When Justin Kurzel put together his interpretation of True History of the Kelly Gang, he envisioned it as a discussion of masculinity and what it means to be “masculine”. To put it another way, his vision was to take Ned Kelly, a figure who has been encapsulated in Australian culture as the typical “alpha male”, and reassess the notion of masculinity by putting him in a dress. Based on some of the interviews he gave, Kurzel seems to have been inspired by football players dressing in women’s clothing during “Mad Monday” celebrations, which may speak to something a bit more personal. Though the dresses were a feature of Peter Carey’s novel, from which the film got its name, in the novel it was decidedly intended as a reference to gangs in Ireland such as the White Boys and the Ribbonmen, who were reported to have disguised themselves in blackface and worn long white smocks when performing their acts of rebellion. Carey modulated the imagery to be men in blackface and women’s dresses and turned it into a symbol of Ned’s internal struggle between his fragile masculinity and his desire to strike out against the English. Of course, in a modern, urbanised world this is a perfectly logical way to approach the idea of Ned as this hyper-masculine figure, and is easy to do if you have the lack of investment in actual history that Kurzel and Carey both demonstrated through their artistic choices.
However, this approach also underpins exactly why True History of the Kelly Gang, specifically the film, absolutely fails to understand the Kelly story, and specifically the character of Ned Kelly. These artistic depictions really have nothing to do with the Kelly story, but rather are attempting an exploration of male psyche in the modern day by twisting and morphing the historical figures of the Kelly story to suit the ends of the artist. Though they pay lip service to the motivations behind the Kelly outbreak, specifically the antagonistic relationship between the Kellys and police, the lack of understanding of history, and the societal and psychological factors that provide context for Ned’s character development and how the outbreak occurred, is as plain as the hands on a town clock.
Ned Kelly was a product of the time and place he grew up in, as are all people. In his case, it must be remembered that Kelly grew up in poverty and desperation, surrounded by dysfunctional family relationships, violence, and frequent police presence, let alone the generational traumas inherited pertaining to religion and politics. These are vital points to examine in trying to find an explanation for his behaviour. It is commonly held that in order to understand someone as an adult we must first understand them as a child, and both iterations of True History of the Kelly Gang almost succeed in doing this. So let’s take a quick, very simplified, journey through the early days of Ned Kelly’s life up to his first forays into crime to help explain what I mean.
When looking at Ned’s early childhood, we’re talking about a family, initially, of two parents with seven kids, all geographically isolated from the wider family group. Coming from Irish Catholic stock this is a massive factor as the clan is a vital part of their cultural identity. They are selectors, so they don’t own the land they live on but are required to pay rent, clear and cultivate it so it is able to sustain them and potentially generate an income. John, the pater familias, is a former convict transportee and is not a formally educated man, but he knows enough skills to provide the basics: food and shelter. He does odd jobs to earn money in order to procure the other things they need that their tiny farm can’t provide such as clothing, tools and meat. The children attend the local school, where they receive a basic education.
Eventually they move house when costs become unmanageable. Desperation leads John to claim a stray calf and turn it into food for his wife and children, which lands him in gaol for half a year. Ellen and the children are left to fend for themselves in his absence. During this time Ned saves a local boy, Dick Shelton, from drowning, for which he receives his prized green sash. We can see from this that young Ned is capable of selflessness and courage.
When John comes back he spends his remaining months of life as an alcoholic, likely due to some undisclosed psychological trauma sustained during his imprisonment or at the least rekindled trauma from his convict days, and he dies of dropsy on the day after Boxing Day. Ned is twelve years old at the time, just on the threshold of adolescence. He walks into town to declare his father’s death. Ellen has to scrounge enough money for a burial. She then up-roots the kids again to move closer to her family where she will have the support she lacked while John was in gaol. Ned is now the breadwinner and drops out of school having reached what is roughly equivalent to a grade five or six by modern standards, though the level of education would undoubtedly be far lower. He is literate and numerate to a basic level.
