The Kelly Doco Debacle
Less than 40 hours after
the screening of Outlawed:
The Real Ned Kelly on
Wednesday August 6, I received a phone call from Kelly
Jones. Ian said that he had been overrun with calls
from people whom he said had been “confused or
irritated, if not angered” by English film-maker
Mark Lewis’ documentary. Ian was keen to set
the record straight. So here is Ian Jones’ critique
of the documentary – as told to yours truly.
“I watched the documentary
with increasing surprise because it is really a pretty
confusing exercise. I must say that it was a very clever
piece of television. But, at the same time, it was
a dishonest and, at times, surprisingly incompetent
treatment of history.
“The most accurate part
of the whole documentary was the depiction of one of
Chief Commissioner Standish’s orgies.
“The root of the
problem were a couple of interviews the director,
Mark Lewis, gave to The
Age ‘Green Guide’ and
Virginia Treole. Lewis is an Englishman who came out
here to the colonies to do this. Even one of his interviewees
in the documentary, Sen. Const. Mick Kennedy (the great-grandson
of Sergeant Michael Kennedy) said, ‘he was starting
off fresh’. That could be a very good thing;
but it could also be a very bad thing if, in starting
off fresh, you seem to want to do something different
and rush to judgement, which is what Mark Lewis did.
“He told Virginia Treole
that treatments of Ned Kelly to date in Australia have ‘glossed
over the historical truths of the story’. In
other words, we’ve got it wrong. He told The
Age ‘Green Guide’ much the same thing
when he said he’d spoken to a lot of descendants.
He said he treated the descendants with caution but
was equally suspicious of the official accounts.
“He said, ‘many historians,
lovely chaps they are, also have their own spin. The
historians who were writing about Ned Kelly in the ’70s, ’80s
and ‘90s who were responsible for the myth of
Ned Kelly as a Che Guevera social rebel have their
own beef, which is to push this Republican ideal’.
He’s just rejecting all evidence that Ned Kelly
was a rebel and his plan to set up a Republic. He imagines
that any Colonial who supports this theory is a Republican,
which is rubbish. I’m not a Republican. My friends
could tell you that, if anything, I’m a Monarchist – much
to everyone’s amazement. But this is where the
evidence pointed. The idea of a Republic of North-East
Victoria was mad. It couldn’t have succeeded,
or could it? Who knows? But those are the facts as
Lewis told Virginia Treole that ‘Ned’s
enemies were the moneyed British landowners’.
It isn’t that simple. Ned’s greatest
enemies, the fellows he railed against in the Jerilderie
Letter, were Thomas and Andrew Byrne and James
Whitty of Moyhu – all Irish.
the start of the documentary, the illusion of historical
objectivity was very effective. It seemed balanced,
particularly with John McQuilton as the on-camera
narrator. But John’s balance was completely
undermined by the voiceover narration, spoken by
Jack Thompson and written by an anonymous writer,
who I’m certain would have been Mark Lewis.
It was also undermined by alarmingly inaccurate
re-enactments and by on-camera appearances by Christopher
Bantick, a ‘Melbourne writer’ who’s
only qualification to appear in the program is
a very, very bad case of anti-Kelly dementia. This
is the fellow who has leapt into print a couple
of times raving against Ned Kelly, once with the
absolutely immortal pronouncement that what Ned
Kelly attempted at Glenrowan was on a par with
the exploits of the Bali bombers. This is the sort
of ‘historical truth’ that Mark Lewis
was looking for.
re-enactments were beautifully produced, superbly
shot. Scenically it was gorgeous, and there was
some beautiful bush horsemanship. The sort of stuff
that was tragically lacking in the Heath Ledger
film. But that’s what makes them all the
more insidious. They were based on utter bulldust.
They’re lovely television but they’re
“Take the Fitzpatrick Incident for example.
How can you dare to claim that this is the ‘real’ Kelly
story when you portray the bark and slab Kelly homestead
as a cabin built of crossed logs. We’re told
Fitzpatrick is ‘a local police officer from
Greta’. We’re told that he comes there ‘to
arrest the Kelly brothers for horse theft’.
