script by Noel T. Manning II
My grandfather Earl Reagan was a huge fan of the original American genre, the Western. He turned me on to some of the great classic feature films (and stars) including the works of John Ford and John Wayne.
These films in many ways explored the challenges of chasing one’s dream during the 1830s – early 1900s in the USA. It was about the thirst for adventure and the examination of the American spirit, and the American people. With uncertainties, lawlessness, and life-threatening challenges associated with the United States westward expansion, these films captured the essence of what it means to explore opportunities for a better future … even when one’s own life is at stake. But, even though this genre is United States born and raised, it doesn’t mean filmmakers didn’t borrow ideas and stories from other cultures (check the origin of the Magnificent Seven for example), or that other countries don’t have their own versions of a wild west life style. That is definitely the case with writer, director, producer Matthew Homes’ Australian film “The Legend of Ben Hall.”
This revisionist western-style biopic is based on the final nine months of the real-life Australian bushranger and well-known gentlemen criminal Ben Hall. During Hall’s lawless life and wild reign of robberies during the 1860s, he was said to have committed over 600 crimes, all without killing a single person. In this film, we meet a man at struggle with himself, his circumstances, the friends in which he’s associated, and the family life he’ll never really have because of bad choices.
Filled with gunfights, stagecoach robberies, barroom dances, horse chases, and wide open spaces, this film is filled with spectacular scenic vistas, a rich set production design, excellent detail to period costumes and props, and absolutely stunning cinematography. Actor Jack Martin takes on the lead role of Ben Hall, and he is wonderful in portraying the emotional and physical complexities of this infamous Australian outlaw.
The Legend of Ben Hall was originally released as a 40-minute film after a successful Kickstarter campaign, before eventually being picked up and partially funded for a feature-film production from Fox Australia. This extended theatrical version takes audiences deeper into the characters, the story, and the vast landscapes of the Australian wilderness.
Writer and director Matthew Homes paid extremely close attention to detail in dialogue and story, focusing on historical accuracies, and pulling many quotes and scenes directly from newspaper accounts. This can be a great thing if you’re hoping to explore and document history in a film narrative format. But at some point, hard decisions need to be made to cut the fat and the extra weight from a story to have a digestible piece of cinema that can inform while also entertaining audiences. For this film, with a running time of two hours and 22 minutes, I found that the lack of a strong story question and compellingly delivered crisis didn’t match the length of the film. Many scenes felt unnecessary, or too drawn out, and that, combined with some weak acting (and even overacting almost bordering parody) from some supporting cast, really took away from what could have been a great movie. Adding too many extra minutes, scenes and layers to a story isn’t always a good thing, and that is the case here.
It is difficult at times when filmmakers are so closely connected to a film, especially a biopic, or based on a true story film, to be completely objective and scale back the essentials of telling the story. I’ve been there as a filmmaker myself, and made that mistake, so I understand the temptation to put in more than you really need into a final cut. As a viewer, I definitely got that vibe with “The Legend of Ben Hall.” It had amazing potential, yet tried to over deliver, and in doing so, it fell short in providing a memorable piece of cinema.
I’m giving this film a “C-“ Cinemascene grade.
“The Legend of Ben Hall” is scheduled to be the first of four historical films capturing the lives of infamous Australian Bushrangers. Filmmakers are currently seeking funding for this first anthology of its kind using many of the same actors to reprise their roles. More information on the Legend of Ben Hall is available online at https://www.thelegendofbenhall.com/
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