More Australian than Aristotelian:
The Australian Bushranger Film,
by William D. Routt
William D. Routt does pretty much what he wants, sometimes in Association with the Department of Cinema Studies at La Trobe University.
Joining the cattle duffers
Thunderbolt (1910) opens as Frederick Ward, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and leading a horse, bids a loving farewell to his sweetheart, Jess Anson, in front of her farm. The lane is dusty and crowded with riders, Ward's companions. Something is urging them to leave the farmland and their true loves behind. The situation is one which might occur in a Western from 1910, or indeed from any year. Familiar trappings of the genre seem to be there: an awkward cowboy, a faithful heroine, hats, horses, partners waiting, trail dust. An instant later, however, and all that was familiar is made strange in an intertitle: Ward Joins the Cattle Duffers. As we read it, vistas blur. We sense that we aren't in Kansas anymore, nor in the Wild West either.
Instead we are transported to a different mythical place: the world of the Australian bushranger. In this place many things resemble what we know of the world of the Westerner, but other things, like the word duffer are marked by their strangeness. Duffer is a clumsy word, but it is not just the clumsy Australian equivalent of rustler. A cattle duffer or cattle shaker or gully-raker steals cattle, just as a rustler does, but in a significantly different cultural context. (2) Something of this difference is signalled by the acceptance of Ward's activity suggested in the laconic wording of the title and its juxtaposition to an image, not of a callow youth seduced by the promise of adventure and riches, nor of a villain out for easy wealth, but of a group of mounted men driving cattle, going about the everyday business of duffing, without the slightest hint of condemnation in the way they are shown.
The story continues in the same vein. Ward is arrested for duffing an arrest which he indignantly protests and violently resists. His sweetheart goes insane and dies when she hears the news. Ward makes an heroic escape from prison and, by becoming the dashing and gallant bushranger Captain Thunderbolt, takes vengeance on the authorities who have so mistreated them both. In the end he will die a hero's death, shot by the police. It is not the thieving of cattle that is marked as wrong in this story, but the law that condemns the cattle thief.
How are we to understand such a film, at once familiar and strange? There are certainly strong parallels and clear points of intersection between the American Western and the Australian bushranger film. The glory days of bushranging coincide with the period usually assigned to the classical Western (the latter half of the nineteenth century); the setting for both is a frontier where anarchy and order contend and where the land is a strong presence; fiction and fact are mixed up in both kinds of film, and both borrow extensively from local popular and folk traditions (plays, ballads, stories). Moreover, there is a rough coincidence between the heyday of the bushranger film (1906-1911) and what Ed Buscombe has called the crucial formative years of the American Western (1903-1913). (3)
But it is the contention of this paper that these relations are the result of certain cultural coincidences between Australia and the Western United States rather than the outcome of direct influence of the one upon the other. Viewed in this light, the American cinema par excellence can perhaps be more reasonably understood as the epitome of a global cinema not an original myth of nationhood, but a story of no-place retold everywhere and at all times, even in terra nullius itself.
The bushranger film in the context of Australian production
One of the most interesting things about the films made in Australia from 1906 to 1914 is the high proportion of feature productions among them. (4) Approximately 113 Australian fiction films were produced in the years from 1906 to 1914. The bulk of fiction film production during this period took place in the 20 "boom" months from November 1910 through July 1912, when 81 fiction films were made 33 of them, or about 40%, apparently features of 3000 or more feet in length. By a feature I mean here a multi-reel film which may reasonably be presumed to have been presented as the most noteworthy or prominent part of a program of motion pictures, that is, as the featured film on the program.
The Story of the Kelly Gang was such a feature, presented initially as the only film on the program. During the first months of its presentation in 1906 it was apparently expanded from around 4000 feet to 6000. TSOTKG seems to have been the first commercial secular narrative film to be thus featured in Australia. The Tait brothers, the theatrical entrepreneurs who were backing the venture, clearly believed that there was an audience for an evening's entertainment based on filmed episodes drawn from the life of a bushranger, Ned Kelly. Undoubtedly they based their speculation on the proven popular success of staged versions of Kelly's career and of the exploits of other bushrangers. (5) Their faith was warranted, for the film did good business in Australia and in England.
