A UK production part-manufactured in Australia
Production company: Woodfall
Locations: Braidwood, N.S.W. and surrounds, including Bangendore.
Filmed: 12th July 1969, for a ten week shoot - press reports at the time suggest the shoot spilled into twelve weeks.
Australian distributor: United Artists
Theatrical release: opened in London in June 1970, and given a premiere at Glenrowan, home of the Kelly gang in Victoria, on 28th July 1970.
Rating: NSC, not suitable for children, PG (DVD)
35 mm Technicolor 1.66:1
Running time: 103 mins (Oxford Australian Film)
DVD copy: 1'39"12 (including MGM/UA animated logos at top and tail)
Box office: According to the Film Victoria report on box office, the film made A$808,000 domestically, equivalent to $7,716,400 in 2009 A$.
This would seem a reasonable amount in relation to budget, but the Oxford Australian Film provides a corrective by noting that "Neither in Australian nor overseas did it (the film) attract much critical respect or public favour." In particular, the film did not do well internationally and was considered a flop.
The film has been released in region four by MGM/Shock in a disappointing 4:3 form, with only average image, and an almost barebone package consisting of a stills gallery, with some publicity and behind the scenes photographs.
The film is available in many other territories, and in both region 1 and region 2, correct ratio 16:9 1.66:1 versions are available. These are to be preferred.
This Ned Kelly project, one of dozens planned, and the seventh version of Ned's story to be realised as a feature film, was first developed by British director Karel Reisz, who had planned on Albert Finney taking the leading role. He had commissioned a number of screenplays, including one by David Storey.
Reisz and Finney flew to Australia in October 1962, spending ten weeks on research and location hunting, with filming planned for March 1963.
But for the film to count as a British production, it needed a majority of British crew and cast on location, and this cost more than the British arm of Columbia Pictures was prepared to pay.
According to Richardson, Yugoslavia and Spain were considered as alternative locations, but the patent absurdity saw Riesz go stale on the idea and the project lapse, with Finney and Reisz instead making Night Must Fall together in 1964.
Tony Richardson picked up on the idea, and co-wrote the final screenplay with Ian Jones, a writer and producer for Crawfords Productions, and a Ned Kelly buff.
The scripting sessions sound like they were fun as they began on new year's day 1969:
The journey began well. Richardson met Jones to begin work on the script with a flute of Moet Chandon in hand. “And a silver swizzle stick to keep it lively!” laughs Jones. “He had a bit of a hangover. He was an amazing man – incredibly flamboyant. He had a script already written, and I can’t remember who wrote it, but I remember Tony saying “I don’t want to make a film about a caveman who wants to wear a helmet!”.
It was Jones who helped provide the notion that Kelly was a proud Irish rebel rather than a common murdering criminal, and he flew to London in late December 1968 to spend three weeks in London working with Richardson on this angle.
"Although Ned was born here he didn't regard himself as an Australian any more than an Englishman born in India regards himself as an Indian," Mr. Ian Jones, the co-scriptwriter of the Ned Kelly film claimed in Melbourne yesterday.
"Critics of the casting of Mick Jagger as Ned have ignored this fact. Though he loved Australia and the Australian bush, Ned remained, I think, an Irishman at heart."...
"Kelly's story is a classic one of a rebel, not a criminal," he said. "He was, I think, criminally guilty.
"But if you try to see him simply as a criminal, you're lost. There are so many loose ends to the story, so many non-sequiturs.
"Take his supporters, for example. If they were just a bunch of people supporting criminals in the hope of getting a share of the spoils their support should have floundered as soon as the gang was destroyed.
"In fact, the rebellion was heightened after Ned's execution and the gang's death.
"If you way that the gang's acts were those of a group of policeman-murderers or callous criminals, you have to conclude they were terribly cowardly, terribly lazy or terribly inefficient.
"The indications are that the gang was none of these."
Mr. Jones said he and Richardson were agreed on their assessment of Kelly as "a primitive rebel".
"There is much more to his character than the Ned Kelly of folk song and ballad fame.
"The folk Kelly was concerned with injustice to his mother and family. But the real Kelly was a paristan or guerilla type.
"He was against British authority and also against the Irish quislings who had turned against their own countrymen and sold themselves to the Queen.
"He is an enigmatic character in some ways, but basically I find him an honest and straightforward character."
Mr. Jones was hoping to meet Richardson last night or today to discuss changes in the script since their first joint draft.
"I understand there have been changes," he said. "That is inevitable. A script like this is a dveloping thing. I would think Tony would make more changes still while filming is in progress.
