Director: Philippe Mora
Writers: Philippe Mora
Starring: Dennis Hopper, David Gulpilil, Jack Thompson, Frank Thring, Bill Hunter
Duration: 102 mins
BBFC Certification: 15
History has not been all that kind to Daniel Morgan. An infamous robber and bandit who terrorised the authorities during the Australian Gold Rush of the 1860s, his legend and infamy were superseded by Ned Kelly and his gang a few decades later. It is Kelly upon whom history has seemed to bestow importance and stature, whereas Morgan has faded into the shadows, nowadays relatively unknown outside of Australia. It was this imbalance that Philippe Mora sought to re-address in his 1976 Antipodean Western Mad Dog Morgan, a film notable not only for being Dennis Hopper’s first key role after the disaster of his sophomore directorial effort The Last Movie (a title which, for Hopper, almost prophetically became true) but by also being the very first film to launch the Australian Film Industry into the modern era.
Based upon Morgan:The Bold Bushranger, the historical biography by Margaret Carnegie, Mad Dog Morgan follows the trials and tribulations of Irish immigrant Danial Morgan, who is slowly turned towards a life of crime (and arguably insanity) by the harsh and brutal treatment he suffered during the dark days of British Colonial rule. Teaming up with Billy (David Gulpilil) an Aboriginal native who helps Morgan in an hour of need, the two weave a trail of death and destruction across the Australian Bush, until the authorities finally manage to catch up with them…
Quite a few actors were in contention for the role of Mad Dog Morgan, including Martin Sheen and Stacy Keach, but it is hard to imagine anyone more perfect for the role of the mad, rum swilling, crazy Dan Morgan than Dennis Hopper. By the mid 70s, Hopper was holed up in New Mexico, still trying to finish an edit of The Last Movie, with the star power granted by the huge success of Easy Rider swiftly fading with each passing day. Effectively blacklisted by Hollywood and living almost an outlaw’s existence, it does not take much imagination to see what appealed to Hopper about the role of this Australian Bushranger who stuck two fingers up to the powers that be; nor why director Philippe Mora, whose first meeting with Hopper saw the actor wielding a shotgun and driving a pick up truck riddled with bullet holes, felt that the Hollywood star fit the role like a glove.
And fits like a glove he most certainly does. The roots of Dennis Hopper’s crazed, villainous turns of the Eighties and Nineties, in films such as Speed or Blue Velvet, can be found here, in a performance that feels like the perfect distillation of Hopper’s ‘mad’ persona. Yet there is far more to Hopper’s portrayal of Mad Dog Morgan than an easy capitulation to stereotypes. A dedicated method actor, Hopper imbues the role of Danial Morgan with a gritty authenticity (with a dedication that ensured he didn’t bath for weeks and, like the titular bushranger, swilled rum with liberal abandon). Yet Hopper also manages to bring a humanity and fragility to the role, ensuring that Danial Morgan doesn’t come across as a merely two dimensional caricature.
Hopper is ably supported by David Gulpilil, appearing in his second major screen role after performing for Nicolas Roeg in Walkabout, playing Morgan’s friend and companion Billy with equal amounts of affability and grit. There is also a great turn from Frank Thring as the cruel British authoritarian Superintendent Cobham, who has a great time theatrically chewing the scenery with venomous relish, as well as a sinister, malevolent performance from Australian acting royalty Bill Hunter.
The echos of authenticity in both Hopper’s and Gulpilil’s performances are widely reflected throughout the film as a whole and are certainly among Mad Dog Morgan’s more admirable assets. Working as a a documentarian before turning his attention to narrative cinema, Philippe Mora was adamant that Mad Dog Morgan should feel as realistic as possible. Costumes and sets feel suitably dirty and lived in, while, perhaps more importantly, the world of the film feels brutal and harsh. While Mora crams his most shocking scenes into the first fifteen minutes, covering everything from massacres to rape, the sense of the characters living in an unforgiving, ruthless environment is sustained throughout. The dangerous, formative years of Australia have not been all that often captured in cinema and rarely with this extent of historical honesty. Only John Hillcoat’s dark and dirty 2006 drama The Proposition comes close to matching Mad Dog Morgan’s merciless depiction of the 19th century Australian frontier.