TSOTKG was not the first Australian film about bushrangers. That honour probably belongs to Bushranging in Northern Queensland, made in March of 1904 by Joseph Perry of the Salvation Army. It was short, possibly just two shots. Australian film historian Chris Long speculates that Perry may have been prompted by The Great Train Robbery and earlier short narratives to make several narrative experiments in 1903-1904, including this one, which showed bushrangers robbing a coach. (6) Another source claims that a short film called The Bushranger was made in 1904 by the Fitzgerald family of theatrical entrepreneurs and two of the men involved later in the production of the Kelly gang film. (7) And Long has also claimed that footage from another Kelly gang film dates from before the production of the Tait brothers' feature. (8)
Bushranging in North Queensland and The Bushranger differ from most of the later films dealing with bushranging in that they were not tied to known bushrangers. TSOTKG is far more typical in this respect. The Kelly Gang really had existed; Ned Kelly, its leader, had been hanged in 1880. At least eleven of the films dealing with bushrangers made before the First World War concerned people who had actually lived. Four films were made in which Ben Hall (1837-1865) was featured. Two men closely connected with Hall Frank Gardiner (1830-1903?) and John Vane (?-?) were each the subject of a film. And there were separate films devoted to Frederick Ward (Captain Thunderbolt, 1835-1870), Andrew Scott (Captain Moonlite, 1842-1880), Dan Morgan (1833-1865) and Moondyne Joe (?-1900). (9) The names of the bushrangers featured prominently in the original release titles of all but three of these films, and those three happen to be ones in which the character of Ben Hall appeared (The Squatter's Daughter, 1910; A Tale of the Australian Bush, 1911; and A Bushranger's Ransom, 1911). In addition, Attack on the Gold Escort (1911) is likely have been identified by audiences of the time as referring to a specific raid in 1862 by Gardiner, Hall and their gang on a gold escort at Eugowra, often taken as having inaugurated a period of particular lawlessness. (10)
Two films featured Captain Starlight and his companions, the Marston brothers, from a well-known novel, Robbery Under Arms (1888), and another Captain Midnight, from a popular touring stage production. These were characters based on Captain Thunderbolt, who had gained a particular reputation as a gentleman bandit. The Squatter's Daughter was a film version of a popular stage melodrama in which Ben Hall played a part, A Bushranger's Ransom was taken from a touring stage company's version of an incident in Hall's career, and Moondyne (1913) was based on a novelization of episodes from the real Moondyne Joe's life.
The term bushranger can mean many things, but for the purposes of this paper, it seems best to begin with an understanding of it as referring to Australian rural bandits. Such outlaws had existed in the colony from 1790 at least. In 1851 the discovery of gold in rural areas of Victoria and New South Wales seems to have provided the conditions for an increase in outlaw activity, or at least for increased public and official attention to such activity. It is generally accepted that bushranging ceased in 1880, with the hanging of Ned Kelly, although this hardly seems likely. Still, all of the bushrangers featured in early films come from the bushranging decades of 1860-1880. This is not surprising, for the bushrangers of this period were particularly celebrated and condemned in newspapers, ballads and local stories and their exploits were much written about, staged and illustrated. Bushrangers, especially these bushrangers, continued to be objects of intense popular interest well into the twentieth century.
The success of TSOTKG spawned imitations. TSOTKG itself was entirely or partly remade by its original producers in 1910, and from 1907 to November of 1910 at least five other fiction films were released, two of which were obviously concerned with bushrangers: Robbery Under Arms (1907) and The Life And Adventures Of John Vane, The Notorious Australian Bushranger (1910). Robbery Under Arms was based on a novel which has been adapted for the Australian screen many times, including another multi-reel version released in 1911 as Captain Starlight. The Life And Adventures Of John Vane recounted the career of an actual bushranger who was most famous for having reformed. It is possible that this film may have been intended as a counterblast to TSOTKG, which had tended to sympathize with the viewpoint of its outlaw hero and which had been banned in certain parts of Victoria in 1907.
