The Last Outlaw : Part One

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” .

(Visited 119 times)

8 Replies to “The Last Outlaw : Part One”

  1. I'm still recovering from the dismal Heath Ledger "Ned Kelly" who also had a personality bypass. Playing a national icon must be very dauntting.

  2. Drew Easdown says: Reply

    That was a really deadly review, Dee.

    TV in 1980 was boring, but at least this wasn't accompanied by mega-blocks of saturation funeral, Jeep and gambling ads that have made TV today almost unwatchable.

    Producers then and today would argue that adding and subtracting to the script for dramatic effect is always OK. But it sounds deceptive to have asserted “All Characters events names dates and places in this series are drawn directly from fact.”

    I hope the 'fact' that Ned played VFL footie for Williamstown when there was somehow included. Probably not. That is another modern invention.

    Channel Nine is producing another Kelly series soon. A horrible thought!

  3. Sid Johnson says: Reply

    It is said old Irish towns could often be smelled long before arriving there. The smell wasn't chloroform but ether.

    "Ether drinking apparently became relatively common because in a short period, shops in many Irish towns were selling ether in a manner similar to taverns selling alcholic beverages"


    In 1877 Ned thought he had been "hexed" with marijuana in Benalla. Who knows.

  4. Hal Brown says: Reply

    Ned's Jerilderie letter is a big part of the problem. Jones and many authors treated it as gospel. Most of Ned's excuses and postulations are patently wrong. His misusage of George King after his sudden and strange disappearance is a giant historical question mark. King was unable to reply to Ned's calumnies.

  5. Was The Last Outlaw Chloroform in film?
    Perhaps no but now it seems very slow. At the time it was the TV viewing highlight of the week.
    I could see where Sid's Ether drinking slant was going,
    but thought Dee would enjoy this one –

    The Politics of Myth'

    " What could Queen Elizabeth I, Jeanne d'Arc and Merlin have in common? Or Ned Kelly, King Arthur and Sherlock Holmes? What about Guinevere, William Shakespeare and Robin Hood? Such intriguing combinations might mystify – or they might draw us to them with the gravity of their reputations.

    Author Stephen Knight, they are all being kept alive, especially in 21st century film and television.
    Knight, who has worked as professor of literature here and in Britain, and is now an honorary research professor at the University of Melbourne, recently finished his new book, The Politics of Myth. In it he explains how these figures are used to dramatise issues of social importance and to interpret, explore and understand the complexities of the modern world.

    We need them, he maintains – not just for the entertainment they might provide, but for some deeper psychological sustenance. As he says, "myth" has two meanings facing in opposite directions – we can say something is a myth in order to trivialise it, or we can describe some person or achievement as mythic in order to suggest remarkable quality, or levels of excellence.

    It is this second meaning Knight uses when describing those above, most of whom he has researched throughout his career.

    "We certainly use mythological figures as languages to make things coherent for ourselves," Knight says. "Even though, in all the figures I have chosen, different periods read them quite differently. It is really quite striking, even startling, to see how suddenly a character can, after 30 to 40 years, seem quite different to what he or she had been before."

    Read the whole article click the link above, or cut and past this one

    PS : Seems the Prof Knight liked my paper titled 'The Politics of Ned'

  6. Nice comment Bill and thanks for the link! Its very clear in my own mind, and I have previously tried to make it clear on this Blog that there are indeed TWO Ned Kellys – the actual historical Ned, and the mythical Ned. The problem we have in Australia is that Kelly sympathisers refuse to recognise this truth and insist that the mythical Ned and the actual historical Ned are one and the same thing.They then aggressively defend this position and deny and ignore and attempt to hide or suppress any fact that contradicts this delusional belief of theirs. What needs to happen is for everyone to accept that the myth has developed around the historical Ned for the sort of cultural reasons that this Professor is talking about, rather than because the myth resembled reality. In fact in the Myth he is almost unrecognisably different, and is a far more attractive human being than he ever was when alive.

  7. Anonymous says: Reply

    I just wasted 30 seconds of my life reading an obviously biased opinion piece, with little-to-no actual research appearing in it. You call sympathisers of the Kelly family 'Kellyphiles' Dee, which detracts from your post and reinforces your bias.
    Had you even the slightest regard for the facts, you would have seen the bullying, persecution and violence that the so-called Victorian Police force of the time engaged in against Irish Catholic selectors and their families in the North-East.
    From the day he was born, Ned's family were accused of crimes they never committed, and never suspected of crimes they did commit.
    But if you look closely at the exact moment where the Kelly Outbreak started, look no further than the attempted rape of his sister Grace, at the hands of Constable Fitzpatrick. It's widely assumed as fact that Ned assaulted Fitzpatrick and shot him (on the testimony of Fitzpatrick himself, a well known liar and drunkard), whereas Ned himself claimed to have 200 miles away in NSW.
    His mother Ellen was charged with attempted murder, when the more likely story is that she was defending her daughter.
    Her sentence of three years hard labour, Judge Redmond Barry's boast that he would have given Ned 18 years jail had he been present (with no evidence in the slightest to suggest he was even there, let alone tried to murder Fitzpatrick) and the fact that two groups of police set out from Mansfield in 1878 with bodybags strapped to their horses can be directly linked to the events at Stringybark Creek.
    To describe the events of that day as cold-blooded murder is a disgraceful distortion of the facts, and an incredible disregard of the treatment suffered by the selectors and cocky farmers of the time

  8. Very poor post Anon. Lots of errors here. You mean Kate instead of Grace. And U don't mean Kate either as Fitzpatrick did not rape or attempt to rape. It is a great mini series though. I love it.

Leave a Reply