Like A Rolling Stone: The Making Of 1970’s Ned Kelly

July 24, 2019
Nearly fifty years after its release, Tony Richardson’s Ned Kelly – starring Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger as Australia’s most famous outlaw – is largely a source of derision. Its bizarre brand of lyricism, however, is well worth revisiting, as is its torturous, scandal-ridden production history.

When Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger saddled up for the lead role in 1970’s Ned Kelly, history was meant to bear him somewhere between Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid and a ballsy Irish folk song. “The more I worked on it, the more I thought that I could make it by adopting a ballad…almost a country and western formula,” recounted Tony Richardson, the flamboyant British director behind such celebrated epics as The Charge Of The Light Brigade and Tom Jones, and the “kitchen sink realism” groundbreakers Look Back In Anger and The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner. But while the cinematography would unfurl with beautifully haunting reverie, any romantic re-imagining was swiftly ring barked by the dramas of rock stardom, careless rewrites and, worst of all (according to Richardson), Australians. Ned Kelly is indeed a renowned tale of thuggery, violence, and an indomitable mythology…and that was just behind the camera.

JAGGER AND THE IRON OUTLAW

“Ned Kelly?” reminisced a skull-jewelled Keith Richards to FilmInk in 2008 while promoting The Rolling Stones concert film Shine A Light. “With that bucket on his 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 that Ned Kelly took, it is veteran Australian screenwriter Ian Jones. Whilst working for legendary production company Crawfords as writer, producer and director (where he pioneered local TV with programmes such as Homicide, Hunter and Division Four), Jones began helping Richardson draft the original script for Ned Kelly. Jones was (and remains) a leading Kelly 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, then I’d have to find it out for myself.” By the time Jones was twelve-years-old, he was going through newspaper files, and by fifteen, he had started going through the minutes of the Kelly Royal Commission. By the fifties, this inevitably led to an amateur Kelly film. “I spent two hundred pounds to get two hundred feet of film,” Jones recalls. After wrangling paddle-steamers and coaches, the project was aborted midway after Jones stepped on a broken bottle in a billabong. “One hundred and fifty feet, and that was it – a pretty disastrous exercise.”

It would take more than that, however, 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,” Jones explains. “It was a god-send to suddenly get a phone call asking me to arrange lunch with Tony Richardson to talk about making a Ned Kelly film. We were gearing up to do Division Four, so I could only be loaned for three weeks. I arrived in London on New Year’s Eve 1968, and began working with Tony on New Year’s 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

Ian Jones recognised the opportunity to show Ned Kelly as he really was: a wily, charismatic Irishman. He was initially pleased that Tony 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. He believed that Ned should speak with an Irish accent. This was revolutionary at the time. Ned was always archetypically Australian.”

Casting threw a seasoned assortment of names into the mix. “At that stage, it was a Columbia film, and they were coming up with names like Sean Connery, Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris and Warren Beatty,” recounts Jones. “Ian McKellen had done Richard II and Tony was very impressed, so we gave him a bit of the Jerilderie letter [Ned Kelly’s famous letter and manifesto] and filmed him in costume. He gave a very powerful reading of Ned.”

Jones could not have guessed, however, where the tin hat would eventually 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.’ 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. 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 rock frontman was clearly not on Jones’ list of candidates. “‘Mick Jagger!? No, Tony!!’ I said, 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’d tested some very good actors,” reminisced Richardson. “Mick was sniffing at a career as an actor. I’d always been a fan of The Rolling Stones, and I was excited by the prospect. The wicked, battered Irish face was perfect for Ned. We discussed the problems that the role would present in terms of its physical demands. He would have to handle horses and guns. He was sure that 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 that his body, with the speed of an urban street cobra, could be transformed into that of an outdoor bushman. It was a mistake.”

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, like great black scars on the dull green land,” wrote Richardson. “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. It was a terribly tough shoot. The English unions kicked up like hell about the number of Australians that Tony was using. They virtually called a strike towards the end of filming and sent telegrams to the members of the crew. Tony held them until the film was finished,” laughs Jones, “which was a fairly Tony way of doing things.”

Tony Richardson flew to Queensland for an initial scouting expedition. “Social activity for the whole district, an area of probably 1,000 square miles, was centred on one bar,” Richardson wrote in his autobiography. “There was a tiny band that 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.”

A “man of wealth and taste”, however, was on his way. 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 music synonymous with the sixties, heroin was setting cracks in the edifice; Jagger’s bandmate Keith Richards had been arrested for drug possession, while guitarist and band founder Brian Jones was dead. Jagger’s girlfriend, singer Marianne Faithfull (now cast alongside Jagger as Ned Kelly’s sister, Maggie), was in the grip of serious addiction.

After the famous memorial gig for Brian Jones in London’s Hyde Park, Jagger and Faithfull skipped the funeral and headed straight for Australia. “Mick and I were still trying to keep it together,” Marianne Faithfull wrote in her autobiography. “That is in part why we’d agreed to go to Australia to shoot Ned Kelly. When Tony Richardson offered Mick the part of Ned Kelly and me that of the outlaw’s sister, I was thrilled. We would be together and away from all the temptations of London – principally, in my case, drugs. What I liked doing best with Mick was to go to faraway places on our own. I was pretty much gone by the time the plane landed. I was scared of flying; that’s what I’d told the doctor: ‘I’ve got a long flight and I need some downers…and I’ll be away for three months.’ He gave me a three-month supply of Tuinals. I must have taken fifteen Tuinals during the flight. By the time we got to the hotel, I was in a trance. We got to our room, and I went straight to sleep. When I woke up, I couldn’t remember who I was.”

