When I was a bushranger

Bushranger on horse

When I was a bushrangerIn the good old days of the cinema, when pictures flickered like summer lightning on the screen; when talkies were never dreamt of and when Hollywood was never heard of, they sometimes tried to construct film dramas – even in Victoria. In this article Mr Norman Campbell tells of some the humors and joys of an early attempt to reconstruct the thrilling story of the Kelly Gang for the benefit of cinema patrons.

It is many years, now, since I plunged recklessly into a wild career of crime! I never motor through Mitcham, along the White Horse Road, nowadays, without a sigh for that far-off time when I was a bandit steeped in iniquity and lawlessness of a sensational character!

Mark Twain has left it on record that from childhood’s happiest hour till manhood’s golden prime, he always yearned to be a pirate. Similarly, from the days when I played “Kelly Gang” at school I longed to be a bushranger. Like Peter Doody, I sighed for a short life and a gay one.

The opportunity came in Melbourne when a friend told me of an opening for a man who could ride! I could ride, and so my friend took me along to Johnson and Gibson, who were about to make a film of the exploits of the Kelly Gang.

Until then you must understand that the highest effort of the cinematographer had been short films of a few hundred feet; but this was to be a 5-reel drama, a whole night’s entertainment, and the very first of its kind. Altogether a super-film of the good old days!

The producer explained that he wanted horsemen who looked sufficiently villainous – to impersonate bushrangers; and he kindly added that I was the very type!

The salary suggested was exceedingly modest – the whole production cost about £400, where now a couple of noughts would have to be added to that amount – and I was sworn in as one of the gang. Did I say “one”?I was to be Steve Hart; but in the end I was Steve, as well as a policeman at Jerilderie, N.S.W., another at Glenrowan, and at Euroa, Victoria, also Aaron Sheritt, the informer; a hawker; and several other characters, including a bank clerk at Jerilderie.

In those days a motion-picture player was expected, like a Prime Minister, to hold more that one portfolio simultaneously. Hollywood, I can assure you, “had nothing on us”. So we went by train eventually out to Mitcham, on the Lilydale line. We were at last, in the modern film jargon, “on location”! In those dear bygone days, of course, Mitcham was a mere handful of houses, and there was some surprisingly rough bush country handy for local color.

Our bushranging gang stayed at the local hotel, then a very small one; and there we duly made-up – to the great delight of the staff – and dressed – and our depravity began!

Bushranger outside pub
Bushranger outside pub

We were theatrically picturesque in breeches and boots, red shirts, and slouch hats; and each of the bandits had a perfect frill of lethal ironmongery round his middle – enough to make Tom Mix envious. We were provided, too, with some splendid horses, which we mounted; and so rode off to our first “stunt”, as they called it even then. This was the sticking-up of the police camp at Stringy Bark Creek, and the murder of the three constables – quite a good morning’s work!

You may, perhaps, remember the dear old song of other years: They’d grub and ammunition for to last them many a week,So two of them next morning set out all to explore the creek. And again:᾿Twas shortly after breakfast Mac thought he heard a noise, So gun in hand he sallied out to try and find the coise! The metre is a bit rocky, but the romantic atmosphere is faultless!

Away in the pseudo-Wombat Ranges a tent had been pitched, and a fire lit in a gully. Some of our party, dressed as mounted police, made camp, and we roughly rehearsed our first tragedy a couple of times. Then, with the all-seeing eye of the camera on us, we bushrangers galloped through the scrub and fern to the attack. It was, I can assure you, a thrilling moment! Then the murdered policemen fraternised with the bushrangers, and we all rode back to the hotel for lunch!It was good fun while it lasted – six short days only. We had permission from the Commissioner of Police to stick up the local police station, and the Railway Commissioners even allowed us to stick up a train and tear up the railway line! We also captured the Mitcham bank, and burned some dummy account books in the manager’s garden – to the great enjoyment of a pretty housemaid and a couple grinning bank-clerks.

