The core of the Glenrowan story is Ned Kelly. Everything that occurs is either directly or indirectly linked to him and his decisions. Naturally this should position him as the protagonist of the story, though protagonist usually implies that character is the “good guy”. As I’ve discovered, simplistic terms like “good”, “bad”, “hero”, or “villain” are just completely inadequate to describe someone as complex as Edward Kelly.
I was twelve when I first became hooked on the story of Ned Kelly. It was a name I was familiar with, of course, but I knew nothing particular about him until I was in grade six. My Grandma had some time previous to this regaled us with the story of her trip to Glenrowan with her social club. Back in those days she was always on a bus off to somewhere with other old ladies. She brought back with her a flyer from Bob Hempel’s light and sound show. All I recall from her recounting of the show was that at some point she went into a pub and the roof caught on fire. I would get context for this statement later. Until I went to see it myself, all I had to connect with “Ned Kelly” was the name written in the style of the Indiana Jones logo and a vague image of a bearded man in a hat.
When I was in grade six, however, our school camp was to Beechworth. This was to be the moment that changed everything. As embarrassing as it is to say now, I found the “animated theatre” in Glenrowan to be tremendously exciting as a kid. Now, keep in mind that I have to this day never left Australia, I’ve never been to Universal studios or Disneyland, so such a clunky and rudimentary collection of “animatronic” figures was a revelation. Even though the gang in their armour were totally static I remember them being positively alive with motion, guns blazing and the outlaws barking insults at nobody in particular. This really shows the power of imagination I suppose. At this stage the fire segment of the show was out of order as a malfunction had resulted in the shack doubling as the Glenrowan Inn to be burnt severely. I’m sure the irony wasn’t lost on Bob Hempel. At the end of that experience I had an image to put to the name and for the remainder of the camp I waited eagerly to hear more tales of Ned Kelly. Visiting places like Harry Power’s cell and the Burke Museum really did something to me and I remember the excitement I had at being able to spend my pocket money on a plaster figurine of Ned and a pack of MB Brewery Ned Kelly soft drinks. I couldn’t wait to drink my Kelly Kola and Red Ned Portello. I could go for one now, actually. I digress.
When we had to do our Australian history assignments I did a deep dive on Ned Kelly. My favourite book that I came across was the special magazine that was released in conjunction with The Last Outlaw in 1980. I kept it hidden in my desk for months and would trace the photographs to do drawings and read with wonder about how the costumes and the sets were re-created. I knew at that point that I wanted to make a Ned Kelly movie. There was something magnetic about this ironclad rebel and the story of his fight against corruption that provided an escape for me at a key transition point in my life. In fact, my last strong positive memories of my father for a fair chunk of time around this period came as a result of things pertaining to Ned.
At the end of the history unit we had to dress up as our chosen historical figure and answer questions as them. I had the best costume, naturally, which Dad had constructed with my assistance. I got details wrong when answering questions and this irked me so much that I spent the next two years trying to learn as much as I could (I’m still learning 20+ years later). Over the next few years, after my parents split, Dad would occasionally take my brother and I to places like Beveridge and Glenrowan to see the Ned Kelly stuff there. It still means a lot to me that Dad would do that and he probably never knew how important those experiences were for me.
Now, all through this time the story had been pretty clear cut in everything I read. Ned was Irish, poor, picked on by the police and fought back against them when they pushed him too far. This was the prevailing depiction of him across fiction and nonfiction alike. I was able to dismiss Edgar Penzig’s depiction of Ned as a brutal thug because nobody else was saying the same things in any of the books I read (of which I had surprisingly few to access at the time). But when I read Alex Castle’s book Ned Kelly’s Last Days I had an awakening of sorts. Here was Ned through an objective lens. A viewpoint that pointed the finger at the criminal and the law enforcement equally instead of pushing an agenda to lionise the one over the other. In this text I saw Ned as arrogant, childish and ultimately victim of the machinations of the forces of law and order that would have done anything to make an example of him. This Ned was not a hero or a put-upon victim of systemic bullying like I had believed for so long, but a man with flaws – big flaws – who had been put on trial for putting men to death. Whether it was self defence or outright murder, the fact was that Ned had killed men and the question was whether the trial and Ned’s incarceration had been handled correctly from a legal standpoint. When you really look at Ned’s own words and behaviour you see moments like his argument with Redmond Barry as less of a battle of wits and more of a petulant tantrum. My opinion of Barry and much if the establishment remained quite low after reading that book, but I began to question who the real Ned Kelly was.
Throughout my twenties Ned took more of a back seat in my life, but he was always there. It wasn’t until my own marriage crumbled like a wet cake that he re-emerged. Strangely, there was something stabilising about reconnecting with Ned. The story became something I could share with my son that only the two of us were necessarily interested in. That’s when things really took a left turn.
After backing The Legend of Ben Hall, and putting my hand up to help out in any way I could on the film to get it over the line, I somehow found myself drawn into the Ned Kelly community. I had not considered myself part of it until this point, though I had interacted with the Iron Outlaw website in the early days (if I’m not mistaken I once wrote that I intended to write a film one day with Ettie Hart as Ned’s love interest, because even back when I was a teen I somehow knew that the Kate Lloyd love affair didn’t quite make sense to me). It is not an exaggeration to say that I was stunned when Matthew Holmes invited me to work on a Ned Kelly film with him. Why me? I thought, but I didn’t really question it. Now was my chance to help make the Ned Kelly movie I always wanted to see and I knew Holmes was the man to direct because of how spot on his work with Ben Hall had been. It’s like being asked to do the next Star Wars film by George Lucas himself.
