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What Was It Like to Watch the World's First Feature-Length Film? Critics Paint a Picture.

The long-lost Story of the Kelly Gang was a technological groundbreaker in 1906 – reviews from the time of its release reveal an "sensational" crowd-pleaser.

by | November 20, 2020 | Comments

The Story of the Kelly Gang

(Photo by Courtesy of the Everett Collection)

It’s estimated that between 75 and 90 percent of films made before 1929 are either lost or only exist in incomplete form. As part of our RT Archives project, we are collecting contemporaneous reviews for those films – see a full list here and read what critics said about them at the time – and shining a spotlight on the stories and people behind them. Learn more about the RT Archives project here.

The 1906 film The Story of the Kelly Gang achieved a number of “firsts” when it premiered at Melbourne’s Athenaeum Hall in late December of that year. It was the first feature film about the Australian outlaw and pop culture hero Ned Kelly, who had died just 26 years before. It was also the first in the genre that would become known as “bushranger films,” stories of escaped convicts and bank- and coach-robbers who lived hidden in the Australian bush. Crucially, running more than an hour with a reel length of about 4,000 feet, The Story of the Kelly Gang was also the world’s first full-length feature film, according to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. Tragically, it is also the world’s first lost full-length feature.

What we know about the film, for which writing and directing credits are often attributed to film and theatrical entrepreneur Charles Tait and his brothers, can be gleaned through a 17-minute restoration that pieced together bits of film discovered since the mid 1970s – including what could be salvaged from 400 feet of release print discovered by kids in a Melbourne rubbish dump in – and included still photographs to fill out scenes. We learn more, too, in theater programs from its initial exhibition in Australia, which outline the six-reel film’s six scenes, all depicting crucial moments in Ned Kelly and his gang’s criminal career, including the shootout that would eventually lead to Kelly’s arrest and for which he built his infamous metal bulletproof armor. (You might recall it from umpteenth Ned Kelly films – he’s been played by the likes of Heath Ledger, Mick Jagger, and, most recently, George Mackay in last year’s The True History of the Kelly Gang.)

The Story of the Kelly Gang

(Photo by Courtesy of the Everett Collection)

What’s harder to draw from these sources is what it was like to sit there, in a packed Sydney or Melbourne theater, and see The Story of the Kelly Gang live – to bear witness to a thrilling story about a man who, by that point, was a national icon, told in a groundbreaking and never-before-seen fashion. Perhaps the closest we can get to understanding that is in reviews written by critics and cultural commentators at the time, who filled columns in Australian and New Zealand newspapers with their reactions to the storytelling, the incredible new technology of a full-length-feature film, descriptions of crowd reactions, notes on the movie’s presentation – the reading of interstitial descriptions, accompanying sounds like fake gun shots – and who grappled with the country’s canonization of a man with so much blood, some of it from law enforcement on, his hands.

As part of our RT Archive project, we have been sourcing contemporaneous reviews for dozens of lost films, including The Story of the Kelly Gang, to help readers piece together in their minds these lost works of art. Below, we break down what writers thought of the film and its giant step forward in the evolution of this beguiling new moving-picture technology.

Did critics think this groundbreaking feature film was any good?

“[The pictures] illustrate with tolerable verisimilitude the most noteworthy events in the career of perhaps the most notorious gang of outlaws that ever infested the Australian bush.” – The Mercury (Tasmania), Monday, May 13, 1907

“[Many scenes] with galloping horses and beautiful bush views, were admirably presented, and voices behind the scenes supplied the realistic dialogue needed to keep the audience in touch with the action of the story.” Sydney Morning Herald, Monday, February 11, 1907

“…the Kelly pictures were reeled off at a rate which kept the attention of the audience closely concentrated on the career of the famous outlaws… A conscientious and, on the whole, a creditable effort has been made to reproduce the tragedies as they occurred, and if there were any imperfections in detail probably few in the hall had memories long enough to detect them.” – The Age (Melbourne), Thursday, December 27, 1906 (day after December 26 world premiere)

“… the attempted wrecking of the train sent from Melbourne with a posse of police to assist in the capture of the Glenrowan Hotel, with Rev. Father Gibney bravely rescuing and carrying away the wounded from the burning building. This scene was most vividly and realistically depicted, with some 50 police and the gang exchanging shots.” – Sunday Times (Sydney), Sunday, February 10, 1907

“The films are clear and distinct, the chief actors concerned in the bush drama are fairly recognizable, the photographs are taken in ‘Kelly country,’ and after due allowance is made for certain acknowledged liberties taken, the illustrated record is probably as satisfactory as anything of the kind at this distant date.” – The Daily Telegraph (Sydney), Monday, February 11, 1907 (the one Rotten review)

The Story of the Kelly Gang

(Photo by Courtesy of the Everett Collection)

What did the reviews reveal about the making of the film and how it was presented?

