Jagger and the Iron Outlaw
“Ned Kelly?” reminisced a skull-jewelled Keith Richards to FILMINK in 2008. “With that bucket on the head!? I said, ‘Don’t do it, Mick!’. Mick’s not natural cinema food. But what he does in his spare time is up to him.”
“Having gone for Mick I should have made a very different film” conceded Richardson years later in his autobiography Long Distance Runner. “Maybe a kind of collage that capitalised on the striking contrasts of his talent, instead of trying to push Mick into being an incipient John Wayne.”
But if there is anyone who can authoritatively recount the curious left-bend Kelly took, it is veteran Australian screenwriter Ian Jones. Whilst helming legendary production company Crawfords as writer, producer and director (where he pioneered Homicide, Hunter and Division Four) Jones began helping Richardson draft the original script for Ned Kelly. Jones was (and also remains) a leading Kelly tragic and authority. Indeed, much of his interest in the dynamic between crime and authority sprang from this devotional source.
“When I was about ten I read The Complete History of the Kelly Gang, in which he was a Robin Hood figure” recounts Jones. “Then I read The True Story of the Kelly Gang, in which Ned was the villain and the police were the heroes. I realised that if I wanted to know the true story of the Kelly Gang I’d have to find it out for myself.” By the time Jones was twelve he was going through newspaper files, and by fifteen he had started going through the minutes of the Kelly Royal Commission. By the 1950s this had inevitably lead to an amateur Kelly film. “I spent two hundred pounds to get two hundred feet of film.” After wrangling paddle-steamers and coaches for the project was aborted midway after Jones stepped a broken bottle in a billabong. “One hundred and fifty feet and that was it – a pretty disastrous exercise”.
But it would take more than that to ultimately deter him. “At Crawfords we were actually talking about making a Ned Kelly film shortly before Tony Richardson arrived in Australia in 1968. It was a god-send to suddenly get a phone call asking me to arrange lunch with Tony Richardson to talk about making a Kelly film. We were gearing up to do Division Four, having got Homicide on the rails and Hunter – so I could only be loaned for 3 weeks. I arrived in London on New Years Eve 1968 and began working with Tony on New Years Day 1969.”
The journey began well. Richardson met Jones to begin work on the script with a flute of Moet Chandon in hand. “And a silver swizzle stick to keep it lively!” laughs Jones. “He had a bit of a hangover. He was an amazing man – incredibly flamboyant. He had a script already written, and I can’t remember who wrote it, but I remember Tony saying “I don’t want to make a film about a caveman who wants to wear a helmet!”.
Casting the Helmet
It is ironic that Kelly’s legend was borne from a desperate desire to be left alone. There are at least twelve films to leave the iron outlaw swinging. But between knocks Ned has roused a genre. The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) (flagged as the world’s first feature) and 2003s Ned Kelly (starring Heath Ledger) bracket dozens of films (including Captain Midnight, King of the Road, Captain Starlight) that consistently ignite interest, but never the depth of passion Kelly lore evokes.
Ian Jones recognised the opportunity to show Kelly as he really was – a wily, charismatic Irishman. He was initially pleased that Richardson appeared to share the same view. “Tony saw a lot of poetry in Ned and thought, as I did, that the Irish roots were very, very important and that Ned should speak and think with an Irish accent. This was revolutionary at the time. Ned was always archetypically Australian. Think of an AFL footballer with an Australian accent – typified by Bob Chitty in The Glenrowan Affair (1951).”
Casting threw a seasoned assortment of names into the mix. “At that stage it was a Columbian film, and they were coming up with names like Sean Connery, Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris and Warren Beatty” recounts Jones. “Ian McKellen had also recently done Richard II and Tony was very impressed – so we gave him a bit of the Jerilderie letter (Kelly’s famous letter and manifesto) and filmed him in costume with some stubble in a stable somewhere – and he really gave a very very powerful Ned.”
But he could not have guessed where the tin hat would land. “There were a couple of little flashes of danger early in the piece though,” he ruminates. “Tony said ‘Ian, when you think of Ned Kelly what do you see?’. I said ‘I see a big bearded man sitting on a horse’. And Tony said ‘Ah! But the fact that he was big isn’t important! It is no more important than the colour of his hair!’”. I should have hammered home the point that part of Ned’s tragedy was that he was such an indomitable figure. To me that was an inescapable part of his tragedy. He could not escape attention. He could not avoid being drawn into a fight.”
The strutting quaver of a willowy frontman was clearly not on Jones’ list of candidates. “‘Mick Jagger!?’ I said. Tony said excitedly ‘Oh, do you know him?’. I said ‘No, Tony!!’. And he said “Well, have you ever seen him act? He’s maaarvelous!’ I said ‘But Tony, he’s not exactly a big man, is he?’ Tony said “Christ no! He’s the smallest fucking man you’ve ever seen! But he’s got a very big head!!’”
