Thoughts On: The Story Of The Kelly Gang (1906)
In this post we will be looking at the birth of the feature-length film.
Today we will be talking about a somewhat innocuous subject, but one that is full of open ends and ambiguity: film length. In the modern day, there are, generally speaking, three classes of film. There’s the quick 80-99 minute picture; the simple, sometimes independent or low-budget, romance, thriller, horror, comedy or action movie . These are the movies many people look out for and find on lists such as “Incredible Movies Under 100 Minutes”. This idea of the ‘easy’ film implies a lot about our attention span and the way in which we watch films. However, let us return to this idea later. The second class of film is the average 110-130 minute picture; anything around 2 hours. This is not the shortest kind of film, but it’s easy to accept and sit through with expectations of a higher budget, professional production with a star cast, a bit of CGI and, most importantly, a fleshed out and rounded story (or else it’ll get the common critique of, ‘it could have had 15-20 minutes shaved off of the end). Thirdly, we find ourselves in the ‘a little long’ to the epic or ‘really long’, but ‘it needed the time’ movie that will push past the 2 1/2 hour mark and possibly over the 3 hour one, too. This is a class of film that we expect a lot from and may have to psyche ourselves up to go into; these are huge action, sci-fi blockbusters with destruction, romance, war and some kind of basis in a book, well-known myth or a pre-existing franchise.
These three categories of film imply the kind of tolerance levels and expectations that audiences hold. Let it be said, however, that we are speaking unscientifically here. (I nonetheless assume that the above generalisation will resonate). It is clear with these three types of film that we are talking about Hollywood pictures, genre movies or the kind of films that would pop up on Netflix for general consumption. The 80-180 minute window of an expected run-time is then designed around a decades-old formula derived from market research and audience conditioning. What is not included in this window, say for instance, the short film, says a lot about how cinema has changed over time.
When we think of short films in the modern day and the context in which we see them, though many would see shorts in film festivals, we come straight to sites such as Vimeo and YouTube. There is no real commercial market for short films (outside of music videos and advertisements) any more – especially when we think back to the early silent era and compare the lucrativeness of the short film back then with the short film nowadays. The short film is what amateur filmmakers use to practice or showcase their skills (though, with cheapening technology, the idea of a cheap feature-length movie makes far more sense in such a respect). We then see these movies on Vimeo or YouTube because they are free and easy to access. However, do we think of the 5-20 minute short film as a ‘short film’ or a ‘YouTube video’? (We could also question if we see early silent films as films or YouTube videos as this is where we see them, but, let’s not stray onto such ground).
Such a question demonstrates one of the ways in which film length and audience perception has shifted in the last decade or so. For the average person, the vast majority – maybe ever the totality – of their ‘short film’ watching time is spent on YouTube. Thus, the internet has come to dominate the idea of short films and transformed them into few second clips to videos – and both terms come with clear connotations. Whatever happened to the 20-40 minute short film though?
The answer is seemingly simple: TV. In the 1930s the average Hollywood genre film, for instance, the iconic Universal horrors, were around 70-90 minutes. This spoke true of many feature films of this time. However, from the 1920s onwards, many engineers and technicians were beginning to conduct practical experiments with different forms of television broadcast. And by the late 30s, TV was becoming more and more of a looming inevitability. As a consequence, it is thought that the average movie was extended from around 90 minutes in the early 30s to about 120 minutes by the 1960s as a result of TV (whose programmes, as we all know, are about 20-30 minutes long, dependent on ads). This is a paradigm that remained true for decades.
So, in the modern day, ‘short films’, anything from a few seconds to a few minutes, are adverts, music videos or clips from the internet – we do not really consider this cinema. Moreover, longer short films, 20-60 minute mini-movies, are television – also not cinema. So, ever more increasingly in the modern day, the idea of cinema is confined to this 80-180 minute window – more specifically, a 90-120 minute window. However, why, to the average person, are only the moving pictures that last between and hour and a half to two hours cinema? What has this got to do with the technological innovation that is cinema? What has this got to do with the art that is cinema? What has this got to do with the cultural artefact that is moving images?