He was actually after Dan.
some unknown reason, Fitzpatrick is shown arriving
at this log cabin on foot, in pitch darkness, carrying
a lantern. In reality, as you’d expect from
a mounted policeman, he rode up to the house and
it was actually at sunset. Ned arrives and fires
a shot at Fitzpatrick and the script tells us ‘the
bullet grazed Constable Fitzpatrick’s hand.
The constable claimed, as he ran for his life,
Ellen then hit him over the head with a shovel’.
Fitzpatrick claimed nothing of the kind. He actually
claimed Ellen bashed him over the helmet with a
shovel before Ned shot him. The bullet lodged in
his wrist and Fitzpatrick was there for something
like four hours digging out the bullet, having
Ellen bandage his wrist, etc. before Ned saw him
back on the road to Benalla. There’s nothing
malicious about it but the ‘real’ re-enactment
is just a very sloppy retelling of the story.
Stringybark Creek Gunfight
“It’s a very, very different story with
the Stringybark Creek gunfight. First of all, according
to Mark Lewis, the Kelly Gang has already been formed
and two police parties have set out to ‘hunt
down Ned Kelly and his gang’. When the Mansfield
party makes camp near them, Mark Lewis tells us that ‘Ned
and his gang seize the moment’. No suggestion
of a motive, why they do it, why they carry it out,
how they carry it out. It’s just a minor detail
that the re-enactment shows McIntyre and Lonigan
shooting at parrots. Of course, it was only McIntyre.
gang surprises the two policemen. We’re told, ‘they
hardly had time to think, let alone draw a gun’.
The re-enactment and the narration ignore the fact
that Ned and the other three lads called on the
police to surrender several times and then moved
from cover in a continuing attempt to get them
to surrender. Strangely, and I don’t know
how this happened, Lonigan’s death is portrayed
accurately – he draws his revolver, dives
behind a log and, as he comes up to fire, is shot
by Ned. It’s very hard to see, flickering
in and out of shadow, but it’s accurate.
The accuracy ends right there.
and Scanlon ride up into camp and, we’re
told, ‘were taken totally by surprise’.
No hint that there were repeated demands to surrender
or that the four lads moved out of cover. Scanlon
gallops off and, for God’s sake, is shot
in the back! McIntyre escapes on Kennedy’s
horse and then Kennedy is seen wandering through
the bush, firing one shot. Ned follows him, making
absolutely no attempt to take cover, and fires.
Kennedy falls, Ned walks up to him and as the sergeant
is cowering on the ground with one hand pathetically
raised in a plea for mercy, Ned just aims his Colt
Navy revolver down and shoots him. This is an absolutely
malicious distortion of what happened.
can only go on Ned’s account of what happened.
He’s obviously telling the truth. He comes
up with details that are completely inconvenient,
like Kennedy having dropped his revolver. It’s
an inconvenient detail; you know that it’s
at Mark Lewis’ ‘historical truth’,
you’d never guess that there had been a prolonged
gunfight, Kennedy had fired 11 shots, he wounded
Dan Kelly in the shoulder and he staged a running
gun battle with Ned over several hundred metres,
during which he nearly shot Ned, and eventually
went down with three serious wounds. It was only
after a long and harrowing exchange with Kennedy,
who was obviously dying, that Ned Kelly faced two
courses of action: leave him to die in the bush,
eaten alive by insects and animals, or put him
out of his agony. There’s no hint of this
in the documentary; no hint of going back to the
camp to get a water-proof cape to cover Kennedy’s
body; no hint of Ned describing Kennedy as ‘the
gamest man I ever heard of’. This didn’t
fit the picture that Mark Lewis wanted to present.
top it all off, a photograph supposedly depicting
the discovery of Kennedy’s body is passed
of as an early piece of crime scene investigation.
The photo is actually a fake. It’s been published
many times. Back in I think 1968, I first published
in Ned Kelly: Man
and Myth that it was
a fake. It was just another example of sloppy work
by Mark Lewis.
