The film was directed by Tony Richardson, and starred Mick Jagger in the title role. Scottish-born actor Mark McManus played the part of Kelly's friend Joe Byrne. It was a British production, but was filmed entirely in Australia, shot mostly around Braidwood in southern New South Wales, with a largely Australian supporting cast.
Ned Kelly is forced by police persecution to become a bushranger. He robs several banks and is eventually captured after the Siege of Glenrowan. He is hanged in Melbourne.
In the early 1960s, Karel Reisz and Albert Finney announced plans to make a film about Ned Kelly from a screenplay by David Storey. Finney and Reisz flew to Australia in October 1962 and spent ten weeks picking locations and doing research. The movie was meant to be Finney's next project after Tom Jones (1963) with filming to start in March 1963. The British arm of Columbia Pictures agreed to put up the entire budget. However, British labour union regulations required a mostly British crew, and the cost of putting them up in Australia put the budget beyond what Columbia were willing to pay. (Tom Jones had yet to be released.) Italy and Spain were looked at as alternatives but the project was eventually abandoned. Finney and Reisz went on to make Night Must Fall (1964) instead.
The project passed on to Tom Jones director Tony Richardson, who wrote the script in collaboration with Ian Jones, a Melbourne writer and producer of TV drama and expert on Ned Kelly. According to Kevin Brownlow, Ian McKellen was originally set to play the lead but the producers went for Mick Jagger. "I am taking this film very seriously", said Jagger at the time. "Kelly won't look anything like me. You wait and you'll see what I look like. I want to concentrate on being a character actor."
During pre-production, other filmmakers announced their own Ned Kelly projects including Tim Burstall, Gary Shead and Dino de Laurentiis.
The making of the film was dogged by problems; even before production began, the Actors' Equity and some of Kelly's descendants protested strongly about the casting of Jagger in the lead role, and about the film's proposed shooting location in country New South Wales, rather than in Victoria, where the Kellys had lived.
Jagger's girlfriend of the time, Marianne Faithfull, had come to Australia to play the lead female role (Ned's sister, Maggie), but their relationship was breaking up, and she took an overdose of sleeping tablets soon after arrival in Sydney. She was hospitalised in a coma, but recovered and was sent home. She was replaced by a then-unknown Australian actress, Diane Craig, then studying at NIDA.
Shooting began on 12 July 1969 and took ten weeks. During production, Jagger was slightly injured by a backfiring pistol, the cast and crew were dogged by illness, a number of costumes were destroyed by fire, and Jagger's co-star, Mark McManus, narrowly escaped serious injury when a horse-drawn cart in which he was riding overturned during filming.
Unlike most film versions, this is the first Ned Kelly film to feature the writing of "The Cameron Letter", one of Kelly's lesser-known and rarely published letters that was written to Donald Cameron MLA, a political representative in the Parliament of Victoria at the time. The letter was Kelly's first attempt to gain public sympathy. However, Kelly's well-known letter, The Jerilderie Letter, is omitted from the film.
The film was poorly received at its opening, and is still regarded as one of Richardson's least successful efforts. It was effectively disowned by Richardson and Jagger, neither of whom attended the London premiere. As late as 1980 Jagger claimed he had never seen the film. Gerry Fisher's cinematography, however, has been praised for its craftsmanship — reposoir, shadow, reflection and unstated lighting — giving the film a melancholy feel.
Arthur Krim of United Artists later did an assessment of the film as part of an evaluation of the company's inventory:
When we programmed this picture we thought Mick Jagger would be a big personality with the younger audience. Unfortunately, his other film Performance came out just before Ned Kelly and failed. We have every belief that Ned Kelly will not do well either. In addition, Tony Richardson, the filmmaker handled the material in a very slow-paced manner and we have not been able to persuade him to make the cuts necessary to improve the film. This is again a case of programming a film in a time of much greater optimism about the size of the so-called youth orientated – particularly starring one of the new folk heroes.
A.H. Weiler of the New York Times said,
Ned Kelly bears all the signs of dedicated movie-making. Unfortunately, Mr. Richardson's direction and script, on which he collaborated with Ian Jones, do not delve too deeply into character. Nor are the principals' motivations projected with relevance to untutored American viewers. Ned Kelly, with intrusive, explanatory songs by Shel Silverstein sung by Waylon Jennings, emerges as somewhat pretentious folk-ballad fare that often explains little more than its action. ... Filmed in lovely colors on authentic Australian locales, Ned Kelly shimmers fitfully with varied beauties. A homecoming dance to a wild Irish reel is memorable, as are horsemen racing on a wooded hillside and a bare knuckle, friendly fight at a village fair. Equally impressive is the iron armor devised by Kelly as protection against pursuers. But these are colorful vignettes that only touch on but do not fully reveal the drama or the history behind the events.
Ned Kelly grossed $808,000 at the box office in Australia, which is equivalent to $7,716,400 in 2009 dollars.
Ian Jones later wrote and produced (with his wife Bronwyn Binns) a mini-series on Kelly, The Last Outlaw which aired on the Seven Network in 1980. Australian actor John Jarratt starred as Kelly.
The actual body armour costume worn by Jagger is on display at the Queanbeyan City Library, New South Wales, and the initials "MJ" are scratched on the inside. The head-piece, like its original, was stolen.
The Ned Kelly soundtrack features music composed by Shel Silverstein and performed by Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings and produced by Ron Haffkine, with one solo track sung by Jagger and one sung by Tom Ghent.
- Waylon Jennings – "Ned Kelly"
- "Such is Life"
- Mick Jagger – "The Wild Colonial Boy"
- "What Do You Mean I Don’t Like"
- Kris Kristofferson – "Son of a Scoundrel"
- Waylon Jennings – "Shadow of the Gallows"
- "If I Ever Kill"
- Waylon Jennings – "Lonigan's Widow"
- Kris Kristofferson – "Stoney Cold Ground"
- "Ladies and Gentlemen"
- Kris Kristofferson – "The Kelly's Keep Comin'"
- Waylon Jennings – "Ranchin' in the Evenin'"
- Waylon Jennings – "Blame it on the Kellys"
- Waylon Jennings – "Pleasures of a Sunday Afternoon"
- Tom Ghent – "Hey Ned"