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The Story of the Kelly Gang – The First Feature Film

Premiered in Melbourne, Australia on Boxing Day 1906 The Story of the Kelly Gang holds the distinction of being classified as cinema’s very first feature film.

The film depicts the life and ultimate downfall of notorious outlaw of the outback Ned Kelly and his posse. The story of Ned Kelly has become an enduring part of Australian folklore, the legend, in no small part, enhanced by this hugely (for the time) successful screen adaptation.

Writing and directing credits have generally gone to Charles Tait, although it’s widely accepted that the film is a collaboration of his talents with those of brothers John and Nevin and the camerawork of Millard Johnson and William Gibson.

It was claimed, during the promotion of the film, that they shot it at the real Kelly gang locations, a claim that doesn’t in fact appear to be completely true. In more likelihood, the film was shot around the Melbourne region, particularly the Charterisville Estate, which happened to be leased by the Tait family. Wherever it was filmed, however, what the makers achieved can be taken as a landmark in cinema history.

Filmed over 6 reels, comprising almost 4,000 feet of film or 60 minutes of footage The Story of the Kelly Gang was a monumental film for its time. Shot, as was generally the case in the early days of film, in wide angle (most likely as it made it more theatrical for audiences new to the medium) the movie, nevertheless, has been credited by film historians for its apparent sophistication and innovation with the use of, on a couple of occasions, switches to close-up and indeed changes of point of view so as to let the camera help tell the story; for example: by seeing the shootout from the police officers perspective.

The plot was broken down into 6 scenes starting with the release of a warrant for Kelly’s arrest, moving through various set-pieces including a robbery and a police stand-off and culminating in the deaths of gang members and Kelly’s ultimate capture. In its original screenings the film (silent, of course) was accompanied in the theatre with live sound effects (including the use coconut shells for hooves) and, on occasion, with an academic commentator on hand to explain the action.

Sadly for film buffs, all copies of the feature in its entirety were lost by the end of World War Two. However, over the past forty years, remnants of the original film have been unearthed and, using modern film reel cleaning and restoration techniques a shortened version of the movie has been pieced together. Thanks to these efforts, a version running to almost twenty minutes has been digitally restored and is available to view.