A third film of this period was based upon a popular play in which a bushranger was conspicuously featured. This was The Squatter's Daughter, a feature of perhaps 6000 feet directed, in part written by, and starring, Bert Bailey, who was to make further significant contributions to the Australian cinema as an actor and writer in the 1930s. The character of Ben Hall, an extremely popular bushranger who had been shot by New South Wales police in 1865, is given a villainous role in an otherwise fictional story of two sheep stations, one of which is owned and managed by a woman. The Squatter's Daughter was remade in a modernized version in 1933 in which the bushranging elements of the story were eliminated.
Australian fiction film production of this period was marked by its insistence on identifying itself as Australian. The bushranger films, from TSOTKG on, often used the names of well-known bushrangers to effect this kind of recognition, but the names of famous Australian books (like Robbery Under Arms), plays (like The Squatter's Daughter), historical events (like The Attack on the Gold Escort) and places in a film's title also served the purpose, as did words like squatter, outback and cooee. Based partly on what had demonstrated its popularity in other media, particularly in the theatre but also in popular writing, and song, certain types of typically Australian stories were filmed stories about convicts, miners and squatters as well as bushrangers.
The circumstances of conspicuous national identity and feature status are likely to have been related marketing strategies. It seems reasonable that producers, distributors and exhibitors believed it would be profitable to feature certain films as Australian. In the process, they created a genre of Australian film, something like the western genre in the United States at the time, inasmuch as it can be identified by prospective viewers mainly as a modifier for other generic substantives. Perhaps the extremity of this kind of generic consciousness was achieved in the publicity for Captain Starlight, which promised An Australian story essayed by Australian artists amidst Australian bushlife, in an Australian atmosphere. Cinematographed by Australian experts, and produced through Australian art and brains. Australia leads, and thereby establishes an important industry in Australia. (11)
A production boom began with the release of John Gavin's Thunderbolt in November, 1910, and it seems reasonable to presume that this bushranger film played an important part in igniting the boom. Gavin's next three films as director, writer and star were about bushrangers: Moonlite (1910), Ben Hall and His Gang (1911) and Frank Gardiner, the King of the Road (1911).
Gavin made two of his bushranger films for Southern Cross Motion Pictures, and two for the partnership of Crick and Finlay, which was formed in the wake of the success of the first two in order to finance and distribute his work. Alfred Rolfe, using some of the resources of Alfred Dampier's defunct stage company, made three bushranger films for Spencer's Pictures in 1911. Another film about a bushranger, Dan Morgan, was released by the same firm in the same year. A Bushranger's Ransom, or A Ride for a Life was produced for Pathe Frères, probably by E. J. Cole, who headed another touring drama company. A Tale of the Australian Bush [Ben Hall, the Notorious Bushranger] was directed by Gaston Mervale for Australian Life Biograph in 1911, and one other from that year, Attack on the Gold Escort, has not yet been traced beyond its screening date.
In all, about 11 films in which bushrangers were the featured attraction were made between November, 1910 and July, 1912, when the boom seems to have come to an end. Of these, it would seem that at least 6 were multi-reel films, like TSOTKG and Thunderbolt, and all are likely to have been featured on the program. However, these numbers do not tell the whole story; for bushranger films were only released during the first 10 months of the boom (until 28 August, 1911), and they account for more than 30% of the films made during that period, although only 13.5% of the total boom production.
When Moondyne (released in 1913), the two versions of TSOTKG, the three (short) films prior to TSOTKG, Robbery Under Arms and John Vane are added to these, there are nineteen films I would unhesitatingly classify as bushranger films and that Australian audiences of the time would have immediately recognized as covering a common topic. In addition, there are at least four others, like The Squatter's Daughter, in which bushrangers play an important part. (All of these films are listed in chronological order in the Appendix to this paper).
