A defining moment of Australian history and the Ned Kelly myth is being brought to the big screen.
Victorian College of Arts student Ben Head, is recreating the moment Ned and Dan Kelly, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart murdered three police officers in October 1878. His 30-minute short film, Stringybark, begins production in September on the outskirts of Geelong, led by a cast brimming with local talent.
Sergeant Michael Kennedy and constables Thomas Lonigan and Michael Scanlen were all shot dead at Stringybark Creek, a fateful event that preceded the now infamous Glenrowan Hotel shootout. But their deaths have been largely ignored by filmmakers up until now, rather glorifying the Kelly myth and his iconic self made armour.
“That was the moment where he changed his life completely for the wrong,” said Ben, when asked why he chose this fragment in time.
“He ended three men’s lives, and in the process caused two women to be widows and nine children fatherless.”
Previous films – including a bizarre experiment in 1970 starring Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger’s 2002 turn as the bushranger –have always centred on Kelly being a Robin Hood style figure, a myth that has become etched in Australian folklore.
That was something that hadn’t sat well with Ben’s conscience.
“Why no one has ever approached the police side of the story?” he said.
An interest in the Kelly tale began when he was no older then 11, when Ben’s father recounted the story of a family trip to Glenrowan, that would spark Ben’s interest.
“He had his first chocolate sundae at the Glenrowan McDonalds on a family holiday, we then went off the beaten track,” his father told Hatch.
“He was tantalised by the history that is there, but not by the myth and nonsense.”
With the idea for the film now firmly planted in his mind, Ben set about researching the story behind the murders of the officers. Delving in to the past, it soon turned into an unexpected father-son bonding experience.
“My interest in it fuelled my dads interest and we went from there. He’s always had a keen interest in history, especially Australian history, law enforcement and military history,” Ben said.
This research gave Ben the opportunity to meet with the descendants of the slain officers.
“I’ve spoken to Leo Kennedy, the great-grandson of Sergeant Michael Kennedy, he’s been a great help. He’s been helping us all the way, he’s very keen of course to get the story told.”
Also helping in that search for the truth has been Kelly historian Doug Morrissey, author of the novel Ned Kelly: A Lawless Life.
“So Doug and I haven’t actually met in person yet, but we’ve spoken over the phone and through emails. We compared notes and compared details on our account of what we think happened that day. We’re very much in agreement of the fact that the truth needs to be told.”
With his research completed, a Kelly historian guiding him and with the help of the officer’s family members, Ben feels that he can shine a new and respectful light on that fateful day that honours the fallen officers.
“I think we can get 100 per cent accuracy, very close to the truth. We have, particularly Doug, based all of the research off scholarly research, nothing being infected by the amateur Kelly historians out there all claiming they know the facts,” he said.
“Its all vetted through historical accounts, original documents from the time, court reports, hearings and peoples testimonies.
“There will be authentic reproductions of what people had in their position, the reproduction of documents, word for word. It’ll all be historically accurate.
“From a forensic perspective there’s been some fantastic work done, which has given us a better understanding of how the incident unfolded.”
Ben has raised money to make the film via online crowdfunding. Cinematographer and best friend Ben Thompson filmed a promotional teaser with him to spark interest.
“We did it with little to no money, hoping that this would go somewhere, and just been completely blown away the response it’s got. It’s just astounding so many people have gotten behind it,” he said.
“We set a budget of $15,000 which was pretty meagre we realised.”
Ben’s expectations have been significantly heightened after the response.
“We’re up to 18-and-a-half now, so we’ve raised the budget to $21,000,” he said. (At the time of publication, Ben had raised $30,000)
And what does this generosity from the public mean for his film?
“We’re going to put it more into the wardrobe, into the firearms, and into the horses and location fees.”
Ben welcomes the coming debate about the Kelly legend.
“I’m not doing a forensic study on the murders, but what I am doing is encouraging people to think more than fleetingly about the fact that three men, two of whom had never met Ned Kelly previously, died upon their first meeting,” he said.
“We can talk abut the difference in policing now and then, but at the end of the day we are talking about individuals, in public service entrusted with enforcing the law on behalf of the community, who died as a result.”