Starring an infamously rum-soaked Dennis Hopper as an audacious, impetuous bushranger, supported by a selection of Australia’s finest actors including David Gulpilil, Bill Hunter and Jack Thompson, Mad Dog Morgan is a wild and savage trip through Australian history. Inspiration to our most famous bushranger Ned Kelly, Daniel Morgan was an Irishman seeking his fortune in the Victorian goldfields of the 1850s. After a vicious racist attack on the local opium den of which he was a regular, Morgan, disillusioned and impoverished, flees the goldfields and turns to crime. Immediately apprehended after his first robbery, he is sentenced to 12 years hard labour.
Brutalised by systematic abuse and senseless violence on the part of authorities and prisoners alike, the sentence serves only to reinforce Morgan’s determination to rebel. Upon his release, he sets out on a crime spree that will last until his death. After being injured during a hold-up, Morgan meets Billy (David Gulpilil), an Aborigine, who heals his wounds and teaches him survival skills, before becoming his friend and ally. Their relationship is a highlight of the film; Gulpilil portraying Billy with charismatic innocence and quiet authority. Aboriginal culture is never exploited or patronised by first-time director Philippe Mora, instead forming a powerful statement about the opportunities for meaningful cultural exchange when small-minded racism is abandoned.
Skillfully directed by Mora, no time is wasted in setting up characters or the parameters of the world they inhabit. From the opening scene, Morgan is shown to be an essentially good and honourable man, egalitarian and with a strong sense of injustice, but susceptible to an uncontrollable temper, a violent streak and a weakness for drink and drugs. Tracking Morgan from self-created outlaw (in a brilliant series of shots highly reminiscent of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver of the same year, Morgan rehearses his hold-up lines and refines his outlaw persona), to equally feared and championed man of the people and despised scourge of the landowners and authorities and finally to an exhausted and barely coherent, although still defiant, shadow of the charismatic and determined agitator of the outset.
With equal efficiency Mora establishes the system within which men like Morgan, convict stock, must operate. Complimented on the severity of his sentencing, Judge Barry (Peter Collingwood) explains straightforwardly, “I give long sentences because we’ve got roads to build.” Self-serving, corrupt and sadistic, the authorities see the men over which they rule as less than human, less even than beasts of burden. Morgan is constantly referred to as a monster, a beast, even a “humanized ape” and neither he, nor the ordinary working-class men who sympathise with him, are worthy of respect in the eyes of the law.
Although Morgan’s crime spree continues unchecked, his outlaw lifestyle begins to take its toll. When he unintentionally shoots a man in drunken confusion, he is horrified to find himself a murderer and yet set on doing whatever it takes to save his skin. Increasingly bewildered, tired and worn down by the strain of his unlawful resistance, his self-destructive tendencies, and excessive drinking start to get the better of him. No longer concerned with enacting the defiant rebel, he becomes consumed by a need for revenge.
Although by this stage, Morgan has morphed from horse-thief and highway robber to murderer, of civilians and police alike, what bothers the authorities most is not so much his crimes but rather that he shows the police to be incompetent and “spunk-less” as the depraved Sergeant Smith (a gleefully savage Bill Hunter) puts it. With more and more police being recruited to the cause, it is not until Detective Manwaring (Jack Thompson) comes on board that they gain the upper hand. The only authority figure shown to have either integrity or intelligence, it is not long before Manwaring, who is the author of this version of events having introduced the story directly to the camera at the outset, catches up to Morgan.
Arriving at Peechelba Station, Morgan takes landowner Macpherson and his family hostage. After a maid manages to alert a neighbor, a group of civilians quickly followed by Manwaring and his men, stake out the property. Holed up inside, aware he’s close to the end, Morgan spends a shambolic night drinking whisky and ruminating on his life, with the captive family as his audience. In the morning, conscious now of the ambush that awaits him, Morgan, cloaked in a ceremonial skin bestowed upon him by Billy, walks out to meet his death. Shot down within moments, he dies a gurgling, bloody, drawn out death surrounded by onlookers but defiant till the end. With Morgan finally defeated, Superintendent Cobham (played with relish by Frank Thring) can now take his longed for revenge. Unfazed by the disgust of his subordinates, he commands that the testicles be removed to make tobacco pouches as an “interesting souvenir of this animal”.
Mad Dog Morgan is energetically paced, never slowing down for long, but taking the time to build up a multifaceted portrait of its central character. Replete with markers of Australian cultural identity from the underdog to the eternal NSW/Victorian rivalry, Mora adeptly presents a complex picture of Australia as both a place of harsh realities; sadistic brutality, systematic injustice, racism and class rivalries, and the site of natural bounty and beauty (if only you know how to locate it) and of a warm, open and, potentially, multi-cultural mateship.
Filmed on location, the Australian bush is spectacularly shot throughout by DOP Mike Molloy and camera operator John Seale, who has since gone on to become one of Australia’s most awarded and internationally recognised cinematographers. A wildly entertaining ride, full of action, humour and drama, this is a surprisingly skilled production for a first film and for the time. Intensely researched and featuring superb performances, a solid script, exquisite cinematography, an evocative score and some unforgettable action sequences, Mad Dog Morgan is a powerfully authentic account of a legendary Australian character.