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The Story of the Kelly Gang

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The Story of the Kelly Gang

The Story of the Kelly Gang
Poster for film's 1910 re-release
Directed by Charles Tait
Produced by William Gibson
Millard Johnson
John Tait
Nevin Tait
Written by Charles & John Tait
Based on possibly the play The Kelly Gang by Arnold Denham
Starring Elizabeth Tait
John Tait
Distributed by J & N Nevin Tait
Release dates
  • December 26, 1906 (1906-12-26)
Running time
4,000 feet[1] (approx 60 min)
Country Australia
Language Silent
Budget £1,000[2] or £400[3]
Box office £25,000[3][4][5]

The Story of the Kelly Gang is a 1906 Australian film that traces the life of legendary bushranger and outlaw Ned Kelly (1854–1880). It was directed by Charles Tait and shot in and around the city of Melbourne. The film ran for more than an hour with an approximate reel length of 4,000 feet (1,200 m), making it the longest narrative film yet seen in the world.[6][7] It was first shown at Melbourne's Athenaeum Hall on 26 December 1906 and premiered in the United Kingdom in January 1908.[8][9] A major commercial and critical success, it is regarded as the origin point of the bushranging drama, a genre that dominated the first decade of Australian film production. Since its release, many other films have been made about the Kelly legend.

In 2007, The Story of the Kelly Gang was inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register for being the world's first full-length narrative feature film.[10][11]


Australian bushranger Ned Kelly had been executed only twenty-six years before The Story of the Kelly Gang was made, and Ned's mother Ellen and younger brother Jim were still alive at the time of its release. The film was made during an era when plays about bushrangers were extremely popular, and there were, by one estimate, six contemporaneous theatre companies giving performances of the Kelly gang story.[6] Historian Ian Jones suggests bushranger stories still had an "indefinable appeal" for Australians in the early 20th century.[12]

The Story of the Kelly Gang was made by a consortium of two partnerships involved in theatre—entrepreneurs John Tait and Nevin Tait, and pioneering film exhibitors Millard Johnson and William Gibson. The Tait family owned the Melbourne Athenaeum Hall and part of their concert program often included short films. Melbourne film exhibitors Johnson and Gibson also had technical experience, including developing film stock. Credit for writing the film scenario is generally given to the Tait brothers - Frank, John and sometimes Charles. At a time when films were usually shorts of five to ten minutes duration, their inspiration for making a film of at least sixty minutes in length, and intended as a stand-alone feature, was undoubtedly based on the proven success of stage versions of the Kelly story.[13]

Film historians Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper have noted that at the time, the filmmakers were unaware of the historical importance of the film they were making, and only much later "poured forth their memories." Unfortunately, "with the passage of time and the desire to make a good story of it" they "created a maze of contradictory information."[4]

For example, in later years, William Gibson claimed that while touring through New Zealand showing the bio-pic "Living London", he noticed the large audiences attracted to Charles McMahon's stage play The Kelly Gang. Film historian Eric Reade claimed the Taits themselves owned the stage rights to a Kelly play,[14] while actors Sam Crewes and John Forde later also claimed to have thought of the idea of a making a film of the Kelly Gang's exploits, inspired by the success of stage plays.

There is evidence that at least one other bushranging film had been made before 1906. This was Joseph Perry's 1904 short Bushranging in North Queensland, made by the Salvation Army's Limelight Department in Melbourne, one of the world's first film studios.


There is considerable uncertainty over who appeared in the film and a number of unsubstantiated claims have been made regarding participation. According to the Australian National Film and Sound Archive, the only actors positively identified are;

Others thought to be in the film include

  • Frank Mills, as the title character Ned Kelly
  • John and Frank Tait, Harriet Tait, members of Charles Tait's family.[15]

In her memoirs, Viola Tait claimed the part of Ned was played by a Canadian stunt actor, who deserted the project part way through.[15]


Actor portraying Ned Kelly. An authentic suit of the Kelly gang's armour was loaned to the filmmakers and used in the film.

