Sunday, 7 May 2017

The Legend of Ben Hall : Movie Review


In 2014 a movie maker who didn’t go to Film School launched an ambitious crowd funding bid to raise $75,000 to make a short film that would be …. a highly-realistic, cinematic and gritty 40-minute narrative depicting Ben Hall in the final days of his life, culminating in his controversial death outside Forbes NSW in 1865. We want this film to be ready for the 150th anniversary of Ben Hall's death, which is next year - May 5th 2015.

We want to resurrect this story from history books and explode it onto the screen in a glorious, sweeping way for a whole new generation to discover - in High Definition and surround sound. Australia has been waiting decades for a Ben Hall film; the time has come to deliver one.
Too often, film adaptations stray from the real history. Not our film. Nobody will have ever depicted the Ben Hall story in the level of detail and historical accuracy as we plan to do. From the weapons and costumes, to the characters and dialogue - this level of authenticity is rarely seen.
Beyond pure entertainment, The Legend of Ben Hall will also be used to raise Australia's awareness of our colonial history and promote tourism in central NSW. We will also enter the film into dozens of prestigious film festivals with hope of snatching up some coveted awards! We even hope to get The Legend of Ben Hall on television!

In fact, they raised nearly double their target, and managed to turn what seemed like impossibly high aspirations even for a 40 minute short film into a full length feature, on a budget which was never-the-less minuscule. It was finally released a bit later than they hoped for late last year, has been shown in a very limited number of cinemas, but now is available on DVD and BluRay.

I knew of its existence and would have seen it if it was ever screened locally, but it wasn’t. Then, quite recently it was announced that the same director, Matthew Holmes, was planning another bushranger movie, this time about Ned Kelly, and again he plans to crowd-fund it . I was challenged by Mark Perry to watch "The Legend of Ben Hall" before I jumped to any conclusions about the planned “Legend of Ned Kelly” and so, when time finally permitted, I found a copy at the nearby JB Hi Fi and watched it the other night.

The movie is not about the whole of Ben Halls life but about the last couple of years of his life on the run, and ends with his death in 1865. There is therefore much of his life and earlier bushranging career that is not depicted, though at various points in the movie hints are given as to what went before and why. On-screen text says that by 1864 he was the most wanted man in the British Empire, and the Reward for his capture was the largest yet offered. The storyline is about Halls attempt to save himself by abandoning a life of crime and  fleeing the country, a decision which leaves him awfully conflicted and in a  desperate quandary : to leave he will need funds which he can only get by continuing the life of a Bushranger; to leave he will need to continue his association with the unstable and violent criminal John Gilbert, and reluctantly draw others into another Gang; to leave he will have to abandon the things that mean the most to him, his first but now estranged love Biddy, and his young son William. The filmmaker weaves together Halls doomed attempts to establish a relationship with his son, his fight to control his companions and acquire the necessary funds by highway robbery, and his struggle to evade capture long enough to escape to Queensland into an absolutely spellbinding movie that would be brilliant on any budget, but is even more so, because by comparison with most movies it was produced on the smell of an oily rag and with a cast of virtual unknowns. It helps of course to have the amazing backdrop of the Australian bush to set your movie in, and there are breathtaking shots of the gang riding in silhouette along the ridges against the setting sun, through crackling eucalypt forest echoing with the call of whip-birds and kookaburra, and across dry grass plains studded with rocky outcrops and ancient craggy gums – but it requires a kind of genius to capture it all so exquisitely on film. I wondered now and again if there weren’t one too many of these gorgeous scenes of men on horseback galloping across a landscape that resembled a Tom Roberts oil painting, but certainly in Australia, people who love horses and have been in the bush can probably never get enough of that kind of beauty. But the movie is not just a grand visual feast, like a promo for Outback NSW. There is a terrific tension built up between police and the hunted, between the hunted and their increasingly wary supporters, and between the members of the gang itself; there is passion and emotion that’s not overdone and sugary, there’s frivolity, dancing and music, betrayal, tragedy, horror, bravery, and through it all the brooding Ben Hall whose internal turmoil is barely contained. The scenes shot inside houses, police stations pubs and stores are all equally as rich and convincing. The opening sequence, where the face of the movies Ben Hall emerges from the famous photo of the real Ben Hall is mesmerising. Ben leaving his son and estranged wife for the final time is gut wrenching. Seeing panic-stricken John Dunn shoot  a policeman and father of eight is shocking. John Glberts behaviour is often sickening. What Matthew Holmes has achieved with his unknown cast and the talent he has at his disposal is really remarkable.

