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True History of the Kelly Gang: Motherhood and Masculinity

In the film True History of the Kelly Gang, a fictional take on the outlaw Ned Kelly’s life, relations between Britain and members of the Commonwealth (in this case, Australia and Ireland in the 1870s) play a central role. Themes of displacement begin with Ned’s Irish-born parents’ (especially his mother’s) sense of alienation in Australia and distaste for anything that reeks of British influence. This feeling continues with Ned’s propulsion into the role of “man of the house” when his father dies and then when his mother secretly attempts to sell him into servitude for some quick money. Derision of authority figures partially stems from forced separation from or abandonment by one’s home (whether it is one’s country or familial circle).

In connection with relations between nations of different power dynamics, gender plays an important role here as well. Despite the reluctance to perform an expected role, there is a strong male desire to be powerful enough to defend female honor from outsiders (i.e. the sexual exploitation of Ned’s mother and sister) that culminates in the Kelly Gang’s string of police-related murders. Ned is encouraged to “Die a Kelly” and give up his own life for his mother, even if it is at the expense of his unborn child and its mother. Ned’s entry into gang life begins as a “Son of Sieve,” an Irish rebel who dons overtly feminine dresses into battle to appear crazy and, therefore, more frightening. By the end of the film, in contrast, Ned Kelly is finally captured after wearing heavy, uber-masculine “bulletproof” armor in a gunfight that results in the bloody massacre of his men.

What connections are made in the film between male and female dynamics and Britain’s relationship to members of the Commonwealth? How does simultaneous suicidal devotion to a reigning power and an internal aversion to fighting someone else’s battle with the promise of little to no personal benefit play out? What does the film have to say about these opposing tensions and their consequences within this fictionalized depiction of Ned Kelly?

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