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Movie Review: 'True History Of The Kelly Gang' Offers An Alternate Mythology

If, as an American, you know anything about Ned Kelly, it’s probably that you’ve seen the massive suit of bulletproof armor he wore in a shootout, or that you remember his magnificent beard. The movie True History of the Kelly Gang, based on the Booker Prize-winning novel, does not include that beard, which at first I thought patently ridiculous. And then I realized that’s part of the point.


OK, now let me back up just a bit.


Ned Kelly is an outlaw folk hero for many Australians, who see him as a sort of Robin Hood-type figure who fought against British colonists and corrupt law enforcement in the 1870s. Others decry him as a murderous bandit. This is a simplification, but what can you do. There’s no real American analogue, but I guess it would be sort of like if Jesse James were still really popular and there were murkier questions about his motives and actions.


But there’s no doubt the mythology surrounding Kelly has long since eclipsed any historical fact. And this is the thrust of True History of the Kelly Gang. It opens by plainly stating nothing in it is true — and though this, itself, is not entirely true, it needs to be taken seriously. The movie hits the broad strokes of Kelly’s life, but the details are, indeed, completely made up. And in this way, it explores the creation of mythologies about our heroes and villains, about masculinity, and asks who really controls those stories. It’s clear not even Kelly has that control, as he tries to write his own legend and then fully buys into it, with bloody and decidedly not heroic consequences.


And, so, back to the beard. That one of the iconic parts of Ned Kelly is intentionally removed tells us exactly what we need to know about this movie: It’s not writing an alternate history; that ship sailed long ago. It’s writing an alternate mythology.

These stories are what we make them, and even those who were actually there have no say in the matter.  

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.