The First Feature Film

Ned Kelly's helmet. Source
The Story of the Kelly Gang
The Kelly Gang cast on location at Heidelberg. Source.
Surprisingly, the first feature film did not emanate from Hollywood or the UK but from Australia. A feature film is generally described as 80 minutes or longer and at over an hour in length, The Story of the Kelly Gang, released  in Melbourne in 1906 was the first long-length film to be made.

Alas, only seventeen minutes of the film survives but what has remained has been digitally remastered by the National Film and Sound Archive. The story centres around the legendary colonial Irish rebel, Ned Kelly, a bushranger and his gang of renegades - Dan Kelly, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart. In Australia, Ned Kelly was (and still is) is regarded by many as a National hero, who, while hung by the neck in 1880 for murder and theft, had colourfully symbolised the struggle of the poor and disenfranchised against the cruel establishment. There are others who view him simply as a ruthless cop-killer but either way, he is one of our most famous or infamous, historical characters and a fitting subject for our first feature film. It was to be the first of several film adaptations of Kelly's life,  two of which starred Mick Jagger (1970) and Heath Ledger (2003) as Ned.

The real Ned Kelly
Renown for his home-made suit of armour, which included a vest and bucket-like full face helmet made of heavy iron, Kelly died young, at 25, his arrest occurring at the finale of a dramatic shoot out with police at the Glenrowan Hotel in country Victoria. At the end, he stood on the gallows and ended his notorious life with the philosophical statement, "such is life". It's incredible to think The Story of the Kelly Gang, which is now a national treasure, was released a mere 26 years after Kelly's execution. It seems so very long ago.

Charles Tait
Charles Tait
The Kelly Gang was written and directed by Charles Tait, who was born in Castlemaine, Victoria, in 1868. Tait was one of three brothers who were theatrical entrepreneurs and whose interests included concerts blended with screening short, popular films at the Athenaeum Hall in Melbourne.For the production of the  Kelly Gang the brothers joined up with Mildred Johnson and William Gibson and the group eventually formed Amalgamated Pictures in 1911, making feature films and newsreels.

The film starred Frank Mills as Ned Kelly, Nicholas Brierly as Joe Byrne and Charles's wife, Elizabeth Tait as Kate Kelly plus several Tait relatives in various roles.  Outdoor scenes of the Kelly gang were shot mainly on Tait's wife's family property in Heidelberg, a suburb of Melbourne that was largely bushland at that time but there were also location shoots at neighbouring Eltham and Greensborough, as well as Mitcham and Rosanna. The indoor shots were filmed in inner city St. Kilda.

The Anti-Hero Onscreen
When the film was first screened at the Athenaeum, a maelstrom of controversy erupted, as some critics claimed the film gloried crime and in some parts of Victoria it was even banned. Nonetheless the film's backers made a considerable fortune from The Story of the Kelly Gang and it was screened around the country for the next 20 years - audiences were keen to watch a visual representation of one the most iconic stories of Australian folkfore. Ned Kelly is still a controversial figure but whether they regard him as rebellious hero or murderous thug, every Australian knows his name. Ned Kelly is ingrained in the national psyche.

Ned Kelly's World
National Film Archives
Australian Screen