This is a terrific movie that succeeds on so many levels as entertainment, and deserves country-wide distribution – I cant imagine any true-blue Aussie not giving it five stars.

But does it succeed as history? 
The movie makers  set themselves almost impossibly high hopes for this film : “Too often, film adaptations stray from the real history. Not our film. Nobody will have ever depicted the Ben Hall story in the level of detail and historical accuracy as we plan to do. From the weapons and costumes, to the characters and dialogue - this level of authenticity is rarely seen.”
Now, I almost never buy DVDs or watch movies anywhere other than in the Cinema on the Big Screen, but I was forced to watch this at home on the DVD I bought from JB HiFi. The benefit of doing this - something I didn’t realise until I put the movie on - was that in addition to the movie you get some Extras: three Trailers, A Directors commentary and a Historians commentary, this last one provided by Peter Bradley, an actual historian who is also a descendant of Ben Halls brother. On the DVD therefore you can then watch the entire movie again, with the sound track and dialogue muted but a voice over by Bradley and Matthew Holmes. I found t fascinating to listen to these two gentlemen discuss the various scenes as they unfolded and describe the relationship between the scene and various elements within it to what was actually known from history. I learned that virtually everything depicted was something that actually happened, but things were sometimes rearranged to better suit the narrative, or left out or embellished in a way that was sympathetic to the true history but which enhanced the story telling and the cinematic experience. Some things were changed because of funding or scheduling constraints, but essentially the story as told though not entirely accurate in every detail, was true to the historical facts where it was important. Thus, its not really known if Ben Hall actually abducted his son, but William did indeed  end up briefly in the care of others, its not actually known why Ben and Biddys relationship broke down, Ben Hall didn’t ever give money to Biddy for Williams care, and Goobang Mick had two children not one as portrayed in the film. We are also told that a popular belief that the Aborigine Dargan was once a childhood friend of Ben’s, was the person who killed him and that the Police then used Bens corpse for firing practice is a popular myth with no historical evidence to support it.  Another Myth they dismissed was that Biddys new partner was a former policeman.  The boy named Supple who gave Police information about the gang being in a hayshed was actually chased outside before he was caught, but Holmes said when that scene was supposed to be filmed it was raining so they decided to depict his detention as having occurred in the Pub. I was most interested to hear Holmes talk about the Police replacing shot in their shotguns with revolver balls! Holmes and Bradley constantly referred to newspapers from the time and Police and court records as being the documents on which they relied to ensure their recreations were accurate.


Thus, in my opinion they also succeeded in their ambition to make the movie as close as they could to the historical truth. They’ve carefully avoided repeating non-historical myths and oral traditions that are not supported by the evidence, and they’ve avoided the temptation to either demonise or venerate Ben Hall, a man whom the record seems to suggest and who is portrayed in the movie as a complex and deeply conflicted individual. However, Holmes acknowledges that because he didn’t actually kill anyone himself Hall may have been accorded more credit than he deserved, and so he has Dunn pose the question that Ben Halls story leaves everyone asking : “Do you think you’re innocent in all this, that you aint got no blood on your hands?” And Gilbert says “You’ve taken shots at hundreds of them, you could have killed any one of them at any time”

Matthew Holmes spent many years thinking about and preparing to make 

this film, and it has paid off because I think he has created a masterpiece, 

and it richly deserves the Awards it  has recently received. 

5 stars with strawberries on top!

5 comments:

  1. Thanks for your positive review of our film Dee and for taking the time to listen to the Historian's Commentary. It's good to hear when someone perceives what we were trying to achieve within the film and acknowledges that. We worked very hard to present the facts as best we could, remain unbiased in our presentation of bushranger vs police issue and still make an entertaining film - always a tricky balancing act. It's one we hope to carry through successfully in all our future bushranger films such as Ned Kelly, Frank Gardiner and John Vane. Cheers. Matthew Holmes, Director of The Legend of Ben Hall.

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  2. Well said. I can't wait to see more movies from Matthew Holmes on Australia's Bushrangers. There is no need to make things up. The actual history is exciting enough!