"But I'd think there'd be no real change in the man's character as we first saw it. It doesn't make sense to see him as anything but a rebel." (The Age, 11th July 1969, interview by Leonard Radic)
Beguiled by the notion of a rebel, Richardson saw a link to another rebel:
“I had tested some very good actors, and Mick was suggested. Mick was sniffing at a career as an actor. I’d always been a fan of the Stones and was excited by the prospect. The wicked battered Irish face was perfect for Ned. We discussed the problems the role would present in terms of its physical demands. He would have to handle horses and guns. He was sure it was only a question of practice, and, astonished by his magnetism, energy and freedom on stage, I persuaded myself that there was a way his body, with the speed of an urban street cobra, could be transformed into that of an outdoor bushman. It was a mistake.” (Geoff Stanton, see below)
Ian Jones became aware a mistake was in the offing:
Casting threw a seasoned assortment of names into the mix. “At that stage it was a Columbian film, and they were coming up with names like Sean Connery, Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris and Warren Beatty” recounts Jones. “Ian McKellen had also recently done Richard II and Tony was very impressed – so we gave him a bit of the Jerilderie letter (Kelly’s famous letter and manifesto) and filmed him in costume with some stubble in a stable somewhere – and he really gave a very very powerful Ned.”
But he could not have guessed where the tin hat would land. “There were a couple of little flashes of danger early in the piece though,” he ruminates. “Tony said ‘Ian, when you think of Ned Kelly what do you see?’. I said ‘I see a big bearded man sitting on a horse’. And Tony said ‘Ah! But the fact that he was big isn’t important! It is no more important than the colour of his hair!’”. I should have hammered home the point that part of Ned’s tragedy was that he was such an indomitable figure. To me that was an inescapable part of his tragedy. He could not escape attention. He could not avoid being drawn into a fight.”
The strutting quaver of a willowy frontman was clearly not on Jones’ list of candidates. “‘Mick Jagger!?’ I said. Tony said excitedly ‘Oh, do you know him?’. I said ‘No, Tony!!’. And he said “Well, have you ever seen him act? He’s maaarvelous!’ I said ‘But Tony, he’s not exactly a big man, is he?’ Tony said “Christ no! He’s the smallest fucking man you’ve ever seen! But he’s got a very big head!!’” (Geoff Stanton, see below)
At the time, Tim Burstall and Gary Shead also planned a feature about Ned, as did Dino De Laurentiis, but the casting of Jagger helped Richardson raise the finance and forestall rivals.
Co-scriptwriter Ian Jones has written a number of books about Ned Kelly, perhaps the best known being Ned Kelly: a short life, though none are directly related to the film. (Library holdings of his work are listed at Trove, here).
Jones also made an eight hour miniseries about Kelly, The Last Outlaw, for the Seven Network in 1980 (a story about the series in The Australian Women's Weekly is here at Trove).
(Below: Ian Jones in The Age, 11th July 1969)
In 1970 Corgi books in the UK published a spin-off to the movie, Mick Jagger is Ned Kelly, with photographs by Robert Whitaker.
A selection of Robert Whitaker's photographs taken during the shoot can be found at the State Library of Victoria, though perversely the easiest way to find them seems to be via their cataloguing at Trove, here.
Controversy surrounded the film from the get go:
- There were long and loud objections to the casting of Mick Jagger as Ned. Actors' Equity was outraged an Australian hadn't been considered and some of Ned's descendants or Kelly country acquaintances thought a rock 'n roller was entirely unsuitable for the part;
- There were loud objections to the film not being shot in Kelly country around Glenrowan; there were equally loud objections to the possibility that the film might be shot in Glenrowan, and therefore upset the sensitivities of locals. Petitions were drawn up in Kelly country and presented to the local MP;
- Before leaving for the shoot, Jagger had been remanded on drug charges in London, and so there were loud objections to Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull - drug fiends - being allowed into the country to make the film. Heated questions were raised in parliament. The Minister for Immigration, Billy Snedden, made a statement. The Prime Minister was compared to Ned Kelly;
- The worst fears of the loud objectors were realised when Marianne Faithfull took a drug overdose and was rushed to hospital. It was later rumoured that she'd caught Jagger in bed with someone else and had taken the overdose - some 150 barbituartes - as a suicide attempt. She recovered and was sent home, with NIDA student Diane Craig scoring the role of Ned's sister Maggie instead;
- British unions were agitated about the number of Australians employed on the shoot. They sent telegrams to the British crew, but director Richardson held them back until filming was finished;
- The Australian press was shocked to discover that most of the Australian cast would only be receiving $112 a week, and then only after Actors Equity and theatrical agents beat it up from an original offer of $85;
- Richardson and the British crew didn't like Australia. Richardson thought Australia a monotonius landscape, with the ubiquitous eucalpytus tree, "broken only where the forests had been ring barked and burnt, the result like great black scars on the dull green land." Sydney combined the worst elements of Glasgow and San Francisco. (A remarkable contrast to the work of British DOP Gerry Fisher's work highlighting the Australian bush in the film);
- Security at the premiere screening at Glenrowan was tight, as threats had been made and the $8,000 cost of the launch was considered at risk.
