The Fabrication of Kelly History

Watching and reviewing  ‘The Last Outlaw‘ TV miniseries from 1980 was an amazing eye-opener for me. I had often seen the glowing references to it in the Kelly Online world, and I recall reading somewhere that so desperate were Kelly sympathisers  to get their hands on it that they started a Petition to try to get Channel Seven to release it on DVD!  In any event, when I finally got round to viewing it myself I had reasonably high expectations for it.

Having now watched the entire thing, reflecting on it I realised there were three things that I learned that surprised me. Firstly I was surprised at how unbalanced it was. TLO presents a very heavily pro-Kelly story that relies on a highly selective use of the historical record. 

Secondly, it was  more than surprise – in fact it was shock – to recognise the brazen way the producers camouflaged the bias in their production and created an impression it was neutral and objective. This was done by such tactics as claiming that “All …events …are drawn directly from fact” and elsewhere, in the publicity material by making a huge deal of the lengths undertaken to make the sets and props true to the time. Naturally on learning this one would assume they would also go to the same lengths to get the story lines and dialog as accurate and true as possible, but as we know, they didn’t.  There was also the fallacious “argument from authority”  wherein the deserved good reputation of Ian Jones as producer and moviemaker added weight and credibility to the veracity of this, his latest production. These tactics had the intended effect I am sure of encouraging viewers to believe the Miniseries was objectively factual and true to history as it happened. In that sense one would have to say the series proved to be an enormous success, and Ian Jones must have been tremendously satisfied to have got away with it so completely and for so long. But essentially what he did was pull the wool over our eyes! TLO gave a massive  Australia wide boost to the Kelly legend, and made the myth so real that the uninformed Australian public swallowed it hook, line and sinker. They had been well and truly conned.

The third revelation that resulted from watching TLO was to realise that modern Kelly sympathisers actually know very little of the facts about the Kelly story. What they are familiar with is the Mythology, the made up version of Ned Kellys life and times as shown in works like Australian Son and the hagiography of people like Kenneally, Clune and Molony. Consequently, because it accorded with their version of the story, they regarded TLO as accurate. Iron Outlaw” described it as “the most accurate and lavishly presented telling of the Kelly story to date” which says nothing for all the others. But if they really knew the facts, and properly understood the story,  Ian Jones wouldn’t have been able to pull the wool over everyones eyes and have them calling the Miniseries “accurate”, or heap praise on it or sign petitions for its release on DVD.  If they  knew and understood the story they  might do more than react to this Blog with personal abuse and instead try to defend it but they never do. Most of them  I think simply don’t know enough. Instead they cite my awful grammar and punctuation, or the occasional strident tone of the debate to excuse themselves and run away.  If they knew and understood the story, and hadn’t swallowed Jones fabrication hook line and sinker they might not rush off to “Like” a Facebook  Page containing a doomed, now abandoned campaign against ‘The Kelly Gang Unmasked’, a book which brilliantly and clinically exposes the untruths paraded as history in the Kelly myth. If they knew and understood the debate we wouldn’t have now been waiting 123 days for one of them to explain why Neds account of the murder of Lonigan is believable. 

To see what I mean about having the wool pulled over their eyes read the thread named ‘The Last Outlaw’ on the Ned Kelly Forum. You will find almost no actual discussion about content; they accept it as given.  Instead the very limited discussion is mostly about actors and actresses, but with only 11 comments in total there’s really nothing worth reading there: just uncritical agreement about it being “accurate” and no critique. They’re just not up to it.