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  3. Stuart Dawson9 May 2017 at 07:29

    Dee, thanks for this post, as I knew the Hall movie was coming but didn’t know it was out on DVD yet. It's magnificent, thoroughly enjoyable, and colonial Australia is brought to life stunningly well. I haven't yet watched the historical commentary track, but will get around to it sooner or later. I therefore had a "naive" movie viewing, as I know nothing at all about Ben Hall, which makes it an interesting experience as I have to assume, as a viewer, that it is reasonably historically accurate. This belief is boosted by opening slides that tell us it is set in 1864, and that “The following is a true story”. The characters are presented realistically throughout. Ben Hall is mostly gritty-looking with unkempt hair from his time on the run, except for when he’s had a bath in one scene; John Dunn appears fresh and clean when he joins the gang, and gets grittier over time. Excellent stuff. The Bollywood subtitler struck only once that I noticed; when Jack Gilbert enters playing a Jew’s harp, the subtitle says “juice harp music”; but good for a laugh. Gilbert’s character is superbly acted throughout the film, a standout performance rivalling anything from Hollywood.

    The film does not hold back on the difficulties of life on the run, and the need for constant robberies to keep going, and to try and fund the escape plan of getting out of Australia. A failed attempted gold escort robbery shows that the bushranger gangs did not have it all their own way, and them being chased off in a gun battle with the escort police dramatizes the difficulties and risks faced by both sides in such dangerous situations. Both Gilbert and Dunn are shown as throwing in their lot with Hall in the hope of instant wealth through banditry, and both do so in full awareness of their own risk. The consequences of a tendency to glamorise criminals is brought home when we learn that two girls who joined in urging Hall and Gilbert to burn down an ex-policeman’s store in revenge for him courageously disobeying Hall’s instruction to stay with others stuck-up in a hotel, were both sentences to gaol for aiding and abetting. The music there possibly suggests we might feel sorry for them, it is hard to say; but it is a cautionary tale either way.

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  4. Stuart Dawson9 May 2017 at 07:32

    (Hall movie note, part 2.) Events turn sour when Dunn shoots and kills a policeman during a robbery, for which he is later sentenced to death and hung. The consequence is Hall being shot up to 30 times by a police party when eventually cornered. We are in no doubt that this is revenge overkill, with several police continuing to shoot against orders to cease fire. A slide advises that this was pronounced “justifiable homicide”, with two police views being presented: the commanding officer, that Hall never fired a shot; and the sergeant, that Hall was armed and on the run. Another slide advises that Hall was shot down 10 days before his outlawry came into effect. This is possibly irrelevant, as it may have to do with the ability of ordinary citizens to take him dead or alive, rather than anything to do with the police in the situation of confronting an armed bushranger; but I don’t know the situation here. We are also advised that Hall’s old mate Goobang Mick Coneley received a £500 reward “for the betrayal” of Hall. Is it betrayal? The film suggests Mick’s wife had or contemplated an affair with Hall, so Coneley’s motives may not have been solely greed, but possibly greed plus revenge. Gilbert and Dunn were sold out by Dunn’s grandfather, with whom they were hiding. Perhaps he too had some doubts about their worth in the grand scheme of things, as well as the temptation of the reward. The film ends with them riding off in slow motion into history. To me it was something of a tragic tale, and I was left wondering what Gilbert and Dunn might have become had they, like the other would-be gang member, been turned away by Hall from joining his desperate life. A great film and totally recommended.

    The film and introductory titles raise an important historical question of how much of what we see as recreated history is reasonably accurate, after allowing for some creative license in dialogue, etc. I gather from Dee’s review of the historical commentary that it is pretty reliable, and am happy to take that on trust unless anyone disputes it. The dilemma comes from Ian Jones’ magnificently filmed but historically unreliable “Last Outlaw” mini-series, which is claimed in its opening slides to be “based entirely on fact”. It is far from that, especially in its naïve portrayal of the young Kelly family in which it avoids any suspicion that the youths were frequently occupied with stock theft to claim “finder’s fee” rewards, its omission of any reference to the Baumgarten horse-stealing ring which led to the issuing of warrants for Ned and Dan, and its disgraceful misrepresentation of the Fitzpatrick incident, which becomes the pivot for the rest of the story as presented by Jones. Anyone wanting to find my analysis of that can Google “redeeming fitzpatrick” and read it for themselves. It also pushes Jones’ entirely unevidenced belief in a Kelly-led republican movement that was based solely on his misreading of the Jerilderie letter (see Jones in the SLV’s “Latrobe Journal” No 66, Spring 2000) and a now shown false belief that a copy of a declaration was seen in London in 1962. The “Last Outlaw”s’ wrongful claim to historical accuracy raises the question of what a new Ned Kelly movie might be, given that unlike Hall, Ned Kelly is probably the most extremely polarised topic in Aussie history. So there is much to look forward to.

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  5. I agree with all you say about this film Dee and Stuart. 10 out of 10.

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