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Iron Man, HQ (Australia), March/April 2003
By Angus Fontaine
typed by Pagan, scans from Pagan

His story is an epic and deserves to be told with all the wide-screen sweep and trimmings modern cinema can lavish upon him.

The man may be 122 years dead but a nation longs to see Ned Kelly breathe again.

Heath Ledger believes every Australian has some Ned Kelly in them. Most of us hope he’s right. Oh, to be there! Riding across the countryside like a wave, thundering like a storm through the valleys and the great heaving horizons, a horse’s hooves pistoning in time with your tremulous heart.

Soil on your skin, fever in your blood, sky in your lungs.

Dreaming the dreams of present and future while running from the bullets that bear your name.

Fact is, Ned was a hero for as long as even he could remember. He was 11 the day young Richard Shelton, weighed down by books and clothes no Kelly could afford, fell into the bubbling waters of Hughes Creek and sank. Ned dived in, wrenched the boy from his watery tomb and dragged him to shore. The story of the rescue spread, and for the first time young Ned knew the power he wielded over life and death, an equation he never forgot.

So grateful was the young Shelton’s father at having his son’s life spared, he struck a gold and green silk sash with a heavy bullion fringe and presented it to the gallant boy. Ned was still wearing this reward some 14 years on, under his armour and over his heart, when they shot him down amid the rain, gunsmoke and bloody chaos of Glenrowan. Eternal proof that the outlaw Kelly could save a life as well.

So, was Ned, as one modern crim was described, “a big kid with a pain so deep it will die with him”? Perhaps. Certainly, there’s little doubt that by the time the infant Edward Kelly first drew breath on Big Hill at Beveridge, Victoria in 1854, the Kellys were like most other Irish immigrants- poor, proud and desperate.

These were hard times in a merciless land. The gold boom had seen many ex-convicts stake claims and when the terrain betrayed them season after season, starvation became rife, child mortality increased, and tensions between settlers and authorities grew. That Ned was born in the year of the Eureka Stockade rebellion was pertinent. The next great populist uprising would be his own, two decades on.

Young Edward Kelly had been man of the house since he was 11 and his Tipperary pig-poacher of a Dad got bulged to Jesus. His Ma, who was regularly pregnant for the two decades after Ned was born, had virtually apprenticed her eldest boy to crime, by first making their home a sanctuary and rendezvous for thieves, and then sending him out for “work experience” with men who showed Ned the life of the bushranger as a sapling lad of 14.

When he was remanded and tried as a “juvenile highwayman”, a horse thief and a “disturber of the peace” by 15, the police already knew him as “a flash, ill-looking young blackguard”.

“Everyone looks on me like a black snake,” said Kelly at the time.

And for all his burgeoning infamy, it was true. Ned had been branded. From 1860-65, no less than 19 charges had been laid against members of the Kelly clan for drunken brawls or thievery of stock or horses. Significantly, 12 of them had been dismissed due to police incompetence or over-zealous attention to the usual suspects, namely the Kellys. Much of this persecution stemmed from a Protestant assumption of social superiority over Catholics on every level. Mateship and equality had yet to assert themselves in the national psyche.

The first bushrangers gave voice to this disquiet. With no wars to fight abroad and spirits at their lowest ebb, the gallant exploits of rogues like Ben Hall aroused the passions of all embattled fringe dwellers. But giving the police powers to shoot unarmed men in the back only jacked up working-class resentment. The sight of dead bushrangers like Hall, busted asunder by 32 bullets while unarmed, and paraded through town strapped to his horse, must have steeled Ned for the days to come.

The fact remains: when they were finally arrested his gang had shot dead three policemen, murdered a police spy, held up whole towns, robbed numerous banks of thousands of pounds, outwitted police in two states and so outraged the nation, the price on their head was the highest ever offered for any outlaws in the world. Yet if a drunken and soon to be discredited Constable Fitzpatrick had not claimed that Ned had shot him on the night of 15 April, 1878 as he attempted to arrest young Dan for horse-stealing – Ned 300 kilometres away – then he and his brother may never have gone on the run to escape arrest. The beast inside the boy may never have burst from his belly and the hell that was about to break loose may have been quelled there and then.

But these are ‘ifs’. History tells us that the Kelly gang – Ned and Dan Kelly, and their friends Joe Byrne ad Steve Hart – were tracked to Stringybark Creek on 28 October, 1878. Mayhem ensued and by the time the gang rode away, an unparalleled tragedy had been committed for which only one possible fate remained – death, by hanging or under the gun. And death rode with Ned the next two years.