The media was fascinated by Jagger and his girlfriend, and Jagger didn't disappoint:
“I’ve never done many parts, only one really; and this isn’t as difficult” reasoned Jagger initially. “I’m playing someone very different from myself so it’s much easier going. It won’t look like anything like me, with hips swinging and so on. I will look very Victorian. As far as the role’s concerned, I’m taking it very seriously. It’s not a joke, otherwise it’d be a bad movie.”
“Will it be hard with Marianne Faithfull playing your sister?” quipped one reporter.
“No” retorted Jagger. “I’ve always wanted an incestuous relationship.” (Geoff Stanton, see below)
Once the production got properly underway, the shoot faced equally intense coverage, with the press titillated by reports of a number of accidents, though most of these were minor and of a kind that can occur on any production:
- Jagger was injured by a backfiring pistol;
- Co-star Mark McManus 'narrowly escaped serious injury' when a horse-drawn cart he was in overturned;
- According to some, Jagger's decision to wear a false beard threw into question the entire historical authenticity of the work;
- Jagger began to lose interest in the work required, and director Richardson began to improvise.
Again co-scriptwriter Ian Jones takes up the story:
While Jagger was losing interest, the story itself also beelined it for the hills. “The story was starting to go all over the place” says Jones. “I had major problems with what was going on; Tony was doing the most bizarre things with the script!
When I arrived in Braidwood for a few days and discovered some of the things Tony had done I threw a wobbly. I was actually meant to be in the film, but I said ‘I don’t want to know anything about it’ and marched off.
Tony was absolutely incorrigible. He’d get an idea and suddenly improvise something. The scene where the gang accidentally burn their dinner and then jump and flap about in the water… it’s not the way bushman behave! That was all down to improvisation. Tony would rehearse a scene and then suddenly have an entirely different idea and do another take and print it. He would completely wing the whole thing.”
Jagger’s Irish dialogue coach had also started providing some of the dialogue while Richardson’s friend Jim Sharman (who went on to direct The Rocky Horror Picture Show) also began dabbling with the script. Eventually Australian playwright and author Alex Buzo also joined the party, eventually claiming the screenplay as his. “I thought it was very brave of him. I have always stressed that I wrote the first draft of the script, and this was all I’d admit to – even though Tony and I got the credit for the whole thing”.
In one rare turn though, the film admirably imitated myth when Jagger was actually shot. “They were using authentic firearms” begins Jones. “I can’t remember if it was a revolver or a rifle – but one of the firearms had a lead adaptor inside it to take the blank. This adaptor was blown out and hit Mick in the hand while they were doing the last stand. He was literally shot. They wanted him to stay away and knock off for a few days, but he wouldn’t. In the end they got someone to pinch his clothes so he couldn’t come onto location. And that is why he wears gloves in several scenes. Because of the wound on his hand. He was a very gutsy fellow”. Mark McManus, who played young Kelly Gang member Joe Byrne, also narrowly escaped death when his horse-drawn cart overturned. (Geoff Stanton, see below)
As a result of all the scandals and rumours, it's probably fair to say, as the Oxford Australian Film does, that up to this point in Australian production history, no other production had received so much free coverage from the press (and this included such other notable productions as On the Beach, which featured genuine Hollywood heavyweights).
Any tidbit of gossip was faithfully recycled, as when Robert Bruning (later a telemovie producer, in the film playing Sergeant Steele) recounted working with Mick Jagger and told Lenore Nicklin in the Sydney Morning Herald on 8th October 1968 what Jagger was like:
"Enormously charming in an off-beat way. A bit shy and diffident. You expect him to be a dill but he's extremely intelligent. He was kept away from the rest of the cast most of the time. As soon as he'd finish a scene a car would arrive and whizz him off. He wasn't being aloof. I think Richardson was frightened that some over-helpful Australian would try to give him acting lessons."