Confronting these questions can leave us pretty lost. And to add the the frustration, you can’t just ask Google ‘Why are movies 90-120 minutes?’, and get a satisfying answer. As we have discussed, movies are this length, in part, because of television and movies. However, this also has much to do with the three key components of cinema as a commercialised art: production, exhibition and the audience. Studios making movies for profit would like to spend the least money possible and get the most money back. This is why films such as The Blair Witch Project are significant in film history and we still, to a degree, feel its significance in the cinema to this day. The Blair Witch Project was a low-budget horror that made millions, and what followed it for many years was not just the paranormal horror, but many variations of the cheap found footage movie that could be shot with low production value, but make a lot of money. Thankfully, we seem more and more removed from this kind of filmmaking as we move deeper into the 2010s. However, The Blair Witch Project (along side the slasher before it, the exploitation movies before that and the decades of low-budget sci-fi and horror B-pictures before that) represents the studios wanting to make the shortest, cheapest movies they possibly can whilst still being able to make money. This is one reason why films are between 90 and 120 minutes; cinema, at this length, is differentiated from TV, but only by a small (monetary) margin.
Second to this, we have filmmakers to consider. They know, and have known for over a century, that they can only make certain movies of a certain length. In such, you’re dreaming if you think you can put an epic, experimental and original 300 page script about homosexual martian kings who wage war against the gods of the universe in inter-galactic hyperspace on a producer’s desk and expect a billion dollars to make it. Often working within the confines of a studio, filmmakers then make certain films of specific lengths for obvious reasons. If we take the recent example of A Cure For Wellness, a highly unconventional, 146 minute, R-rated, high-budget, surreal drama, we clearly see Gore Vorbinsky – the guy who made 3 of the most commercially successful movies ever, the first Pirates Of The Caribbean movies – being allowed to make a movie that would almost definitely not make its money back. (It cost 40 million to make and made about 26 million in the box office). This, as we know, is a rarity, which not only implies much about why movies are often between 90 and 120 minutes (this has a lot to do with the studio), but also why certain types movies have predictable run-times; filmmakers and studios know what has a commercial draw and so will not overwhelm their audience, nor expect much from them.
Moving on to exhibitors, we come to another key and definite reason why movies are the average length that they are: screenings. Whilst the importance of screening has waned somewhat with the advent of video, DVD and now the internet, this is still an incredibly key factor. Distributors and exhibitors want to show as many movies as they can in a day. This is because, generally speaking, ticket prices are not set in accordance to how long you spend in a theatre, rather, just your entering – this is called uniform pricing. As a result, a three hour movie costs just as much to see as an 80 minute one – which is actually a kind of miracle. Surely a more sensible business model for the film industry would be to charge audience members $10 for an hour in the theatre. That way, their epic movies would be guaranteed to make more money… or would they?
Uniform pricing is both a tradition and a safety net for the film industry. By making higher quality, longer movies more expensive, lower quality, short movies would be alienated. This would force a monopoly in which 2 or 3 huge studios could produce billion dollar all-day, 12 hour movies. And if cinema was re-defined under such terms, and accepted by audiences, how could lower budget film producers survive? In a way, uniform pricing ensures that all movies are seen as equal by audiences. Moreover, this ensures that cinemas don’t have to be policed and set-up in a fashion that makes sure that people don’t pay for cheap tickets, but sneak into a high-priced movies. And added to this, exhibitors are given a degree of security and an ability to set prices in accordance to their facilities rather than the films they have access to.
