Australian Screen

Australia’s audiovisual heritage online

The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906)

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clip Siege at Glenrowan hotel education content clip 1, 2, 3

Original classification rating: not rated. This clip chosen to be PG

Clip description

This clip shows the troopers outside the Glenrowan hotel. Joe Byrne is shot. Steve and Dan shoot each other rather than be caught. The police set fire to the hotel and Father Gibney runs into the burning hotel to save the wounded platelayer. This clip has severe nitrate damage.

(Elizabeth Taggart-Speers)

Curator’s notes

Despite the nitrate damage, there’s a lot going on in the scene outside the pub. Note how one of the policemen carries a pile of hay forward to the house, to set the fire; as the family rushes out from the pub, you can just see that the woman in front drops one of her children as she reaches the end of the porch, which looks like it was not meant to happen. The police keep firing, regardless, even at the risk of hitting their own man, and the brave priest, Father Gibney who tries to stop them firing. Here again, the cameraman makes small pans left and right to keep the action centred. The titles in this clip are a latter addition. The film was presented initially without titles. The red tint on the firing of the hotel is a modern approximation of the original tinting. The final shot of this clip, as the priest carries the man over his shoulder, towards the camera, is interesting – a sign that the director was thinking of how to maximise the film’s visual power.

Red tinting is used to indicate the hotel fire. Added after processing, the tint has attacked the gelatin causing the film to become brittle. The added nitrate damage has made it difficult to see the image on the screen.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This clip shows a re-creation of the Kelly Gang’s last stand, the siege at the Glenrowan hotel. It shows members of the Kelly Gang and hostages inside the hotel, and the death of Joe Byrne. Outside, troopers (police officers) fire at the hotel. The priest, Father Gibney, implores them not to set fire to the building, as there are women and children inside, but they ignore him. In the hotel Steve Hart and Dan Kelly shoot each other to avoid being captured, while Father Gibney makes a daring rescue of the wounded 'platelayer’ (a railway worker who lays and maintains the track) from the burning building. This silent, black-and-white clip shows the effects of extensive nitrate decomposition.

Educational value points

  • Made in 1906, only 26 years after bushranger Ned Kelly was hanged, The Story of the Kelly Gang depicted the exploits of Kelly and his gang and was the first feature-length film produced in Australia and possibly the world. Made at a time when films were only about 15 minutes long, it had a running time of between 60 and 70 minutes. The film was a huge success, playing to packed audiences when it opened in Melbourne, and it is said to have made a huge £25,000 profit after costing £1,000 to make. In 2006, 100 years after it was first shown, only about 17 minutes of the film have been recovered; the film is held by the National Film and Sound Archive.
  • On 28 June 1880, about 30 people were held hostage at the Glenrowan hotel as part of the Kelly gang’s plan to engage the police in a direct battle. An attempt to derail a train carrying police reinforcements was foiled when released hostage Thomas Curnow raised the alarm and another hostage, Constable Bracken, escaped and led the police to the hotel.
  • The siege at Glenrowan, which is depicted in the clip, lasted 12 hours. Thirty-four police surrounded the hotel and engaged in a gun battle that left Joe Byrne, Dan Kelly and Steve Hart dead. Several hostages were killed in the crossfire and the police set fire to the hotel to smoke out the gang. Ned escaped, but was captured at dawn after a shoot-out with police.
  • The clip suggests that Dan Kelly and Steve Hart died when they shot each other inside the hotel but in fact the bodies of the two men were burnt beyond recognition and the cause of their deaths was never determined. The two may have committed suicide, possibly by taking poison. The filmmakers may have depicted the double suicide as a shooting for greater dramatic effect. In subsequent years there were rumours that the two had escaped to live out their days in Queensland.
  • The effects of nitrate decomposition are clearly evident in the clip. Used until 1951, nitrate film base (stock) is highly flammable and chemically unstable, causing it to decompose easily. Initial decomposition causes a brownish discolouration of the film, irreversibly fading images. In the final stage of decomposition, the film disintegrates into a brownish dust, resulting in the loss of many early films.
  • Tinting was applied for dramatic effect throughout the film and in this clip the red colour sequence that begins when the police set fire to the hotel was created by putting red food dye on the black-and-white film. While the actual siege took place at night, this scene was filmed during the day because filmmakers had to rely on natural lighting.
  • The clip provides an example of the style of acting in early silent films. The Story of the Kelly Gang was based on a number of popular stage plays about the gang and some of the actors and costumes used in the film may have come from one of those existing productions. The sometimes exaggerated performances in the film were partly the product of the actors’ theatrical training but long shots with few close-ups also called for exaggerated gestures.
  • The film heralded an active period of film production in Australia. After film was invented in the 1890s, Australians were quick to adopt the new medium and between 1906 and 1912 Australia produced more feature-length films than Britain or the USA. However, in the 1920s US and British distributors signed exclusive deals with Australian cinemas to exhibit their products only and the resulting limited screening possibilities sent the Australian film industry into a decline that lasted until the 1970s.

(Please note there is severe nitrate damage to this clip).

Inside the Glenrowan hotel, members of the Kelly gang are firing at the troopers outside while their hostages look on.

Intertitle: ‘Death of Joe.’
Joe Byrne is fatally shot. Outside, troopers run towards the hotel only to be held back by gunfire. They return to the bushes for safety. They plan to set fire to the hotel and a priest, Father Gibney, urges them not to, to protect the hostages. Father Gibney runs towards the hotel.

Intertitle: ‘Police burning the hotel.’
One of the troopers has set fire to the hotel. Outside, the rest carry on shooting.

Intertitle: ‘Steve and Dan shoot each other.’
Inside, Steve Hart and Dan Kelly shoot each other simultaneously rather than risk capture.

Intertitle: ‘Gallant rescue by Father Gibney of the wounded platelayer.’
Father Gibney rushes into the saloon, checks the prone bodies on the ground and then carries a wounded man outside.

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  • The National Film and Sound Archive’s permission must be sought to amend any information in the materials, unless otherwise stated in notices throughout the Site.

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