Yet the biggest boon to the film’s sense of realism has to be the locations. Despite the brutality of the story and the exploits of the central character, there is no getting away from the fact that Mad Dog Morgan is a frequently beautiful film to watch. Mora, working in conjunction with DP Mike Molloy (who earned his stripes as the camera operator on Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon) captures some truly stunning landscape photography, in shots and compositions that might have made David Lean squirm with jealously. Being the work of such a young director, there is an air of sophistication and style infused throughout Mad Dog Morgan that belies the director’s relative inexperience. From graceful, deep focus tracking shots to reversed slow motion footage of burning men leaping out of pools of water, Mora makes Mad Dog Morgan feel less like a low budget Ozploitation flick and more like an epic western.
Yet for all his accomplishments visually, Mora’s precocious talent didn’t quite extend to the script, which is where Mad Dog Morgan unfortunately begins to stumble. Perhaps the most substantial problem throughout the film is that we are never really allowed to get under Danial Morgan’s skin and understand what makes him tick. Mora explicitly shows why Morgan turned to a life of crime but he keeps his audience at a distance nevertheless. As the film goes on, the narrative becomes more elliptical and fragmented, becoming more a series of set pieces and isolated scenes that don’t always provide a great sense of narrative propulsion. After a dramatic, violent opening, Mora allows the film to trotter along on a pretty even keel, experiencing no great dramatic peaks until it descends into a rather melancholy, slow slump as the end draws near.
There is no doubting Mad Dog Morgan’s ambition and admirable sense of historical authenticity. By the end, Hopper has also offered us a strange, almost vulnerable anti hero, equal parts victimiser and victim, delivering one of his most underrated screen roles. And there is no doubt of Mad Dog Morgan’s importance, both with its success at Cannes and its release in the US, to the burgeoning Australian film industry. Yet a weak episodic structure exposes a hollowness at the film’s core. As striking and beautiful as it is distant and aloof, Mad Dog Morgan is admirable in attempting to solidify a forgotten folk hero in cinematic form; yet, while it certainly brings Dan Morgan into the light, it never fully succeeds it showing us much more than his shadow.
Mad Dog Morgan is getting the deluxe treatment from Indicator, being released in a hard slipcase with a poster and an 80 page book. The film itself has been sourced from a new 4K scan completed by Indicator themselves. It looks, suitably enough, incredibly filmic and authentic, with great detail and a wonderfully stable image. The encode is, as ever, flawless. The original mono audio is equally clear and sharp.
Indicator have gone to town on Mad Dog Morgan and have provided a very stacked disc. The extras are as follows:
- Two presentations of the film: Mad Dog Morgan, the 103-minute director’s cut; and Mad Dog, the 95-minute UK/US theatrical cut
- Audio commentary with writer-director Philippe Mora and film critic Jake Wilson (2019)
- Audio commentary with writer-director Philippe Mora (2009)
- To Shoot a Mad Dog (1976, 25 mins): behind-the-scenes documentary featuring interview footage with actor Dennis Hopper, produced and directed by David Elfick
- Hopping Mad (2019, 34 mins): Mora reflects on the film’s production and working with Hopper
- That’s Our Mad Dog: A Conversation with Dennis Hopper & Philippe Mora (2008, 29 mins): the legendary actor looks back at his experience of making the film
- ‘Not Quite Hollywood’ Interview Excerpts(2008, 67 mins): extensive selection of outtakes from Mark Hartley’s acclaimed documentary on Australian cinema, featuring Mora, producer Jeremy Thomas, camera operator John Seale, and actors Jack Thompson, Roger Ward and Graeme Blundell
- Interview with Mike Molloy (2009, 8 mins): the director of photography in discussion with Mora
- Interview with Richard Brennan (2009, 6 mins): the associate producer in conversation with Mora
- Radio Interview with Philippe Mora (1976, 15 mins)
- Mad Country: Shooting Locations Revisited (2019) with optional audio commentary by Mora
- Archival Intro/Outro with Philippe Mora(2009, 8 mins)
- Original theatrical trailer
- Image gallery: promotional and publicity material
- Production diary gallery
There are two cuts of the film on the disc, an original theatrical cut and a longer director’s cut. The shorter theatrical cut of the film loses an opening monologue and replaces it with explanatory captions, whiles some small scenes are removed and trimmed, including a scene of Billy hunting. Altogether it is interesting to view the original cut, but I felt that the superior version the film was the Directors Cut, which should be the version you should check out first.