And when shooting was eventually completed, rumours immediately spread that director Tony Richardson had a five hour rough cut, with three hours to be cut, and as a result, locals in minor roles were certain to face the big chop.
The wrap party seemed to summarise the chaos associated with the film. Again Ian Jones tells the story:
It’s a shame Richardson couldn’t harness some of the mayhem and corral it into the film. The wrap party, for instance, rivalled the Last Stand. “Drunkenness was endemic in Australia,” commented Richardson. “One or two beers were enough to send anyone off in a violent and destructive way.” Richardson pre-emptively prepared for the party behind a ten-foot-tall barbed wire fence designed to protect the property. “During the shoot we rented a very beautiful 1820s sheep ranch near Bungendore, outside Canberra. With its cool wood-panelled rooms, it was too lovely to risk beer bottles flying at mouldings or into mirrors.”
The next morning people lay passed out and bleeding across shards of broken glass. “Not a single cup or glass or receptacle survived. Even so, we considered ourselves lucky, as a local gunning club whom we’d used in the film brought their 19th century cannon and tried to lob shells at the house – one of the few authentic period houses remaining and a famous landmark. This time the alcohol was on our side – their aim was off.” (Geoff Stanton, see below)
There would not come another set of manic, crazed moments like this until Dennis Hopper would arrive in Australia in 1976 to work on Philippe Mora's Mad Dog Morgan, another story of a wild bushranger.
3. The release:
Post production took place in England at Twickenham Studios, and the world premiere also took place in the UK, but remarkably neither Richardson nor Jagger attended.
On 27th August 1980 the Australian Women's Weekly reported: Jagger says he never saw the movie but heard it was awful, "and no one had heard of Ned Kelly anyway, except for a few Australians."
The film proved to be a commercial and critical disappointment. Ian Jones provided his own assessment of it, along with a note on Mick Jagger's behaviour:
“I was thrilled by some things and appalled by others” recounts Jones. “It wasn’t Ned as I knew him and it wasn’t the story as I had tried to tell it. Visually I thought it was superb and some moments which were unhistorical but worked quite well. Stringy Bark Creek was very well done. The Last Stand was beautifully handled. The railway cutting and the misty dawn theme – it was just terrific. A hell of a lot of work went into that. But it was very hard for me to be objective. There was enormous disappointment. It didn’t work as a piece of cinema as a whole. Even if I divorced all my conceptions of Ned the story was simply not well told.”
Reviewers were less circumspect.
“When Jagger puts on his home-made armour he looks like a cut rate sardine” commented one. “About as lethal as last week’s lettuce”. Jagger himself boycotted the Premier. “I didn’t know the film was going to be shit” was his parting shot.
“I liked Mick” says Jones. “I found him a very honest sort of character. He was a very straightforward in his way. But he behaved very badly when he realised the film obviously wasn’t going to be a success. He just walked right away from it – ditched it. He ditched Tony, and Tony was quite hurt by that. Because Mick had become an absolute obsession with him”.
Quotations in relation to Ian Jones and the film have been taken from an excellent piece written by Geoff Stanton, originally published in 2010 in Filmink, and available online under the header Like A Rolling Stone - the untold story of the Kelly Gang. It's an excellent bit of film history and a hoot to read as well, and reveals as much about the making of the film as anyone needs to know.
4. The music:
There was a soundtrack album released which featured performances by Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings.
The American accented music, used as commentary on the screen action and as musical interludes, was another aspect of the production that irritated local purists and reviewers.
Jagger contributed only a single song, performed on screen in a way that was out of context to the rest of the drama.
This too divided people, between those who thought it took them out of the drama, and those who wanted to hear Jagger sing. The latter group loved his rendition of the traditional ballad The Wild Colonial Boy, because it was sung in pared back, rough hewn style, with pared back accompaniment.
Others were enraged that an English rock and roller in flares could seek to take over a favourite Australian tune, and that the man who'd written A Boy Named Sue had been asked to provide the music for a dinkum Aussie story (see the pdf of music credits on this site for more details of the score)
5. The signficance of Ned Kelly:
Ned Kelly was a three ring circus, and a media feeding frenzy:
Australian media had not lapped at rock dignitary this thoroughly since The Beatles tour of ‘63. For publicity it was a major coup. But for Jones it was having a profounder effect. “The notoriety of the Rolling Stones was a hell of a hurdle. Not helped by the fact that Marianne Faithful was about to have a disastrous drug overdose upon arriving in Australia”. Faithfull had been “fatigued” by the journey, the press conference was told, and was now resting. She had in fact swallowed one hundred and fifty barbiturate tablets and was now within a tailcoat of Brian Jones. Journalists were soon wise.
