Thursday, 24 June 2010

The first ever feature film - 1906 - The Story of the Kelly Gang - Charles Tait

Just as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) is testimony to German silent film art, The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) symbolises both the birth of the Australian film industry and the emergence of an Australian identity. Even more significantly it heralds the emergence of the feature film format. The Story of the Kelly Gang, directed by Charles Tait in 1906, is the first full-length narrative feature film produced anywhere in the world...

The above quotation is from the UNESCO website, and briefly outlines why The Story of the Kelly Gang (watch the first part above) has been added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. Given that this list contains, among other things, the Gutenburg Bible, the original Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and the Magna Carta, its registration on this list should not be taken lightly.

Yet the world’s first feature film has faded into obscurity as with many other films from this forgotten and neglected era.

One of the main reasons for this is the fact that the majority of the film is missing, and a substantial part of what remains is significantly damaged. In fact, there remains a debate as to how long the film actually was, with estimates ranging from 40 to 70 minutes.

Which brings us to a crucial question which Christian Hayes asked when commenting on the La Presa Di Roma post – how do we judge a film that is incomplete? Clearly, the amount of film that has been lost will have a significant impact on answering this question – and in this case it would appear that more than two-thirds of the film have been lost. In fact, for a long period of time, it was thought that only nine minutes of the film survived. However, in 2006, an additional seven minutes was uncovered in the British National Film and Television Archive, which was subsequently restored to its best possible condition by the NFSA and the Haghefilm preservation laboratories in Amsterdam

I would argue that if it is UNESCO’s job to protect the film itself, it is our job to protect and spread its reputation by trying to establish the quality of the film from what footage of the film does remain. In a sense, we need to act as meta-detectives deducing what information we can from the fragments of information we do have available to us – and try not to overemphasise what is missing from the film at the expense of what footage that does remain.

The Story of the Kelly Gang (watch the second and final part above) was based on the true story of Ned Kelly and his gang of bushrangers. At one point they were the most wanted men in Australia, and as with the real-life story behind the events of La Presa di Roma, most members of the Australian audience would have been familiar with Ned Kelly’s story.  

The composition of certain shots is quite impressive for a film of this period. The shot of Kelly and his gang is exhilarating – particularly if you compare it to the shots of the robbers in Porter’s The Great Train Robbery. Whereas in the latter film we get a shot of the backs of the robbers as  they mount their horses and depart (which itself is still an impressive shot), in The Story of the Kelly Gang, the bushrangers face the camera in a beautifully framed shot – providing an equal impression of all the bushrangers. The shot develops a sense of camaraderie among the bushrangers – this shot helps to establish all of them as film’s first anti-heroes.

A simple but important point is that the bodies of the characters are fuller and clearer than in any previous film, particularly when there is a group of characters in the shot. This newfound clarity heightens the tension and drama of the film – the shootout at the gang’s camp for example, is greatly aided by this visual development.

The first shot we have available displays an act of police brutality – a policeman attempts to physically harass a woman – but she is saved by one of the Kelly gang. For the first time in film history, the audience is presented with moral ambiguity and complex characterisation. You feel little sympathy for the policeman when he is held at gun point by the woman he has just accosted.

The sense of moral ambiguity is further enhanced when the gang force a group of people into a building, but respectfully remove their hats when a group of ladies are among those being held in the building. Their is something undeniably attractive about these bushrangers - the film allows to both sympathise and admire some of their actions. 

We also witness cinema’s first suicide pact – as two of Kelly’s gang, kill each other as they cannot escape the bar they are in as the police have set fire to it (see picture below).

The climax of the film is the most thrilling we have witnessed of any film thus far; unfortunately, it also one of the most damaged sections of the film. However, the distortion of the damaged reel seems to enhance the dramatic denouement of the film. In this climactic scene, Ned Kelly makes his last stand, wearing metal armour (see picture below) to protect his face as he is finally captured by the police. The scene can be seen to symbolise the shift from a semi-anarchic, chivalrous period to the more functional, bureaucratic (and sometimes totalitarian) modus operandi of the 20th century. The armoured plating is an outdated, futile yet heroic method for Ned Kelly to make his last stand. His tale will endure, but the ways of the outlaw bushranger ended with him. This aspect of the film may have resonated greatly with the audience, as the film was shown around the country for close to a decade.

By focusing on the sections of the film that have endured, I would argue that even in its current state, The Story of The Kelly Gang is a seminal film which must be brought to the forefront of debate of the early silent era. In terms of both importance and enjoyment, it stands alongside any film we have witnessed so far.


  1. Well, all hail Charles Tait!

    This is the most impressive find I've come across on this blog so far -- a really powerful film, dating back 104 years, that I have NEVER heard mention of anywhere before.

    I completely agree that the distortion enhances the effect, highlighting the gulf of time that separates us from the original film. (Too often we try to pretend that we are sat alongside the original audience: an impossible and thankless task). It is incredible to think that Ned Kelly died in 1880 -- making the events as recent to cinemagoers as the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie is to us.

    The surreal intensity of the second part, in particular (hightened by the physical decay of the celluloid) is unnerving. POLICE BURNING THE HOTEL!! IN RED!! Like a 104-year-old prophecy of the Branch-Davidians at Waco... I think these unholy fragments make a really powerful case for the value and use of these half-preserved films. Seeing the warped closing images today, as the 1906 Ned Kelly staggers towards the camera, brings the 1880 Ned Kelly to 'life' far more vividly than does the real armour itself, preserved with forensic care by museum curators:

    The celluloid image has a unique power over reality, and I think that even the (slower) first half of these fragments are worthwhile in 2010, offering the strange sensation of a sepia Civil War photograph hobbling into life... In my opinion, there is always a case to be made for abandoning the Quest for Authenticity, and reveling in the 'weirdness' of an Inauthentic vision of the past such as this. I might even be tempted to speculate that this 15 minutes of distorted footage on YouTube is greater than the c.70 minute film that spawned it.

    Project it on the wall, put some lo-fi on, or summat, and revel in the anachronisms... Historical knowledge is vital; re-enactment is not. It's worth trying various tricks to see these images with the freshness and weirdness they would have had in 1906. Bear in mind, 104 years-old to Charles Tait was the music of Haydn and the novels of Denis Diderot... We are passing out of the age of Pynchon, Tarantino, and Funkadelic. History as snowball, I suppose, rather than straight line.

    Thanks for digging this film out of oblivion, and putting it up here!

  2. I am extremely glad that you enjoyed the film. It is up there with any of the films that we have looked at so far - yet it has received minimal attention. A point you made in an earlier post about it being our duty to promote and discuss neglected work of early silent films certainly applies here.

    You make an excellent point about the proximity of Kelly's death to the events of the film. I would suggest this proximity allowed the film to mythopoetise Kelly's story. And by doing this in the new artistic medium of film, you are right to suggest that Tait does manage to bring Kelly to life in a way which his surviving armour does not.

    In discussing the issue of trying to recreate the cinematic conditions of the contemporary audience, I think you touch on an extremely important point. It is easy to tangle yourself in a web of confusion if you attempt to try and recreate the film's contemporary conditions...we need to strive for a balance and accept these early silent films in their current conditions and marvel at the way technology has come full circle, and the fact that Youtube has brought the medium back to life (a LOT more on this in a future post).

    I love the idea of projecting the film on a wall and revelling in its anachronisms. If we can create enough interest in such films, organising such an event will be entirely plausible!

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