NED KELLY: A Grand Failure

by Ryan Lewellen

Thanks to Cinapse, I have been swiftly falling in love with the sparse acting career of Mick Jagger. I dedicated a whole Archivist post to him, and was shocked to discover a new favorite movie. His filmography might be relatively short, and extremely hit or miss, but all of his films offer undeniable fascination. In the 1970 production of Ned Kelly, we may have the quintessential Mick Jagger film: a work which is good, bad, and fascinating — all at once. The story of the Australian bushranger’s battle against persecution by police, and by the same token, British Imperialism, has already been filmed many times by this point in cinema history. What set it apart from the previous incarnations, however, was the incredible contributions made by an uncommon convergence of eclectic artists.

Rock and roll superstar Mick Jagger plays an Irish folk hero of Australia, in a film featuring several songs written by Shel Silverstein, mostly performed by Waylon Jennings. That collaboration is so cool it gives me chills. I’m not sure you could find a stranger supergroup of artists in any medium. Unfortunately, this collection of talent could only produce mixed results, and the movie is a completely odd watch. Silverstein’s songs are incredible, and from melodies to lyrics, they practically sound like authentic Irish songs of the era (distinctly in honor of a folk hero), but as performed by Jennings, especially about Irish immigrants in Australia, their inclusion seems a little awkward. The tale is a Western through and through (with a side of Robin Hood), but somehow the country tone of the singer’s crooning seems oddly out of place, all things considered.

Then, there is the clumsy filmmaking. From a technical standpoint, the movie is pure garbage. This is one of the homeliest movies I have ever seen, and I was shocked to discover Director of Photography Gerry Fisher was praised for the mood set by his shadowy cinematography. Shadowy? How about, “Naturally lighted in an uncontrolled outdoor environment.” Was he trying to set a mood of incompetence? There doesn’t seem to be anything done intentionally as far as the film’s images are concerned. I’m all for grit and realism, but this doesn’t look like reality so much as it looks like thoughtless shooting. The audio is also disastrous, and perhaps home video distributor, Olive Films, is at fault here, but the thin sound of every actor’s speech seems to be shrinking quieter from beginning to end. If that weren’t bad enough, the editing is also pathetically clunky. It’s not that I prefer Hollywood slickness to alternative perspectives, but again, the unskillful approach to assembling this film doesn’t seem planned. One can almost imagine strips of celluloid taped together by a first-time editor whose fingers are crossed.

Okay, so not all crew members were operating at their best, and the movie is hard to look at, but what you do see is rather memorable. One can easily understand why this story has been told on film so frequently. Ned Kelly’s fight was epically cinematic, especially his last stand against a train stuffed with armed police. The Kelly Gang created shrewd armor from iron, and the sight of them clad in it is mesmerizing. It’s a strange film, with one of Jagger’s lesser performances, and perhaps the kind of thing you have to see, just… so you can weigh-in on it. For the same reason, I am happy to have it available on Blu-ray. It’s so odd and unique, it sort of justifies its own existence. It has to be seen simply because it happened.

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