe and Helen arguing in the bush during a storm and after a brisk, furious gallop back to the hut the gang are living in, Joe melodramatically informs Ned that Aaron has to die.
The Glenrowan plot devised by Ned in this incarnation sticks pretty closely to the broadly accepted version: Aaron Sherritt is to be murdered in order to lure police by a special train; the train is to be derailed at Glenrowan; police are to be held hostage and used as bargaining chips. The addition here is that the gang are to be joined by an army of sympathisers before riding to declare a republic. It is essentially the same as what we saw in the 1970 film but with more detail.
The construction and testing of the armour is shown in detail here, sticking closely to the oral tradition that the gang forged the armour themselves, with Tom Lloyd, using a bush forge and a green log. It is very effective, though the visuals at times are unfortunately a little too reminiscent of the classic VB adverts. When Ned tries the armour on for the first time the shots are languid and dramatic, taking time for the viewer to soak in the imagery. It would have been nice to have seen the other gang members in their armour too, but obviously it was more important to play up to the iconography of Ned in his armour.
The murder scene plays out reasonably accurately, albeit very truncated. Sherritt is at the table and hears Anton Wick stating that he’s lost. The police hide in the bedroom and the women look on as Aaron responds. When Aaron answers the door he is shot twice by Joe Byrne with a shotgun. Joe enters, grabs Belle and orders Mrs. Barry to let Dan in. Dan smiles broadly as he enters. Joe then tries to get the police out of the bedroom through intimidation, in this case that means calling them “flamin’ cowards” and shooting a hole in the roof. This is all we are shown before cutting to Glenrowan.
Essentially what we get is a quite accurate, melodramatic and heavily condensed interpretation of the murder. Of course, with such limited time in the episode there was no practical reason to show Joe and Dan bailing up Wick, or hanging around for two hours trying to get the police out of the bedroom. It’s acceptable, but it also feels anticlimactic given the amount of importance Aaron has on the rest of the series. We’re hardly given time to process what has happened before we cut away to Ned.
We cut to the train line being dismantled, which again is reasonably accurate. While it would have been good to see Ned and Steve bailing up the locals and so forth, once again it’s a matter of how to show the key parts of what happened in as limited a space of time as possible so the audience can keep up. This is, as you can probably guess, the biggest recurring issue with this depiction of Glenrowan. So much time has been dedicated to other parts of the story that there is hardly time left to cover the ending.
A perfect illustration of this issue is when we are awkwardly introduced to Ann Jones and her children Jane and Jack. Out of nowhere Ann appears, introduces the kids to Ned then immediately chastises them for not returning to their chores. It’s a moment that comes across as illogical and shoehorned in to telegraph to the audience that these characters will be important, but gives us no reason to care. As with the 1970 film Ann is portrayed as a jolly buxom wench type. Jane and Jack look much too old for the characters they are playing, especially Jack who is meant to be playing a twelve-to-thirteen-year-old boy but looks like he’s six feet tall and in his early 20s.
Then there’s the jumbled timeline. Ned bailed up Ann and Jane while it was still dark, prior to the track being sabotaged, and ordered Ann to lock her little boys in their bedroom, (there were more than two Jones children). This scene clearly takes place in daylight, possibly mid-morning, and includes the arrival of Joe and Dan. In reality the other two outlaws arrived a couple of hours after the track had been sabotaged, at which point the prisoners were in the gatehouse, a building that is never even shown. It was just after sunrise when the men were taken to Jones’s inn, and the women and children, except Ann and Jane Jones, were kept in the gatehouse guarded by Steve.
In this version Steve guards the door to the inn. No doubt due to both time constraints, small budget, and a need to cut corners with telling the story for brevity, the fact that Steve spent most of the time in Glenrowan at the gatehouse getting drunk was deemed unimportant and it was just easier to say everyone was in the inn. This also highlights the fact that far fewer people are shown to be in the inn than were actually there. At one stage there was estimated to have been more than sixty prisoners in total, but here we only see around a dozen or so. The crowded inn of the 1970 film conveys far more accurately the claustrophobic atmosphere that would have been experienced by the gang’s prisoners in 1880.
