Australia’s contribution to the history of filmmaking is significant. Australian producers were the first in the world to stretch the length of films to feature-long narratives, often over 3,000 feet. More importantly, early-era films are extremely significant to Australia’s cultural heritage, uniquely representing a period when films were most typified by being nationally directed and inwardly interested. Sadly, as the National Film and Sound Archive’s Sally Jackson and Graham Shirley describe, few in the early days of cinema understood the monumental impact motion pictures would have on global culture, resulting in a lack of concern for their preservation. Many films were damaged on lengthy national and international tours, or simply deteriorated due to the nature of nitrate film stock. According to the National Film and Sound Archive, “more than 90 per cent of all Australian films made during the pre-1930 silent era are now missing”.
One film that toured extensively at-home and abroad was The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906). Though filmmaking in Australia began as early as 1895, it was just over a decade later when a group of Melbourne filmmakers created the world’s first ‘feature’ length film. Famously billed as ‘the longest film ever made’, The Story of the Kelly Gang was a staggering 4,000 feet of celluloid. The popular bushranging tale was made during a boom period, with filmmakers producing large amounts of Australian screen stories – in 1911 alone, 50 fictional features were made. As Ray Edmondson and Andrew Pike note, this isn't just significant because Australians made longer films than other countries at the time – similar in length to stage plays – but it also represents a time when Australian films, more than any other era, told specifically Australian stories. “In these years, filmmakers worked in direct response to their audience, without much reliance on American or European models.”
Spurred on by the success of The Story of the Kelly Gang, bushranging narratives had developed into a popular local genre, which established an intriguing comparison with American westerns of similar periods. They were so popular that by 1914 the New South Wales Government banned their production, citing the influence on rising crime. This consequently created a void for American narratives to fill and is possibly the first example of censorship having a direct effect on Australian film production. Almost as soon as it began, 1913 signalled that the boom was declining. The large number of lost films from this period illustrates both attitudes towards motion pictures at the time and the fragility of film stock used by early filmmakers. Up until 1951, film in Australia was made with highly flammable and unstable celluloise nitrate, which was also susceptible to irreversible decomposition.
Inherent vice aside, motion pictures were rigorously toured across venues throughout Australia and even internationally, exposing film stock to damage through use as well as re-editing. Edmondson and Pike note that films would first be scheduled around city, then suburban and country theatres before being sold off to ‘picture show men’, who exhibited in remote outback towns, meaning that the prints were “literally worked to death; they became worn, scratched, broken and incomplete”. Silent films were also often ‘reorganised’ by producers. Without a soundtrack available to show continuity, films could be easily shortened if some parts were damaged, or alternatively, storylines could be altered with the inclusion of new title cards. During the 1920s, one version of The Story of the Kelly Gang that toured country venues included footage from all the three feature films that had been made of the narrative up to that time. During this period prints were purchased outright, giving distributors creative license to curate film packages or alter films for their own purposes.
A section of the restored version by the NFSA, which returned to their screens 100 years after its first screening. It was accompanied by a live performance of a specially commissioned electronic music score by Endorphin.
Because of all these factors, today only about 20 minutes of fragments remain of the original The Story of the Kelly Gang film. By the end of the Second World War, all known complete prints of the film were thought to have vanished after the film had toured Australia, New Zealand and England, reportedly returning £25,000 to its investors as well as having a substantial impact on filmmakers. While much of the remaining film appears to have been shot in static wide angle, referencing theatre and in-line with other films of the period, the remaining footage reveals a sophisticated use of shot perspective, with the audience at times invited into the narrative. This is most evident in the final capture of Ned Kelly, who boldly walks towards the camera with guns blazing. As film historian Paul Byrne notes, this dramatic use of space would have been new for audiences, and some scenes, like when the police burn the hotel, were tinted red for increased intensity. Presented alongside the film was a detailed program that included a scene-by-scene breakdown, copies of which greatly benefited conservators arranging film fragments into their correct order during restoration.
After decades being lost, the film resurfaced in 1976 when Adelaide film collector Vic Reeve found sections of a 35mm release print in a collection he had acquired. While the longest section was only eleven frames, his colleague Ron Praite was able to identify the film using publicity photos. Two years later more fragments were found in Melbourne by Peter Weinstock and James Swan in the house of Ernest Goldhawk, a film collector and silent-era exhibitor. In 1980, footage was even discovered at a Melbourne rubbish tip. It was not until the NFSA’s centennial restoration project in 2006 that more fragments re-surfaced with a new piece discovered during the research process at the National Film and Television Archive in England. Again, authenticity of the footage was confirmed by matching the fragments with a promotional poster. This new segment, set on Younghusband’s Station, is not only in the best condition and the longest surviving sequence, it also reveals the most sustained insight into the film’s shooting style. As Jackson and Shirley remark, there are two moments in the recovered footage that characters move from a wide to closer shot and then past the camera out of frame: “a priest carrying a wounded railwayman out of the Glenrowan Hotel and police escorting a captured Ned Kelly at the end of the film”. This action is significant as it suggests that producers used this technique to heighten the drama and emotional turmoil in these scenes, and they did it several years before pioneering directors like DW Griffith had developed fluid screen grammar, giving insight into early approaches to cinematography, specifically among Australian filmmakers. With this discovery it's clear that the work of conservators is essential to the writing and revision of Australia’s cinematic history, justifiably emboldening the nation’s perspective on its creative past.
Moreover, through the NFSA restoration, conservators were able to fix problems with the print that had arisen through repeated exhibition. Conservators carried out lengthy research into the film to guarantee the restoration’s accuracy, discovering that some scenes had been printed in reverse, which rendered all the actors left-handed. Using stills of the actors clearly showing them to be right-handed, restorers digitally flipped the footage to its original orientation. With the help of Haghefilm Laboratories in Amsterdam using the DIAMANT digital restoration system, fragments were digitally scanned, allowing conservators to remove dirt, scratches and other blemishes, while also eliminating the shaky characteristic of the original footage to reveal more of the film than ever before. Through the work of conservators this restoration has enabled this valuable piece of Australia’s film history to be viewed as close as possible to its original form, allowing audiences to rediscover and enjoy Australia’s rich film history.
– Chelsey O'Brien, 16 September 2020
- Australia's Lost Films, R. Edmondson and A. Pike, 1982, p. 13, https://www.nla.gov.au/sites/default/files/australias_lost_films.pdf