“He then goes on to claim that he’s going
to give us ‘new, incontrovertible evidence
that Ned didn’t act in self-defence. This was
cold-blooded murder’. And this startling piece
of ‘new evidence’ is that Ned took Kennedy’s
watch. Is he claiming that Ned shot Kennedy to get
his watch? I don’t think even Christopher Bantick
would go that far. The point is that Ned was a fugitive
at the time, now three policeman were dead and one
was riding for help. Ned needed a watch, he needed
money, he needed provisions, guns, horses. He took
all of these from the police camp, but that isn’t
why he shot the police. Even Constable McIntyre and
the 1881 Royal Commission and even Chief Commissioner
Standish agreed that the police deaths weren’t
pre-meditated. McIntyre told the Royal Commission
that he believed Ned Kelly told the truth when he
said that all he wanted to do was disarm the police,
take their horses and send them back to Mansfield.
If murder was the intention, Ned and the gang could
have picked off the police without revealing themselves.
The fact was they wanted the police to surrender,
but you get no hint of that from the documentary.
John McQuilton, we’re told that the Mansfield
police were heavily-armed, carried straps to sling
a couple of bodies on pack-horses. The incredible
Christopher Bantick has no problem with this at
all. He tells us that Ned Kelly was ‘heavily-armed’ himself.
At the start of the fight, Ned had a rickety, sawn-off
carbine. It was a cap-and-ball, single-shot weapon
that took between 10 and 20 seconds to reload.
If that’s heavily-armed, God help us. The
gang had only two, possibly three guns with them
when they confronted the police. Ned might have
had a pocket Colt with him, which wouldn’t
have been a lot of use anyway. Steve and Joe were
demonstrably unarmed until they had Lonigan and
McIntyre’s revolvers. In the running fight
with Kennedy, Ned had the police double-barrel
shotgun and Kennedy had a six-shot cartridge-loading
Webley. Interestingly, Ned was using a Colt Navy
in the re-enactment, which would have been a hell
of a problem in a running gunfight after you’d
fired six shots. You’d be sitting around
re-loading it for a hell of a long time.
that wasn’t convenient was left out. It was
erratic. There were some pro-Kelly things included.
I suppose you couldn’t make it totally anti-Kelly.
But the whole thrust of the thing was to produce
this image of Ned Kelly as an overrated thug. The
portrayals of the bank robberies were pretty innocuous,
but who gives a hoot about historical accuracy?
At Euroa, the four members of the gang ride down
a steep hill into the town. There was no steep
hill running down into Euroa, only three members
of the gang there, only one on horseback. Then,
after the Jerilderie robbery, they ride back up
the same hill. It looks great, a terrific shot,
but Jerilderie’s as flat as a pancake. It’s
hardly worth mentioning that during the Jerilderie
hold-up, you see posters advertising the £8000
reward, which was offered as a result of the Jerilderie
“Then we get to the show’s big scoop – CIB-trained
crime profiler, Steve Longford. He gets turned loose
on Ned and Joe’s Jerilderie Letter, which,
incidentally, Christopher Bantick describes as ‘a
long discursive piece of utter tripe’. During
the re-enactment, we see Ned striding around in a
rather manic way, dictating the letter while Joe
crouches over a table writing it out. Incidentally,
a brown-haired Ned Kelly and a black-haired Joe Byrne,
ala the Heath Ledger film. Apart from, that, which
hardly matters, it just wasn’t like this. The
letter, like the Cameron Letter the gang tried to
get published after Euroa, was a joint composition
by Ned and Joe. A far more complex collaboration
than just a piece of dictation. Immediately, this
puts the crime profiler at a disadvantage. He comes
up with grave announcements that we’re dealing
with an angry young man and that ‘we’re
getting some insight into a guy who’s becoming
an irrational man’. But his really big scoop
is yet to come.
documentary produced practically nothing to reveal
the ’real’ Ned Kelly. The quotations
from the Jerilderie Letter were as close as we
got to the real Ned, but that is a very tricky
part of the story. Eleven years ago, when I first
published any detailed material about the Jerilderie
Letter, I warned then that it was a joint product
and it made nonsense of any attempt to psycho-analyse
Ned from the Jerilderie Letter. It’s a fantastic
document, an amazing piece of literature, apart
from being a piece of history, which obviously
Christopher Bantick couldn’t understand.
amazing analytical skill, Steve Longford decides
that Ned is very angry with Constable Fitzpatrick.