I think it is not unreasonable to claim that bushranger films were, in fact, the single most significant component of the first five years of Australian feature production. They set the initial terms for the Australian commercial narrative film trade, and even in some important, if largely contingent, ways may be said to have created that trade. Moreover, the circumstances of early Australian production and of Australian culture in the first decades of this century strongly suggest that, despite their parallels with certain early Westerns, this type of film is likely to have played a key role in Australian film history even in the (unimaginable) absence of the American cinema. Without wishing to overstate matters, I believe that the these claims position the bushranger film even more prominently within the Australian films industry than the American Western is usually positioned vis à vis the American film industry.
The bushranger film in the context of Australian culture
In his famous essay on the Western as le cinéma américain par excellence, André Bazin opined that the aesthetic success of The Overlanders (1946), a British film made in Australia, was only due to the exceptional conjunction of an American Western theme (the cattle drive) and the central Australian landscape closely analogous to that of the American West. (12)
A historian of Australian film is privileged to read Bazin's casual remarks with a certain rueful irony. Australia is figured here, as so often happens, as a kind of stand-in for somewhere else. But it is not the identification of Australia with imitation that seems so strange to a historian of Australian film; rather it is the implicit assertion of an authenticity or originality lying somewhere else in this case, in the American West. (13) Bazin was wrong in general about that exceptional conjunction because such conjunctions of borrowed themes and landscapes are by no means exceptional (and are, in fact, unavoidable) in the history of any nation's films and are endlessly exemplified in the Western itself. More specifically, he was wrong because he conceived of the cattle drive and the land as separate American quasi-mythic elements, coincidentally joined in an Australian film. But there are several steps antecedent to national myth in the formation of cultural texts. Myths are founded in certain actual relations and cultural practices which are transformed by being mythologised.
Land undeniably plays a powerful role in determining its own uses. For this reason, there are a number of parallels between the nineteenth century economies and societies of outback Australia and the Western United States. And, just as the West has sometimes played a definitive role in understanding what America in general means to citizens of the United States and the rest of the world, so the outback or the bush is often identified as synonymous with Australia by Australians and others. Further, just as the geographically-defined West has produced a body of cultural and creative work in which it is the focus, including those films referred to as Westerns, so the Australian bush has inspired numerous books, paintings and other artworks, including those films I have chosen to group together under the heading of the bushranger film.
That is, it is not enough to consider popular genres simply as systems of formal and substantial elements that can be assigned an ideal core identity and then given the status of national myth. Historical circumstances are certainly at work in the production of any identifiable genre. Some historical circumstances, however, are bound to affect more than one national area; and in those circumstances, parallels will be discernible that are not necessarily attributable to the direct influence of the cultural products of one area upon those of another (although, of course, I do not pretend that American Westerns played no role at all in inspiring films like Thunderbolt).
Like the West, the idea of the bush accommodates several different generic images of the land. One is a flat, nearly featureless plain. Another, closely related, is the desert. These are constantly disputed territories inhabited by indigenous and interloping nomads and settlers (squatters). The land of the bushranger films is of a third type: hill country. The hill country is geographically as well as socially at the margin or the limit of the bush. The important economic activity of the rich raising vast herds of cattle or sheep, making and preserving money in business enterprises and banks, legislating and punishing is pursued in large spaces, including towns and cities, to which the hills are always adjacent.
The hills are also, for good reason, the land associated almost everywhere with bandits and partisans. Mountains, hills and trees provide concealment and make pursuit difficult. Bushrangers disappear into them, only to appear suddenly out of them in ambush, to bestow a gift, to exact revenge. While they elude capture, bushrangers are at one with the land, with its greed and its bounty and its treachery and its justice. However, bushrangers do not control the hills: rather, for a time they express them. The land is timeless it is geography, it is space while the bushrangers are time itself (they are history, movement). Eventually the bushrangers' actions will reveal their perpetrators, make them stand out against the land; while the hills forever keep to themselves, motionless behind all action.
The hills in which outlaws live are, of course, not exclusively Australian. They are all the world's hills, or at least one aspect of all the world's hills. But the hills in the bushranger films are most certainly Australian. They are the hills of Northern Eastern Victoria or the New England tablelands of New South Wales. These Australian hills are culturally linked with selectors, that is, with small farm holders, and with Australian folk and country music. And in the hills, Australian culture also locates nomadic miners who, like the selectors, are figures of endless toil and the overweening power of fortune betting on the caprice and the mercy of the land to once and for all escape the power of the centre.