The fact that he rode the way he did ensured his legend. Boiled down, distilled and baked to its hardest truth, Ned had dash. Australians have always loved him for that. He was a charismatic devil, always performing exotic tricks on horseback for the ladies, and dressing like a dandy when the duds were there, looking dapper as a rat with a gold tooth when he did, too.

Ned could shoot out a crow’s eye, lay a fence-line, fell a forest. But word is he was no dancer.

Oh, and he was game, our Ned. As a young man he won an epic bare-knuckle boxing match with ‘Wild’ Wright in the 20th round, later boasting that “while I had a pair of arms and a bunch of fives at the end of them they never failed to peg out anything tat came in contact with”. In 1879, Kelly even issued a challenge to visiting world heavyweight champion Jem Mace. That battle didn’t eventuate but plenty more did, each bloodier than the last.

But Ned wasn’t the monster portrayed in the newspapers of the time. Truth was, he was more card than cur, and spoke gently to children, soothingly to old women, seductively to damsels and inspirationally to his legions of sympathizers. But the fact remained, words were seldom taken lightly when spoken by Ned Kelly, and that held right to the very end and possibly the most famous final words in history: “Such is life.” Maybe that’s why his story has commanded more films and books than any other figure in Australian history. On film, Charles Tait’s The Story Of The Kelly Gang (1906) was the first feature-length file EVER in the world. The Kelly Gang in 1920 featured a not-nearly-hairy-enough Godfrey Cass and Ned; Harry Southwell directed a couple of larks in ’23 and ’34, called When The Kellys Were Out and When The Kellys Rode; and Rupert Kathner wrote, directed and produced The Glenrowan Affair in 1951. in 1960, Tim Burstall’s avant-garde Ned Kelly told the story via the paintings of Sidney Nolan, who said, “I paint Kelly as part of Australia’s culture an mine… I’d like to think that the day before I died I’d paint a good Ned Kelly painting.” Nolan’s stark imagery and depiction of Kelly as a black, eyeless force in a scorched landscape gave the Kelly myth a magical air and energized the legend for yet another generation.

Of course, then in 1970 came Ned Kelly starring one Mick Jagger as Our Ned and – true fact- John Laws and Kamahl in supporting roles. The film might have been saved by the cinematography but for the presence of the fey, waggle-hipped, little pommy mincer in the frame.

And since then many a Ned project has been mooted. Fanatic Heart, directed by Michael Jenkins from a Don Watson script, was to have starred Alex Dimitriades as a “black Irish” Ned, and most recently director Neil Jordan was vying for line rights, having bought the rights to Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning ventriloquist act True History Of The Kelly Gang and piqued the interest of Brad Pitt for the title role.

Even Gregor Jordan’s Ned Kelly is not alone this year, with a documentary film – Besieged: The Kelly Legacy- slated to screen in March, and Abe Forsyth directing and starring in a low-budget comedy called Ned, in which our hero reportedly rides a pony, does card tricks and consorts with a gang member who wears a yellow dress and bonnet.

All the while we’ve felt like trespassers in a dream. Buttering Ned bread, swilling Kelly Kola, drying our dishes with his death warrants, stamping his image on everything, and parading him before the world Olympics closing ceremonies and crass ad campaigns as a comic-strip hero, a fantasy, with no roots to that brave boy on the riverbank. As one observer once noted: “Ned Kelly rides on and on and on.”

Now he rides again, the $33 million dollar film epic due for release on March 27. Early signs are good: Heath Ledger was unanimously approved as Ned, being in his early twenties, Australian, fiercely talented and full of the right stuff, not to mention a mate of Jordan’s, himself a smoking young gun thanks to his 1999 “gangsters in thongs” thriller, Two Hands.

The supporting cast is strong, with Naomi Watts as Ned’s lover (a role we understand she continued to rehearse with Ledger after the cameras stopped rolling), Geoffrey Rush as his nemesis Superintendent Hare, the disgustingly handsome (or so I’m told) Orlando Bloom as Joe Byrne, Ned’s enigmatic right-hand man, and Rachel Griffiths and Joel Edgerton. And the footage we’ve seen quickens the pulse. There’s Ned nonchalantly robbing banks, wooing women, winning hearts, and doing what a man’s gorra do, while riding through country torn by flame and famine, a nation whose last thread of British skirt was about to be unraveled by this man of blood and poetry.

Alas, martyrdom is tricky. As Oscar Wilde said: “A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it.” And yet Kelly’s cause transcends, his story is forged in all of us. Legends live long in the Australian sinew and hereabouts we don’t piss on our monuments.

