The reason people admire Ned Kelly is more often than not because they’ve been misinformed by the writing of other people who admire Ned Kelly. Perhaps the most striking example of this is the four part 1980 TV Miniseries ‘The Last Outlaw’, produced by the greatest Kelly admirer of all time, Ian Jones. Its still available on DVD, and 43 years later continues to be universally adored and praised by Kelly admirers as the best and most accurate portrayal of the Kelly story ever produced.
In fact, as I will prove to you, though the ‘The Last Outlaw’ is very cleverly and convincingly constructed, it is highly sanitized, misleading and very inaccurate. The best way to understand this production is to see it as pure Kelly propaganda, and like all good propaganda it reassures all its viewers right at the start that it’s all based on fact: yes of course it was, but so was ‘Forrest Gump’ based on fact but it was pure fiction. The ‘facts’ Jones made use of were only certain very select ‘facts’, the ones that suited his purpose, but many other facts are left out ignored or misrepresented, and many of the impressions created in the movie are not facts at all, but fantasy, wishful thinking and pure invention, the greatest of them being Ian Jones now completely discredited proposal that the Outbreak was an attempt to establish a republic of north east Victoria.
The purpose of part one seems to be to create an image of the young Ned Kelly as a rather naive, terribly earnest, friendly, responsible and helpful member of a happy family of loving selectors, whose transient involvement with Harry Power was reluctant and minimal. But then the poor innocent lad’s life is turned upside down by a malicious wrongful conviction and harsh three-year sentence with hard labour on a charge of “receiving a horse, knowing it to be stolen”,and from there it’s all downhill. Poor Ned, poor Kellys…and those horrible bullying police!
The actual known historical truth however is very different, and different in important ways from what is depicted: there are innumerable important facts that Jones deliberately ignored in Episode One that show Kelly was very far from being the earnest and inexperienced youth portrayed in Part One of the movie. No viewer would ever guess that by age 16 or 17, which is about how old Ned Kelly is in Part One, he had a criminal record and convictions for violence and obscenity. He had been lucky to escape conviction for a vicious assault on a Chinese man, but he had been convicted and gaoled for an assault on a hawker and for an offensive and obscene act offered to a childless woman, in the so-called ‘McCormack incident’ (more about this later). Kelly had also managed to cleverly avoid conviction on various charges associated with his partnership with bushranger Harry Power by dobbing him in. No viewer would ever guess that Jones also concealed the fact that Kellys own mother, portrayed as a delightful model parent, had already been convicted and fined for abusive language, had narrowly avoided a conviction for illegally supplying liquor, and had not long before given birth to an illegitimate child. Neither would any viewer have guessed that Jones didn’t bother with any of the facts about the innumerable uncles and other family associates who had all served time for crimes such as stock theft, drunkenness, violent assault, sexual assault, arson and animal cruelty. All of this very relevant background information is hidden from view: the happy scenes Jones depicted are fiction.
In Part One, Kellys involvement with Wild Wrights lost horse and subsequent imprisonment is set out, but – of course! – it is also seriously misrepresented. Much is made of the circumstances of Kellys arrest by Hall, with graphic concentration on Halls entirely inappropriate use of excessive force. But that only happened because Kelly attempted to evade arrest, and was no doubt influenced by Halls involvement with Kelly and two uncles only a matter of weeks before, when he was nearly killed himself in a vicious assault with a stirrup iron, had his own scalp split open and was knocked unconscious. All of these relevant facts are ignored by Jones, so as to bolster the image of Kelly as an innocent victim.
The court determined that the horse wasn’t ever stolen by anyone: Wright had merely borrowed it and had planned to return it, as he had done on more than one occasion previously. Court evidence also revealed that even though it didn’t belong to him Kelly had attempted to sell the horse along with some others: important relevant information about Kellys criminal intent and character that Jones ignored: of course! Because of his intention to sell the horse, Kellys conviction was not for “receiving a horse knowing it to be stolen” as wrongly suggested in the movie but for the more serious “Feloniously receiving”. Wright was convicted of a relatively minor offence, for illegally using the horse and so his sentence was less severe than Ned Kellys. Jones attempt by distortion of the facts to make out that this episode was a case of police persecution is still being repeated by Kelly admirers all these decades later. It was not persecution at all: it was a fair trial and a fair sentence.
The movie I would make about Ned Kellys early days – if I knew how to make movies – would not misrepresent the reality of the environment he lived in or the kind of person he was, as Jones has done in The Last Outlaw, and I would happily admit the fact that up until he was ten or eleven Kelly seemed to have been a decent kid. I’ve already written about that HERE.