From the beginning, the national genre of Australian film, which I have represented as crucial to the Australian film trade of the first decades of the century, depended upon images of land which viewers would identify as Australian. From this point of view what is significant about the landscape which often dwarfs the characters in a film like Thunderbolt is its difference from the landscapes one might see in other, imported, films. At the same time, however, the hilly landscape of the bushranger film is, as I have suggested, not entirely typical of the outback. To recognize it as Australia is, however slightly, to recognize the margins, the untypical, as Australia.
Most of what can be said of the landscape of the bushranger films can be said, slightly differently, of the stories told in those films. The actions of the bushrangers in films repeat certain tales told in other media and in other times and places, but they repeat them with an Australian accent (cattle duffers instead of cattle rustlers, for instance). Undoubtedly this circumstance is clearest in the bushranger film's reliance on popular history. Ned Kelly and Captain Thunderbolt were real people who really robbed other real people. As we have seen, so were the central figures of at least nine other films made before the First World War. In all, more than 60% of the films in which bushrangers played an important role were recognizably connected to actual people or to actual events (13 of 21).
Yet at the same time, it would not do to discount the role of imagination in the films. Thunderbolt, for example, is based on a book called Three Years with Thunderbolt, supposedly the memoirs of William Monckton, who was for a time Thunderbolt's companion. The book is actually a novelisation of those memoirs written by Ambrose Pratt, and is heavily laced with both Monckton's and Pratt's creative latitude. For example, Jess Anson, who figures in the book and film as the occasion of Frederick Ward's decision to become an outlaw named Thunderbolt, seems to have been wholly fictional. (14) Moondyne is adapted from a novelization of incidents in the life of the Western Australian bushranger, Moondyne Joe. Of the three films in which Ben Hall appears, only Gavin's Ben Hall and His Gang puts the outlaw in the title and may be an account of most of Hall's career. The others are content to rely on links to theatrical performances in which the character of Hall was featured and to reproduce only some of his exploits, presumably because the public demanded a certain kind of experience or sensation more than it desired to witness a narrative of the events of a specific bushranger's career.
There is a subtle, even delicate, intermeshing of fact and fiction in these cases, suggesting that the audiences for bushranger films would have treated these texts opportunistically or pragmatically, taking from them whatever truth suited their needs. Another group of films involving bushrangers promised only fiction. Besides some of the titles already listed, these include The Assigned Servant (1911), The Squatter's Son (1911), The Lady Outlaw (1911) and Trooper Campbell (1914). But it would be naive to expect that audiences would have reacted to specific films in this group as mere flights of fancy, any more than audiences today respond to films about crime or the police as though they are totally without foundation in actual practice. Here too was history for the taking, and certain truths about living in Australia.
The bushranger films belong to an international tradition that the Australian folklorist, Graham Seal, has called the outlaw legend and which he derives from Eric Hobsbawm's idea of social banditry. (15) In some ways the determining precursors of the bushranger films may not be the stage presentations from which so many were in fact derived, but the ballads about bushrangers that saturated popular Australian culture in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. These ballads, like most ballads about outlaws, tend to be sympathetic to the bushrangers and to figure them as doomed heroes fighting injustice. From what has been reconstructed today, only one version of the Kelly story (the fragment Long dates as preceding TSOTKG), The Life and Adventures of John Vane, The Squatter's Daughter and Dan Morgan (1911), which is about the fearful kind of outlaw that Hobsbawm calls the avenger, might be considered to have advanced an official negative view of bushranging. The ballad tradition may also have something to do with the loose, episodic narration of the bushranger films. TSOTKG and Thunderbolt are structured like strings of beads (or picket fences), made up of episodes whose chronological relations are more significant than their relations of narrative causality.