The first draft of John Michael McDonough’s Ned Kelly script lobbed on Jordan’s desk in late 2000. the Sydney director was in the States battling studios for release of his second feature, Buffalo Soldiers, a dark military comedy which had premiered at the Toronto Film Festival only to be pulled in the wake of September 11 (it will now be released the day after Ned Kelly opens on March 27, meaning that three years of Jordan’s life is released within 48 hours). Having secured the only man he’d consider as the outlaw, Jordan started shooting in rural Victoria on 29 April, 2002.

Cast and crew realized the monumental nature of the task almost immediately. “All during shooting we had people mob the sets, sometimes 5000 at a time,” says Jordan. “When I came home to Australia, people came up and said. ‘Ned Kelly, eh? Wow, that’s amazing, what a big deal…’ Then they’d look me dead in the eye and say: ‘Don’t fuck it up!”’

Here was a nation’s history writ in the form of a wanted man. “Travelling around to all his old haunts, the hills and hotels, I felt the weight of history, and realized then how precious Ned’s story was to people here, and why he was so ingrained in the whole national identity,” muses Jordan. “It was quite overwhelming.

“Then the storyteller in me kicked in and I’d sit back and think, ‘Hang on, here’s this guy with his brother and two mates, wrapping themselves in suits of armour, putting a Colt in each hand and walking out the door to blaze away at 200 armed police! That’s when the outrageousness and madness of it all hits you. Because I don’t care who you are or where you’re from, the Kelly gang’s last stand is one of the most audacious things you’re ever going to hear or see.”

To be narrated in a soft brogue by Ledger, Ned Kelly promises to be the film we want it to be- and the telling our man deserves.

There were hitches of course- the US distributors wanted a wholly clean-shaven Ned(!), the producer of the 1970 Ned film refused to release rights to the name, meaning Jordan’s project laboured a long time as The Kelly Gang, critical swines harped on the actors supposedly flimsy accents (rest assured they’ll sound Irish to Aussies, and Aussie to the Irish) – but each battle was fought with a steel Ned himself would’ve admired and both Ledger and Jordan can say they are, while nervous, also “super proud”.

For the man charged as custodian of Kelly’s spirit, playing a colossus with “a ZZ Top beard and a Hell’s Angels outlook” became an all-consuming passion. “Ned has been haunting a lot of young Australian males for over a century now,” says the 24-year-old. “I know he haunted me.”

Ledger’s research for the role was carefully undertaken. He steeped himself in history- Ian Jones’s A Short Life, Keith McMenomy’s Ned Kelly: An Authentic Illustrated History- and fiction- Peter Carey’s The True History Of The Kelly Gang, and Robert Drewe’s 1991 Our Sunshine, on which the film is based.

But Ledger was adamant that no book was going to give the “soul connection” he craved. “By the time I was on set I didn’t want to be reading books. I had to let go so I could present his soul to the world, and show Ned as he was – flesh and blood and flaws but a man with a very big heart. In the end I threw myself out there, made it really personal and decided to worry about it later.”

Although unwittingly installed during shooting in an apartment which overlooked Old Melbourne Gaol, the very place Kelly was hung on 11 November, 1880, Ledger says he never considered visiting. “In acting you rely on superstition and little omens like me being put in that apartment made the power of belief even stronger. It’s strange, but I thought to see that cell or set foot on the gallows would be wrong. While I was playing Ned I knew it was the last place he’d want to be.”

Englishman Orlando Bloom had similar superstitions playing the cavalier cocks-man Byrne. “I wanted a photograph of Joe but the only one I could buy was a final portrait of him in death, twisted and bloody and hung on a door,” says Bloom.

“I had the program from Christie’s sent over but on the day of the auction, I pulled out of the bidding. The night before I’d had this weird night’s sleep, tossing and turning and dreaming uncomfortably. I couldn’t figure it out at the time, but now I think it was the fact that I was immersed in Joe Byrne the man, not that poor bastard hanging dead on the wall. I believe in connections and something told me that photo was the wrong energy.”

Ledger was so adamant about staying true to the spirit of the man he felt “led”. “I really believed I was Ned when I was on set. The beard, the armour, the power of that mask- that’s the license an actor needs to really breathe as that person.”

“Heath understood Ned on a very fundamental level,” explains Jordan of his star. “He said to me right after reading the first draft of the script, ‘I know how to play him’, and that was borne out. Now, I know Heath very well and I’ve seen all his movies, but the one thing I worried about in casting him was whether he could capture Ned’s quiet fierceness. Heath’s not aggressive. In fact, he’s the most chilled guy you could meet. Ned was a guy who was absolutely not to be fucked with.”