To the credit of this version, there is a palpable sense of frustration and malaise as the gang wait for the train. Joe is shown to be morose and aloof, which is a reasonable reaction to the horror he had just enacted the night before. Rather than show the prisoners doing sports, drinking and playing cards to occupy the time, the prisoners are shown looking bored until Ned prompts a fiddler to give a tune to dance to. In reality, the bar room was cleared out to make way for dancing, and there was more than one dance during the gang’s occupation of the inn. Furthermore, witness accounts state that nineteen-year-old Dave Mortimer played concertina, whereas here we get an old man with a fiddle. Little inaccuracies like this become quite annoying when looking at something widely lauded as the “most accurate”, to the extent that some refer to it as essentially akin to a documentary.
While the prisoners are lounging around the inn, Thomas Curnow tells Ned about the stationmaster’s pistol. Ned is thankful to Curnow for the information and pledges to repay him before sending Steve off to fetch the revolver and any news about the train. The problem with depicting this moment in this way is that it doesn’t quite make sense. In reality, at the time Curnow gave Ned this information, Steve was guarding people in the gatehouse where the Stationmaster’s office was. This would have given someone that knew of the revolver an opportunity to use it against Steve, and possibly the rest of the gang, and liberate the prisoners who would then raise the alarm, hence the value in taking possession of the revolver. By having the gatehouse apparently unoccupied it begs the question of who would have been able to get away with sneaking to the gatehouse to fetch the revolver, let alone creating a viable threat. If everyone, including the gang, were in the inn, any person that wanted to sneak to the gatehouse could only have done so in plain view from the inn, and would have been caught. This is a good example of how simply including something because it happened in real life is dependent on the context in order to make sense. At least in the 1970 film they had the good sense to have Stanistreet carrying the revolver while in the inn, thus creating an actual threat. It may seem redundant to compare the two productions, though as Jones was involved in the scripting process of both it seems pertinent to offer a point of comparison between them.
It is worth discussing the characterisation of Curnow in this version of the story. He is consistently shown with a blank expression and never seems to blink, which is a technique often employed in film to unnerve the audience. He comes across as creepy and potentially dangerous, neither of which are attributes of his historical counterpart, which could be seen as making this characterisation tantamount to a form of character assassination. Here we see him depicted with a chunky boot to compensate for his dodgy hip, (the 1970 film had a steel contraption attached to his boot for this reason), which gives off Richard III vibes. It’s not hard to imagine him breaking out in a rendition of “Now is the winter of our discontent…” We know that the real Curnow actually tried a number of different things to convince Ned of his trustworthiness and sympathy to the outlaws, but Ian Jones obviously decided that Curnow telling Ned of Stanistreet’s pistol was a good enough reason for Ned to agree to let Curnow go later on. By simplifying this aspect of the events it actually downplays the daring of Curnow’s efforts to raise the alarm, while simultaneously depicting Ned as flippant about maintaining control over the situation, in turn degrading both characters.
After Ned turns Curnow loose, he calls for a dance. As the dance unfolds at the inn, it is inter-cut with shots of the incoming train, with the cuts getting tighter and tighter until Curnow flags down the train. To a first-time viewer this is a very exciting sequence and quite effectively creates tension. While this is a very exciting moment it requires another fudging of the timeline. According to witness accounts, the dancing had well and truly wound down before the police special train had even left Spencer Street. It was after the second dance, and after bailing Bracken up that night, that Curnow was allowed to go home with his family from the police station. In fact, after Curnow had gone home there was still hours to go before the police special showed up for him to flag down.
Another nitpick is that the trackers are dressed in their uniforms. As evidenced by the photos taken during the siege, the trackers were dressed in civilian clothes – notably wool coats and billycock hats – as they were originally meant to be heading back to Queensland before their last minute recall by Captain Standish to respond to the gang having murdered Sherritt. There were no uniformed police, white or Aboriginal, at Glenrowan during any part of the siege. Again, it is a small thing, but when a text has such a reputation for historical accuracy it is important to pull it up on such things it gets wrong to remind people that at the end of the day this is a creative interpretation of events, not a docu-drama.
Ned gives a speech to the captives while standing on a chair, (actual witness accounts state he had tried to get on a chair but could not either due to being drunk, tired or weighed down by his body armour). Here we get a good look at Ned’s costume, which has been recreated in incredible detail from contemporary illustrations and witness descriptions. This is the kind of thing that helped this depiction of events gain its reputation for attention to detail and historical accuracy. Ned’s speech is interrupted by Joe rushing in to tell him the train has arrived. This moment plays out as it usually does on film, with the exception of the prisoners laying on the floor while we hear metal clanging off-screen. Constable Bracken (whose poor health is signified by his wearing of a scarf), casually opens the front door, tells everyone to lie down, then saunters off into the night as if popping down to the servo for a Drumstick.
