Can a film be a Western if the story takes place on the other side of the globe?
Writer-Director Matthew Holmes makes a convincing case. “In the ‘Wild West’ period, Australia and America had the same things happening at the same time—gold rushes, outlaws, lawmen, the frontier, conflicts with the indigenous people, rebellions—the list goes on and on,” he says.
While the U.S. had its outlaws, Australia had its bushrangers, and Holmes has filmed the life of one of Australia’s most famous, in The Legend of Ben Hall. “Ned Kelly is the most famous; Ben Hall is probably second—but he was far more prolific than Kelly when you compare criminal careers,” Holmes says. “The Hall Gang roamed and robbed for over three years, and Hall committed over 600 major crimes: highway robbery, mail coach robbery, store robbery, horse ‘borrowing,’ arson, assault and gunfights.”
Before Hall was born, his English father and Irish mother were convicted of minor thefts and sent to New South Wales, where they met as convicts and married.
“Ben Hall distanced himself from his father. By age 23, he was a successful landowner and cattleman, with a wife and son, well-regarded by all. However, the 1862 gold rush directly hit his area and brought the criminal element,” Holmes says.
“Hall had no criminal record until his life fell apart—his wife ran away with his friend and took their young son with her,” he adds. “He fell into depression and abandoned his work, becoming the friend of a highly-successful career criminal called Frank Gardiner, who lured him in. His descent is fascinating, as he was somewhat a reluctant criminal.”
Often described as an Australian Jesse James or Billy the Kid, the Kid comparison seems unfair. “Ben Hall himself never killed anyone, even though he was involved in numerous gunfights and scrapes. He had a very firm position against taking human life unless his own was threatened,” Holmes says. “Unfortunately, his companions didn’t share that code and they killed policemen, for which Hall was considered an accomplice.”
The range of the “Gentleman Bushranger” was vast. “The state of New South Wales is larger than California and New Mexico combined; the Hall Gang roamed over 20,000 square miles,” Holmes says. “They were superb bushmen and riders, and since they were constantly stealing racehorses, catching them out in the wilderness was virtually impossible.”
As with American outlaws, bushrangers were hard to catch in part because they enjoyed popular support. “Hall had a lot of allies who knew him before he was a criminal, and respected him. The bushrangers became ‘poster boys’ for those who hated the harsh and corrupt British system. One coach service from Sydney to the goldfields had a timetable with the clause, ‘Ben Hall permitting,’ on it,” Holmes says.
Desperate to catch Hall, the Australian government passed an astonishing law in 1865 aimed directly at him. “The dreaded ‘Felons Apprehension Act’ declared Ben Hall [and his accomplices] John Gilbert and John Dunn outlaws who could be killed by any person, at any time, without question. This act was only brought out again against bushranger Ned Kelly and gang 13 years later,” Holmes says.
The Legend of Ben Hall does not attempt to tell Hall’s entire story. Holmes clarifies: “Our film focuses on the last nine months of Hall’s life, when his criminal career was at its most critical and conflicted. It’s jam-packed with action, adventure, tragedy, betrayal and romance.”
Most who have tried crowdfunding to finance their films have failed. But Holmes successfully raised money through a Kickstarter campaign to shoot a trailer of The Legend of Ben Hall, and he used the trailer to raise the money for the feature.
“If you can make the public love the project as you do—so much that they are willing to dig into their pockets now to ensure it gets made—then you have a chance,” Holmes says. “When they make it a beg for people’s charity, they inevitably fail.
“We’ve attempted to make an epic Western on a tiny budget. And because this is set 150 years ago, nothing from that time period exists anymore, so we’ve had to build all our own sets, props and source costumes and weapons that are period accurate, which is never easy or cheap.”
While the Western is not a documentary, “Authenticity has been my biggest goal,” Holmes admits. “I’ve got Australia’s leading authority on Ben Hall as my script consultant. It’s risky sticking to history because it makes the story unpredictable and unconventional. But it makes the characters very three-dimensional. I think it’s the reason people will embrace the movie, the fact that it is so close to history.”
If The Legend of Ben Hall is a success with audiences in early 2016, Holmes plans to make it part of a trilogy. The other subjects would be bushranger John Vane and Hall’s criminal mentor Frank Gardiner, who ended up in California, running a saloon in San Francisco’s Barbary Coast.
Henry C. Parke is a screenwriter based in Los Angeles, California, who blogs about Western movies, TV, radio and print news: HenrysWesternRoundup.Blogspot.com