The popular press is not much better. This is what was said about  The Last Outlaw in The Australian Woman’s Weekly in October 1980, 35 years ago,  just before it went to air:
“Those people who claim that Ned Kelly was nothing more than a roughneck, thief and murderer are going to have a rough time trying to successfully argue their case in the months to come.
The Last Outlaw, the Seven Networks eight hour miniseries about the Kellys is going to convince the vast majority of Australians that there’s a lot of substance to the legend of Ned Kelly as Australia’s bushranger hero.
Ian Jones and Bronwyn Binns who wrote and produced the handsome finely detailed drama, present a persuasive case for a Kelly as a decent hardworking lad who was persecuted goaded and irrevocably driven beyond the Law by an unfairly hostile Police force backed by a repressive establishment”

This article was titled “The Last Outlaw: a loving look at Ned Kelly” indicating that the journalist who wrote it was likely yet another who had been bewitched by Ian Jones.  He let slip that he only actually watched two hours of the series, something he would no doubt have been heavily criticised for by Kelly Sympathisers if his Review had been unfavourable  but as it wasnt, his inadequate assessment was let through. What a disgrace!

Unfortunately to this day the standard of reporting on most Kelly related topics is not much better, Peter Fitzsimons massive regurgitation of the story in his 2013 book being a case in point. He also had the wool pulled over his eyes and he openly admitted that he avoided ‘The Kelly Gang Unmasked’ because – surprise surprise – Ian Jones didn’t like it! I reckon a decent Journalist with an enquiring mind instead of a desire just to add to his CV would have found Jones’ dislike a red flag to something interesting but Fitzsimons was more interested in sucking up. Its really quite remarkable the degree to which Ian Jones has managed to dominate the Kelly scene for the last 40 years, and make his narrative the dominant one, and I am sure the success of TLO had a lot to do with it.

So, I suppose its no wonder some Australians still believe the legend of Ned Kelly was an historical reality. I wonder what would have happened to the Kelly Legend if that lazy excuse for a  journalist had bothered to watch ALL of TLO in 1980 and watch it critically, and ask the searching questions of Jones about why he omitted all the unpalatable stuff, played up the sentimental and inserted stuff for which there is not the least evidence? Perhaps if he had, Ned Kellys place in the Public mind might be more in keeping with his actual status as a criminal. But the journalist didnt  bother with the hard stuff – if he had maybe today we wouldn’t have the ugly spectacle of a Police killer, bank robber and thief being promoted  as some sort of icon. The Woman’s Weekly writer at least might be let off as an ignorant Journalist, but what of the  self proclaimed experts, the Kelly Buffs who fell for it as well, and even now don’t seem to have noticed the deep problems with TLO?  Whats their excuse? About the best they could do I think would be to plead ignorance.
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15 Replies to “The Fabrication of Kelly History”

  1. Sue and Barry Morgan says: Reply

    You are right that Ian Jones has dominated the Kelly Legend for 40 years. The Gang was loathed at the time of the police murders but Kenneally and others began the task of attempting to revive Ned's repute. Jones did much sterling research of his own, and brough formidable skills to advance his lifetime's work.

  2. Holly Wise says: Reply

    That hodge-podge of fact and fiction, Heath Ledger's Ned Kelly film continued the trend of Ned films to mislead and deceive. The screenplay was not the work of Ian Jones but of John Michael McDonagh.

    Wiki says "The film started out with a young Ned Kelly rescuing a young boy from drowning. It then pans to the Australian bush with Ned talking about his father. He then awakens in the Australian outback and sees a white mare. He rides it into town, only to be arrested and subsequently imprisoned in 1871, for supposedly stealing the horse, even though it had actually been stolen by Wild Wright, Ned's friend.

    "Two years later he is released and comes home to a warm welcome from his Catholic Irish family. The Kelly family are seemingly working to get ahead in life, by owning horses and farming. One night at a bar, a local Victoria Police Officer named Fitzpatrick, offers to buy Ned's sister a drink…".

    Still, better than the Mick Jagger effort, I think.

  3. Funny you should mention that movie as Ive been watching it on You Tube. ( TLO is also available on You Tube). Its based on a book called Our Sunshine – which I haven’t read – and doesnt pretend to be telling the historical truth, so can be enjoyed as a sort of historical fiction loosely based on the kelly story. I thought Heath Ledger was a much more believable Ned than John Jarratt and Orlando Bloom makes it a very watchable film, with Naomi Watts , Geoffrey Rush and Rachel Griffiths making up a big contingent of Aussie actors. The Gang are much more lusty and larrikin like, and their accents are miles better than TLO ones. Kelly buffs mostly deplore this film because of the liberties it takes with the story – what they don’t realise is their beloved TLO takes at least as many, but theyre so ignorant of the facts they don’t notice.

