Did You Know The World’s First Feature Movie, Was An Action Movie?

December 26th  is the most important date in the cinema industry in Australia. The kids are all on school holidays and the parents are wanting to relax after the feast called Christmas. Some eagerly await the first bounce of the Boxing Day Test, while others head to their local cinema ready to catch the biggest releases of the year.

But what if I told you December 26th holds a stronger significance, not just for Australia, but the world. Let me take you back to 1906, to the Athenaeum Theatre on Collins Street in Melbourne, to a sold-out auditorium, all to watch the world premiere of the world’s first ever feature film ‘The Story of the Kelly Gang’.

This 80-minute film was the world’s first multi-reel feature, and the longest. Prior to this film, it was ‘The Great Train Robbery’ which clocked in at just about 10 minutes. But I’m not here to point out the significant part Australia has played within the world of feature films. We’re here to talk action, so why not discuss the first feature film ever made?!

Of all the genres, you’d think if you’re going to make the first feature film, you’d probably play it easy, maybe a Chaplin-esque comedy or a romance. Nope, The Tait family went straight to the Kelly Gang. For those who are unaware of the legendary Australian “bushranger” (or outlaw), Ned Kelly became infamous throughout Australia for killing Victorian police officers and rallying sympathisers throughout the land.

He was a broad mix of Billy the Kid and Robin Hood. But what truly made him famous world-wide was the suit of armour he wore at his final stand at Glenrowan. Plates made from steel plough mould boards created bullet proof armour that covered their bodies. But the most important piece was the head wear he fashioned; a sole plate with the single eye slit, which can still be viewed today.

It’s funny we previously mentioned romance, but you could make a case that love is what guided the Taits. Their love of entertainment flowed through their veins. They knew what the audience wanted. They wanted the emotional roller-coaster that we all still experience today. The thrill of the action, to be lured into the story, and what better way than using the biggest star in the country. Storytelling is about connecting with emotion, no matter it being excitement, anger, love or even the format, you hook your audience with emotion, and you will have them on the line the entire time.

The foresight of the Tait’s to see Kelly’s story as one worth pursuing was genius, especially when you consider what was at stake. The words first feature film, and they’ve pitched to their investors to expand the storytelling method from 10 minutes to 80 minutes! Which is crazy to think, but they knew they could get the bums on seats. Only 26 years had passed since the events of the Kelly gang, which is not a lot of time in the grand scheme of things, which was perfect for them and their audience.
Even the first ever feature film was funded by investors, so it was already a business strategy. They needed to not only cover cost but also make a profit (which they did). So taking all this into account, it is clear to see why they chose the Kelly Gang. The excitement, the drama… the action, it was all already there!

Unfortunately not a lot of the film remains, but what does is nothing but pure action. Gun play, people being shot, armed robberies and yes, the final battle in the infamous bulletproof attire. Charles Tait keeps the frames wide, making sure we see all the action taking place, with a lot of long cuts, keeping the frame reasonably still, with only the slight pans.

One could make a case that, for the time, keeping the camera still was reasonably safe, which also indicates Tait’s background in the theatre. But this type of framework can still be seen in action films today, instead of having over stylised camera movements. Just keep it still and let the actors tell the story (the author subtly nods towards  John Wick).

Tait uses every trick to enhance the audience’s experience. Inter-cut superimposed frames, detailing what is occurring. Ellipsing the plot scenes that would traditionally connect one scene to the next and replacing them with a dark screen and dramatic wording, for example “Death of Joe”, then cut to a fire fight and a body falling to the ground.

Tait also uses a red filter when representing the fire at the Glenrowan Hotel, which could be quite creatively brave, when you really consider all the elements in making this film. The addition of smoke and the obvious wording prior no doubt helped set the drama of the scene, but the overall concept and the way they pulled it off was nothing short of spectacular.

So why did Tait choose to only focus on the action? The same reason we all flock to the cinemas today to see John Wick. The escape, the excitement, the ‘other side’ of life that we may never experience. Film making in 1906 was just finding its feet, the pathway still being discovered. What the Tait family did was show the world that long form of storytelling can happen and be exciting along with entertaining.

The Story of the Kelly Gang played to sold out crowds across Australia, New Zealand and United Kingdom and ushered in the next wave of film makers. But the most important thing is, the first ever feature length film was an action film!

Ned Kelly’s life has been made into several films, the last one being made in 2019 and I’m sure it won’t be the last. His influence within Australian society still exists, with pies named after him, museums, mailboxes, and tattoos to name a few.

But as I sat in the theatre to watch John Wick 4, it was crazy to see that Ned Legacy still lives on within cinema, as Ian McShane’s character Winston mentions Ned Kelly and quotes Kelly’s famous line before he was hanged … “Such is life”.


This article is written by Aaron Kajanto celebrating the cultural impact of the action genre in cinema & TV, and promoting THE LONDON ACTION FESTIVAL taking place in London from Wednesday 21st – Sunday 25th June. Sign up to the newsletter to receive all news, updates, and Early Bird ticket release.