After further difficulties, Ellen and her brood move into an abandoned pub with her sisters and their many children. This is hard enough, but one night Ned’s uncle, Jim Kelly, in a drunken fit of spite, burns the house down and almost kills them all. The families are now homeless, the majority of their possessions gone, relying on charity to get by until they can find a new home. Such charity is one glimmer of human kindness in what has been a mostly miserable existence. There are no government welfare payments or social services to help them get by. On top of this Ned is a witness in the court case against his uncle, which would no doubt be a terrifying experience for a child who is still reeling from the death of his father, almost being burned alive, and the loss of his home.
When Ellen finally procures a patch of land in Greta, the ground is hard and dry; barely suitable for crops, let alone livestock (which they can’t really afford to purchase anyway, apart from maybe a cow for milk and some chickens for eggs). Before he has turned fourteen, Ned already follows in his father’s footsteps, selling split timber and doing odd jobs in order to bring money into the household, but it is not enough. Ellen supplements this by taking in lodgers and selling grog on the sly; a common, but illegal, practice that brings in pocket money for such poor people in the country. It is often suggested, but never confirmed, that she is also making money from selling sexual favours – anything to keep food on the table. Soon she will be attempting to court suitors as a way of ensuring a man is around the house to help protect the family and generate a legitimate income. Ned relies on his mother’s brothers as male role models, but they are not good candidates. Jimmy Quinn, in particular, is a viciously violent drunkard who is constantly in trouble with the law.
It is at this point that Ned is introduced to a bushranger, named Harry Power, by his uncles, who are Power’s harbourers, (Power repays them with some of the takings from his robberies). Ned becomes Power’s assistant, mostly doing his chores or holding the horses while robberies are conducted, in the hope that highway robbery will bring in more money than splitting logs. This goes on for a month or so. Then, while eyeing off some stock they intend to steal, the pair are shot at and Ned freezes up with fright. They barely escape and Ned is turned out by Power. By this time Ellen is well behind on her rent and things are getting desperate; Ned quickly returns to Power’s employ in the hope things go better this time.
While attempting to liberate stock from the pound, with the intention of stealing it for Power, Ned is pulled out of the saddle of his horse and bashed by the poundkeeper. Power’s parting gift for Ned, reputedly, is to kidnap the poundkeeper and threaten to shoot him in retaliation for the thrashing. Ned eventually leaves again due to being abused by Power. Soon after his return home he is arrested. While on remand, Ned gives some information to the police, but nothing they can use to capture Power. Meanwhile, Ned’s uncle Jack Lloyd strikes a deal with the police to lead them to Power’s camp in exchange for anonymity and the £500 reward. Power is arrested and Ned, at fifteen, is subjected to ostracism by the public who judge him as a criminal, despite never being convicted, and also by his relatives who believe he sold Power to the police, which Jack Lloyd stays noticeably quiet about. Ellen never sees any of the reward money for Power’s capture, though it would have been very useful, but none of those looking down on Ned seem to notice the lack of financial improvement for the embattled Kellys that such “blood money” would bring.
Soon, Ned is in court again for assaulting a Chinese man, named Ah Fook, who was verbally abusing his sister over a cup of creek water. Ned is not convicted due to discrepancies with the evidence, and likely more than a little racial bias. He is obviously a very angry young man, likely struggling with his untreated psychological trauma in an era when mental health was seen as a matter of being “sane” or “insane”. This comes to a head again by the end of the year when he gets into a fight with a hawker named McCormack and his wife. They accuse Ned of stealing their horse to get a rival hawker’s wagon unbogged. The rival hawker is an associate of the Kellys, named Gould, who intervenes and sends an obscene note to the McCormacks, mocking their inability to conceive a child, with a pair of calf testicles wrapped up with the note. The hawkers believe Ned was responsible for the note and, during the subsequent confrontation, Ned punches McCormack in the face. This time the charges stick and Ned goes to gaol for six months.