Commentaries: There are two commentaries on the disc. The first was recorded in 2019 and features director Philippe Mora and film critic Jake Wilson. There are unfortunately a few technical gremlins that plague this track. There is an audible hiss which occasionally crops up, while the quality of the recorded sound is echoey, making it sometimes hard to clearly hear everything that is being said. Despite these issues, this is an easy going, free flowing discussion about the making of the film and its themes, with a lot of time is devoted to Hopper. Despite the sub par audio, this is still very much worth a listen. Regardless of audio issues, I actually preferred the second commentary, which was recorded in 2009 and features just Mora himself. This is a detailed, info packed track from the director. He offers a few of the same anecdotes found elsewhere on the disc, but he goes into more technical detail about the shooting of the film and offers some nice anecdotes and info about the crew. There are a few pauses towards the end but overall this a decent, info packed commentary that covers almost every detail of the production. If you only have time for one commentary, make it this one.
Documentaries: There are two fairly short documentaries included on the disc. The first is a fascinating contemporary making off, filmed during the production of Mad Dog Morgan. It consists of on set footage, narration from the director and an interview with Hopper himself. Focusing on the opening of the film and a big stunt towards the end, this is an essential watch. The second documentary offers a rather haunting look back at the films locations, intercut with footage from the film. A rather emotional Mora offers an optional commentary, providing his thoughts on viewing the locations again after almost 50 years. As the locations were such a significant part of Mad Dog Morgan, it is quite fascinating to see how they appear 50 years after the film was shot.
Interviews: There are a lot of interviews on the disc. In Hopping Mad, Philippe Mora provides a warm and engaging interview, full of anecdotes about Dennis Hopper and the director’s time working with him on Mad Dog Morgan. Towards the end, Mora also briefly discusses the reception to the film and his thoughts on it today. That’s Our Mad Dog is an interview between Hopper and Mora from 2008 (only two years before Hopper passed away). Quickly and cheaply done, with low picture quality and consisting of a single, unchanging shot, this is nevertheless a great watch, which sees Mora and Hopper discuss Mad Dog Morgan before moving onto a discussion about art in Hollywood and ending with a short reminiscence from Hopper about Easy Rider. This is a candid, relaxed conversation, in which Hopper proves to be very down-to-earth and fascinating to listen to. Not Quite Hollywood collates almost an hour’s worth of interviews about Mad Dog Morgan from Mark Hartley’s acclaimed documentary on Australian cinema. Mora unfortunately offers quite a few familiar stories during the opening fifteen minutes, but he then goes on to offer some new thoughts on the film’s reception and marketing. The next half hour or so is spent with the famous British Producer Jeremy Thomas, who offers his own thoughts and set of anecdotes, providing a different perspective on Hopper and the wildness of the shoot. There then follows brief interviews with camera op John Seale and actors Jack Thompson, Roger Ward (seemingly the one person on the shoot who didn’t gel with Dennis Hopper) and Grahame Blundell. Indicator then also offer two shorter interviews with DP Mike Molloy (which briefly covers both his experiences on the film as well as working with Kubrick) and Associate Producer Richard Brennan, before rounding off this section with a contemporary radio interview with Mora from 1976. While it is interesting to hear his thoughts on the film so soon after shooting it, perhaps the most interesting part of the interview is the discussion about the emerging Australian film industry.
The disc is rounded out with an short archival intro/outro to the film from Mora, a original trailer and two still galleries, the first featuring promotional materials, while the second is a reproduction of a production diary, complete with text and photographs.
In addition to all the above, Indicator also provide a stacked book with this release. This contains a new essay by Tara Judah, focusing on the depiction of Bushrangers in cinema and culture, as well as an analysis of Mad Dog Morgan, a fascinating series of notes about the character of Morgan that was sent to Dennis Hopper by Mora before filming began, a lengthy 1976 interview with Mora in which he discusses both his earlier career as well as Mad Dog Morgan, a look back at the film written by Mora in 2010 (which contains, by now, a few familiar anecdotes!), a 2006 interview with Producer Jeremy Thomas, as well as a roundup of contemporary critical responses.
Phew. This is an exhaustive package from Indicator. As to be expected with such a large selection of material, there are a few stories and anecdotes that get repeated across the disc (if I have to hear Philippe Mora repeat the tale about David Gulpilil going Walkabout to ask the Kookaburras and the trees about Dennis Hopper one more time I might actually scream) but taken together, this is an absolutely authoritative and fascinating look at the making of Mad Dog Morgan that leaves no stone unturned.