The Legend of Ben Hall opens with the warm golden glow of sunrise. Ben Hall (Jack Martin) appears; a silent, contemplative figure silhouetted against the wilderness, every inch the eponymous bushranger of the Australian subconscious. Like Sidney Nolan’s famous series of Ned Kelly paintings, he seems ready to disappear into the landscape, or into his own legend.
But appearances are misleading. Director-writer Matthew Holmes (Twin Rivers, The Artifice) is not interested in legends nor the veil of romance surrounding bushrangers. When he first began work on this film about the infamous outlaw Ben Hall, he wanted people to know about the real man, not a glossy, sanitised-for-Hollywood type of ideal. That meant collaborating heavily with historian Peter Bradley and lifting much of the dialogue from newspapers and eyewitness accounts. Though obviously some things had to be extrapolated or filled in, The Legend of Ben Hall is as close to historically accurate as you’re likely to get.
That could have easily resulted in a documentary-style snooze-fest, but Holmes is clearly adept at formulating a great story. The film jumps straight into the action, with bushranger Ben Hall on the run from the police. He reunites with former gang-member John Gilbert (Jamie Coffa), recruits young jockey John Dunn (William Lee) and together they embark upon a spree of daring robberies. Their plan is to steal enough money to buy passage to America, but Hall remains torn between the promise of escape and love for his estranged family.
On the surface, the story owes a lot to the bushranger epics of the early 1900’s. Hall has all the trappings of the traditional folk hero; he’s an ordinary man driven to desperation by a tyrannical government, despite being an excellent marksman, he prides himself on never killing, and he embarks on outrageous shenanigans like attending a town party just to thumb his nose at the authorities. Even the antagonists have somewhat bought into the legend, telling stories around the campfire of their encounters with the notorious outlaw.
But as the story goes on, it has more the flavour of a gritty American western. Hall is clearly not a hero. Nor is he a villain. He’s simply a man dealing with the bad decisions of his past. Leading man Jack Martin does a superb job of portraying Hall’s complex, sometimes contradictory motivations while never betraying the façade of stoic masculinity. This humanity is reflected in the antagonists, especially Indigenous Australian tracker Billy Dargin (played with compelling presence by Argus Pilukai). Dargin’s decisions bring home the fact that, like Hall, he is neither good nor evil. He’s just doing the best he can in a complicated situation, as are most of the other police officers.
Perhaps the lesson to take away is while it’s tempting to project our hopes and fears onto larger-than-life cultural icons, it pays no compliment to the people who inspired the legend. At the end of the day, they were men and women with motivations no more black and white than our own.
The Legend of Ben Hall is a must-see for both history buffs and anyone in the mood for a uniquely Australian Western. Despite being partly crowd-funded, the film is as smoothly produced as any Hollywood blockbuster and the cinematography is simply incredible, encapsulating the unforgiving beauty of the Australian landscape. Holmes and his crew deserve a round of applause for working within such tight budget restrictions without so much as a hint in the finished product.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10