So, because uniform pricing is a long-lasting tradition that, certainly by now, is an inescapable reality for the film industry (it’s incredibly unlikely to see non-uniform pricing accepted after decades of uniform pricing), exhibitors are forced to make decisions on what they screen based on how popular a movie is and how many times they can show it in a day. As a result, a long movie has to be incredibly popular so that it satisfies an audience’s expectations of a full, high quality show – and so gets people into cinemas in high numbers – as to balance the potential loss an exhibitor would lose through a lack of screenings. Added to this, cinemas can’t sell tickets for shows only 30 minutes long and expect to draw audiences with the uniform price of $12. After all, not only can an audience spend just as much to see the new epic Hollywood blockbuster, but they assume that longer films are of higher quality and production value. This itself implies that 80-90 minute movies are of lower quality, or at least that you’re taking a risk with shorter features as you’re going in to see a simple genre film (that is hopefully done well) or a more artsy, cheaper film (that may or may not bore you to death). But, in such circumstances you pay less time and so are more accepting of challenging, or stupid, content. And so it is through these many factors that we can see the manner in which film exhibition effects the lengths of movies.
One of the cruxes of everything we have thus far discussed, however, is audience. Audiences have been fed films in a certain format for over a century. In the earliest days, films were, as we have explored through the series, short – anything between 40 seconds and 3 minutes long for the first few years or so. Audiences would pay a few cents to peep inside a kinetoscope or would, again in America, pay a nickle to see a 15 minute programme made up of many shorts. In this early era, technology held filmmakers back; it was difficult and very expensive to make longer films. However, also in this era, distributors would buy films, paying by the foot. This, alongside the fact that audiences wanted more films of greater scope and quality, catalysed the expansion of narratives as technology developed. And thus, around the 1900s, films would be between 3 and 10 minutes long. Over time, this number rose – which is what we will return to as to discuss our subject for today – but when we move into the golden age of the silent film, the 20s, there is a strong paradigm of the feature-length movie being upwards of 60 minutes. And as we have explored, this number increased after the 30s.
There is then a world-wide tradition of cinema that audiences have grown accustomed to. So, not only are we used to movies being of a certain length, but we’re used to uniform prices, we know how long certain genre movies should be and the kind of quality that this implies. As a result, producers and distributors are in constant communication with their audience – their market. So, as much as they define how long movies are, and as a result define what cinema ‘is’, so do we. And one of the greatest examples of this would be the films of Disney and Pixar. Whilst we may regard many of their movies to be masterpieces, they are often mere 80-90 minute narratives. Working within the conventions that audiences implied they’d be comfortable with and sustaining them, keeping animation in the realms of the kids’ or family movie, Disney and Pixar provide audiences with stories that are all audiences want, but simultaneously more than they can imagine.
When we now return to our question, “Why are movies 80-180 minutes long?”, we know that the answer is multi-faceted and includes numerous potential answers – many of which we didn’t even touch on. For example, there is a clear influence of opera, theatre or books on the length of a feature film production. So, why are operas generally 2 1/2 to 3 hours long? Why are plays 90 to 120 minutes? Why do many books take 4-5 hours to read? Again, we can assume that this has much to do with an interaction between an audience’s demands and what producers, artists and exhibitors can offer. Nonetheless, these times are part of a tradition for good reason – an ambiguous, but good reason. After all, the formula seems to work.
So, now we understand why films are generally between 80 and 180 minutes long, we can begin to question the idea of a ‘feature film’. If we think about the term ‘feature film’ a minute, it is a strange one without much inherent sense. Is the ‘feature film’ featured some place? If so, why isn’t it called the featured film? Or, does the ‘feature film’ feature something? If so, what? And what has this got to do with the feature-length film?
If we ask Google for the definition of ‘feature film’, we get this:
With ‘feature’ meaning just ‘full-length’ or ‘devoted to the treatment of a particular topic…at length’, we can see that it means nothing and maybe something. Taking the second definition as our primary one, we can see that a feature film is one that is long enough to deal with a subject in satisfactory depth. The feature film is then ‘however it long it takes to tell your story’. But, as we have already looked into, this decision would be reached by both studios and audiences and so wouldn’t truly be based on just how long it takes to tell a story, but how long it would take to tell a story that satisfies artists, producers, exhibitors and their audience. And so, this is the something and simultaneous nothing that is the term ‘feature film’.