Shooting of the film reportedly involved a budget variously estimated between £400 (Gibson) and £1,000 (Tait) and took six months.[1][4] While it is now commonly accepted that the Tait's experienced older brother Charles directed the film, only ten years after it was made, pioneer Australian director W. J. Lincoln claimed it was actually "directed by Mr Sam Crews [sic], who... worked without a scenario, and pieced the story together as he went along."[16] Lincoln also claimed that "the principal characters were played by the promoters and their relatives, who certainly made no pretensions to any great histrionic talent."[16]

Viola Tait's memoirs, published in the early 1970s, identifies Charles as being chosen as director because of his theatrical experience. Her account confirmed that many of the extended Tait family and their friends appeared in scenes.[15]

Millard Johnson was camera operator.

Much of the film was shot on the property of Elizabeth Tait's family (Charles' wife) at Heidelberg, now a suburb of Melbourne.[15] Other scenes in the film may have been shot in the suburbs of St Kilda (indoor scenes), and possibly Eltham, Greensborough, Mitcham, and Rosanna.[17] The Victoria Railways Department assisted by providing a train.[18]

Costumes were possibly borrowed from E. I. Cole's Bohemian Company, and members of the troupe may have also performed in the film. According to Viola Tait, Sir Rupert Clarke loaned the suit of Kelly armour his family then owned for use in the film.


The Kelly gang inspects a reward notice for their capture.
The police descend on Glenrowan.

Film historian Ina Bertrand suggests that the tone of The Story of the Kelly Gang is "one of sorrow, depicting Ned Kelly and his gang as the last of the bushrangers." Bertrand identifies several scenes that suggest considerable film making sophistication on the part of the Taits. One is the composition of a scene of police shooting parrots in the bush. The second is the capture of Ned, shot from the viewpoint of the police, as he advances.[19] A copy of the programme booklet has survived, containing a synopsis of the film, in six 'scenes'. The latter provided audiences with the sort of information later provided by intertitles, and can help historians imagine what the entire film may have been like.

According to the synopsis given in the surviving programme, the film originally comprised six sequences. These provided a loose narrative based on the Kelly gang story.[20][21]

  • Scene 1: Police discuss a warrant for Dan Kelly's arrest. Later, Kate Kelly rebuffs the attentions of a Trooper.
  • Scene 2: The killings of Kennedy, Scanlon and Lonigan at Stringybark Creek by the gang.
  • Scene 3: The hold-up at Younghusband's station and a bank hold–up.
  • Scene 4: Various gang members and supporters evade the police and the gang killing of Aaron Sherritt.
  • Scene 5: The attempt to derail a train and scenes at the Glenrowan Inn. The police surround the hotel, Dan Kelly and Steve Hart "die by each other's hands" after Joe Byrne is shot dead.
  • Scene 6: The closing scenes. Ned Kelly fights hard but is shot in the legs. "He begs the Troopers to spare his life, thus falls the last of the Kelly Gang…"

Some confusion regarding the plot has emerged as a result of a variant poster dating from the time the film was re-released in 1910. The similar (but different) photos suggest that either the film was being added to for its re-release, or an entirely new version was made by Johnson and Gibson, as the poster proclaims. In addition, a film fragment (" the Perth fragment ") exists, showing Aaron Sherritt being shot in front of an obviously painted canvas flat. This is now thought to be from a different film altogether, perhaps a cheap imitation of The Story of the Kelly Gang made by a theatrical company, keen to cash in on the success of the original, or an earlier bushranger short.[9]


The film was given a week of trial screenings in country towns in late 1906. This proved enormously successful and the movie already recouped its budget for these screenings alone.[2]

Its Melbourne debut was made at the Athenaeum Hall on 26 December 1906. It ran for five weeks to full houses, local papers noting the extraordinary popularity of the film. Although the country screenings had been silent, when the film was screened in Melbourne it was accompanied by live sound effects, including blank cartridges as gunshots and coconut shells beaten together to simulate hoofbeats. At later screenings a lecturer would also appear explaining the action.[2]

