A low-budget Australian effort noteworthy for the presence of Hollywood leading man Dennis Hopper, Mad Dog Morgan offers an Ozzie spin on the cliché of the antihero outlaw. Based on the real-life exploits of John Fuller, a criminal who operated under aliases including “Daniel Morgan” in mid-19th-century Australia, the picture romanticizes certain elements of the protagonist while still depicting his violence in a vivid way. Morgan was a “bushranger,” living in the wild and subsisting on loot from robberies. He also developed a fierce reputation for the savagery of which he was capable when inebriated.
Director/cowriter Philippe Mora elicits early sympathy for Morgan by featuring a prologue in which the character is brutalized while imprisoned. The image of Morgan getting branded is hard to shake, and the abuse he suffers behind bars goes a long way toward explaining why he subsequently shuns law and order. Whether this portrayal accurately reflects the real Morgan’s character is open to debate, but the strategy works on a narrative level: Even as Morgan becomes more and more dangerous, we recall why he resents authority and values his freedom.
Hopper was ingenious casting, since his work in Easy Rider (1969) made him an icon for the rebel spirit of the counterculture era, and he gives one of his most disciplined ’70s performances here. It’s possible that having to maintain a pidgin Irish/Australian accent forced Hopper to concentrate on his dialogue instead of tumbling off into formless improvisation, but whatever the case, he’s ferocious and focused from start to finish.
The movie’s plotting is rather ordinary, the usual business of a crook forming unexpected alliances and outsmarting pursuers until an inevitable showdown, so what makes Mad Dog Morgan arresting, aside from Hopper’s performance, is the movie’s rich Australian texture. Shot on location by cinematographer Mike Molloy, the film’s widescreen images present untamed regions of the land down under as a striking alternative to the familiar settings of Hollywood-made outlaw pictures. Lit naturalistically and shot on grainy film, Molloy’s frames feel like vintage photographs come to life. Furthermore, an ominous soundtrack featuring the eerie aboriginal wind instrument called the didgeridoo gives Mad Dog Morgan an otherworldly air.
The supporting cast is fine but not spectacular, though Ozzie stalwart Jack Thompson contributes his usual commanding presence in the small role of Morgan’s main pursuer, and Aboriginal actor David Gulpill (Walkabout) is amiably enigmatic as Morgan’s outback sidekick. (Gulpill also performs the soundtrack’s didgeridoo music.) Thanks to strong execution elevating potentially humdrum material, Mad Dog Morgan offers an exotic new spin on a durable genre.
Mad Dog Morgan: GROOVY