Australian bushrangers

Bushrangers: Australian Freedom and Masculinity

At first glance, Australian bushranger films appear to be reflections of the American western, but a few substantial differences splinter our image of the two. Bushranging in North Queensland (1904) is said to be Australia’s first bushranging film and, much like all the other bushranging stories offered to a hungry audience, features a corrupt political and social climate that nourished the rebellious nature of bushrangers. In turn, they plundered this desolute landscape in the role of folk heroes, not villains.

From the line-up of historic bushrangers, Ned Kelly (1854-1880) is arguably the most distinguishable. As Australia’s best-known colonial figure and hero, he has been immortalized in numerous films, and has inspired stirring reflections on the essence of Australian identity. The romantic symbolism of his character drove Sir Sidney Nolan to contour his mythological figure on canvas after canvas.

Sidney Nolan's Ned Kelly
Sir Sidney Nolan Exhibition (Ned Kelly series) – Museum & Art Gallery of The NT, Darwin (photo by Geoff Whalan)

Representation

The term ‘bushrangers‘, used to describe outlaws, was common in Australia as early as 1805, when it appeared in the Sydney Gazette to refer to “a group of suspected highway robbers, possibly escaped convicts, who often waylaid travelers in the bush”. Even though they were depicted in many colorful ways, from heroic rebels to psychopaths, bushrangers only add to the mythos of “social bandits”, alongside figures like Robin Hood. The antagonistic force guiding them toward perilous risk-taking was whittled down to the social injustice carried over by the colonialists.

Ned Kelly, seemingly too great a symbol to squeeze into an actor’s interpretative meditation on his nature, was nevertheless resurrected in works such as The Story of Ned Kelly (1906), the first feature film to be made in Australia and one of the first in the world, as well as Ned Kelly (2003).

The latter, starring Heath Ledger, followed the 1970 western that featured Mick Jagger in the leading role. The film is said to have driven disappointed viewers to some vigorous headshaking. Most recently, George MacKay appeared as Kelly in True History of the Kelly Gang (2020), a cinematic endeavor that seemed to celebrate clichés more than novelty.

Australian identity

The reason why bushrangers form such a potent part of Australian identity comes down to their role in shaping the Australian mythscape, as Tranter and Donoghue point out. Through it,

“the myths of the nation are forged, transmitted, reconstructed and negotiated constantly”.

Aside from the looming presence of the bushrangers, the Australian mythscape was shaped by British colonization, convict transportation, bush pioneers and the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps). The reason why Ned Kelly continues to attract so much attention is because of his symbolic background, which included the ethnic (Irish, in this case) aspect of his Australian identity, as well as his republican views.

To many, he epitomized the Irish Catholic under-class struggles against the English Protestant middle class establishment. His armor, partially visible in Sir Sidney Nolan’s painting above, also resembled the attire of a medieval European knight more than the clothing associated with common Australian outlaws.

Australian bushranger postcard (1908)
Australian bushranger postcard from 1908

Mateship

The distinction between the American cowboy and the Australian bushranger comes down to a trait that has come to symbolize an “authentic” Australian identity – mateship. According to sociologist Robert Bell, Australia’s severe physical environment, as opposed to the hospitable land found in America, forced people to work together as a colonial society, fostering a sense of brotherhood and a culture of co-operation. In America, land could be claimed and cultivated in a proprietary, individualistic fashion.

That’s why, the Australian identity that emerged stood in opposition to the “tyranny” of the middle class, and British culture in general. The defiant bushman, as Hirsch notes, is a fixture in Australians’ collective imagination, and has come to represent a tantalizing vision of masculinity.

“A man existing among men and without broader social ties, the bushman’s freedom – his drinking, his gambling, his ‘independence’, and his sexual indulgence – could be celebrated in a spirit of nationalism as an ‘Australian’ freedom.”

– Linzi Murrie, The Australian legend: Writing Australian masculinity/writing ‘Australian’ masculine (2009)

It’s not surprising, then, that the anti-authoritarian spirit of the bushrangers led to a ban on films depicitng them in South Australia (1911), New South Wales (1912) and Victoria (1912). This turn of events could be partially blamed for the decline of the Australian film production, which was one of the highest in 1911.

The end of the bushranger ban was indicated by the 1942 release of When the Kellys Rode in New South Wales, following the suppression of the film in 1934. But it seems that by then, interest in the topic had already waned.

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