“I had tested some very good actors,” reminisced Richardson. “And Mick was suggested. Mick was sniffing at a career as an actor. I’d always been a fan of the Stones and was excited by the prospect. The wicked battered Irish face was perfect for Ned. We discussed the problems the role would present in terms of its physical demands. He would have to handle horses and guns. He was sure it was only a question of practice, and, astonished by his magnetism, energy and freedom on stage, I persuaded myself that there was a way his body, with the speed of an urban street cobra, could be transformed into that of an outdoor bushman. It was a mistake.”
With casting misadventure now in the wings, Richardson was also about to pass through his antipodean Ninth Gate.
A Mysterious and Unsympathetic Land
“The most striking impression (of Australia) was the monotony of the ubiquitous eucalyptus trees, broken only where the forests had been ring barked and burnt, the result like great black scars on the dull green land” wrote Richardson. “While Sydney seemed to combine the worst elements of Glasgow and San Francisco”.
“Tony didn’t like Australia.” says Jones. “None of the British crew did. I mean, it was a terribly tough shoot. And the English unions kicked up like hell about the number of Australians Tony was using. They virtually called a strike towards the end of filming and sent telegrams to the members of crew. Tony held them until the film was finished,” laughs Jones “which was a fairly Tony way of doing things”.
Richardson flew to Queensland for an initial recce. “Social activity for the whole district, an area of probably 1000 square miles, was centred on one bar from four o’clock in the afternoon. There was a tiny band who bawled dirty lyrics, to the roars and leers of the clientele, who poured down beer after beer until they went outside to throw up and then returned to the bar. There was nothing to do except drink. Finally I found (our host’s friends) – they’d picked up two nurses, and their VW was already packed but somehow we sandwiched in. They hurtled off at about 120 mph. Kangaroos leaped across the road and the brothers whooped and gunned forward trying to hit the animals. When we finally got back the girls were told to “fuck off home” – another 100 miles away. We set out to devour all that remained in the freezer – frozen French fries.”
A ‘man of wealth and taste’ was on his way, however. For Jagger it had been one hell of a year. While The Rolling Stones were at the top of their game, dishing out raw-knuckle soundtracks synonymous with sixties decline, heroin was setting cracks in the edifice; Richards had been arrested for drug possession, Brian Jones was dead and Jagger’s sidekick Marianne Faithfull – now cast alongside Jagger as Kelly’s sister Maggie – was in the grip of withdrawal and frail as a leaf. After the famous memorial gig for Jones in Hyde Park, Jagger and Faithfull skipped the funeral straight for Australia. Jagger initially seized hungrily upon the role. After starring as a self-absorbed rock star in Nic Roeg’s cult film Performance – perhaps an echo of his own spook – cinema had become another professional paramour. But Kelly was to be a different creature.
“I’ve never done many parts, only one really; and this isn’t as difficult” reasoned Jagger initially. “I’m playing someone very different from myself so it’s much easier going. It won’t look like anything like me, with hips swinging and so on. I will look very Victorian. As far as the role’s concerned, I’m taking it very seriously. It’s not a joke, otherwise it’d be a bad movie.”
“Will it be hard with Marianne Faithfull playing your sister?” quipped one reporter.
“No” retorted Jagger. “I’ve always wanted an incestuous relationship.”
Australian media had not lapped at rock dignitary this thoroughly since The Beatles tour of ‘63. For publicity it was a major coup. But for Jones it was having a profounder effect. “The notoriety of the Rolling Stones was a hell of a hurdle. Not helped by the fact that Marianne Faithful was about to have a disastrous drug overdose upon arriving in Australia”. Faithfull had been “fatigued” by the journey, the press conference was told, and was now resting. She had in fact swallowed one hundred and fifty barbiturate tablets and was now within a tailcoat of Brian Jones. Journalists were soon wise.
“The Australian press behaved like a ravening pack of hunting-dogs” recalled Richardson. “The hotel where we were staying had to have massive security to prevent them breaking into Mick’s suite. There had to be massive security at the intensive care ward. The security was eventually broken by a pressman who disguised himself in a white coat as an intern. Escaping when discovered, he managed to knock over the IV equipment of a dozen dying patients. Nevertheless, in triumph, one of the papers boasted its scoop – a huge front page out-of-focus photo of an unrecognisable Marianne with blurred tubes in her mouth and nostrils.”
“That rock n’ roll image was already being reinforced” says Jones. Columbia had already dropped their support following the casting decision. “But fortunately the character of Maggie wasn’t going to be used for some time and the lovely Australian actress Diane Craig swung in – and played the role beautifully.”
