The Legend of Ben Hall (2016) is an Australian biopic of the bushranger Ben Hall (1837-1865), who operated in and around New South Wales. The historical drama details a year in the life of Hall (Jack Martin), from 1864 to the fateful events of May 5 1865. After a reluctant spell as a bushranger, Hall has been hiding from authorities for two years. Troubled by his wife’s desertion-she is living with another man and raising their child as his-Hall is convinced by the arrival of his old friend John Gilbert (Jamie Coffa) to reform the gang and return to a life of crime in order to save enough money to leave the country. As several gang members have been captured, the pair recruit the young John Dunn (William Lee) and plunder throughout New South Wales.
Gilbert and Dunn take the lives of two policemen during separate confrontations, resulting in the bandits becoming the most wanted men in colonised Australia. Deemed outlaws, a price is laid on their heads, in addition to an impending law that allows any outlaw to be shot on sight by any person who comes across them. Hall decides the time has come to flee Australia but it soon becomes apparent that there is no honor among thieves. The rest, as they say, is history.
The project is a labor of love for writer and director Holmes, who spent several years researching the life and times of Ben Hall to ensure that the film was as historically accurate as possible. In addition to lead actor Jack Martin bearing an uncanny similarity to Hall, Holmes approached Jamie Coffa and asked him to audition for the role of John Gilbert because the actor so closely resembled him.
Holmes’ passion, attention to detail, and patience in taking the time to produce an authentic account ensures that the project speaks the truth of life during the 1880s in colonial Australia, and the part Hall played in its history. The film developed from an earlier 40-minute short, The Last Days of Ben Hall (2014), which was the result of a successful crowd-funding campaign. The original script was fleshed out to become a feature film and The Legend of Ben Hall is the first instalment in Holmes’ ‘Legend Trilogy’, which will see The Legend of Frank Gardiner released in 2018, and The Legend of John Vane in 2019. The triad of films will see many actors from The Legend of Ben Hall reprising their roles, as the series explores the intertwined fates of the three men.
The film is simply stunning to look at, with Peter Szilveszter’s camera framing the freedom, power and beauty of the diverse New South Wales landscape in striking, naturalistic detail; from dense forests, to rocky mountain ranges, to woodland grasslands his photography, lighting and digital colouring vividly brings Hall’s nomadic lifestyle to life.
Martin shoulders the weight of the film and its titular legend extremely well; his is the standout performance of the feature. With a stoic expression throughout-defined even further by the contrast of the company he keeps, particularly Coffa’s caricature-like portrayal of the fiery, emotional and jovial Gilbert-he conveys his pain and longing through haunted eyes.
Hall’s life and death is immortalised in Australian folklore, with songs that speak of his fascinating life, but his name may not be as familiar to international audiences. With The Legend of Ben Hall, the first instalment in an important trilogy that documents a specific period in Australian history and the men that helped to shape it, Hall’s name will be further renowned. There is a wonderful, almost tangible, tension in the way that the film strives to tell the truth of Hall’s life, while also fuelling the folklore of his legend. The truth is simple: legends never die.
The Legend of Ben Hall screened at Monster Fest 2016, which took place from 24-27 November in Melbourne (www.monsterfest.com.au/2016/), and was released in selected cinemas throughout Australia on 1 December 2016.