The history that the bushranger films displayed in the action on the screen eventually got them banned from the screen entirely. That is, it was a marginal history, just as the landscape was a marginal landscape. Indeed, other aspects of the repeated stories of bushrangers reinforced the films' position at the margin of respectability: the information network of the bush telegraph in which members of the local community alerted bushrangers when the police were near (TSOTKG); the many women who were part of such networks, companions and partners of the outlaws, or merely experienced riders doing a man's job, sometimes in the clothing of men (TSOTKG; The Squatter's Daughter; Thunderbolt; A Bushranger's Ransom; The Lady Outlaw); the aboriginal and Chinese people whose loyalty to the bandits is often represented as far exceeding their loyalty to properly constituted authority (Thunderbolt; The Assigned Servant; The Squatter's Son; Moondyne). And finally, there is the end of the story: the bushranger's capture and/or death, the reconstitution of authority coincident with the end of the film. Certainly this genre of films is particularly notable because so many of its examples are so overtly anti-authoritarian, and that as a whole it is so unmistakably politicized.
Which is to say that in 1912, when the police of New South Wales banned the showing of bushranger films and the State of Victoria banned the remake of TSOTKG, they correctly perceived the rebellious attitude of those films. At the same time, these two Australian States were acting to confirm what was even then an established and accepted middle-class prejudice: that young men are motivated by their exposure to representations of bushrangers to take up lives of crime. (16)
Yet in the end, I think these are not films about committing crimes or acts of rebellion that is, about what bushrangers do but about what bushrangers are. The landscape, the history, the communities of outcasts that surround the bushrangers are variant displays of the bushranger, different ways of figuring the same thing. Together with the figures of the bushrangers themselves, they suggest a single image refracted in different ways, a phantom beast that can be known only by a discrete trunk and ear, leg, skin and tail.
The strongest melodramatic moments in Thunderbolt are those in which Fred Ward is suffering: first after his swim to freedom from Cockatoo Island as he struggles to get on his feet, then during his visit to Jess Anson's gravesite when he clutches his head and later raises his revolver to heaven. In both instances the camera is placed somewhat closer to the action than is usual in the rest of the film, perhaps inviting spectators to feel with a character who is obviously a man of feeling that is, to experience his exceptional and tragic state of mind, his interior being. In this way, the bushranger film may be attempting to mobilise the conventions of melodrama in directing our attention to a larger, moral purpose, to questions about what it is to live with injustice, to be a bushranger outcast from friends and family by an unfeeling law.
But another, and more significant, aspect of the bushranger's state can be apprehended in the extreme long shots which are so common in the footage that survives. These shots, long by virtue of camera distance and of the length of time that actions take within them, anachronistic by 1910 and visible evidence of the cheapness with which the films were produced, have the effect of diminishing melodramatic affect. As Ward flails and kicks at the police when he is arrested, or later, when he rides for such a long time over such a long way to rescue young Bill Monckton from the man who is beating him, the intensity of the action is drained away by the distance of the camera and the length of time everything takes. The film becomes mundane at these points, precisely when our conditioned viewing would want it to be bigger than life.
Near the end of the scene of Ward's arrest some sheep stream on screen in the foreground from the right, leave the frame for a moment and then return from the left, finally fanning out around the police and the cattle duffers as the shot ends. This is the most thrilling moment of the scene, the most exciting action in the shot and it is purely an everyday event, like leaving a factory after work or three men playing cards. Such moments, usually involving recalcitrant horses or the time it takes to move across the screen, occur throughout the bushranger footage that survives. Thunderbolt and the various Kelly Gang films now seem to me to highlight such passages of le temps mort which our viewing presumes must have been the fruits of inexperience and poor direction. I see in these images of ineptness and anachronism, these bad and boring passages, something of the defiance of Australia, of the bushrangers, challenging all that is best and finest in the culture of the Mother Country: more Australian than Aristotelian, as one English drama critic put it. (17) It is a challenge that Australian cinema repeats to this day in its insistence upon its own ordinary ugliness.
And, of course, such moments are also the points at which the cinema asserts itself as time, its elemental and inescapable banality, in the very teeth of Landscape, History and Legend.
© Bill Routt
Appendix: Australian Bushranger Films to 1914
The Bushranger Genre
Films with Bushranger Subplots
contents great directors cteq annotations top tens about us links archive search