  4. Holly Wise says: Reply

    I take your points, but find it crazy to name a movie and model it after a real life character, include episodes from his life, add a host of other named people and police, embellish the story and then pose it as historical fiction. It reminds me more of the Indonesian puppet plays whose shadows are seen as silhouettes projected on a screen. There are thus several levels of deception to the play.

  5. I reckon I am one of the few Kelly buffs who has grown to like the Ledger film. The grey, bleached cinematography was well done and Gregor Jordan seemed to bring out the best in the cast. I thought the Robert Drewe book (Our Sunshine) that it was based on was a quick, quirky, lyrical read and I realized that the movie was a good interpretation of his work. ( after my initial indignation at the 2003 premiere. .) i was annoyed it didn't do better business.

  6. The raunchy scenes of Ned and the squatters daughter in the stables, and Aaron seducing Mrs Devine added a bit of spice to it that made it more like what you would expect of hot blooded young men. Its funny how Ian Jones and all the other Kelly biographers steered clear of any suggestions in regard to Ned Kellys sex life. Why wouldn’t he have used his charm to have his way with all the ones suggested as his Lovers, from Kate to Ettie Hart, and others as well perhaps ? The idea that he was some sort of saintly celibate doesn’t fit with the passionate way he lived every other part of his life.

  7. Dee, it has been a while since I have seen the film, but I believe that it was the squatter's wife in the barn with Ned. Also, it was Joe Byrne and Mrs. Scott at Euroa that were having it off and/or getting it on, not Aaron and the pregnant Mrs. Devine at Jerilderie. Just a gentle correction to keep things straight. 🙂

  8. Yes Sharon you’re absolutely correct it was the squatters wife that Ned had a fling with, and Joe Byrne got it off with Mrs Scott. Sorry folks. I don’t know why it is that I keep getting Aaron and Joe mixed up in my head! But I am glad my mistakes provoked you to Post again Sharon, I was starting to worry about what had happened to you! Do you think the Ledger Ned was more believable than the Jarratt Ned?

  9. They were camp.

  10. Heath Ledger did a very good job of portraying Ned, and I was a huge Ledger fan, but the whole time I kept thinking to myself "I am watching Heath Ledger playing a part" whereas with John Jarrratt he was a total unknown to me when I finally got to see "The Last Outlaw" within the last decade and I could "buy" Jarrratt in the role more easily, if you get my meaning. I just wish that Heath had been given the script that John got, I would have loved to have seen him play that rather than what he was given to work with.What would be optimum would be to have a mashup and have scenes and actors from one film to be dropped in on the other (or dropped from) ! I am still aggravated beyond reason with that squatter's wife and how she would not give him an alibi. Could she not have said she was looking for something she dropped in the barn (no, not her drawers!) and that she saw Ned there for the briefest moment in time? Other things bugged me too (like that awful scene with the horse's neck), but that squatter's wife character (or charade?) is the main reason why I will probably never watch it again in this lifetime. I will watch TLO again, though.

    One reason why I have been so quiet is that ground that has been covered many years ago was being re-plowed by those who were new to it all, and I was just bored with it. Been there, done that. Didn't get a t-shirt. Those scrimshaws were discussed and dismissed eons ago in other places as was the "wherefore art thou, George King?" topic among others. Factor in the same old playground name calling and finger pointing and things get a little old a little fast. I do have to pop in to correct anything that I find to be glaringly wrong, though. 🙂

  11. Yes I was annoyed at the squatters wife too – she could have changed the course of History and had a whole lot more fun and excitement in her life if she had listened to her heart and dumped her prick of a husband for Ned!

