Since then, Ned Kelly has been portrayed in dozens of films and television series, everything from serious drama to comedy to even a musical.
And no matter how the story is reimagined, the core myth of a man standing up for his rights still hits the right notes, says film and television historian Andrew Mercado.
“Australians have always had a fascination with true crime stories,” Mercado says, “I don’t think it’s a surprise we’ve had so many versions of Underbelly for example, because we seem to have this secret love of rooting for the bad guys.
“And that goes all the way back to our fascination with Ned Kelly. He was a robber and a killer, but we love him as a hero instead, a larrikin who went up against the system.”
That larrikin legend has attracted some of the world’s biggest stars – Rolling Stones front-man Mick Jagger memorably made his big screen debut when he played the bushranger in Academy Award-winning director Tony Richardson’s controversial 1970 film Ned Kelly (the first time the Kelly story was shot in colour) and has evolved constantly as different sides of his story came to light or fresh viewpoints were imagined.
The latest cinematic version of Ned’s life comes in the form of the Stan Original film True History of the Kelly Gang, directed by Justin Kurzel and inspired by Peter Carey’s prize-winning novel of the same name.
Told from the bushranger’s perspective and with an ironic “nothing you are about to see is true” rider in the opening titles, the film, which recently received critical acclaim at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, follows young Ned as he grows into the legend himself.
Forced to act as the head of his family while still just a boy, he is shown undertaking an apprenticeship of sorts with veteran bushranger Harry Power (played by Russell Crowe), before forming his own gang with his brother Dan and their friends.
Offering a controversial twist to the tale, this time Ned and his crew are shown not only in the armour they were famous for, but also in borrowed dresses to disguise their attacks and terrify their victims.
The shock frocks might be a world away from reality, but as Mercado points out, it’s unlikely to be the last twist on the tale of our original bad boy.
“Ned Kelly has brand recognition now,” he says.
“He’s been in films, television, stage shows, commercials – he was even used to sell headache tablets! He is a true icon and for whatever reason, he’s our icon.
“Which is why there’s been so many versions of his story so far and we’re probably going to get even more.”
“That’s very true,” says Brad Webb, Kelly expert and author of Ned Kelly: The Iron Outlaw who reports a French production crew was in Australia just last year exploring the similarities in Ned Kelly’s story to that of French Revolutionaries.
“All you need to do is Google the name to see how fascinated we are by Ned Kelly,” says Webb.
“There are millions upon millions of references to him and that number goes up all the time.”
It’s easy to see why. In a time when the young colony was struggling to survive, here was Ned, a brave young man with dash and flair, living a life that seemed to borrow heavily from the story of Robin Hood (and apparently the French) as he fought against authority.
Almost instantly, the exploits of the Kelly gang caught the public attention – and by the time he was caught, Ned and his armour were cultural icons.
“If you look at the period when the Kelly events unfolded, which coincided with the birth of the modern newspaper, crowds would gather around The Age and The Argus [newspaper] offices where they were pumping out updates every half hour as news came in during the siege of Glenrowan,” Webb says.
“They were typesetting and selling them as fast as they could get them out, his was a story that instantly caught the public attention and has held on ever since.”
The Stan Original film True History of the Kelly Gang is now streaming, only on Stan – Australia’s unrivalled home of original productions.