“The Australian press behaved like a ravening pack of hunting-dogs” recalled Richardson. “The hotel where we were staying had to have massive security to prevent them breaking into Mick’s suite. There had to be massive security at the intensive care ward. The security was eventually broken by a pressman who disguised himself in a white coat as an intern. Escaping when discovered, he managed to knock over the IV equipment of a dozen dying patients. Nevertheless, in triumph, one of the papers boasted its scoop – a huge front page out-of-focus photo of an unrecognisable Marianne with blurred tubes in her mouth and nostrils.” (Geoff Stanton, see above)
There was indeed a loss of innocence, not least when Peter Carrette, who died in November 2010 at the age of 63, snuck into St Vincent's Hospital dressed as a doctor and took a shot of Marianne Faithfull hooked up to a life support machine, and then sold it to a London tabloid for £1,000, though Ian Jones version of the incident may be considered to have included a few exaggerations. (here)
After the circus packed up and left town came a period of reflection, perhaps associated with a hangover or a downer.
With the film pronounced a commercial and a critical failure, people began to ask how it came to be that a pack of British film-makers had come to town to make a film about a national icon.
Not just any national icon. The national icon, perhaps responsible for more bad Australian feature films than any other national icon, and still to receive anything remotely like a definitive treatment.
It might have been the first Ned Kelly feature in colour, and Gerry Fisher, British DOP, might have captured some ravishing landscapes, but that was the point. What right did the British have to tread on a national icon, and feature a fop in flares as the star?
Even a staid and conservative magazine like the Australian Women's Weekly saw it as a kind of comedy, and proposed other movies that might be made.
John and Yoko to star in Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, Lassie in Lassie come home to Gundagai, Alf Garnett in My Country, Charlie Brown and Snoopy in The Flying Doctor, Bonnie and Clyde in Robbery Under Arms, Davis Hughes and Joern Utzon in Phantoms of the Opera House and TV's Batman and Robin in Why You're in Melbourne Tonight.
Feeble humour perhaps, but it also symbolised a change of mood, and it's a fair argument that, if only in a negative sense, Jagger, Faithfull, Richardson and Ned Kelly helped provide momentum for the Australian film renaissance, a revival that would be assisted by government funding.
In the longer term, did all that much change?
Possibly not. In the most recent mauling of the Ned Kelly story in 2003, there was an Australian director attached (Gregor Jordan), and some Australian names, with Heath Ledger in the lead, supported by cast like Geoffrey Rush, Naomi Watts, and Joel Edgerton. Cast and crew were largely Australian, and government money provided the bulk of finance.
But the project was triggered by British finance, had a script by John Michael McDonagh, and a gaggle of producers headed by Working Title's UK based Tim Bevan, and featured a series of woeful historical inaccuracies and incoherent dramatic episodes that makes Richardson's version in places seem like an exercise in historical pedantry.
Bevan boldly went into print in the Sydney Morning Herald on May 2nd 2002, scathingly denouncing the Richardson film as rubbish, and proposing that the British crew came out to Australia for a holiday.
Richardson, Bevan's former father-in-law, might have said the same thing about the later film, since despite the much more appropriate casting of Heath Ledger, the resulting film was mediocre. So it goes and such is life.
There was another coda to the chaotic shoot when on December 8th 2012 Iain Shedden in The Australian remembered the rumour that Mick Jagger would head off to the Braidwood pub and entertain the locals by tinkling the ivories, and then reported:
Next Wednesday a series of letters go up for auction at Sotheby's in London, written by Jagger during that time in Australia to Marsha Hunt, his lover back on London who would become the mother of his first child, Karis, the following year. Hunt, then a singer and model who had appeared in the musical Hair, became involved with Jagger after she was asked to be a cover model for the Stones' single Honky Tonk Women. She refused, saying she didn't want to look as if she'd "just been had by all of the Rolling Stones", but succumbed to Jagger's charms soon after, although their relationship was clandestine for most of the 10 months they were together.
The 10 Secret Love Letters, as Sotheby's describes them, show the then 25-year-old musician in a romantic and inspired frame of mind, tossing off lines such as "I feel with you something so unsung there is no need to sing it" to his beloved and committing to paper his feelings on a variety of topics, from the death of former Stone Brian Jones to observations on art, music, poetry and Australia. The letters, being offered for sale as part of a Sotheby's English Literature and History auciton, are expected to go for between £70,000 and £100,000 (about $108,000-$154,000).
Marianne Faithfull might also be inclined to say such is life.