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.
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