When Ned enters in full armour Jane screams in terror, though it makes no sense for this to occur. Seemingly ignorant of everyone lying on the floor and Jane’s terrified screaming, Ned orders nobody in particular to “douse the lights”. Though the scream was probably to indicate that even when it was clear it was Ned in a suit of armour, he provided such a fearsome spectacle it could cause momentary hysteria, it is a silly moment that has no connection to reality. Most of the prisoners were aware to some degree that the gang had armour, and some had observed Dan taking it into the bedroom for storage with their weapons and ammunition. Furthermore, most people that saw Ned in his full armour prior to the last stand thought he looked somewhat ridiculous, Bracken in particular assuming it was some bizarre prank by bored colleagues. It was not the armour that made Ned intimidating or otherworldly during his last stand, but the mixture of poor lighting, fog, gun smoke, exhausted onlookers and the unexpectedness of seeing a man in with what appeared to be a can on his head and a white cloak emerging from the bush firing a pistol at the police.
The most accurate portion of the entire Glenrowan sequence is the initial exchange of gunfire. The positions taken by the players, Hare retreating after his injury, the confusion and terror in the inn – it’s as close to what really happened as we’ve seen on film. The biggest downside is the poor visibility, which is a filmic issue rather than an accuracy issue. While inaccurate in nearly every detail, the 2003 film had the benefit of an excellent cinematography team, with top notch equipment, who found the right balance of lighting to replicate the dead of night while allowing the audience to see what was happening and setting the atmosphere. That said, the 1970 film also managed to get some very striking footage while retaining a fairly accurate level of darkness and atmosphere too. This is where a film interpretation of Glenrowan needs to compromise and say that though the lighting may not be accurate, it is intended to make the sequence more watchable. Sometimes being pedantic about accuracy can have drawbacks.
Ned is injured when he is momentarily distracted by the skyrockets going off. We then see Joe falling against the wall, injured, and carried around the back of the inn by Dan and Steve. The gang, apart from Ned, head inside where they huddle around the bar room door and fire through the windows. Despite the severity of the wound Joe receives, he is still able to hobble around as if he merely stubbed his toe and it hurts a bit when he walks. In reality, a bullet had torn through Joe’s calf, rendering him unable to stand unaided, let alone walk. Ned described him crawling around on all fours like a wounded dog. When his body was examined, Constable Phillips took off the boots and found the right one full of blood. Joe’s leg injury was every bit as severe as the one in Ned’s left arm, though you wouldn’t be able to tell from this depiction. It would appear that in this version the injury merely irritates Joe, who stomps around with a look of fury on his face.
The sequence of events that follows the gang’s retreat behind the inn is extremely condensed – again out of necessity. The key moments are there: Johnny (Jack) Jones being shot; Jane helping the women and children escape; Steele arriving and opening fire on the inn; Margaret Reardon being shot at; and Joe’s toast and death. Possibly the most disappointing aspect of this sequence is that the prisoners are little more than set dressing as they do little more than lie on the floor screaming. We do not see Jack McHugh and Martin Cherry move the injured Jones boy to cover, nor do we see Cherry hit by police fire or McHugh carrying the dying boy through the police fire to safety. Even as far as the police are concerned they appear to be little more than amorphous blobs shooting at the inn. Bracken appears to have disappeared and O’Connor and his trackers are nowhere to be seen. The focus is very much on the gang, but particularly Ned as he gets to do the heroic ride to stop the sympathisers joining the fight that Jones liked to work into any depiction of the siege.
Where it gets particularly iffy is when Ned rides out to stop the “phantom army” of dozens of armed sympathisers (for the same issue as discussed in the review of the 1970 version), and the subsequent moment of Ned stumbling in to see Joe die from a doorway, with a smash cut to him waking up in the bush after a dramatic scream. It is worth noting that we never see Ned mount Music in this sequence as it cuts before he does. Put simply, a man carrying double his body weight on a shattered foot, while bleeding heavily from a broken arm, is already going to have extreme difficulty getting on a horse in the dark. Add onto that the physical restrictions of the armour, and you have a good argument as to why Ned never got on that horse. Perhaps more importantly, Constable Gascoigne observed first-hand Ned trying to mount Music but failing as the horse bolted into the bush. If Ned did indeed meet a group of sympathisers in the bush, it must have been done on foot.