Welcome to Kelly Country
With lurid dramas percolating the fringe, other aspects came together extremely well. In terms of viscerally creating Kelly’s rustic world the film succeeds beautifully. “Jocelyn Herbert (the designer) was absolutely wonderful. She trod the tightrope between Mick as Ned Kelly and Mick as a pop figure. The interesting thing was that flares were in, and flares were also very big during the Kelly period. Putting him in flares was really quite accurate – although giving him a sort of lacey affair to rob the banks in was possibly going a bit far.”
“Jocelyn’s Kelly homestead was an awesome creation. Tony had found this old site way out somewhere near Braidwood that was virtually just a chimney, so he decided this was where he wanted to film because this was where people had lived and died – had children and suffered. Jocelyn borrowed slabs from around the place to build the Kelly homestead. It was perfect. When I arrived there I thought ‘how did they get this slab hut intact like this – this is amazing!’ When I went inside I was still fooled. I thought Good Lord – it’s still got newspapers on the walls! I glanced at the newspapers and noticed there was an evening Ballina Standard and a Murray Advertiser – she’d had newspapers specially printed and then aged them. The calico ceiling looked like it had been there forever. It was astonishing. We were just a couple of hundred feet from the snow line, it was the middle of winter and it was freezing, so we had a blazing fire going the whole time”.
The silky landscape was conjured masterfully by Australian cinematographer Gerry Fisher. “It had a wonderful feel of the past about it,” says Jones. “It was an absolutely revelationary vision of Australian landscape. It was shot in winter, and that helped to capture the Irish mood of the story. Fisher used antique Ross lenses on the film, all of which added up to a terrific physical impact.”
The old Melbourne jail where Kelly was actually hanged was also given a make-over, with gallows rehinged and a prop beam put in. “A lot of the props are still there actually” says Jones. “The door, the trap and the beam are still there from the film. It was also the first time I saw Mick. It was his first day of filming. I said g’day to Tony, and then on cue, out of a cell half way down the gallery, came the execution procession – including Mick with a beard but no moustache. I said to Tony ‘Why hasn’t Ned got a moustache?’ Tony said ‘We tried several moustaches – but they all looked too weak!’ So that was it. We had Mick with those amazing lips blazing from his face and this trim beard, which, if anything, accentuated his trademark lips”.
The Wild Colonial Stone
Jones admired Jagger, but knew the weight of celebrity couldn’t hold the film’s centre. “I think Mick unbalanced the thing, and that’s the pity of it. For all the value of casting someone his age and playing him with an Irish accent it is inescapable. It revolves around Mick Jagger and everything that he was. It was almost impossible not to be conscious of the fact that you were looking at Mick Jagger.”
“Though fire and energy snake out of Mick like electricity in concert, he can’t produce them cold as an actor” admitted Richardson later. “It’s a problem with many rock performers. Another problem is that great artists – singers, dancers, sportsmen – don’t carry their public with them when they cross over into a different, often alien, situation. The face was great, but the body seemed frail – at times spastic. But the mistake was mine.”
While staying in a small grazing property thirty kilometres out of Canberra in Queanbeyan, Jagger worked hard at the role but was finding it demanding. “Mick did try for a while” said Richardson. “He rode, he shot guns, he learned how to improvise. But, for all his exceptional intelligence (I often thought he was far too intelligent to be an actor) and imagination, he couldn’t understand the dues he would have to pay to look at ease in the saddle – or maybe he just got bored. He couldn’t suspend himself and become a character. And probably if I’d tried to tailor the character more to him he’d have resisted it.”
“Tony had a remarkable intellect” says Jones. “He knew we were dealing with a young rebel of the 1870s. And Mick was a youth rebel of the 1960s – one hundred years later. But Mick is a very different sort of rebel from Ned. And the fact that Tony didn’t understand the central physicality of Ned’s nature in the destiny of Ned Kelly – that was a fatal flaw. I blame myself for not hammering it home more strongly. But Tony and Mick make a good fist of it, like that seminal twenty round bare-knuckle fight with Wild Wright – however incipiently ridiculous Mick looked in the outfit as a boxer. And the gunfight at Stringy Bark Creek. Tony could get very gritty. He captured the important aspects of Kelly – but in other ways Mick could never be Ned Kelly.”
While Jagger was losing interest, the story itself also beelined it for the hills. “The story was starting to go all over the place” says Jones. “I had major problems with what was going on; Tony was doing the most bizarre things with the script! When I arrived in Braidwood for a few days and discovered some of the things Tony had done I threw a wobbly. I was actually meant to be in the film, but I said ‘I don’t want to know anything about it’ and marched off. Tony was absolutely incorrigible. He’d get an idea and suddenly improvise something. The scene where the gang accidentally burn their dinner and then jump and flap about in the water… it’s not the way bushman behave! That was all down to improvisation. Tony would rehearse a scene and then suddenly have an entirely different idea and do another take and print it. He would completely wing the whole thing.”