But Kelly was a role Ledger feels he was born to play. “It was almost basic instinct,” he admits of his portrayal. “There were no rehearsals and no one really knew what was going to happen on day one of the shoot, but this was story I’d thought about for a long time and I knew I had it in me. The accent took work, sure, but right from the start the voice in my head was his.”

The two most important Kelly touchstones for Ledger were the portrait of Kelly taken in jail, and the Jerilderie letter, an 8,300 word account of Ned’s life and times, part autobiography, part self-defense, as dictated by him to Byrne during his travels and travails through the Victorian and New South Wales countryside.

The striking photo of Ned in prison issue garb with swept back hair, white scarf and flowing beard became his alter. “When I looked at that photo I saw dignity – that was all I had to see,” says Ledger. “Here is a man 48 hours from death whose brother and best friends are dead, whose family has been torn apart. Here he is leant against a post because there are still 29 bullet wounds in him…and yet those eyes show pride in who he is and what he did and total belief in the cause he fought for. Just look at that photo and you know there was a king inside Kelly.”

The Jerilderie manifesto, which shattered the myth of the Gang as illiterate thugs, ends with the words: “I need no lead or power to avenge my cause, if words be louder.” It is, says Ledger, “a beautiful, passionate and hilarious piece of literature”.

“It was very important to me that we use Ned’s own words in the Jerilderie scene because his main goal was to be heard,” says Ledger. “On the shoot, I read the Jerilderie letter out aloud every morning in the trailer and by the time I’d finished, my make-up was done, I could look in the mirror with my beard, my pistol and that same gaze as in the photo… and I was ready.”

Ready understates it somewhat. Jordan says Ledger’s transformation was frightening to all who beheld it. “Nice gentle Heath turned into this fierce animal,” says Jordan. “His stance, his attitude and Christ almighty the look in his eyes… suddenly he was this big man who could inspire and lead people and scare the shit out of them too. Heath’s probably my best friend but I honestly think what he’s done on camera in this movie is pretty incredible.”

But truth is predictable only so much as you never know what truth is. In a story so mired in innuendo, misinformation, myth and romanticism, as the Kelly gang’s, who can ever know for sure? It’s the flux orbiting the facts that has made the Ned saga so ripping a yarn for so many storytellers.

Was Ned really married? Where was he when Fitzpatrick claimed to have been shot and all hell broke loose? Was his ripping up of the railroad tracks at Glenrowan an attempt to send 200 police “to hell” or a cunning trick to take hostages? Was a declaration for the Republic of Victoria really stolen from his wounded body? Did Dan Kelly and Steve Hart escape the Glenrowan inferno and become horse-breakers for a maharajah? Where are the children of Ned Kelly?

For all the research, the responsibility entrusted in him, and the expertise accorded, Jordan admits that piety was not absolute on Ned Kelly and that the elusive spirit of the man himself demanded some “re-telling”.

“It’s true we’ve embellished certain areas for dramatic reasons but that’s just to hold true to the mythical status Ned commanded in life and in death. Nothing about the Kelly gang is black and white, it’s all open to interpretation. I just tried to tell the story in an interesting way and dramatically succinct way and do it with a balanced hand.

“Speak to the legalese and the cops and they’ll tell you Ned was a bloodthirsty criminal who deserved to be hung like the murdering dog he was. But I don’t buy it. And it’s not romanticism making me say that. We’ve portrayed Ned as accurately as possible – as a guy who made the choice that he was going to fight the injustices being done to he and his people- and we’ve done it without glossing over or glorifying the nastier elements of the story.”

Hero or villain? Does it really matter? Everyone has their own Ned story to tell and Jordan’s film won’t be the last telling of the tale- he just hopes it’s the fair hearing Kelly craved in this, one of his final proclamations in court before meeting his maker:

“I do not pretend that I have led a blameless life, or that one fault justifies another, but the public in judging a case like mine should remember that the darkest life may now have a bright side,” said Kelly. “I do not care one straw about my life now or for the result of the trial…I have outlived that care that curries public favour or dreads the public frown.

“Let the hand of law strike me down if it will, but I ask that my story be heard and considered. If my life teaches the public that men are made by bad treatment, and if the police are taught that they may not exasperate to madness men they persecute and ill treat, my life will not be entirely thrown away.”

Perhaps the truth about Ned Kelly disappeared in the cloud of dust that trailed behind the police cab that took him away from the committal on 14 October, 1880. And maybe it lives on in the squeals of the children giving chase when they saw the unmistakable form of Our Ned lean out the window, cock his finger and, grinning all the way, pretend to shoot them down as they ran.