The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906)
Audio Commentary-Ian Christie
Audio Commentary-Graham Shirley
Alternative Version-Study Version
Featurette-Before and After Restoration
|Year Of Production||1906|
|Running Time||16:10 (Case: 64)|
|RSDL / Flipper||No/No||Cast & Crew|
|Region Coding||1,2,3,4,5,6||Directed By||Charles Tait|
|Pan & Scan/Full Frame||None||Audio Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)|
|Widescreen Aspect Ratio||None|
|Video Format||576i (PAL)|
|Original Aspect Ratio||1.33:1||Miscellaneous|
|Annoying Product Placement||No|
|Action In or After Credits||No|
The Story of the Kelly Gang is generally regarded as being the first feature film ever made. As is pointed out in one of the essays in the booklet accompanying this DVD release of what's left of the film, the term "feature film" needs to be qualified. "Feature" was initially used to refer to the main film in a programme, the one which was headlined in the advertising of the programme, and could as easily be a one reeler running just ten minutes. There were certainly many of those released before 1906. Today when we refer to a feature film we are talking about a long film, one running in excess of an hour. And likewise there were many of those released before 1906. However these were actualities, live recordings of real events, including boxing films where entire fights were captured on celluloid for an early version of pay-per-view.
The Story of the Kelly Gang appears to be the first long film with a narrative ever made anywhere in the world. I have heard it stated that another Australian work, Soldiers of the Cross, made by the Salvation Army in 1900 was the first feature film. But this turns out to have been a multi-media presentation containing lectures, slides, songs and live acting interspersed with short film clips. While that film portion hasn't survived, a 1960s documentary about early Australian film contained an interview with one of the performers and he confirmed that it wasn't a feature film.
Why the Tait brothers made a fictional film of this length (about 4,000 feet or a running time of 60 to 80 minutes depending on projection speed) is not clear. I suspect that the nature of the subject matter, real events which had occurred just three decades earlier and were more recent in the collective memories of the citizens of 1906 than say the moon landings are in ours, demanded that the story be told at length and in detail. Even by this time Ned Kelly was a mythical creature, both hero and villain, and audiences would have expected to see all of the notable events of his life played out on the screen. Also they were from a theatrical background, and knew that audiences would easily sit through long live shows.
Sadly, little of the film survives to this day. It is the great tragedy of the cinema that so much has been lost. It is estimated that up to half of all the films made before 1950, when inexpensive safety film stock replaced the volatile nitrate and studios realised that television provided an outlet for their back catalogue of titles, are lost forever. Today you can't see all of the films directed by John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Ernst Lubitsch or Erich von Stroheim, or all of those featuring John Wayne, Laurel and Hardy or Greta Garbo. Even more recent actors such as Richard Attenborough and John Mills have missing films. But the silent era suffered the most. Estimates vary as to what is lost, but most are in the range of 80 to 90 percent. A major silent star like Theda Bara has only about four films left out of nearly fifty, and her most famous film Cleopatra is not one of those. Of the most prolific film-making countries, about twenty percent of American silent features exist in complete or nearly complete form, while of Japan's output in the 1920s the figure is closer to one percent.
Australia's silent cinema falls between these two extremes. There were 261 silent features produced. 27 survive in complete form or nearly so, while there are fragments of 34 others. The earliest complete feature dates from 1913.
Now in 1906 no-one was producing long story films. Australia became and remained the major feature film producing country for five years, with some 60 films made before the first American features came in 1912. Perhaps they did not export well or even at all to the US, as it was not until the success of imported Italian epics that the Americans began feature film production.
The Story of the Kelly Gang seems to have been a major success in Australia and there are reports of the film being screened into the 1930s. Until early 2006 it was thought that all but six minutes of footage found on a rubbish dump was lost, but then the Younghusband's Station sequences were discovered in an archive in the UK, bringing the running time to about 16 minutes. Some of the footage might well be outtakes, but it does enable about a quarter of the original running time to be reconstructed.
This DVD from the National Film and Sound archive contains those surviving fragments. It comprises shots from five scenes, being a trooper attempting to arrest the Kellys and harassing their mother and sister, the killing of a policeman at a campsite, the bailing up of Younghusband's Station, the siege at the Glenrowan Hotel and the capture of Ned himself, complete with armour. The last two scenes are at times badly affected by decomposition but the decomposed frames are included for completeness. There is also a black screen with "NFSA 2006" in the lower corner in place of gaps in the surviving fragments, where intertitles may have appeared.