Many groups at the time, including some politicians and the police, interpreted the film as glorifying criminals. The film was banned in "Kelly Country"—regional centres such as Benalla and Wangaratta—in April 1907,[22] and in 1912 bushranger films were banned across Victoria.[23]

Despite the bans, the film toured Australia for over 20 years and was also shown in New Zealand, Ireland and Britain. The backers and exhibitors made "a fortune" from the film, perhaps in excess of £25,000.[17]


The Story of the Kelly Gang (fragment).

The film was considered lost until 1975, when five short segments totalling a few seconds of running time were found. In 1978 another 64 metres of the film was discovered in a collection belonging to a former film exhibitor. In 1980, further footage was found at a rubbish dump. The longest surviving single sequence, the scene at Younghusband’s station, was found in the UK in 2006.[24] In November 2006, the National Film and Sound Archive released a new digital restoration which incorporated the new material and recreated some scenes based on existing still photographs.

The restoration is now 17 minutes long and includes the key scene of Kelly's last stand.[6][25]

Other Ned Kelly films

See also


  1. ^ a b
  2. ^ a b c Graham Shirley and Brian Adams (1989), Australia Cinema: The First Eighty Years, Currency Press. Page 17-18. ISBN 0868192325
  3. ^ a b
  4. ^ a b c Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper (1980), Australian Film 1900–1977: A Guide to Feature Film Production, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, pages 7-9. ISBN 0 19 554213 4
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b c d Sally Jackson and Graham Shirley (2006), The Story of the Kelly Gang. National Film and Sound Archive, Australia [1]
  7. ^ Ray Edmondson and Andrew Pike (1982) Australia's Lost Films. P.13. National Library of Australia, Canberra. ISBN 0-642-99251-7
  8. ^
  9. ^ a b Ina Bertrand and Ken Robb (1982) "The continuing saga of...The Story of the Kelly Gang." Cinema Papers, No. 36, February 1982, p.18-22
  10. ^
  11. ^ The first feature-length documentary film was The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight in 1897
  12. ^ Ian Jones (1995) Ned Kelly; A short life. Thomas C. Lothian, Melbourne. p.337. ISBN 0 85091 631 3
  13. ^ Retrieved 13 August 2015
  14. ^ Eric Reade (1979) History and Heartburn: The Saga of Australian Film. p.5. Harper & Row, Sydney. ISBN 0-06-312033X
  15. ^ a b c d Viola Tait (1971) A Family of Brothers. The Taits and J.C.Williamson; a Theatre History. Chapter 4. Heinemann Australia. ISBN 0-85561-011-5. Viola was sister in law to Charles, John and Nevin Tait.
  16. ^ a b
  17. ^ a b Eric Reade (1975) The Australian Screen. P. 28-30, Lansdowne Press, Melbourne. ISBN 0-7018-0319-3.
  18. ^
  19. ^ Retrieved 10 January 2013.
  20. ^ A copy of the programme is held by the National Film and Sound Archive.National Film and Sound Archive
  21. ^ A scan of a page from the programme can be seen at the blog Classic Australian Cinema: Australian films and actors from silents to the New Wave. [2] Accessed 13 August 2015
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^ Paul Byrnes and Elizabeth Taggart-Speers, National Film and Sound Archive. Curator's Notes: The Story of the Kelly Gang. Accessed 11 August 2015 [3]

External links

  • The Story of the Kelly Gang at the Internet Movie Database
  • The Story of the Kelly Gang at AllMovie
  • at the National Film and Sound ArchiveThe Story of the Kelly Gang
  • The Story of the Kelly Gang preserved and released on DVD in Australia
  • The Story of the Kelly Gang at Australian Screen Online
  • The Story of the Kelly GangSally Jackson and Graham Shirley describe the restoration of
  • 'The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906)' on YouTube
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