For this reason, there are a number of parallels between the nineteenth century economies and societies of outback Australia and the Western United States. That is, it is not enough to consider popular genres simply as systems of formal and substantial elements that can be assigned an ideal core identity and then given the status of national myth.
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Historical circumstances are certainly at work in the production of any identifiable genre. One is a flat, nearly featureless plain. Another, closely related, is the desert. The land of the bushranger films is of a third type: hill country. The hill country is geographically as well as socially at the margin or the limit of the bush. The important economic activity of the rich — raising vast herds of cattle or sheep, making and preserving money in business enterprises and banks, legislating and punishing — is pursued in large spaces, including towns and cities, to which the hills are always adjacent.
The hills are also, for good reason, the land associated almost everywhere with bandits and partisans.
Mountains, hills and trees provide concealment and make pursuit difficult. Bushrangers disappear into them, only to appear suddenly out of them — in ambush, to bestow a gift, to exact revenge. While they elude capture, bushrangers are at one with the land, with its greed and its bounty and its treachery and its justice. However, bushrangers do not control the hills: rather, for a time they express them. The land is timeless — it is geography, it is space — while the bushrangers are time itself they are history, movement. The hills in which outlaws live are, of course, not exclusively Australian.
But the hills in the bushranger films are most certainly Australian. And in the hills, Australian culture also locates nomadic miners who, like the selectors, are figures of endless toil and the overweening power of fortune betting on the caprice and the mercy of the land to once and for all escape the power of the centre.
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From this point of view what is significant about the landscape which often dwarfs the characters in a film like Thunderbolt is its difference from the landscapes one might see in other, imported, films. Most of what can be said of the landscape of the bushranger films can be said, slightly differently, of the stories told in those films. Ned Kelly and Captain Thunderbolt were real people who really robbed other real people.
As we have seen, so were the central figures of at least nine other films made before the First World War.
Yet at the same time, it would not do to discount the role of imagination in the films. There is a subtle, even delicate, intermeshing of fact and fiction in these cases, suggesting that the audiences for bushranger films would have treated these texts opportunistically or pragmatically, taking from them whatever truth suited their needs. Another group of films involving bushrangers promised only fiction. But it would be naive to expect that audiences would have reacted to specific films in this group as mere flights of fancy, any more than audiences today respond to films about crime or the police as though they are totally without foundation in actual practice.
Here too was history for the taking, and certain truths about living in Australia. These ballads, like most ballads about outlaws, tend to be sympathetic to the bushrangers and to figure them as doomed heroes fighting injustice. The ballad tradition may also have something to do with the loose, episodic narration of the bushranger films.
TSOTKG and Thunderbolt are structured like strings of beads or picket fences , made up of episodes whose chronological relations are more significant than their relations of narrative causality. The history that the bushranger films displayed in the action on the screen eventually got them banned from the screen entirely.
That is, it was a marginal history, just as the landscape was a marginal landscape. Certainly this genre of films is particularly notable because so many of its examples are so overtly anti-authoritarian, and that as a whole it is so unmistakably politicized. Which is to say that in , when the police of New South Wales banned the showing of bushranger films and the State of Victoria banned the remake of TSOTKG , they correctly perceived the rebellious attitude of those films. At the same time, these two Australian States were acting to confirm what was even then an established and accepted middle-class prejudice: that young men are motivated by their exposure to representations of bushrangers to take up lives of crime.
Yet in the end, I think these are not films about committing crimes or acts of rebellion — that is, about what bushrangers do — but about what bushrangers are. The landscape, the history, the communities of outcasts that surround the bushrangers are variant displays of the bushranger, different ways of figuring the same thing. Together with the figures of the bushrangers themselves, they suggest a single image refracted in different ways, a phantom beast that can be known only by a discrete trunk and ear, leg, skin and tail. In both instances the camera is placed somewhat closer to the action than is usual in the rest of the film, perhaps inviting spectators to feel with a character who is obviously a man of feeling — that is, to experience his exceptional and tragic state of mind, his interior being.
In this way, the bushranger film may be attempting to mobilise the conventions of melodrama in directing our attention to a larger, moral purpose, to questions about what it is to live with injustice, to be a bushranger outcast from friends and family by an unfeeling law. These shots, long by virtue of camera distance and of the length of time that actions take within them, anachronistic by and visible evidence of the cheapness with which the films were produced, have the effect of diminishing melodramatic affect.
As Ward flails and kicks at the police when he is arrested, or later, when he rides for such a long time over such a long way to rescue young Bill Monckton from the man who is beating him, the intensity of the action is drained away by the distance of the camera and the length of time everything takes. The film becomes mundane at these points, precisely when our conditioned viewing would want it to be bigger than life. This is the most thrilling moment of the scene, the most exciting action in the shot — and it is purely an everyday event, like leaving a factory after work or three men playing cards.
Such moments, usually involving recalcitrant horses or the time it takes to move across the screen, occur throughout the bushranger footage that survives. Thunderbolt and the various Kelly Gang films now seem to me to highlight such passages of le temps mort which our viewing presumes must have been the fruits of inexperience and poor direction.
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And, of course, such moments are also the points at which the cinema asserts itself as time, its elemental and inescapable banality, in the very teeth of Landscape, History and Legend. Desperate, starving and disoriented in the bush for several weeks , three men abandoned the group while the other five began to murder and eat each other.
Pearce was the only survivor. He had made it as far as the Derwent River, Tasmania where he joined up with other bushrangers.
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Eventually, he was captured by authorities near Hobart and was returned to Macquarie Harbour. Pearce attempted another escape shortly thereafter, this time with only one other convict. Again, he turned to cannibalism. When authorities finally caught him, they hanged him. Martin Cash , convict and bushranger. Cash was originally sent to Sydney from Ireland in for shooting a rival suitor in the buttocks.
On the trail of the other gang
After serving seven years, he left for Tasmania as a free man only to be charged shortly after with theft and sentenced to a further seven years at the Port Arthur Penal Settlement. Cash died in his bed at age All three were eventually captured and sentenced to death. Donohoe escaped while being transported to the jailhouse. His bushranging days came to an end in a showdown with a contingent of soldiers and police on 1 September Russell preyed on those diggers travelling to and from the goldfields between Bendigo and Melbourne. There are several accounts of victims being tied naked to a tree or fallen log with their boots full of bull ants, left to die a slow and excruciating death.
He reportedly led a gang of 16 bushrangers who worked together in their marauding.
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