Jagger’s Irish dialogue coach had also started providing some of the dialogue while Richardson’s friend Jim Sharman (who went on to direct The Rocky Horror Picture Show) also began dabbling with the script. Eventually Australian playwright and author Alex Buzo also joined the party, eventually claiming the screenplay as his. “I thought it was very brave of him. I have always stressed that I wrote the first draft of the script, and this was all I’d admit to – even though Tony and I got the credit for the whole thing”.
In one rare turn though, the film admirably imitated myth when Jagger was actually shot. “They were using authentic firearms” begins Jones. “I can’t remember if it was a revolver or a rifle – but one of the firearms had a lead adaptor inside it to take the blank. This adaptor was blown out and hit Mick in the hand while they were doing the last stand. He was literally shot. They wanted him to stay away and knock off for a few days, but he wouldn’t. In the end they got someone to pinch his clothes so he couldn’t come onto location. And that is why he wears gloves in several scenes. Because of the wound on his hand. He was a very gutsy fellow”. Mark McManus, who played young Kelly Gang member Joe Byrne, also narrowly escaped death when his horse-drawn cart overturned.
It’s a shame Richardson couldn’t harness some of the mayhem and corral it into the film. The wrap party, for instance, rivalled the Last Stand. “Drunkenness was endemic in Australia,” commented Richardson. “One or two beers were enough to send anyone off in a violent and destructive way.” Richardson pre-emptively prepared for the party behind a ten-foot-tall barbed wire fence designed to protect the property. “During the shoot we rented a very beautiful 1820s sheep ranch near Bungendore, outside Canberra. With its cool wood-panelled rooms, it was too lovely to risk beer bottles flying at mouldings or into mirrors.”
The next morning people lay passed out and bleeding across shards of broken glass. “Not a single cup or glass or receptacle survived. Even so, we considered ourselves lucky, as a local gunning club whom we’d used in the film brought their 19th century cannon and tried to lob shells at the house – one of the few authentic period houses remaining and a famous landmark. This time the alcohol was on our side – their aim was off.”
Such is Life
“Ned Kelly was like having a still born child” said Richardson on the final film. “The shape and features were all there, but without a breath of life”.
“I was thrilled by some things and appalled by others” recounts Jones. “It wasn’t Ned as I knew him and it wasn’t the story as I had tried to tell it. Visually I thought it was superb and some moments which were unhistorical but worked quite well. Stringy Bark Creek was very well done. The Last Stand was beautifully handled. The railway cutting and the misty dawn theme – it was just terrific. A hell of a lot of work went into that. But it was very hard for me to be objective. There was enormous disappointment. It didn’t work as a piece of cinema as a whole. Even if I divorced all my conceptions of Ned the story was simply not well told.”
Reviewers were less circumspect. “When Jagger puts on his home-made armour he looks like a cut rate sardine” commented one. “About as lethal as last week’s lettuce”. Jagger himself boycotted the Premier. “I didn’t know the film was going to be shit” was his parting shot.
“I liked Mick” says Jones. “I found him a very honest sort of character. He was a very straightforward in his way. But he behaved very badly when he realised the film obviously wasn’t going to be a success. He just walked right away from it – ditched it. He ditched Tony, and Tony was quite hurt by that. Because Mick had become and absolute obsession with him”.
The film received praise from some surprising quarters however. “I was at the premier in the Glenrowan Hall and I sat next to Gwen Griffiths – who was related by marriage to the Kelly family and who had actually lived in the Kelly homestead. When the film was over I said ‘What did you think?’. And she said ‘I thought it was marvellous!’. So I said ‘What did you think of Mick?’ and she said ‘I couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role!’. She had grown up with people talking about ‘the boys’, the old timers always talked about ‘the boys’, and that was the gang. And they were boys. Ned was dead before he was 26. Dan and Steve were still teenagers. All the problems of the film were unimportant to her.”
Jones maintains Ned Kelly has its place in the Kelly canon. “With historical drama you are walking a tightrope between authenticity and drama. The interface is very delicate. English writer Vera Brittain said the idea of historical fiction is to invent nothing but imagine everything. The same applies to film. That is the problem of having a historical vision of any character – it’s going to be subjective”.
History may show that Mick Jagger is more comfortable making it rather than retreading it. But he did leave his mark on the Kelly armour. The initials MJ are still visible in the body-suit displayed at the Queanbeyan City Library. In the meantime, Richardson made a break from the colony by fleeing for the charms of India – where he subsequently spent time in a locked room after having his tea spiked with acid. It had been a hell of a journey from the silver swizzle stick. Jagger’s Kelly headpiece, meanwhile, has since been stolen.
Published in Filmink Magazine 2010