The evidence that Ned saw Joe die is weak, relying on Constable Dwyer’s account that Ned had mentioned seeing “my best friend dead”. By his own account on at least one occasion Ned stated that he never returned to the inn after he initially went into the bush, a claim backed up by civilian witnesses from inside the inn who stated Ned never set foot in the building once firing commenced. Ned also claimed that Steele’s party passed by him in the bush, which means that his return to the inn was cut off as they had taken up position right along the path he would have taken to get back. In all probability Ned went into the bush once, passed out, then tried to return from behind police lines just before sunrise, resulting in his last stand. The idea that Joe triumphantly toasted the gang upon seeing Ned return to the inn like some ironclad messiah is quite ludicrous as well. What most interpret as an act of vocal defiance is not in keeping with the dire situation the gang found themselves in. Ned was gone and there was no way the others could safely escape. The prisoners, who they had tried to convince Ned to set free (and in fact Dan had ordered them to go home right before Ned and Ann Jones detained them so Ned could give them a lecture) were now trapped as well, a number of whom were badly injured. There was nothing triumphant about the situation and Ned’s reappearance was very unlikely to have buoyed Joe’s spirits enough to make him forget his troubles. If anything, the toast was a sarcastic one, a last glimpse of Joe’s dry humour in the face of certain death.
When Ned wakes up in the bush he already looks half dead. It seems Tom Lloyd was watching over his cousin as he just slept off the injuries and exhaustion. There is no explanation of how Ned got there, or even a mention of the incredible luck it would have taken for him to literally walk through the middle of the police lines to get into the bush. After a brief conversation wherein Ned explains that Joe is dead and he has to get the others out, Tom Lloyd helps Ned prepare and sends him on his way to battle. Ned waddles off into the bush at an excruciating pace that spoils any sense of tension in the scene. The moment Constable Arthur spots Ned emerging from the bush conveys something of the sense of surprise that Ned’s sudden appearance created, but the fact it was obviously filmed in broad daylight takes away the mystery and ominousness the arrival should have, yet another thing that was done mostly right in the 1970 film. As mentioned, it was the mixture of darkness and fog that made it impossible for the police to recognise they were being attacked by Ned Kelly in armour at first, to the extent that some thought it was a Bunyip or the Devil.
In this version of the last stand, Ned spends most of the time grunting, jogging with his arm fully extended, or slapping his chest with a pistol, but not really fighting back against the police (which is ironically one of the more accurate parts of the sequence as Ned did not fire more than a dozen shots in the whole affair). This Ned is basically impervious to the shots to his unprotected limbs, and is apparently unimpaired by those he had received at the beginning of the battle except for that in his left arm. It is worth noting Jesse Dowsett’s absence; evidently they weren’t able to find a way to work the daring little railway guard into the sequence in a meaningful way and so the only notable adversary to Ned in this moment is Sergeant Steele.
Interestingly, the depiction of Ned’s collapse after being shot by Steele is based on Steele’s own version of the event. Steele always maintained that he alone brought Ned down, with everyone else too afraid to come near. He also stated that Ned’s helmet fell off when he collapsed, while all other accounts state that Senior-Constable Kelly (another figure who isn’t in this version) removed the helmet, stating “My God, it’s Ned!” Constable Bracken is also notably absent, despite his intervention at this moment being the only thing that stopped Steele blowing Ned’s brains out of the back of his skull. Just why Steele’s version was the one depicted is not clear. The immediate aftermath of the collapse is quite awkward. We see a lot happening but not in a way that makes it clear what we’re seeing. It is a poor piece of film-making.
As Ned is being pounced upon, Dan and Steve emerge from the inn and fire at the police with Winchester rifles, which are weapons that were never attributed to the gang. We do not see Dan injured at all, contrary to witness accounts that state he was shot in the knee. The lighting is also quite unforgiving to the armour they are wearing, highlighting just how far off they were from the real deal.
Ned’s medical examination is very accurate, as is the subsequent influx of gawpers and police reinforcements who are waiting for a decision to be made on what comes next. The effects make-up applied to John Jarratt do a good job of replicating the wounds depicted in drawings made of Ned as he lay injured in the train station. Just why Dr. Nicholson is portrayed as a drunk Scotsman is unclear, but is likely the result of Pegasus Productions plucking out extras from their pool of talent used in other productions.