The result cannot really be judged by the normal frame of reference for a film on DVD, as it is not a complete film but a historical curiosity. Even so the style in which it was shot is quite advanced for 1906. There is a surprising use of perspective, with action occurring mainly in the foreground but characters appearing from the background of the frame. At this time many films seem to have a flat perspective, as if a stage play was being filmed, and this film looks to be mainly in this vein. But more than a rudimentary attempt is made to use the entire depth of field. For instance the external shots of the Glenrowan siege are seen from behind the firing police, with the hotel in the background from which members of the Kelly Gang occasionally emerge. The action is generally shot from a fixed camera position, with pans used to widen the visual space, also unusual for this era.
While you would probably not watch this purely for entertainment purposes, it is fascinating to see this brief footage of the birth of the feature film. The National Film and Sound Archive have put together a solid package of extras including a book-sized edition of The Moving Image devoted to the film, and quibbles about the cover art aside it is worth the rather expensive asking price if you have an interest in the history of cinema.
The film is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 which is most likely the original aspect ratio.
The film has been digitally restored and the image varies from clear and sharp to soft. Background detail is generally very good. The first scene is probably the best in visual quality, being shot in bright sunlight and with good contrast and detail. In fact the entire film was shot outdoors, even the indoor sequences, as film speeds were slow and studio lighting expensive. Some of the sequences are tinted.
The restoration has removed many of the imperfections wrought by time, but there are still many film artefacts. These are a lot fainter than normal but you can see splice markings, scratches and other damage to the emulsion. The last few sequences are often completely obscured by decomposition, and look like some of those experimental abstract animations of the 1960s. The film also contains plenty of grain and exhibits flicker and a slight unsteadiness of the image.
There were no serious film to video artefacts.
No subtitles are provided, this being a silent film with three or four titles in English.
The disc appears to be single-layered.
The film can be watched silent, which is not authentic given that the original screenings were accompanied by lectures, or actors voicing the parts, of live musical accompaniment. Otherwise two musical scores are selectable.
The first score is a piano score in traditional style by Mauro Colombis. This score is very good, not drawing attention to itself and allowing one to concentrate on the visuals.
The second score is an electronic one by Endorphin and is described as "experimental". In musical terms it might have been experimental thirty years ago, but today it sounds a little dated. In my opinion it doesn't suit the film, nor does it complement the narrative as the best scores do.
Both soundtracks are in Dolby Digital 2.0. In sonic terms I could find nothing to fault in either. Both are well recorded and there are no glitches or problems to distract the listener.
|Surround Channel Use|
This thick 204-page booklet (not 208 as stated on the case) is actually an issue of The Moving Image, and features several essays about the film and its history, plus reproductions of contemporary newspaper reviews and photos.
Background to the film and descriptions of what is happening in context of the story from this film historian and author. Not the best commentary but at 16 minutes it doesn't outlast its welcome.
This commentary covers the discovery of the additional material and the restoration, from the Senior Curator of Moving Image at the NFSA.
The study version is a longer reconstruction with additional intertitles and bridging material to flesh out the film to roughly half its original length. This is worth watching to get an impression of how the original version would have held together as a narrative, though it is a bit of a chore to sit through without sound. There is though an optional and interesting commentary by Graham Shirley and Sally Jackson of the NFSA.
As the title suggests, comparisons of the footage before and after the digital restoration.
Various photos from the original programme booklet, plus frames from a nitrate print and other advertising material.
NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.
This title is unreleased all around the world, except here in Australia.
An interesting curio well presented on this disc.
The video is not bad for a one hundred year old film.
The audio quality is very good.
More extras than for any 16 minute film I've ever seen.
|DVD||Sony DVP-NS9100ES, using HDMI output|
|Display||Sony VPL-HS60 LCD Projector projected to 80" screen. Calibrated with Digital Video Essentials (PAL). This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 720p.|
|Audio Decoder||Built in to DVD Player, Dolby Digital and DTS. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.|
|Amplification||Sony TA-DA9000ES for surrounds, Elektra Reference power amp for mains|
|Speakers||Main: B&W Nautilus 800; Centre: Tannoy Sensys DCC; Rear: Tannoy Revolution R3; Subwoofer: Richter Thor Mk IV|