The world’s first feature-length and true crime movie.
The Story of the Kelly Gang is a 1906 Australian silent film that traces the exploits of 19th-century bushranger and outlaw Ned Kelly and his gang. It was directed by Charles Tait and shot in and around the city of Melbourne. The film ran for more than an hour with a reel length of about 1,200 metres (4,000 ft), making it the longest narrative film yet seen in the world. It was first shown at Melbourne’s Athenaeum Hall on 26 December 1906 and premiered in the United Kingdom in January 1908. A major commercial and critical success, it is regarded as the origin point of the bushranging drama, a genre that dominated the early years of Australian film production. Since its release, many other films have been made about the Kelly legend.
In 2007, The Story of the Kelly Gang was inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register for being the world’s first full-length narrative feature film.
Australian bushranger Ned Kelly had been executed only twenty-six years before The Story of the Kelly Gang was made, and Ned’s mother Ellen and younger brother Jim were still alive at the time of its release. The film was made during an era when plays about bushrangers were extremely popular, and there were, by one estimate, six contemporaneous theatre companies giving performances of the Kelly gang story. Historian Ian Jones suggests bushranger stories still had an “indefinable appeal” for Australians in the early 20th century.
Film historian Ina Bertrand suggests that the tone of The Story of the Kelly Gang is “one of sorrow, depicting Ned Kelly and his gang as the last of the bushrangers.” Bertrand identifies several scenes that suggest considerable film making sophistication on the part of the Taits. One is the composition of a scene of police shooting parrots in the bush. The second is the capture of Ned, shot from the viewpoint of the police, as he advances. A copy of the programme booklet has survived, containing a synopsis of the film, in six ‘scenes’. The latter provided audiences with the sort of information later provided by intertitles, and can help historians imagine what the entire film may have been like.
The film was considered lost until 1975, when five short segments totalling a few seconds of running time were found. In 1978 another 64 metres of the film was discovered in a collection belonging to a former film exhibitor. In 1980, further footage was found at a rubbish dump. The longest surviving single sequence, the scene at Younghusband’s station, was found in the UK in 2006. In November 2006, the National Film and Sound Archive released a new digital restoration which incorporated the new material and recreated some scenes based on existing still photographs.
The restoration is 17 minutes long and includes the key scene of Kelly’s last stand.