Ned Kelly (Gregor Jordan, 2003) Heath Ledger, Orlando Bloom, Joel Edgerton, Anthony Hayes, Naomi Watts; 105 min.; William D. Routt, 'Red Ned', Metro, 136: 10-17.
Best of the many Kelly films. Which is not really saying much.
... But let us continue our discussion of the western in the context of a key film for this chapter by looking at the film Ned Kelly (Gregor Jordan, 2003), which is based on the screenplay by John Michael McDonagh and, in turn, the novel Our Sunshine, by Robert Drewe.14
First, the film has the superficial aspects of the western mise-en-scene of the period. Near the beginning of the film a card indicates that the time is “1871”—right in the principal era in which the (American) western is typically set, about 1865-1890, as we have seen. Not only are there “realistic” costumes etc. (ie. historical accuracy), but there are also iconographic elements (ie. “generic accuracy”). The most notable of these are the frontier towns which the Kelly gang enters on at least two occasions. They exhibit the classic western town characteristics: the muddy unpaved street between the two lines of shopfronts and, behind that, the landscape extending to infinity. Given that the computer graphics people must have been asked to provide precisely this mise-en-scene, there is no doubt about the genre to which the film-makers were intending to refer.
Then there are the horses, which are not only ridden, but also provide the first plot complication, when Ned (Heath Ledger) recovers a horse which is actually stolen, although he believes in good faith that it is the rightful property of “Wild” Wright. Due to the first of several over-reactions on the part of policemen and other authority figures, Ned becomes a “horse-thief”—a man with a criminal record and a chip on his shoulder.
Then there are the guns. Ned fires at least one specifically American gun: a Colt is mentioned in the screenplay (one recalls the Colt “Peacemaker” of numerous American westerns). But a difference from the American western is that Ned and his friends only begin to carry weapons when they see themselves as being embattled, or in order to take revenge. They arm themselves for a specific purpose. In this film the use of a gun is not an element of style, or an expression of a sense of self, or even a way of life—at least not at the outset: it is taken up as a means to an end.
However, once it has become a way of life, as Warshow suggests, the open carriage of guns brings with it a greater sense of responsibility. There is at least one moment in the film which can be seen as signalling this sense, when Ned and Joe Byrne (Orlando Bloom) enter the bank, guns in hand. They then politely ring the bell and hide the guns behind their backs. But when the moment for the robbery can no longer be put off, they present them, aimed at the manager. Another significant such moment is at the mining camp when Ned takes up a weapon on hearing of his mother’s arrest, before going off to deal with it.
As Warshow suggests—and I think this applies to Heath Ledger’s Ned Kelly—the westerner has a distant relation to violence. The westerner’s violence is an expression of his inner self, and he uses it only when he is being true to his character. In the fight in the bush with the police, for example, it is they who have brought violence to the gang, not the other way around. Ned only shoots the police when shot at, expresses regret at having shot the policeman (the one who says he has a wife and children), and then, surprisingly, gives him the coup de grace to put him out of his misery.
In the case of the prize fight with Wild Wright, there are two good reasons for the violence. One is to make some money, especially from the policemen who have bet on Wright; the other is to get even with Wright himself, as he was the cause of Ned’s going to jail in the first place.
A third reason for violence is expressed in the Jerilderie letter, in which Kelly makes a very long-winded case for his threats in the lengthy list of injustices to which he, his family, his countrymen and supporters have been subjected. In this case we might say that the threatened violence has a political basis.
For there is a conflict between good and evil, a struggle for power between heroes and malicious forces, rather in the manner suggested by Bazin and Warshow. Because we see events from the point of view of the Kellys, what is good here is poor and honest—and Irish. What is bad is dishonesty, and the irresponsible exercise of state power, the power of the (English colonial) state.
Alan Lovell, writing a decade later than Bazin and Warshow was less interested in metaphysical questions and the western’s ideology and more in its formal history. He lists four elements—of different kinds.
1. a structure drawn from nineteenth century popular melodramatic literature, involving a virtuous hero and wicked villain who menaces a virginal heroine;
2. an action story composed of violence, chases and crimes appropriate to a place like the American west in the nineteenth century;
3. the introduction of the history of the migration westwards and the opening of the frontier signalled in such films as The Covered Wagon (1924) and The Iron Horse (1924); and
4. the revenge structure, which was present by the time of Billy the Kid in 1930.15
To take the last first: there is no doubt that Ned Kelly is animated to some extent by revenge, not only for his own brutal treatment at the hands of the police, but also for his mother in particular (“I am a widow’s son, and I will be obeyed”) and for people of Irish origin in general—not to mention all the downtrodden people in his part of the world. Many of these people are migrants, but from a different part of the world, not just from another part of the same country. However, as we see the diggings, we can also assume that many have come to that particular place in search of gold, which was also one of several reasons that took people to the west of America.
The most interesting item to contemplate on Lovell’s list is the first. It’s almost as if the non-historical subplot involving Naomi Watts’s character, Julia Cook, was written in to reinforce this characteristic. Not that the wicked villain menaces her; nor that she’s a virginal heroine! ... once again, horses are involved. Julia is shown in her first encounter with Ned to understand horses well, and to be concerned about their welfare. Her husband Richard Cook (Nicholas Bell), on the other hand, is cruel and peremptory, shooting the recalcitrant horse despite Ned’s offer to do some savvy horse-whispering. It might be suggested that the villainous threat is displaced from the wife to the horse; anyway, it leads indirectly to some heroic bodice-ripping. A more historical virtuous maiden can be seen in the character of Ned’s sister, Kate Kelly (Kerry Condon). She is menaced by the nasty Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick (Kiri Paramore), whose visit to the Kelly household starts the chain of events which leads to Ned’s being declared an outlaw.
It would seem that, at least superficially, this film conforms in a number of ways to what critics expect from a western. It may be fruitful to speculate whether this is, indeed, one of the reasons why the film did so poorly at the box office. Looking rather like a conventional American western, a form whose finest exemplars are in the distant past, and having little of any vital spark to set it off as Australian, it’s just possible that there was little here to appeal to a young film-going audience—apart from the youthful appeal of Heath Ledger, Naomi Watts and Orlando Bloom.
There is one important characteristic which is not evident in this film but which is found in many Australian westerns, bushranger films, or bush films generally: it has no significant Indigenous character. There is a brief appearance in Ned Kelly of a tracker (David Ngoombujarra) in the service of the police, but his character is not developed: he is seen in a long shot and does not speak—and he is on the wrong side. ...
Regarding the second point, if we return to the 2003 version of Ned Kelly where we left off, at the scene in the Kelly house in which Constable Fitzpatrick presses his unwanted attention on Kate, what is striking is that it is the villain who is alone, whereas there is a strong sense of community among the Kellys and their friends. It’s also noticeable that Ned never acts alone (until the very end, when his companions have been killed): he is always with relatives and friends, usually his brother and Joe Byrne. Also, when he takes his stand, as set out in the Jerilderie letter, it is on behalf of his family and community—and he even takes up a suggestion from at least one of the people listening. Whereas the essence of Warshow’s “westerner” is his solitude, the essence of Ned Kelly—and many equivalent such characters—is his companionability.
New: 2 November, 2012 | Now: 27 April, 2014 | garrygillard[at]gmail.com