The for­got­ten out­law

A for­got­ten Aus­tralia out­law is brought back to life in the ABC tele­movie The Out­law Michael Howe. Guy Davis speaks with its writer- di­rec­tor, Bren­dan Cow­ell.

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They say his­tory is writ­ten by the vic­tors. As a re­sult, there are in­di­vid­u­als through­out the course of time who have taken on the pow­ers that be, of­ten strik­ing pow­er­ful blows against them, but in turn have their sto­ries al­most erased from ex­is­tence.

Michael Howe, a York­shire crim­i­nal sent to the pe­nal colony of Van Diemen’s Land – now bet­ter known as Tas­ma­nia – in the 19th cen­tury was one such man.

Bru­talised by the au­thor­i­ties, he even­tu­ally fought back with a vengeance, es­cap­ing cap­tiv­ity and join­ing forces with a lo­cal band of bushrangers and out­laws he grad­u­ally fash­ioned into a guer­rilla army.

They went up against the colony’s gov­ern­ment, and Howe be­came one of the most feared and no­to­ri­ous fig­ures of the time. But such an up­ris­ing could not be al­lowed to con­tinue unopposed, and Howe was soon the tar­get of a vi­o­lent cam­paign.

His name has all but van­ished from the his­tory books, but The Out­law Michael Howe, a gritty tele­movie pre­mier­ing on Sun­day on ABC1, seeks to re­dress the bal­ance some­what and in­form 21st- cen­tury view­ers about the man.

Multi- ta­lented ac­tor, screen­writer, play­wright and au­thor Bren­dan Cow­ell has taken it upon him­self to tell Howe’s story, mov­ing be­hind the cam­era for the first time to make his di­rec­to­rial de­but.

Cast­ing his for­mer Love My Way col­league Da­mon Her­ri­man as Howe, Cow­ell has cre­ated a stark and som­bre story that re­counts the out­law’s vi­o­lent life and times in what he refers to as “an un­bri­dled fash­ion”.

“I’ve seen a lot of films de­pict­ing the colo­nial era in th­ese golden tones, and I re­ally don’t think that’s what it was like,” Cow­ell said.

“It was bru­tal and spiky and dif­fi­cult and un­re­lent­ing, as well as beau­ti­ful and lyri­cal in some ways. And rather than take the usual ap­proach, I thought I wanted to tell it in a Bon­nie and Clyde kind of way.”

The tele­movie doesn’t shy away from the tough na­ture of Howe and his com­rades ( not to men­tion the equally tough ways of the colo­nial gov­ern­ment), but it also shines a light on some of the ti­tle char­ac­ter’s con­tra­dic­tions.

“Some peo­ple were sent to Aus­tralia for steal­ing shoes or pota­toes, but Howe was a high­way­man, a le­git­i­mate crim­i­nal,” Cow­ell said.

“And, yes, he was vi­o­lent but he was also brave and sin­gle- minded. He was on a cru­sade – in his mind he was do­ing good rather than evil. He was act­ing in the name of the peo­ple he saw be­ing vic­timised in this bru­tal en­vi­ron­ment.”

The Out­law Michael Howe, ABC1, Sun­day, 8.30pm

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