For half a year, the teenager is subjected to life in Victorian era prison. This means enforced social isolation, poor quality nutrition, woeful sanitation, and hard labour. He completes the sentence in Beechworth Gaol, a place that specialised in creating crushed granite for surfacing the roads with. The prison system is intended to be a “machine to grind rogues honest”, and in many cases it seemingly does that. In the remainder of cases it has no effect on criminal disposition or has the opposite effect, making rogues more hardened and unlikely to follow the law.
In his first sixteen years, Ned has already endured more, and worse, hardships than many people in the modern day will know in their first thirty. This makes him an angry and violent youth, whose inability to rise above his station, combined with the difficulties of everyday life, manifest in his short temper and inclination towards crime as a means of getting an income. To the Kellys, survival is the name of the game and the cards are stacked against them. This is where we can look at Maslow’s famous “hierarchy of needs” for a further elaboration on where the family are operating from on a psychological level.
For a human being to thrive, at least psychologically, they ideally need to be at the top of the pyramid. That would mean all of their most basic needs have been catered for, and they are then free to expand upon their knowledge, skill set and so on. Basically, philosophers are in the pointy bit of the pyramid, while at the bottom is basically where the person is operating at a level akin to animals; every little bit of their energy is dedicated to simply staying alive. There’s no room for moral dilemmas when the option is doing the wrong thing and live, or perish. This is the exact reason why the convict era in Australian history is so brimming with stories of people effectively exiled from their home and torn away from their family for life for stealing bread or trinkets. Even the threat of being sent to the other end of the earth, if you survive the trip, isn’t enough to override the motivation to steal a rich man’s handkerchief, in the hope you can sell it for enough money to buy an apple or loaf of bread when you haven’t eaten in a week. It only took the Tasmanian bushranger Thomas Jeffries three days without food to turn to cannibalism. Morality is a luxury that accompanies things like security, disposable income, and a full larder.
For Ellen Kelly, life was unyieldingly hard, and when you’re struggling to stay fed there’s not much energy to spend on cuddles and reassuring sentiments for your kids. For the kids, if they were lucky, they got clothes that had only been handed down from one sibling that outgrew them. They were barely able to get enough nourishment from the meager food they had access to, in order to function well enough for basic schooling, never mind attempting self-actualisation. Put simply, the desperation the family were in meant that criminality was inevitable; or to put it another way, when the law prohibits you from doing things that help you to survive, what choice is there other than to break the law? There was no welfare for widows, let alone single mothers, unless the dead husband happened to be in a profession such as policing or politics, in which case a pension was not uncommon. Desperate times make desperate people, and desperate people take desperate actions.
Ned Kelly’s supposed “alpha male” traits are survival mechanisms. His aggression, physical strength, even his ruthlessness – these are all traits that make a person less vulnerable when trying to survive in a harsh world that is out to get them. Nowadays, they are recognised as “toxic masculinity” because, broadly, modern people never have to experience such desperation that they rely on those traits to stay alive, and we can now understand the detrimental psychological impacts that such propensities can have on people. That is not to say there are not people living such a hand-to-mouth existence, only that the average person in the western world in 2021 has an income that, generally, keeps the bills paid and food in their bellies; if they lose their job, there is usually welfare to provide them some support until they can find gainful employment (as a general rule). The chances of someone in this situation needing to exhibit those “toxic” traits in order to cope are basically nil except for in rare, extreme circumstances. “Toughness”, or that inability to display vulnerability, is a throwback to prehistoric days when the weak were left to die and only those who were exceptionally hardy or self-serving survived. Since we, as a species, developed technology to allow even the weaker members of the collective to survive, our morality has changed to value life, in all its permutations, and to appreciate and observe the virtues of compassion and benevolence.
Alas, for the Kellys they did not live in 2022. In their time, the Kellys may have actually fared better as hunter-gatherers rather than trying to grow crops in barren land, or attempt to overcome poverty when a lack of education and opportunities was holding them back. What added insult to injury was the very visible gulf between the haves and have-nots. Wealthy squatters lived in grand houses on prime real estate, with servants and staff to do the hard work for them, all a stone’s throw away from where the Kellys and their kind were scrounging their vegetables from struggling kitchen gardens and hoping there was enough grass to keep the cow alive for milk.