When we look elsewhere to find out what ‘feature film’ may be defined as, we will find various institutes setting a time. Both the BFI and the AFI suggests that the feature-length film is 40 minutes or more. However, the Centre National de la Cinématographie sets the bar at an oddly specific 58 minutes and 29 seconds. And added to this, the the Screen Actors Guild suggest 80 minutes as a feature-length film. Despite my efforts in research I can find little to no reason for these suggested times beyond the implication of these times just feel correct given the tradition of film length over time. And so, maybe one of the best ways to think about film length is actually through reels.
Movie reels contain 1000 ft of film, which translates to about 15 minutes. A one-reel film, is a short movie – a 10-15 comedy short that many of us would be familiar with (even through YouTube videos – which maybe implies how prevalent this format is despite us now being the in digital age). Two-reel films, which take us up to 30 minutes, implies a long-ish film (which television has now taken over). However, when we get into 3 or 4 reel films, we can begin to assume we’re in a different kind of filmmaking. And, un-coincidentally, we are approaching the 40+, or 60+, minute mark with 3 or 4 reel films. So maybe this is/was the most accurate way to define feature-length films as this implies that these films were long enough to be the main feature in a show. By extension, I think this is the best way to actually think about the idea of a ‘feature film’. Not only do we have a sensible way of quantifying things through 15 minute lengths of celluloid, but the idea that the film is becoming of a substantial enough length to tell a fleshed-out, complex story is quite irrefutable. And we see evidence for this in the way that films are structured.
Whilst you may know that we shouldn’t think of structure so simply from previous posts, many people break movie structure down in one basic way: the three act structure. With this, you have the first act, which is about 30 minutes, then the second, 60 minutes, and then the third, 30 minutes. Here, we see the idea of a beginning, middle and end given timings in accordance to their importance: set-up should be brief, conflict is the meat and resolution should let equilibrium be established just as fast as it was disrupted. We can think of this structure as informed by reels: 2 reels for the first act, 4 for the second and 2 for the last; 4 reels for the first half of the movie, 4 for the second. This gives us a neat 120 run-time; the two hour feature film. However, we can divide 8 reels by reasonable numbers and get a new distribution of structure. For example, 4 reels, one for set up, two for conflict, one for resolution. This gives us 60 minutes; a short-ish feature film. We can even modify this into 3 reels, however: one for a set-up, one for conflict, one for resolution (a basic beginning, middle, end). That gives us the 45 minutes; ample time to tell a classically structured movie. Double this and you have 6 reels and 90 minutes: 2 for set-up, 2 for conflict and 2 for resolution. And so maybe this is a more concrete reason why we call 40+ minute films feature-length movies and think about films with the 60, 90, 120 and 180 marks being significant.
So, to conclude the answer to a seemingly simple question, “Why are feature-films as long as they are?”, we could suggests that the length of movies is a time-tested decision made between artists, producers, exhibitors and audiences, quantified using 1000 ft reels of film (which now may be considered metaphors or archetypes of time signaturing) that imply a sufficient length for a movie to tell a complete, classically structured story and not be short (15 minutes like a comprehensive YouTube video or 30 minutes like a TV show), but instead long enough to be the main feature of a show.
It has taken quite a lot of consideration and definition to say this sentence, and it will require further explanation to say it properly, but, The Kelly Gang – our subject for today – is considered the first feature-length film ever made.
Before showing you the film, whilst this was over 60 minutes long, much of the film has been lost. What we are going to watch is the surviving 17 minutes with extra inter-titles and images explaining what is missing:
The most interesting thing about this film is, ultimately, its place in Australian culture and film history. Shot mainly with distant and wide framing, though a rather free and exploratory pan, the mise en scène and visual structure of this film isn’t particularly striking, nor is it expressive. However, the fact that this is considered the first feature-length movie ever made makes it significant for film historians. And the re-counting of the Kelly Gang legend makes it significant for Australian culture, an idea which we will delve into first.