At first the residents of the little town were very much stirred over our misdeeds; but they soon got accustomed to us, and excited no comment if a heavily-armed outlaw walked into a shop to buy a packet of cigarettes. Every youngster in the district, I believe, “wagged it” and enthusiastically followed us for miles over the ranges, or wherever our “stunt” led us. They were wild with delight, and at heart, bushrangers to a boy! And when they saw us tear up the railway line and hold up a really-truly Government train, their admiration became embarrassing.

Some ridiculous things happened, of course. In one “stunt” we four of the gang had to canter up to a big gum tree, read the official placard tacked on it announcing a reward of £8000 for our capture dead or alive, then empty our revolvers into the poster, laugh derisively, and ride off. We rehearsed this dramatic incident once or twice; but for economy’s sake did not fire our revolvers. But when the producer said “shoot!” to the camera-man and the acting began in earnest, we discharged our weapons. Immediately Ned Kelly’s steed – appalled at the unaccustomed noise – stood on his hind legs and waved his forelegs at the sky – and without a moment’s pause our intrepid leader slithered over the horse’s rump and thudded heavily into the dust, nursing a sprained thumb and some disarranged whiskers! Ned couldn’t ride even a merry-go-round horse, and he sat there, the most discomfited bandit in the world.

One day I was sitting smoking on the hotel verandah after lunch, with all my murderous revolvers bristling at my belt, when a stranger eyed me curiously. He seemed deeply interested, and my unusual get-up worried him dreadfully. At last he asked tentatively, “Travelling cattle, mate?” My own great achievement, though, was the slaying of myself by myself, and then successfully eluding police pursuit, in which, as a mounted constable, I whole-heartedly joined. It was this way. As Steve Hart, I came round the corner of Aaron Sheritt’s house, and with a decoy lured that miserable wretch to open the door. Then I shot him down and escaped. It may seem to be a difficult feat to be both homicide and victim; [but] the interior scene was done next [as] when, in different make-up, I impersonated the terrified Aaron Sheritt, and was shot dead on opening the door! We had our studio tricks, you see, even in those days.Our Dan Kelly (now living peacefully and lawfully at Mordialloc, by the way) had at one point in the story to climb a telegraph pole and smash the insulator with an axe, and to cut the wires. He clambered up the pole, with some difficulty, but failed to cut the wires! Afterwards fishing lines were substituted, and Dan managed to cut off communication to the joy of the audience of school children.

Our last exploit at Mitcham was the attack at the Glenrowan Inn (we did the capture of Ned Kelly some days before, but chronology is disregarded in making a movie). A suitable wooden building, standing well back from the main road, was borrowed for the occasion. A signboard was put up in from of it, and some damp straw and rubbish was set burning inside, for the place was supposed to be on fire. One or two of our company were stationed inside to fire at us through the windows, and all the rest of us, including the redoubtable Ned and his gang, were dressed as troopers and blazed away at the burning building with Enfield rifles. We were all lying on our stomachs on the public highway, peppering the Glenrowan Inn, when I noticed a lone horseman riding up the White Horse Road into Mitcham. He seemed puzzled by our activities. Presently he pulled up, about a hundred yards off – and just then we let go another volley. He never waited for any explanation! The thrilling spectacle of a score of police having a pitched battle with an empty house was too much for him. He wheeled his horse around and galloped off, like a demented Dick Turpin, in the general direction of Healesville and the mountains. We never saw him again.

But the oddest thing of all was to see ourselves in action when the picture was at last exhibited. The [tryout?], I recall, took place in the Royal Hall at Footscray. We – the gang – deadheaded in the reserved seats. It was a very bloodthirsty picture, too, and Footscray loved it. But when it was over I reflected that if the genuine Kellys perpetrated anything as awful as we had done, they deserved all that happened to them. Still – we made screen history.