Add onto this the constant police presence, and the excess vigilance directed specifically at the Kellys, Quinns and Lloyds, waiting for someone to slip up so they could have an excuse to arrest them. It is unlikely that they were the only families in the district committing offences, but they were the most notable for it in the eyes of local police. The history of their interactions with the police and the courts is too much to summarise here, but suffice it to say that it was extensive. In fact, it is worth considering in Ned’s case, that from the age of fifteen until his death ten years later, he only had around four years where he wasn’t in gaol or on the run.
Going back to the hierarchy of needs, it is now worth applying that same pyramid to the gang’s lifestyle as outlaws. The four gang members were the only people in Victoria that it wasn’t illegal to murder in cold blood; in fact, the government incentivised it with the largest reward yet offered in Australia – £8000. In order to survive they needed to hide in the wilderness, constantly moving, always armed and ready to defend their lives. They utilised the rugged terrain of the Strathbogie and Warby Ranges. They mostly travelled on foot in order to reach places inaccessible to horses and to prevent horse tracks, though horses were frequently utilised when they had to travel long distances. They could not be too trusting or it could have fatal consequences. Food and other sundry items were procured from sympathisers, usually in exchange for proceeds from their robberies. The food they got was not very nutritious, but it was enough to stop them starving. Every day was spent trying to outrun their pursuers. In essence, they were living like wild animals.
It is easy to see how this lifestyle would push people to desperation, and irrational thinking. No doubt, this inability to live a safe, stable existence where they could earn a living, raise families or engage in normal courtship, had a mental toll that snowballed into Ned’s Glenrowan plot. Of course, it is known that the gang frequently visited their family homes during their outlawry, and Joe Byrne visited his girlfriend every Saturday night at the Vine Hotel, which indicates a perception of some degree of safety had seemingly developed in the minds of the bushrangers. Either that, or they were so desperate for even a taste of normality they took stupidly dangerous risks to experience it.
When a person spends their entire existence living moment to moment, under the assumption that planning for a future that will probably never happen would be a dangerous frivolity, malaise and melancholy begin to take over as the dominant emotional states. This is perfectly exemplified in Ned’s recklessness and his repeated desire to see things come to an end. Perhaps there was a part of him that expected Glenrowan to fail, and thus he anticipated that he would die in the attempt to drag as many of his enemies to Hell with him as possible. It is unlikely he engaged police in his last stand, expecting to survive. In fact, his survival while his comrades perished was a punishment in itself as Ned wished to die in a blaze of glory, defiant to the end, but was denied the glory, as Judge Barry made reference to in his terse exchange with Ned months later in court.
Up until he was sentenced to death the braggadocio and recklessness remained, almost as a way of convincing himself that he was not picked yet. Ironically, in a number of ways, his imprisonment actually ratcheted Ned up a few spots on the pyramid as he was now in secure accommodation, receiving regular food and medical treatment, and was even able to occasionally see his loved ones, specifically his mother, and work on his spirituality. Naturally, the authorities did what they could to beat him back down, but with so much of his needs catered to he was no longer fatalistic and morose as he had been months earlier. In a sense, it is not when the chips are down that we see people’s true colours, but when the weather is fair. The “real” Ned was still an arrogant hothead with a victim complex, but he was also someone who could be deeply spiritual, affectionate, thoughtful and articulate.
In closing, we see that in order to really portray the story, and the people who were involved in it, authentically you must look beyond any preconceived value set you have and get into the mindset of someone who lived that life. To use Ned Kelly as a vehicle for a critique on traditional masculinity is as poor a choice as arguing about whether he was a hero or villain; these perspectives do not factor in the reality of his lifestyle or the nuances of human nature, relying on broad brush strokes to create a vehicle for mobilising an agenda. How can one hope to possibly get to the core of what made Ned who he was, and in turn learn from his story, without actually putting themselves in his shoes and understanding the desperation and trauma of his life? You don’t have to side with him or defend his actions, merely understand the cause and effect.