Ned Kelly: freedom fighter or villain?



Ned Kelly
Directed by Gregor Jordan
Based on Robert Drewe's novel, Our Sunshine
With Heath Ledger, Orlando Bloom, Geoffrey Rush, Rachel Griffiths and Naomi Watts
At major cinemas

If Ned Kelly was to return to the 21st century to relive his short but fascinating career, this "horse thief", "bank robber", "cop killer" and reluctant hero would almost certainly be lumped with Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden on US President George Bush's "axis of evil" hit list. John Howard would declare war, mobilising the biggest police operation in the history of the country, in order to "liberate" the people of north-eastern Victoria from the scourge of the evil Kelly Gang.

Rumours would be spread of the gang's hidden arsenal of revolving rifles and the possession of high-tech "bullet deflection equipment"; an $8 million reward would be offered by the US government for the capture, "dead of alive", of these outlaws.

The media's and the British government's hype in Victoria in the late 1870s, at the height of the Kelly gang's infamy, was not that different to what you'd expect if Kelly was still at it today.

Unsurprisingly, the release of the film Ned Kelly, a straightforward historical drama based on the bushranger's life, has aroused criticism from a range of media sources and "experts", reopening a 120-year-old debate: was Kelly a colonial Robin Hood and freedom fighter or was he simply a murderous villain, a colonial "terrorist" who deserved his fate? Does Ned Kelly deserve the hero status he enjoys in Australian folklore?

Australian director Gregor Jordan's film adaptation of Robert Drewe's novel of the Kelly legend, Our Sunshine, remains true to much of the historical detail, while giving a sympathetic portrayal of the outlaw.

Ned Kelly, son of an Irish convict, was thrust into conflict with the police from an early age. After serving three years hard labour in prison for horse theft, he and his family were subjected to a gross campaign of harassment by the corrupt Victorian police. Between 1860 and 1865, at least 19 charges were laid against members of the Kelly family, of which 12 were ultimately dismissed. But in April 1878, constable Fitzpatrick, a notoriously dishonest local copper, attempted to arrest Ned's brother Dan, and accused Ned of shooting at him. To avoid capture the brothers escaped into the bush. However, their mother Ellen was arrested and imprisoned in their absence.

Joined by friends Joe Byrne and Steve Hart, the Kelly brothers became known as the "Kelly Gang". When Ned shot three police officers who had tracked the group to Stringybark Creek, the Crown declared them felons (allowing any person to shoot them on sight) and offered a large reward for their death or capture.

The Kellys' battle against police persecution inspired the downtrodden small farmers of north-eastern Victoria, who provided a network of support which kept them alive and on the run for almost two years. It took a small army, with a little help from a traitorous local teacher in the town of Glenrowan, where the gang planned to ambush a train-load of police, to finally bring the Kellys down, with Byrne, Hart and Dan Kelly killed and Ned captured during a shoot-out at the Glenrowan Hotel. Ned Kelly was hanged on November 11, 1880.

Ned Kelly was a product of his time. In 1867, his widowed mother Ellen selected a small piece of land in the district of Greta, in north-eastern Victoria, hoping to sustain herself and her large family of seven young children. Like many other poor settlers who came to Australia as convicts or at the height of the gold rushes of the 1850s, the government policy allowing free selection of Crown lands for the poorer classes seemed an opportunity for independence and upward mobility, while the government benefited by thinning out a discontented and radicalising urban working class.

But free selection never lived up to its promise. Until the 1860s, much of Australia's Crown land had been occupied by wealthy squatters, who had arrived as free settlers, usually possessing capital. The squatters and the selectors came into constant conflict in a battle for control of the land. Many selectors, with no capital or experience in agriculture, were forced into wage-labour to support themselves or were forced off their land. The squatters had seized the best land and water sources.

Selectors were not allowed to farm livestock, so they developed a casual attitude toward "borrowing" horses and cattle from their wealthy neighbours. However, the police zealously protected the private property of the rich, so the Kellys were not the only family to suffer persecution at their hands.

Ned Kelly very sensitively portrays the harshness, but also the humanity, of daily life of poor Irish immigrants like the Kellys. Anyone who was afraid that a big budget and an all-star cast would transform our favourite bushranging legend into a cheesy Hollywood-style western can rest assured. Even without the fine acting, subtle humour and beautifully filmed shots of the Australian landscape, the Kelly tale is a fascinating subject, whose moral lessons have great contemporary, as well as historical, value.

The film could have explored the political goals that drove "the Kelly outbreak". Too often, Ned Kelly is viewed as little more than an angry individual with a lust for revenge. To its credit, Jordan's film also breathes life into the oft-forgotten characters of Byrne, Hart and Dan Kelly. But far less evident in the film is the network of dissident selectors throughout north-eastern Victoria, for whom Ned Kelly became a leader and figurehead.

The extent of this network becomes obvious upon examining the state's reaction to it. Supporters and friends of the Kellys — 21 initially — were rounded up by the police, imprisoned for up to three months without trial and questioned intensively. The colonial secretary for lands, on the advice of the police department, refused selections to those considered to be supporters of Ned Kelly. The Kellys in turn donated the proceeds of their bank heists to selectors and sympathisers suffering persecution at the hands of the police.

In 1879, Ned penned his famous Jerilderie letter. It was a political manifesto addressed to the governor of Victoria and a call to arms to the downtrodden selectors of Victoria. In this written assault on the police, the colonial legal system and the squattocracy, Kelly calls on "those men who joined the stock protection society (ie the wealthy farmers) to withdraw their money and give it and as much more to the widows and orphans and poor of Greta district". He backs it up with a threat: those who "depend on the police ... shall be drove to destruction... I do not wish to give the order full force without giving timely warning but I am a widow's son outlawed and my orders must be obeyed."

Whether this demand was supported by a highly organised "selector army" or simply a broad body of public support is impossible to know. But it is clear that the motivations of Kelly went far beyond simple revenge for his family's treatment at the hands of the police.

The failed sabotage of the railway at Glenrowan was part of a very deliberate strategy, targeting the state in recognition of the role it played in upholding the injustices of an inequitable status quo. And the state's relentless campaign for the capture of Kelly, likewise recognised the potential leadership embodied in this charismatic rebel.

Successive generations of ruling-class moralists have attempted to sour the Australian people's attitude toward the Ned Kelly tale by highlighting the "criminality" of his actions, and in particular the murder of the three police officers at Stringybark Creek.

What this new film brings to the 120-year-old debate is a context for those "crimes". It doesn't shy away from the ugliness of violence, but distinguishes the brutality and baselessness of state violence, from the heroism of fighting against an unjust and inequitable system.

And in today's context, when what passes for heroism in most of the media is the bombing of innocent civilians and poorly equipped soldiers by US-led invasion forces in Iraq, the morality of a character like Ned Kelly is a refreshing alternative.

[Read the full text of Ned Kelly's Jerilderie letter here.]

From Green Left Weekly, April 9, 2003.

Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.