    Regarding these topics that you have already become bored with, this highlights a problem for the “newby” in the Kelly world like myself . These things are new to me, but the discussions you mention are no longer available – or if they are theyre impossible to find. Is this because Forums are being destroyed all the time whenever these nasty disputes arise – as they are at the moment between factions associated with the NKW? Someone keeps suggesting this Blog gets made into a Book – maybe thats why.

    So what was concluded about George King ? Or did the subject just get kicked around and then forgotten about? Did anyone conclude that Ian Jones use of George King was beyond the bounds of artistic license, or is Jones' word Gospel?

  12. The Myth of Ned Kelly in the 21st Century

    Mythical figures are more than fantasy: they have their own politics. They dramatise issues of social importance and they can change to interpret new contexts and concerns.

    In this extract from his new book The Politics of Myth, Stephen Knight looks at the legend of Ned Kelly in contemporary Australia.

    The Kelly image was used early and emphatically in the opening ceremony at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, and he has retained that level of recognition—Ireland put him on a stamp in 2001—but not all has been benign. Ian Macfarlane in The Kelly Gang Unmasked (2012) supported the hostile case in considerable detail, feeling Kelly’s letters include ‘not one word of remorse, shame or sadness at the taking of human life’, and claiming the myth ‘is unlikely to persist’ especially in ‘present-day multicultural Australia’. The last point is of interest. Commentators, both positive and negative, have made little of Kelly’s evident antipathy to Chinese workers and apparent lack of interest in Aborigines—views that were in his time widely shared—but modern tolerances have emerged. Ian Jones suggested there were two Chinese sympathisers at Glenrowan equipped with rockets to announce the Republic, and recent films show Joe Byrne as able to speak Cantonese, which is a possibility, as he was brought up near a local goldfield where numbers of Chinese lived.

    … Just as in his own time Kelly managed to get his own message out, though not without opposition, so the challenging elements of his myth are strongly alive—between Nolan’s national transcendence and the hostility of the governmental voices can still be strongly heard a sense of the value of resistance, reminiscent of the early socially aggressive Robin Hood myth, before it underwent reconstruction to embrace aristocracy, nationalism, masculinism and individualism. The Kelly story seems too strongly shaped and too well recorded in his original challenging form to develop that kind of multiple volatility. Whatever he may become in time, perhaps an environmental hero or an Asia-integrationist, he will remain powerfully affiliated with family and friends, and, surely the key connection back to Ireland and forward to Australia, always insisting on having his say and on making his case in the face of what his experience, and that of his many admirers, defines as the antagonistic nature of social authority.

    The Politics of Myth is out now.

  13. No worries as I was once a plebe, too. Yet, I am still learning new stuff all the time. 🙂 Nothing has ever been definitively found out about George King's disappearance. The same stories just get recycled around again and again. Once in a great while there is a breakthrough in some aspect of the Kelly story when someone turns up a key part of the evidence that has been overlooked, but that is rare.
    Internet forums are nebulous things. Easier to hold quicksilver in your hand than to have one really last and be viable when you have such a controversial subject. Infighting among the "elect" or jealousies or trolls factor into it as well as the fact that not everyone is cut out to be a forum host or moderator. You have to nurture these things if you want them to blossom. Usually (and separately, of course) "the cools and the fools" who hooked up through a forum just go private with their convos or start their own forums and on it goes. Wash, rinse, repeat.
    I was thinking that if you do a book of blog posts you would probably need to do some notating after certain ones to show where you had been corrected on some assertion or fact just to keep the record straight for future generations who might not know the difference and not merely doing the fix in the text like that was how it was originally. That is just my way of thinking, the mileage may vary for others. 🙂

  14. Rosie Taylor says: Reply

    I'm not sure Shaz is being particularly helpful by pointing out the obvious.

    In an ideal commentariat world everyone would be on the same page. They aren'r.

    In the movies this is called a continuity problem.

  15. Things that might be obvious to some can often not be obvious to others (as hard as it is to believe). There are some to whom you must practically literally spell things out, draw diagrams, point and shout to get them to realise what is going on and only then a dim bulb comes on. As you infer, the playing field is not level.

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