With Marianne Faithfull immobilised, Jagger initially seized hungrily upon his role in Ned Kelly. After starring as a self-absorbed rock star in Nicolas Roeg’s bizarre cult film Performance, cinema had become another professional paramour for the rock icon. Ned Kelly, however, was to be a different creature. “I’ve never done many parts, only one really; and this isn’t as difficult,” reasoned Jagger initially at a press conference in Australia to publicise the start of shooting. “I’m playing someone very different from myself, so it’s much easier going. It won’t look 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.”

The Australian media had not lapped at rock dignitary this thoroughly since The Beatles’ tour of 1963. For publicity, it was a major coup. But for Ian Jones, it was having a more profound effect. “The notoriety of The Rolling Stones was a hell of a hurdle,” he says. “It wasn’t helped by the fact that Marianne Faithful had a disastrous drug overdose upon arriving in Australia.” Faithfull had been “fatigued” by the journey, the press conference was told, and was now resting. 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.”

WELCOME TO KELLY COUNTRY

With lurid dramas percolating on the fringe [Faithfull was replaced on the film by young local actress Diane Craig], other aspects came together extremely well. In terms of viscerally creating Ned Kelly’s rustic world, the film succeeds beautifully. “[Designer] Jocelyn Herbert was absolutely wonderful,” Jones says. “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. 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 that there was a 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.”

The silky landscape was conjured masterfully by cinematographer Gerry Fisher. “It had a wonderful feel of the past about it,” says Jones. “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 gaol where Ned Kelly was actually hanged was also given a make-over, with gallows re-hinged 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 that 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.”

WILD COLONIAL STONE

Jones admired Jagger, but knew that the weight of celebrity couldn’t hold the film’s centre. “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’s 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, and at times spastic. But the mistake was mine.”

While staying in a small grazing property thirty kilometres out of Canberra, Jagger worked hard at the role, but was finding it demanding. “Mick did try for a while,” said Richardson. “He rode, he shot guns, and he learned how to improvise. But, for all his exceptional intelligence and imagination, he couldn’t understand the dues that 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. If I’d tried to tailor the character more to him, he’d have resisted it.”

Tony Richardson

“Tony had a remarkable intellect,” says Jones. “He knew that 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. The fact that Tony didn’t understand the central physicality of Ned’s nature was a fatal flaw. I blame myself for not hammering it home more strongly. But Tony and Mick made a good fist of it. Tony could get very gritty. He captured the important aspects of Ned Kelly, but in other ways, Mick could never be Ned Kelly.”

While Jagger was losing interest, the film’s narrative also ran 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 on set and discovered some of the things that Tony had done, I threw a wobbly. 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 that bushmen behave! That was all down to improvisation. Tony would rehearse a scene and then suddenly have an entirely different idea and do another take. 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. “That was very brave of him,” Jones says. “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. 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. That’s why he wears gloves in several scenes, because of the wound on his hand. He was a very gutsy fellow.”

It’s a shame that Richardson couldn’t harness some of the mayhem and corral it into the film. The wrap party, for instance, rivalled The Kelly Gang’s 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 prepared for the party behind a ten-foot-tall barbed wire fence designed to protect the property where he was staying. “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 into mirrors.” The next morning, people lay passed out and bleeding. “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. 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, it was superb, and some moments were unhistorical but worked quite well. Stringy Bark Creek was very well done. The last stand was beautifully handled. 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. 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 premiere, and did less than nothing to help with the release of the film. In fact, he was downright scornful of it. “That was a load of shit,” he said of Ned Kelly. “I only made it because I had nothing else to do. I knew that Tony Richardson was a reasonable director, and I thought that he’d make a reasonable film. The thing is, you never know until you do it whether a film will turn out to be a load of shit. If it does, all you can say is, ‘Well, that was a load of shit’ and try to make sure that you don’t do anything like it again.” Indeed, Jagger wouldn’t act again in a feature film until the disastrous 1992 sci-fi action flick Freejack.

“I liked Mick,” says Jones. “I found him to be a very honest character. He was very straightforward in his way, but he behaved very badly when he realised that the film obviously wasn’t going to be a success. He just walked right away from it. He ditched Tony, and Tony was quite hurt by that. Mick had become an absolute obsession with him.”

Jones maintains that Ned Kelly has its place in the Kelly canon. “With historical drama, you are walking a tightrope between authenticity and drama,” he explains. “The interface is very delicate. English writer Vera Brittain said that 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, Tony 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. Mick Jagger’s Ned Kelly headpiece, meanwhile, has since been stolen…

Many thanks to Ian Jones for his invaluable assistance with this article.

Comments

  1. Seán

    I was in Queanbeyan Hospital for an operation on my left thumb together with a young man from Bungendore who had the fingers on his left hand sewn back on after he’d dared his sister to chop them off. We both wore red dressing gowns with left hands bandaged and were known as The Two Musketeer.
    One day Nurse Leslie, who we called “Legslie” came in very excited and said that she had found our third Musketeer. She took us down to Emergency and there was Mick Jagger with his left hand wrapped in a bloody bandage after the gun had backfired during filming at Bungendore.
    Unfortunately we didn’t get to adopt him as our third Musketeer as he was going off, demanding “the best surgeon in Australia” and left soon afterwards to go to Canberra Hospital.
    My brief encounter with the man himself.

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