17 December 2023

Feature film on Ben Hall's last days captures a whole new audience

| Edwina Mason
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Three actors dressed as bushrangers.

Cast members chosen to play roles in the feature film The Legend of Ben Hall were selected to physically resemble their historical counterparts. Image: Matthew Holmes.

Punctuated by scenes shot in and near Jugiong, a film about Ben Hall has been resurrected, rekindling huge nationwide enthusiasm for the oft-misunderstood bushranger.

Writer and director Matthew Holmes has shared his delight at the resurgent interest since The Legend of Ben Hall was released on SBS On Demand.

“It’s wonderful to have a whole new audience connecting with the story even though it’s been seven years since it was released,” he told Region.

The film, which centres on real-life events in the final nine months of the bushranger’s life, was one Holmes strived to make historically accurate.

Poring over old newspapers and books, connecting with researchers and historians such as Canberra author Peter Bradley, Holmes’s research led to a fascination “almost to the point of obsession” with Hall, a person he says was complex and not easily definable.

“He was neither ‘good’ or ‘evil’ which is why he’s become such a prominent character of Australian folklore,” he said.

But, surprised by how much misinformation there was about Hall, he said the film was an attempt to address some of those errors and set the record straight.

Set between August 1864 and May 1865, The Legend of Ben Hall takes up Hall’s story as he’s drawn back into a life of crime in the 1860s by a former colleague, John Gilbert.

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Reforming the gang with a new recruit, John Dunn, the trio soon becomes the most wanted men in Australian history after a series of robberies that result in the death of two policemen.

It was Holmes’s second feature film, the first being Twin Rivers – the story of two brothers who journeyed from Broken Hill to Melbourne in 1939 – which took six years to make and gained critical acclaim.

Like Twin Rivers which used unknown cast members, those chosen for The Legend of Ben Hall were also largely undiscovered and selected to physically resemble their historical counterparts, with their personalities, wardrobe and hair based on descriptions or photographs of the real person.

Initially funded using a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to create a short film – essentially the last 20 pages of a larger Ben Hall feature script – that campaign proved so successful, Holmes said, additional funding eventually paved the way for an expanded script and two-hour feature which enjoyed moderate success in Australia, but was gleefully received by audiences in the US.

The score by Swiss-born composer Ronnie Minder was announced as one of 145 scores eligible in the Best Original Score category in the 2017 Oscars and was declared “Best Foreign Western 2017” by True West Magazine – this no doubt gratifying for Holmes whose intent was always to produce an Australian “western”.

Film director on a set

Matthew Holmes said it was “terrific to see such enthusiasm from the locals and councils in those regions. We could never have made the film without them”. On the set of The Legend of Ben Hall. Image: Matthew Holmes.

For financial reasons The Legend of Ben Hall was primarily shot in Victoria, but owes a lot of its authenticity to the scenes shot on Ben Hall’s old stomping grounds in the South West Slopes and Central West.

Using footage shot in and around Jugiong in 2014, the crew also travelled to Forbes to shoot in the remains of the Lachlan Historical Village.

A film made for less than 10 per cent of the budget of Heath Ledger’s Ned Kelly, Holmes said it was the work of sheer determination and passion, a strong contingent of volunteers and crew working well below normal film rates.

“It is difficult to shoot regionally because all the cast, crew, equipment and costumes have to be transported in and housed, which is a hugely expensive undertaking,” he explained.

Support for the film from the Forbes, Harden and Young councils and communities was instrumental in bringing it to the big screen.

“We got help from the Gold Trails re-enactment group who provided extras, horses and other such things,” he said.

“It was terrific to see such enthusiasm from the locals and councils in those regions. We could never have made the film without them.”

He said seeing The Legend of Ben Hall premiere in Forbes in 2016 was the perfect outcome.

The lack of local commercial success of The Legend of Ben Hall forced Holmes to permanently shelve his ambitions for a planned series titled The Legends Anthology, which would have reprised the story of Ned Kelly.

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But he says he’s shifted that work and research into a 48-episode original series called The Bushrangers, which covers Australian outlaws over a 30-year period, including Frank Gardiner, Ben Hall, John Vane, Thunderbolt, Captain Moonlite, The Clarke Brothers and Ned Kelly.

“We’re currently pitching it around to streaming companies like Prime, Stan and Apple+ so hopefully one of them will see its potential and give us the green light,” he said. “We’ve nicknamed it ‘Game of Bushrangers’ because it’s such an epic, sprawling story on a canvas we’ve never seen before in Australian television.

“I’m very much drawn to the Australian landscape as the backdrop for my films and I’d love the chance to show the world how amazing NSW looks on screen and most of all, sharing these amazing stories and characters because I really believe that the Australian wild west was far wilder than the USA,” he said. “The Bushrangers will absolutely show that!”

Holmes said the project would allow him to live and shoot on location in the western NSW districts for several years.

“I love being on location and the landscapes out there are stunning. They come up beautifully on camera,” he said.

“That’ll be a life-long dream come true – no doubt many locals will also have the chance to get involved if that happens.”

Holmes released his third feature film, The Cost, in October.

The thriller centres on two ordinary men who, intent on dispensing their own brutal form of justice, abduct a felon who committed a horrific crime years before.

Now available to download or on DVD and Blu-Ray, Holmes says it’s a very different movie to Ben Hall, but is connecting with audiences and getting rave reviews.

Original Article published by Edwina Mason on About Regional.

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