The Western genre is synonymous with American history and marks the birth of cinema that allowed the evolution of film to become the modern cinema we appreciate today. Most notably, the cowboy has become a godly symbol of American culture who helped forge the great frontier and conquered the west. Therefore, should anyone be surprised that Australia’s own film legacy (The Story of the Kelly Gang, 1906) can be attributed to our own brand of cowboys?
The bushranger is as iconic to us as the cowboy hat and boots in America, but too often our attempts at tackling the bushranger genre, at least in my view, have been lacklustre. That is, until Matthew Holmes’ new film The Legend of Ben Hall. Screened at the NFSA here in Canberra, with a sold out crowd, Ben Hall wasn’t able to receive a genuine cinema release across the country. Instead, the distributor opted for event style screenings and a Cinema-on-demand platform to ensure this low budget film is seen on the big screen. In all honesty, it’s an incredible shame that this beautifully shot, engaging and thrilling film has to fight to find an audience. Perhaps the discussion about the state of independent film distribution is best left for another article, but I do find little argument behind why this film couldn’t find success in the bigger cinema chains. In terms of Bushranger films, The Legend of Ben Hall is close to one of the best we’ve had to date.
Ben Hall retells the very true story of a gang of bushrangers who ran wild in western New South Wales during 1865. There is little that is unfamiliar; we’ve seen this sort of thing before. From Heath Ledger’s Ned Kelly to The Man from Snowy River, we understand the type of film Ben Hall is going to be. Yet there was something fresh and unique about it, be it from Matthew Holmes’ direction or the excellent performance from leading man Jack Martin. Influence from Quentin Tarantino’s recent western endeavours is felt in mood and style, with the incredible vistas of the bushland surrounding Forbes reveal how sparse and barren the 1800s outback truly was. Costumes and production design feel authentic and perhaps is the film’s crowning glory, considering how little was spent, compared to say Disney’s recent $200m bomb The Lone Ranger.
Without over doing the gushing praise for this film, it is flawed in places, much of which you can attribute to a lengthy run time, a slightly unorthodox script structure and a meandering pace in some middle scenes, that did have me whispering to myself at one point, ‘get on with it’! Not all performances were as strong as its lead. Yet you cannot discount any of this against how much this film needs to be on any movie lovers watch list for 2017. Even so, it’s a quintessential historical Australian film that deserves attention. Personally, I hope it becomes required viewing for high school history.