Described on the DVD box as “The Classic Australian Miniseries”, The Last Outlaw, is yet another Kelly creation of Ian Jones, and yet another self-proclaimed “True Story”. Produced to celebrate the centenary of Ned Kelly’s death, this four part made-for-TV mini-series was said at the time, 1980, to be “the most ambitious and costly series yet mounted by Australian television” Much was made at the time of the effort that was expended in making everything about the series as historically accurate as possible. It won awards.
I have at last found the time to watch it. The four episodes last an hour and a half each, and in this Post I will review the first episode, which covers five years of the life of Ned Kelly, from 1869 to 1874.
The first thing one notices is that it has a very 80’s TV kind of look to it. It may well have been cutting edge when produced but its now very dated – for example the action is awfully drawn out and slow, something I doubt would be acceptable to modern TV audiences. The scenes are often quite theatrical, such as those around the Kelly kitchen table, where the camera observes from one end of the table where one chair conveniently remains unoccupied so the view of the others isn’t obscured – its as if the screenplay was designed for a stage Play.
In any event, apart from Harry Power, the characters in Part One are terribly wooden. Harry Power however is colourfully played, and is the only one who seems to have real personality. However his exploits are portrayed as a sort of game, and are accompanied by jolly music which wrongly makes highway robbery seem to be something jovial when of course for the victims they’re frightening and traumatic. By contrast John Jarratt portrays Ned Kelly as a pale and naïve, too-well behaved dullard, devoted to his mother in a supine and sentimental way who has almost nothing to say for himself. Wild Wright on the other hand is an unbelievable caricature of a ruffian, and the fight between him and Ned Kelly drags on and on with tedious repetition of the fake punches, the aghast spectators and close ups of bloody faces with fake blood on them, and Ned and Wild alternately dragging themselves up out of the dust to then floor the other.
In so far as historical accuracy is concerned, I got the impression that the costumes and street scenes and the external appearance of the Kelly houses were indeed true to the original. However, as poverty stricken selectors I thought the Kellys were all much too clean and too well dressed, and the interior shots of their bark hut made it look very middle class, not at all squalid as it was actually described as, at the time by Nicolson. More importantly though, its very apparent right from the beginning that in the telling of the story, what is told is very much the view of Ian Jones, a man who is an avowed Kelly Sympathiser. Thus, Kelly is portrayed as mild mannered and polite, almost devoid of personality or passion – an overdone saccharine kind of Saint. In keeping with that image Ned is shown meekly, almost reluctantly holding the reins of horses while Power robs people on the highway, and then when they are shot at, Ned cowers in a kind of mute catatonia. Jones sets out as true what we now know as the myth that Ned was in innocent possession of the horse borrowed by Wild Wright, and later, the naïve Ned Kelly is talked into becoming a horse thief by George King, a possibility it would seem that had never once entered the pure mind of Ned himself. Shame on George for corrupting the saintly Ned!!
However, in addition to the sins of commission, there are even greater sins of omission in this episode, things the average viewer would not realize were missing, and as a result, anyone other than a Kellyphile would unknowingly derive a highly skewed and inaccurate understanding of Ned Kellys life story. Significantly, Ian Jones begins the story AFTER Neds lucky acquittal on a charge of assaulting a Chinaman in 1869, and he only mentions the McCormick incident in passing even though it resulted in Ned serving time for assault and indecent behavior. The prior history of growing up in an atmosphere of resentment and suspicion of the English and of authority, of Reds decline into alcoholism, of multiple episodes of family violence and trouble with the law – all this is ignored, yet these were all hugely influential in shaping the life and attitudes and behaviors of the growing Ned Kelly, and knowledge of them crucial to a proper understanding of his story. The decision to commence the story telling after these significant negative events in Ned Kellys young life can only be seen as a deliberately chosen tactic designed to bolster the myth of Ned Kellys innocence and render less explicable the Police interest in the Kellys, and make it look more like sinister and unjustified persecution. This is unforgiveable dishonesty in my opinion, deliberate myth-making disguised and presented as historical re-enactment by Ian Jones who inserted at the beginning of the Epsiode “All Characters events names dates and places in this series are drawn directly from fact.” Indeed, but the ones that are drawn are only the ones that suit Mr Jones. The facts that don’t support Ian Jones version of the truth are conveniently ignored. But who in the general population would know?
Actually my first thought after watching this first episode was to remember what Mark Twain called the Book of Mormon : “Chloroform in Print” I was amazed to watch the incredible richness and complexity of the life and times and personality of Ned Kelly reduced to this boring and sanctimonious misrepresentation. Quite apart from being seriously misinformed about the real Ned Kelly, I think modern audiences would find this episode quite dull: “Chloroform in film” .
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