The ‘bushranger’ is somewhat similar to the American cowboy. These were initially a group of convicts who escaped British penal colonies, such as Sydney, in the late 1700s, and managed to survive in the harsh Australian outback. However, the term evolved over time to imply outlaws who would often survive through robbery, taking from the land and its people as they pleased. The Kelly Gang were outlaws of such a definition; they were bushrangers. Over time, The Kelly Gang became icons for rebellion against the persecution of the police (and this is what this film captures, as you saw, glorifying its criminals to a greater degree to those in The Great Train Robbery). One of the most iconic elements of the gang and their fight against the law certainly concerns the bullet-proof armoured suit – which, it is said, the filmmakers of The Story Of The Kelly Gang actually obtained and used in the film. For a little more detail into the suit and for some novel insight into some of the fandom surrounding the gang, you may find this news report interesting.
The Story Of The Kelly Gang was made only 26 years after the gang was killed and Ned hung. So, though it contains some anachronisms (for instance, the police wouldn’t have had uniforms) and maybe some facilities, it was made in close conjuncture to the event itself. This meant that, though bushrangers weren’t as common in the 1900s as plays about them were, this film proved controversial and its topic still politically relevant. As a result this spurred audiences who, as they experienced the film exhibited with live sound effects and narration provided would apparently cheer and interact with the characters. In reaction to this police and detectives at the Office of Public Decency attempted to get this film banned. They managed this in Central Victoria, which is where the gang was situated, and would later ban the production of all bushranger films as not to glorify outlaws and catalyse a resurgence in gangs. Nonetheless, The Story Of The Kelly Gang was a very successful film and so spurred the short lived genre of the bushranger film after spreading across the world.
Whilst some people hold a question mark over the idea that this was the first feature-length film, there doesn’t seem to be much debate to be had. So far in the series, we have covered a collection of abnormally long early silent shorts. One of the earliest examples you can find of an atypically long film is certainly The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight. Recorded by Enoch J. Rector with three cameras, this would have come in at a collective 90 minutes (it is unclear in this film’s description if this combines the three 30 minute recordings or not). Whether or not this was 90 or 30 minutes, this was made in 1897, almost 10 years before The Story Of The Kelly Gang. However, like all films of substantial length before The Kelly Gang, this would have been sold, and likely exhibited, in sections (probably round-by-round). As a result, this is much like a film programme of similar street scenes or travelogues from the same region that exhibitors could stitch together. Whilst, in the modern day, we can imagine them as one feature-length film, they wouldn’t have been treated or viewed as such. So, if we remember the various religious films, those made by Lubin, Pathé and Gaumont, that follow Christ’s life for up to 60 minutes, these too would be shown and considered in the present day to be feature-length movies, but, they were sold and sometimes exhibited as a selection of short scenes.
Beyond these examples of long films that would be sold as a serial or selection of shorts would be numerous examples of 15-20 minute features. Two examples which we have mentioned (despite my efforts) a plethora of times already in the series would be The Great Train Robbery and A Trip To The Moon. These films, whilst they are not feature-length, can be considered feature films to a degree because they would have been the main feature in a screening. However, let us not be bogged down by semantics. The Story Of The Kelly Gang is the first known and partially surviving movie to stretch past the 40 minute mark and be sold as a feature film. So, what this film represents is the coming of the feature film and so is the initial expression of all we have been discussing in the previous few posts with cinematic language becoming more complex, stories themselves becoming rounder and better capable of handling plot and character and audiences, along with filmmakers, distributors, exhibitors and producers, preparing for longer narratives. It is then between 1906 and 1910 that more feature films would begin to sprout out of the world-wide film industry before, in 1911, they became ever more common in cinemas.
Today’s Every Year post is then simple in scope – we took a brief look at the first feature-length film – but is tricky in terms of the depths of the seemingly innocuous term: ‘feature film’. However, as we move through the series, we should have a better understanding of what cinema would begin to form into; cinema, after a few decades, would be the 80-180 minute moving pictures. But, whilst we have this vision of the future of film history, we should keep in mind the uniqueness of the silent era, which, now that the feature-length film has been born, will encapsulate a very broad idea of the moving picture – one as broad as time itself, free from television and the internet.
Before you go, the focus of this post was more on the idea of feature-length films, but, if you want to read more into the film and its makers, I found this article by Randall Berger quite informative.
The Night Of Counting The Years – Lineage
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