Elsewhere, the prisoners are freed from the inn and Dan takes Steve into a back room, where it is implied they will take their own lives, though there does seem to be something of a homoerotic undertone in the way that Dan smirks and places his arm around Steve’s shoulders as they leave. This is the last we see of them alive. Around this time the sympathisers have joined the crowd and are looking on. When the order is given to torch the inn Maggie Skillion rushes towards the inn but is held back. She begs Superintendent Sadleir to relent; he refuses with a hint of pomposity. As the inn goes up in flames Father Gibney rushes inside.
Gibney bursts in with his crucifix in hand. He spots Joe’s corpse, then finds Dan and Steve in the bedroom, dead, with a dead dog at their feet. There is precious little to critique here, as it plays out almost exactly as it was described by witnesses. Minor details are off though; Dan and Steve were found lying at right angles to each other, not parallel, and the dead dog should have been a greyhound, not a cattle dog; though the latter is undoubtedly an availability issue in this case rather than a creative choice. It is interesting that their armour is depicted as being neatly piled up next to Dan’s corpse as there are conflicting reports as to whether the armour was worn or not when the bodies were found. The decision not to demonstrate how the pair died was a prudent one, as there is no way to know definitively how they died except that there is not one jot of evidence to back up the idea that they shot each other.
The inn burning is as spot on as you can ever hope to get. The replica inn burns and collapses in just the same way as demonstrated in historical photographs, and is quite impressive. It is worth noting that Martin Cherry is never mentioned. He, at least, should have been included in some manner given he lost his life during the siege, and his absence takes some of the sting out of the siege. There is something quite hollow about the way that the civilians are nearly completely overlooked in this depiction of the siege. By only focusing on how the siege ended the lives of three of the gang and resulted in Ned’s capture it severely reduces the understanding of the full scope of what made the siege such a tragedy.
After the inn collapses and Steele muses about the whole affair now being ended, we cut to Standish arriving. It is rather odd seeing Standish tower over Sadleir, given that historically it was quite the inverse, but here Standish is portrayed superbly. His pomposity and snobbishness is in full flight and he looks every bit the high society type. He buzzes about the fact that the Kelly Gang have been destroyed and considers it a great victory. He is, however, greatly displeased to hear Sadleir has given the bodies of Dan and Steve to their families. Here, Sadleir’s decision is portrayed as an act of humanity, when in fact it was an attempt to placate the sympathisers enough to avoid further bloodshed. We never see the burnt bodies, which is likely as much to do with television standards around gore as budget constraints and limitations of special effects for the time. This detracts from the horror of the aftermath of the siege, but as the miniseries is about Ned Kelly and not the siege of Glenrowan it is not too egregious to skim over that aspect.
That said, it seems bizarre not to show the burnt bodies or even hint at them when one of the next things we see is Joe Byrne’s corpse being hoisted up against a lock-up door. People crowd around as the body is photographed and then Helen rushes through the crowd and weeps over the corpse. This was the first time the scene of Byrne’s corpse being displayed was ever portrayed on film and it is a very effective moment. A version of the scene was meant to play out at the end of the 2003 film, where two boys would pose for a photograph next to the body of Orlando Bloom’s Joe Byrne, strung up against the wall of the train station. The only other time it has been attempted was in True History of the Kelly Gang where the corpse of Sean Keenan’s Joe, in his blood soaked blouse, was tied to a tree. It’s a moment that ought to be as poignant as it is repugnant and The Last Outlaw does an admirable job of that.
In conclusion, this is the most accurate version of Glenrowan rendered on screen to date, but that is not saying much. Some aspects are spot on, such as the recreated Glenrowan Inn and the initial volley of gunfire that began the siege; other aspects are way off, like many of the casting choices, scenes set at the wrong time of day, and some of the creative decisions that were made for the sake of condensing everything. Still, given how many concessions were made, the team behind this interpretation have succeeded more than they have failed, and it makes for a very memorable depiction of the siege that does quite a good job of conveying what happened. Anyone new to the story stands to gain a reasonably good understanding from this interpretation, though not a complete and fully accurate one. It just goes to prove that sticking closely to historical fact does not necessarily make something disengaging or boring, and that sometimes history does a better job of writing a story than even the most lauded screenwriters or directors.