Philippe Mora, “Mad Dog Morgan” (1976)
Based on the life of an actual bushranger who plagued Victoria and New South Wales during the second half of the 19th century, this film turns out to be less a straight-out Aussie-style Western and more an impassioned protest against the colonialist settler society, its values, institutions and structures that oppressed ordinary people, created divisions that kept people apart and unable to revolt against its evils, and devastated virgin lands (and their human inhabitants) wherever it was spread. The character called Daniel Morgan aka Mad Dog Morgan (Dennis Hopper) represents one individual’s protest against British colonialism for the suffering and degradation it causes him. Initially Dan Morgan is an eager and naif Irish migrant out to try his luck in the Victoria goldfields in the 1850s – but his luck quickly runs out as he witnesses a racist attack on a Chinese-run opium den by police authorities and himself ends up in jail for six years for stealing. Prison conditions and inmates brutalise him and by the time he is released, he’s already gone a bit loco. Not long after, he goes on the run, aided and abetted by faithful Aboriginal companion Billy (David Gulpilil) and the two become infamous in two colonies for preying on wealthy landowners. Superintendent Cobham (Frank Thring) vows to bring Morgan and Billy to justice – but his brand of justice is gradually revealed to be disturbingly sadistic. For his part, Morgan’s obsession with avenging himself on those people who sent him to jail in the first place threatens to bring the crazed bushranger and his companion down as well.
The plot rambles on somewhat and the film’s climax – which actually comes after Morgan is so far subdued as to be in an incommunicado state – turns out to be worryingly anti-climactic though it is in keeping with Cobham’s cold-blooded and perverse nature and the evil that surrounds him. The message behind the film – that there’s a reason behind Mad Dog Morgan’s madness and that the authorities who pursue him are far more corrupt and mad than he could ever be (though in real life Morgan was not so heroic) – might be a bit too simplistic: Cobham and a few others like him may embody the evil that wants to cut down Morgan, Billy and all that they represent (freedom, living in harmony with nature) but to be sure, when these villains have done their time in their jobs, there will be more to take up where they leave off and the colonialist project that will despoil Australia’s landscapes and resources, and ruin the lives of Aboriginal peoples and destroy their cultures, will continue in its implacable machine-like way. What saves the film is Hopper’s bravura acting as the titular character – though it did spook some of his co-stars at the time – and the rest of the cast rise to the occasion as well to flesh out a sketchy and unfocused story-line. Few actors can be more malevolent than Thring (though he might have been hamming his role up a bit), Jack Thompson is as florid in his minor detective role as his complexion and Gulpilil is his usual fluid and stoic self: a perfect counterpoint to Hopper’s eccentric nature.
Special mention should be made of the cinematography which embraces beautiful shots of wild Australian natural scenery and the music soundtrack which features Irish-influenced Australian folk and booming Aboriginal didgeridoo music. Together with the acting, these more than compensate for the disjointed plot and the cheap production values. Despite the brutal violence and the perverted social Darwinism that informs Cobham’s thinking and behaviour towards Morgan, the film is actually very enjoyable and one finds oneself rooting for Hopper’s Morgan, even though his demise is a foregone conclusion and the actual bushranger on whom the character is based was a far more brutal and amoral figure.