By the mid ‘70s, Australian cinema was desperate for an identity. It had bathed in the beauty of faux Golden Era Hollywood mimicry and wallowed in the excess of easily achieved grindhouse exploitation. But with the arrival of the new decade came a desire to look inward, to explore the nation’s still relatively new folklore to discover a sovereign as well as artistic imprint all its own. Brits Tony Richardson and Mick Jagger traveled Downunder to tell the story of noted Aussie bad boy Ned Kelly, but it took a homegrown filmmaker (by way of France) to finally uncover the truth about the brutal Outback. Philippe Mora’s 1976 triumph, Mad Dog Morgan, set the stage for many memorable motion picture statements about the continent’s violent growing pains. Long forgotten, we today have Lloyd Kaufman and Troma to thank for rescuing this gem from obscurity and giving an otherwise clueless fanbase a chance to experience it for themselves.
Daniel Morgan is considered a national treasure in Australia, an Irish ex-patriot who came to the country looking for gold, but wound up confronting the colonial corruption rampant in the still struggling land. A truly demented and disconnected Dennis Hopper, clearly locked in the middle of his love affair with “recreational pharmaceuticals” plays the beloved bush ranger, a man who witnesses racially motivated massacres and evil land owner atrocities and decides to stand his ground. After serving six years hard labor for robbery, he teams up with an exiled Aborigine named Billy (the expressive David Gulpilil) and together they terrorize the countryside in true Robin Hood mode. Morgan is not an ordinary thief so much as a karmic counterbalance. He lets the downtrodden keep their coins (while stealing their clothes), while seeking revenge for those who’ve wronged him - and the nation - long ago.
Of course, such individual anarchy can’t be tolerated, and so Supt. Cobham (a menacing Frank Thring) calls on prison warden Sgt. Smith (Bill Hunter) and, eventually, renowned lawman Detective Mainwaring (Jack Thompson) to hunt down and deliver Morgan - dead or alive. As the reward continues to grow, the locals rebel. They admire the outlaw for standing up to the government and many will do everything in their meager power to protect him. As he moves from highwayman to accidental killer, his legend grows even stronger. Eventually, Morgan is betrayed by a wealthy plantation owner and his servants. Surrounded on all sides and unable to plot an escape, the myth becomes a martyr for his adopted homeland. To this day, the name Daniel Morgan inspires great awe and appreciation in Australia.
Partly influenced by the spaghetti western and definitely guided by the work of William Goldman and George Roy Hill in their counterculture take on the genre - Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid - Philippe Mora’s Mad Dog Morgan is one of those lost titles that didn’t deserve the banishment. Sure, it’s impressionistic and complex, relying on the audience to fill in blanks regarding motivation and historical import. But thanks to the unusually picturesque vistas Mora incorporates into his narrative, along with the striking sense of time and place, Mad Dog Morgan discovers its own magic. Told in scattered, symphonic manner, the first “movement” focuses on the foundation for the icon’s anger. The second section illustrates how his legend was born and cultivated. The third act, however, is where Mora’s vision goes slightly askew. While we recognize the need for the character’s comeuppance, it is handled in a manner both far too dreamy and disassociated to be wholly effective.
Indeed, Mora seems to be experimenting with style and form throughout. The opening sequences are all quick shot selections and ‘blink and you’ll miss them’ moments. Within the first ten minutes, our hero has been shamed, shackled, and sent up the river. His prison abuse is handled quickly and almost too matter of fact, while his team up with Billy appears offhand and random. Once we get to the meat of the narrative - Morgan’s wilderness travails and the government’s obsession with stopping him - Mora’s mannerisms work like a charm. We fall into the rhythms he’s creating and enjoy every stop along the way. With talented Australian actors like Thring, Hunter and Thompson, we get a perfect complement to Hopper’s Hellspawn theatrics. The drug-addled actor is not bad here - in fact, he is fantastic and fascinating in his structure and style. In some ways, he’s like Tom Hulce in Amadeus, or punk director Alex Cox taking on the story of 19th century mercenary William Walker - contemporary, but wholly complementary.
Indeed, without Hopper’s slightly surreal take on the man, we’d have a halfhearted representation of history - facts without the fire to inspire. But within the infamous actor’s myth-busting is a lot of courage, a great deal of magnetism, and just the right amount of rogue to give us a reason for Morgan’s lasting impact. Hopper’s scenes with Gulpilil are indeed wonderful, loving without being sexual, proud without de-evolving into outright chest thumping. We get the connection (even if one is never really established) and are never really bothered by in and out nature of Hopper’s Irish brogue. Indeed, we are supposed to get a stranger in a strange land vibe from the character, a sense of being unstuck in time, and the cocaine-fueled feeling the American brings to the part cannot be discounted. It definitely works in his favor. He is a rock solid center to a full realized, if reluctant, masterwork.
While it would be nice to report that Troma goes the full “Criterion” on Mad Dog Morgan, those hoping for a pristine video presentation of the original uncut version of the film (loaded with Fulci-esque gore) will be a little disappointed. Granted, we aren’t dealing with the 1.66:1 pan and scan horror of the last transfer, but the faded colors and occasional artifacting are troublesome, even if the film is back to its 2.35:1 original aspect ratio. At least the sound is up to snuff, while still suffering slightly from 33 year old technological constraints. The score, by Patrick Flynn, is fabulous, reminiscent of a discarded Morricone jewel. As for added content, the two disc set gives Mora, Hopper, cinematographer Mike Molloy, and associate producer Richard Brennan a chance to sit down and recall their time taking on this project. The anecdotes are funny, informative, and often rather sharp. This was clearly a difficult film to make, and all the bonus feature participants respond like veterans of a great and mighty war.
And in some ways, they have a right to feel that way. Mad Dog Morgan may have been big in Oz, but it was a minor blimp on the 1976 cinematic scene. It was well received and reviewed but quickly ignored by an audience who’d long written off Dennis Hopper as one of the ‘60s most notorious acid (and other) casualties. It’s too bad, really. Held in the proper esteem and guarded by preservationists who could guarantee that future generations experienced the effort in all its powerful picturesque glory, Mad Dog Morgan might be one of post-modern moviemakings definitive titles. As it stands, it’s a unique offering in a corporate canon that has more blood and breasts than cultural epics. Troma should be proud to have this “Tromasterpiece” as part of their collection. The rest of the industry should be ashamed for letting it slip away in the first place.