Not, apparently, because he had sworn friendship
to Ned and betrayed that friendship. Not because
he had earlier railroaded Ned’s brother Dan
into a prison sentence. Not because he had probably
drugged Ned’s grog and had him lumbered with
a ‘drunk in charge of a horse’ charge.
Not because he was responsible for Ned’s
mum, with a baby at the breast, getting three years
hard labour. No! According to Longford, Ned was
angry with Fitzpatrick because they had been stealing
horses together and a deal had come unstuck. What
can you say? In the Jerilderie Letter, Ned throws
everything he can at Fitzpatrick: the man’s
a drunk, he sold his sister to a Chinaman. He abuses
Fitzpatrick page after page, yet he never thinks
to mention that this serving policeman was a horse
thief. Mark Lewis loves this fantasy. He told The
Age ‘Green Guide’, ‘it’s
an incredibly interesting and original theory and
really worth having a look at’. If that’s
one of the ‘historical truths’ all
of us Australian mugs have ‘glossed over’,
no bloody wonder!
Longford also comes up with the pronouncement that
Ned was the sort of man who would stick up a store,
hold people hostage for days and get police to
shoot him – ‘suicide by cop’.
So Ned’s last stand at Glenrowan wasn’t
incredibly brave, it was just a way to get himself
killed. So why did he wear armour? Why did he make
it so hard for the police to kill him? We’re
not supposed to ask questions, you see; we’re
just supposed to be grateful that a Pommy film-maker
and an FBI-trained crime profiler have at last
revealed the ‘real’ Ned Kelly. We are
all suitably enlightened. Thank God someone has
come to the colonies to straighten things out!
“What a mess. The police are in uniform. Horses
are being galloped down a ramp from the train, which,
incidentally, Curnow has stopped with a red scarf
and a lantern instead of a candle, and Ned carries
out his last stand in pitch darkness with a spotlight
behind him and a revolver blazing in each hand. That’s
Lewis thinks Ned armour is ‘funny’.
And he goes to a lot of trouble in the doco to ‘prove’ that
you couldn’t aim and fire a rifle while you’re
wearing it. He told The
Age ‘Green Guide’, ‘it’s
absolutely impossible for him to hold a rifle in
the suit’. That is Mark Lewis’ ‘historical
truth’. It’s a minor detail to him
that the first shot fired in the Glenrowan battle
was fired by Ned, wearing his armour. He aimed
his Colt revolving rifle, by moonlight, and seriously
wounded Superintendent Hare at a range of about
30 yards. Now that’s ‘impossible’ for
Mark Lewis’ Ned, but not impossible for the
man that Lewis and Bantick and Longford and everyone
like them never even try to understand and come
to grips with.
“Mark Lewis poo-poos the whole concept of the
rebellion and this admittedly mad idea of trying
to set up a republic. With great authority, he toldThe
Age ‘Green Guide’, it’s a ‘myth’.
In the narration, Jack Thompson tells us that ‘there
is no hard evidence’ of a rebellion. It’s
an exquisite irony that only on July 27 this year,
the Chief Justice of Victoria, John Phillips, delivered
the inaugural Kerferd oration to celebrate the 150th
birthday of Beechworth, in which he presented the
evidence for a Kelly rebellion in the north-east,
examined it with characteristic thoroughness and
delivered his verdict that there was ‘hard
evidence’ to suggest that Glenrowan represented
a failed attempt to establish a north-eastern republic.
Maybe I’m biased but I’d rather believe
John Phillips than Mark Lewis and his accomplices.
least I am grateful for one thing: the last quote
of Noeleen Lloyd, the Lloyd, Quinn and Hart descendant.
She said, ‘Ned’s struggle wasn’t
just about his family, it was about everybody’.
That, to me, almost absolved some of Mark Lewis’ sins.
“The documentary really upset me. This is the
third miss in succession. The Heat Ledger film missed
showing us anything significant about Ned Kelly.
Greg Miller’s documentary missed. It was a
slap-dash exercise. The re-enactments were so hokey.