The project was invigorating and it was the first time I had felt that kind of energy working on a production. I had written a school play for Montmorency Secondary College as my first writing gig out of high school, which was naturally a very different animal to what I was attempting here, so it was always going to be a big learning curve. We did our “Legend of Ned Kelly” tour around the hotspots in Victoria and that was when I finally met Ned.
Now, I had seen the armour so many times prior to this trip that it was almost mundane by this stage. Yet, when I entered the gallery of the State Library where it was housed behind glass like a sacred object, there he was looking out of the helmet at me. It was a look that seemed to be weighing me up and I can tell you that it was incredibly intimidating. Those dark eyes with heavy brows could look straight into your soul, and that day they did. Had he thought me worthy? Only time would tell.
Over the course of researching for what was at that time a cradle-to-grave of Ned’s life, I came to reassess who Ned was. I avoided reading anything that wasn’t a newspaper report or a court transcript, or other primary sources, unless I was getting stuck and needed a pointer. I particularly avoided any books that were known to skew heavily one way or another in painting whether he was heroic or evil incarnate – so there was no real reference to Ian Jones or Doug Morrissey at this phase. The picture I began to see emerge was that Ned had the entire gang under his thumb. It wasn’t simply keeping them in line, but rather a need for total control. But as time went on and he pressed the thumb harder, he squeezed the others to the point of crushing them. Ned was in it for Ned, and his selfishness created mutually assured destruction, but why?
I spent months looking for the answers to my questions about what motivated Ned. I found him to be domineering, arrogant, brash, and short tempered, yet there was this other side to him that revered women and children, adored horses (not just the ones he stole), was capable of picking up any skills he needed to perform a trade, and was willing to give anyone the benefit of a doubt even when it was obvious that they couldn’t be trusted. Who the hell was this guy? What made him tick.
So I started to get a bit Freudian with my thinking (Freud is surprisingly useful when looking at character and motivation). How did his parents shape him? You had Red, an ex-convict who was living in effective exile for stealing pigs and who endured untold horrors in the penal system. He was a quiet man because he didn’t want to go back to gaol or put his family in difficulty, yet he probably harboured a lot of ill-will towards the authorities. In comparison you had Ellen, the daughter of a free settler who was feisty, promiscuous, quick to anger and never seemed to think much about consequences. So, how do these manifest in Ned? It seems he took the work ethic and the burden of the tyranny the Irish were subjected to from his father, while his mother gave him his temperament and his passion. Mix it all up and you’ve got a young man with a victim complex and a volatile temper that sees him pulled up on multiple charges linked to violent assault in the span of a few months. You take this angry kid and chuck him into the lion’s den with hardened offenders and it’s no wonder that he had such a chip on his shoulder and constantly teetered between toeing the line like his father and biting back like his mother.
Then you look at how this must have informed his relationship with the gang. He demanded respect and compliance – he didn’t earn it. You see this in his treatment of Steve at Jerilderie and Dan at Stringybark Creek. You only hear him talk glowingly of Joe because Joe was a born follower, a man who would do anything if the right person gave him permission. Yet, it was Steve that gathered the information that led to the Euroa heist, and Dan who showed the most competence in keeping crowds under control during the campaigns at Jerilderie and Glenrowan. This demonstrates that to Ned you were only as valuable as the unquestioning loyalty you gave him. It must have blown his mind to learn that Joe had gone against his express orders and murdered Aaron Sherritt. This man Ned had described as “cool and firm as steel”, the one member of the gang he never felt the need to bully or put down, was the one who did the most egregious thing in defying Ned’s orders while the other two seemed perfectly compliant right to the end. In fact, it is demonstrably true that Dan and Steve felt obligated to stick things out at the inn until the prisoners could escape, while Ned’s first instinct had been to abandon the prisoners to their fate after his plan had backfired. This makes Ned’s venom towards Dan and Steve after his capture all the more egregious.
Ned was insecure. A life of constant upheaval and misfortune does that to people. But not everyone in that situation becomes a violent criminal. Ned was clearly a far more complex man than anyone writing about him has been willing to admit. I honestly believe that I have done damn sight better than the vast majority of authors in capturing him authentically in text by this point. He is a deeply flawed man. One could even argue he is simply a wounded child in a man’s body. But the one thing I have found is that for all his flaws, he is not an evil man. Even the most atrocious crimes can come from a place of good faith. Did Ned Kelly rob banks, steal horses and kill police? Yes. Can this be justified? No. Can they be explained? Of course. There’s a big difference between rationalising an action and justifying it. When Ned felt trapped or in danger he responded like a wild animal. He was destined to be a warrior, but it was never clear how it would manifest. Glenrowan was his apotheosis where he both demonstrated his utter failure as a leader and his reckless daring as a combatant. He refused to be led and that’s what defines Ned.
(First published 26/04/2020)