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Birth of the feature length film
At an unprecedented 70 minutes The Story of the Kelly Gang is regarded as the world's first feature length film.
It premiered at the Athaneum Hall in Melbourne (Australia) on the 26th December 1906. Written and directed by Charles Tait, the film traces the life of the legendary Australian bushranger, Ned Kelly (1855-1880).
The film cost an estimated $2,250. But that money and more was recovered within its first week of screening.
The film was chiefly shot on the Veitch Chartersville family estate at Heidelberg outside Melbourne. As well as the suburbs of St Kilda, Eltham, Greensborough, Mitcham and Rosanna.
There was a public apology by the producers for dressing the police in uniforms, which they would not have worn while out in the bush. It was explained as necessary to enable the audience to distinguish between the outlaws and the police (in a time before colour film and close-ups allowing distinctions among characters were rare).
Narration was performed by an on-stage lecturer who also provided sound effects including gunfire and hoofbeats.
The first screening on 26 December 1906 opened to much controversy. Some politicians and the police interpreted the film as glorifying criminals. Censorship problems arose over the romantic images of the bushrangers, and concerns for law and order, causing bans not just for this film but for many later films of the same genre.
Despite this the film toured Australia for over 20 years and also showed in New Zealand and Britain. The backers and exhibitors are reported to have made a fortune from the film.
Only fragments of the original production, approximately 10 minutes, were known to have survived are preserved at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra
While some of the footage is almost pristine, other segments are severely distorted. The sensitive nitrate stock on which the film was shot deteriorated over time whilst in storage.
Originally 2000-5000 feet on five reels only 650 feet of 35mm fragments survived of the original footage. However, in November 2006 the National Film and Sound Archive released a new digital restoration which incorporated 11 minutes of material recently discovered in the United Kingdom. The fragments were made into a sequentially accurate restored and tinted print. The restoration now is of 17 minutes and includes the key scene of the Kelly's last stand.
Among the surviving images are two scenes that suggest considerable sophistication for that time. The scene of the police shooting parrots in the bush skilfully positions the shooter in the middle ground to the left of the image, firing upwards toward the far right, with the gang watching him from close foreground. The capture of Ned is shot from the viewpoint of the police, as Ned advances, an impressive figure weaving towards them under the weight of his armour and the shock of the bullets. This part of the sensitive nitrate stock suffered some deterioration so as Ned makes his final stand against the police at Glenrowan, he bends and morphs in much the same manner as a modern-day digital effect.
A copy of the programme booklet has also survived, containing both extracts from contemporary newspaper reports of the capture of the gang, and a synopsis of the film. Providing historians a glimpse into what the film may have been like.
Other Films About Ned Kelly
- One of the gang's actual suits (reportedly that of Joe Byrnes) was supposedly used in the film.
- Preceded D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation by nine years.
- Only fragments of this film are known to survive and are being restored by the Australian National Film and Sound Archive.
- The trains shown in the film were filmed with permission from the Victorian Railways Commission.
- First dramatic film to run for more than 60 minutes (feature-length records of boxing matches predate it) and thus considered the first full-length feature film ever made.
- An onstage lecturer gave commentary with behind-the-scenes sound effects.