“Messrs. J and N Tait, in the result, presented an ingeniously realistic succession of pictures taken at Glenrowan, the Strathbogie and Wombat Ranges, and other Victorian spots at one time haunted by the robbers in question.” Sydney Morning Herald, Monday, February 11, 1907

“The films are the product of carefully rehearsed posing by men, women and children, who have copied characteristics of the principals, their accomplices and their victims.” – The Age (Melbourne), Thursday, December 27, 1906 (day after December 26 world premiere)

“In order to have the scenes of various incidents portrayed it was necessary sometimes to keep employed as many as 50 people at a time, and it even necessitated the co-operation of the railways and the engagement of special trains.” – The New Zealand Herald, Tuesday, June 18, 1907

“For the guidance of those unacquainted with the Kelly saga the operator introduces each series of pictures with a few lines of legible print, epitomizing the chapter next to be presented.” – The Mercury (Tasmania), Monday, May 13, 1907

Did the technology impress?

“The biograph picture has now come to be recognized as quite a necessary adjunct to civilization, and the wonder of its creation has vanished with the mystery of the telephone and the first motor-car…. To such a stage of perfection has the moving picture been brought, that audiences at this end of the world may have repeated for their benefit almost every detail, in actual spectacular panorama, events that have happened thousands of miles away, and no country is sacred form the enterprising picture-taker.” – The New Zealand Herald, Tuesday, June 18, 1907

“The cinematograph views of the murder of the constables in the Wombat Ranges, and baffled efforts to wreck the police ‘special’ by tearing up the railway track, the storming of the Glenrowan Inn and the capture of Ned Kelly were life-like, and, of course, highly sensational.” – The Age (Melbourne), Thursday, December 27, 1906 (day after December 26 world premiere)

Mick Jagger, George Mackay, Heath Ledger

Ned Kelly has been played through the years by Mick Jagger, George Mackay, Heath Ledger, and others. (Photo by Courtesy of the Everett Collection, © IFC Films, © Focus Features)

What was it like to be in the theater for these historic screenings?

“The Town-hall was filled to overflowing, and scores were turned away on Saturday night, when the biograph pictures of the adventures of the Kelly gang were exhibited for the first time. Growing boys formed a not inconsiderable portion of the spectators, and from the undertone of comment and the occasional outburst of applause, it was clear with what enthusiastic interest they followed the story as it was unfolded in the successive series of films.” – The Mercury (Tasmania), Monday, May 13, 1907

How did critics grapple with the portrayal of the criminal Ned Kelly as a heroic figure?

“The exploits of the Kelly gang, away back in the early eighties, were admittedly sufficiently daring in their character and tragic in their sequence to provide a sensational page of Australian history, but it is not the class of history to which a nation points with pride, nor is it a sort of thing the youth of a country will be asked to admire or to emulate…. Pasts of this description, one would suppose, were better buried deeply and the incidents associated with them kept in the background. Such, however, did not appear to be the view of the hundreds who scrambled wildly for seats at the Palace Theater on Saturday evening, in response to the announcement that there would be there presented ‘Australia’s greatest drama: The story of the Kelly gang, by the biograph–the most thrilling moving-picture series ever seen.’” – The Daily Telegraph (Sydney), Monday, February 11, 1907 (the one Rotten review)

“[The Kellys] are described on the program as ‘the last of the bushrangers,’ and it is to be hoped that may prove so, and that these vivid pictures may not ‘rear the tender thought, and teach the young idea how to shoot’–policemen.” Sydney Morning Herald, Monday, February 11, 1907

“To the Australian youth Ned Kelly and his associates are more real heroes than the whole catalogue of mythical champions from Hector and Achilles to Robin Hood, whilst the same youth may not be unjustly suspected of entertaining a sneaking prejudice against the police and other minions of the powers that be. These points have not been overlooked in the preparation of a biograph version of the Kelly gang; the outlaws are the heroes, the police cut a rather poor figure.” – The Mercury (Tasmania), Monday, May 13, 1907

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