But by the time he was sixteen what the record shows is that he had become a seriously violent smartarse and a dickhead, a show-off and a liar, the very opposite of what Jones portrayed in The Last Outlaw. I would show this by particular reference to two incidents that Jones ignored in his movie: the McCormack incident and the Benalla Boot shop incident.
The first of these, the McCormack incident was referred to by Kelly himself at the very beginning of the Jerilderie letter, where he claimed that he was falsely accused by Mrs McCormack of using the McCormacks horse without permission to pull a wagon belonging to a hawker named Mr Gould out of the mud. Kelly denied all that and said that a gelding named Ruita Cruta had ‘enticed McCormacks horse away from Greta” and all that Gould did was get ‘his boy’ to take the horse back to the McCormacks. The ‘boy’ Kelly somewhat disingenuously mentioned was his own younger brother Jim. Later that day Kelly says ‘me and my uncle was cutting calves. Gould wrapped up a note and a pair of the calves testicles and gave them to me to give to Ms McCormack. I did not see her and gave the parcel to a boy to give to her ….’ Ian Jones later wrote in his biography of Ned Kelly that the note invited Mr McCormack to tie the calf testicles ‘to his own cock so that he might shag her better the next time’ – a cruel reference to the fact that Mrs McCormack was childless.
Unsurprisingly the McCormacks took great offence at this vulgarity and when they confronted Kelly about it, Kelly abused them further, threatening them with violence and calling them ‘bloody wretches’. He then punched McCormack in the face and knocked him over with his horse, and while brandishing a stirrup iron, Kelly challenged McCormack to a fight. In the Jerilderie Letter Kelly blamed Mrs McCormack for making his horse jump forwards by hitting it in the flank and as a result “my fist came in collision with McCormack’s nose”. How completely absurd and laughable! In Court, Kellys own Uncle, Jack Lloyd agreed with McCormick, not Kelly.
So just think about this for a second: a 16-year-old youth is sending an obscene and insulting package to a married adult woman because she accused him of something which the court later found to be true. And then when they object, he mocks and swears at them and then assaults her husband, and later when writing about it makes such an absurd excuse for his violent behaviour it’s no wonder when it went to Court he was convicted and gaoled. But I wonder what anyone reading this would have to say if they had a sixteen-year-old son who engaged in that kind of sickening behaviour, that vulgar abuse and that confronting and threatening violence? Would they be proud of him? Or would they be like Uncle Jack Lloyd who wanted to disown him? And if it was someone else’s son behaving like that wouldn’t you agree the boy was a nasty and violent smart-arse and a dickhead? The snow-white image of Ned Kelly painted in Part One of the Last Outlaw is a deliberately very misleading cover up of the obnoxious swaggering delinquent bully that he actually was.
The other incident worth mentioning that Jones didnt, but which happened around the same time and was cited by Kelly when asked to give an example of the tyrannical conduct of Police that he always complained of, was when he had his testicles squeezed by Constable Lonigan in the midst of an unholy brawl in the Benalla Bootmakers shop. I wrote about it and you can read the detail of it HERE, but in brief, it would have been a non-event except for Kellys decision to act up and show off by trying to escape custody when he was being walked across the street to the local Courthouse to face a charge that attracted a fine of one shilling. Instead, by running off and then getting trapped and retaken in the Bootmakers shop after an entirely pointless violent struggle, it cost him or more likely his poor widowed mother, over eighty shillings. What an idiot! What a smartarse and a dickhead he was.
And there is something else: one might argue well yes, he was obviously a delinquent youth but isn’t that the way adolescents often behave…and then with age and maturity they settle down? Why be so hard on him? He was barely 16…
Well firstly, the point of this Blog Post is twofold – to show what kind of a youth he really was, and to show how dishonestly The Last Outlaw misrepresented his true character. But secondly, its very important to note that Kelly wrote about all of this in the Jerilderie letter when he was 23 or 24, at an age where one might have hoped for a more mature reflection and perhaps an expression of regret about his behaviour as a brash and callow youth – but no he doubles down on his version, boasting about how he assaulted various people, insisting that everything that happened was someone else’s fault – and even the fault of a horse! His accounts express not the least hint of regret or embarrassment or shame about his behaviour and the pointless trouble and cost he inflicted on people, and not one word of apology about any of it. In fact, he said that if someone accused him like that again, he would behave in exactly the same way.
And at that moment you realise that the 16-year-old dickhead never grew up – he just became a bigger and even more violent and unhinged one.