The Story of the Kelly Gang Is the First Feature-Length Film

Note: This is the thirty-ninth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fourth favorite 1906 film, THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG, directed by Charles Tait.

THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG (1906) is often cited as the first feature-length narrative film. As with many firsts, filmic or otherwise, the claim has an asterisk affixed to it in some way. Hour-long-plus films of sporting events like boxing matches had been made already in the early 19-aughts (is that something I can call that decade?), and even some fiction films had hit the generally accepted feature-length minimum of 40 minutes. Various organizations and institutes set the minimum much higher, but especially up through the 1920s, 40 to 70 minute features were quite common. Even today, 40 minutes is seen as feature-length by many.

A couple of films three years earlier could be in the running for the first feature-length narrative films, besides the boxing match actualities, narrative being an important distinction as they were not fiction films telling a story. Ferdinand Zecca’s LIFE AND PASSION OF THE CHRIST (1903), for example, was a 44-minute film detailing, you guessed it, the life (and passion) of Jesus Christ. That same year, an American film about Christ’s “passion,” LUBIN’S PASSION PLAY, was made around the same length. However, both were released in about 30 parts, but the pair are generally referred to as cohesive films.

Nevertheless, THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG’s claim to fame is a little more secure than most cinematic firsts (re: SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS [1937] as the first feature-length animated film, THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY [1903] being the first “narrative” film, etc.). It was released in a singular installment, and actually ran 60 minutes, a common feature run time even 20 years later. Today, however, THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG’s run time is closer to about 20 minutes.

You see, THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG has not survived in its entirety. Enough fragments, spread across the film, have survived to give a pretty good impression of what the film was like, including the final scene. Ultimately, however, this fact, and perhaps the full film’s lagging pace, make for a relatively underwhelming film but a fascinating historical relic.

To be clear: it’s hard to judge THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG by any reasonable measure. Criticizing it would be like criticizing a film you walk out of to go to the bathroom constantly, and for many, many minutes at a time. Even still, what remains is all that can be experienced and is worthy of appraisal; its landmark status certainly elevates it to a noteworthy place.

THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG is an Australian movie, and one of the earliest examples of the bushranging genre in film. It follows the real-life exploits of outlaw Ned Kelly and his gang, an Australian icon and folk hero in spite of his criminal acts. Kelly’s nearly two-year run from the law was punctuated throughout with robberies and police encounters, until he was left the only member of the gang left standing in a final shootout with police in 1880.

Kelly was captured and executed, but his open letters and explanations of his crimes had resonated with a downtrodden Australian populace. Although he didn’t necessarily “give to the poor,” Kelly’s anti-establishment motives fit in line with a Robin Hood archetype, and many lamented his death.

When THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG released in 1906, Kelly himself had only died 26 years earlier; his mother and one of his brothers was still alive, in fact. Considered the last famous bushranger, survivalists who typically used the harsh and expansive Australian “bush” to escape from civilization and/or the authorities, Kelly was in fact celebrated in the film. Other than this outlook on the activities of its criminal subjects, THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG is actually quite similar to THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, released three years earlier.

THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY’s proximity to the events and time period it portrayed was essentially simultaneous, as it was made in the midst of what we now call in America the “Wild West” era. THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG was made essentially after the great “bushranging” era of Australian lore had come to an end, as it ended with Kelly himself, but it was still made relatively contemporaneously, at least in the hindsight of 2017. THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY not only created the Western in film, but it was also a forerunner of the genre in any kind of popular media. THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG, too, was one of the earliest portrayals of bushranging in film, and not too far on the heels of bushranging stage productions and books.

In fact, THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG was produced by the Tait family, entrepreneurs who owned a playhouse in which they would also often show short films. Australian popular theater was dominated by bushranging plays at the turn of the 20th century, and THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG started a domination of bushranging films in the Australian film industry, at least until Australian censorship put a stranglehold on the industry until at least the 1970s.

All of these facts I have learned very recently; in fact, just in preparation for this essay. Of course, I always research my subjects. For example, though, when writing about THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, I could write about the Western era with a good degree of confidence because it was part of my American cultural/institutional knowledge/identity. Australian history, however, is something I know almost nothing about.

THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG was not the film to rely on for this history, though, as its historical accuracy is really dependent on the unreliable knowledge and experience of the Taits, and director and co-writer Charles Tait in particular. Nevertheless, it acted as a great gateway into learning more, and I’d say the best films lead you to wanting to find out more, whether it’s about the film itself, the people involved, or the events it dramatizes.

The film’s potential scope is indeed impressive, but watching what remains, it’s clear its length may have been a detractor at times. Even in its shortened form, certain scenes of THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG drag on in mundane monotony not unlike an Edwin S. Porter film. Of course, the story is hard to follow in its fragmented form, but even still, knowledge of Ned Kelly and his “antics” are definitely needed in lieu of the handouts given at the original screenings of the film.

This was an epic in a much more true sense of the word than anything that came before in film, however, tracing Kelly’s life over its last two, action-packed years with relatively intricate detail, on-location shoots, and “exciting” action. The film’s final scene, in which Kelly dons his incredible “bullet-proof” armor (reportedly borrowed from the owner of the real outfit), is great, in no small part to the aesthetic appeal of the armor itself.

Even still, THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG manages to tell a relatively successful, emotionally rousing story as it celebrates Kelly much more than it vilifies him. It was the subject of a lot of controversy, but of course it feels tame today. Its action, that remains today at least, was less “gritty” than other contemporary film violence even. Instead, it was much more theatrical and floaty, which makes sense considering the Taits’ backgrounds.

Even though we cannot experience THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG in the form that made it so exceptional, its current existence can still be compared favorably to other, fully surviving films of the time. It’s certainly one of the most important movies in film history canon, and its inherently compelling tale, told with technically impressive shots and staging, still renders it my fourth favorite film of 1906.

Make sure to catch up on and keep up with all of my essays on my favorite films here.

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Tristan Ettleman

Tristan Ettleman

I write about movies, music, video games, and more.