Tuesday, August 01, 2017

The Legend of Ben Hall: Bushranger on the Australian Frontier

This is Australia in the 1860s, not the American Old West, but you couldn’t tell the difference from folks’ wardrobes. Plus, there is a gold rush on and the natives are getting increasingly resentful (with reasonable justification). However, Ben Hall was like the A-Team bushranger (meaning outlaw). He fired off plenty of rounds, but never actually hit anyone. The bushranger’s final months get the epic historical treatment (because the end is always the best part of every outlaw’s story) in Matthew Holmes’ The Legend of Ben Hall (trailer here), which releases today on DVD and VOD.

Hall was like a nicer Ned Kelly, but with a longer career—or so he would have liked to think. Generally, the citizenry of New South Wales understood he was an average bloke forced into a life of banditry by circumstances and British regulations. Unfortunately, his running-mate John Gilbert was not such a naturally sympathetic figure. Their third gang-member, John Dunn is cut more from Hall’s mold, but when he kills a constable out of stress and confusion, he too threatens to undermine Hall’s image.

Hall would like to cross over to Victoria and then immigrate to America, which he assumes will be too preoccupied with the Civil War to mind his outlaw status (as if we’ve ever checked on that kind of thing). That will be a trickier business thanks to the passage of legislation declaring Hall an official outlaw and fair game for anyone to take potshots at him, with no questions asked.

Legend starts off a bit slow and bland, but steadily improves in both respects as it moves along. In fact, it gets rather interesting when Hall starts to wonder if instead of Robin Hoods, they are just a trio of thugs. They certainly commit acts that are well past problematic, but it is also clear the frontier nature of NSW applies in full force. Still, the two-hour-twenty-minute running time is way too long.

Jack Martin also grows into the part of Hall is the film progresses. Initially, he seems a rather brutish excuse for an antihero but he evolves into a legitimately tragic hero, in the full literary, archetypal sense. William Lee cuts a similar figure as Dunn, but with less rough edges. In contrast, Jamie Coffa’s Gilbert makes us want to gun him down in the street like a rabid dog, so you could say for his performance: it provokes strong reactions.

Holmes does not accept the Hall legend at face value, nor does he overindulge in nauseating revisionist moralizing. Life was hard on the frontier. That’s why it was the frontier. But one hundred-forty minutes, seriously? It is too long, but its grit is commendable. Recommended for flexible western fans, The Legend of Ben Hall is now available on DVD and VOD.