Then this comes along. I had high hopes for it. It’ll
be years before you can justify doing another major
Kelly film/television project. That is the saddest
thing of all.
daughter, Elizabeth, tells me that someone was
asking the Ironoutlaw website about when (my late
wife) Bronnie’s documentary, Ned
Kelly Unmasked, was going to be produced. I can’t
see it becoming a reality for quite some time though
after all that. Bronnie’s doco tells the
Kelly story from top to bottom. It doesn’t
start at the beginning; it starts at the end. But
it simply tells the story in a totally factual
way. It has some talking heads, which to tell the
story properly is inescapable because you’ve
got to background things and put things into context.
Bronnie’s thesis was, very much as mine was
in writing A Short Life, if you tell the
story accurately, everything falls into place.
People will understand what it’s all about.
You don’t have to have people ranting and
raving against Ned or for Ned. Just give the facts.
like when people say, ‘How on earth has Ned
Kelly become a folk hero?’
You say to them, ‘Well, do you know the story?’
‘No, not really.’
So you say, ‘Get to know the story and you’ll
If they still come back to after they find out
the story, it’s like jazz: if you have to ask,
you’ll never know.
confess that I did a terribly naughty thing once.
I was at a soiree at a girls' college in Adelaide.
I was there because a friend of mine, Wal Cherry,
who was then a professor of drama at Flinders University,
was speaking and I’d been talking to an editor
who was interested in doing a Kelly book. She told
me about the soiree, so I said, ‘Can I come
along? I haven’t seen Wal in years’.
went along and the headmistress was a little bit
miffed that I was such a good friend of Wal’s.
He mentioned something about my interest in Ned
Kelly. The headmistress, showing off in front of
her senior pupils, said, ‘How on earth can
you justify this adulation of Ned Kelly?’
I said, ‘I don’t think it’s adulation;
I’m merely fascinated by him’.
She started sounding off about Ned and it was pretty
obvious that she wouldn’t know Ned if he popped
his head out of her Muesli in the morning.
I said, ‘We’ve got to make some allowance
here. You’ve got a man who’s born in
Ireland, comes to Australia at a very early age,
he grows up in the shadow of a dominating father,
he grows up to be rather small, rather ugly, black-haired,
The headmistress was nodding, saying ‘Yes,
I continued, ‘So eventually he goes on to kill
six policeman and rob eight banks’.
She was still nodding her head, ‘Yes, yes’.
I said, ‘Hang on, who are we talking about?’
She smiled and said, ‘Well, your friend, Ned
Kelly, of course’.
I said, ‘I don’t think so. He wasn’t
born in Ireland; he was born in Australia. He didn’t
grow up with a dominating father; he didn’t
shoot six policemen, etc., etc.’ I said, ‘Are
you still sure we’re talking about Ned Kelly?’
Wal said later, ‘Jonesy, you’re a bastard.
It’s all right to take a headmistress’ knickers
off, but not in front of her pupils’.
all springs from a desperate need to label a man.
It’s the Bantick thing. I get asked so often, ‘Was
Ned Kelly a hero or a villain?’
“I always say, ‘He was neither. He was
a human being. People aren’t heroes or villains.
People, at some stage in their life, can do something
heroic; at others, they can do something villainous.
But it isn’t a way of life. You don’t
wake up in the morning and be heroic over breakfast.
You don’t be villainous in the toilet.’
“Ned Kelly did things in his life that were
heroic. He also did things in his life which I can
understand why people would classify as villainous.
time I get into this, I hammer it home like driving
in a nail. Jesus was an executed rebel who doesn’t
seem to have gotten on terribly well with his mum;
Lord Nelson was a one-eyed, one-armed able officer
who pinched another man’s wife; Adolf Hitler
was an extremely brave soldier who loved children,
dogs and Western novels. All of this is true, but
what the hell does it tell you about these men
and their significance in history. Absolutely nothing.
That’s the fallacy of what Bantick and Lewis
try to come up with.
lot of people were terribly upset with me coming
down on the side of Ned having fired the shot that
wounded Fitzpatrick. I said, ‘Why are you
angry?’ They said, ‘Well, it shows
Ned in a bad light’. I said, ‘Look,
it doesn’t show Ned in a bad light; it shows
that he’s human and he did something very
silly. He made a lot of mistakes in his life and
that’s what makes him human’.