Mad Dog Morgan (1976) startles in the context of the Australian period films of the 1970s. Director Philippe Mora adopts and adapts the American Western to recount an episode from Australia’s colonial past.Mora makes resourceful use of his tight budget and shows an admirable willingness to experiment with form and content. A police superintendent (Jack Thompson) addresses camera to announce the end of the life of notorious bushranger Dan Morgan (Dennis Hopper). Against a backdrop of 1850s historical realism, Mora punctuates defining moments in Morgan’s life with extravagant, stylised violence.
Under Mora’s astute direction, an Irish-accented Hopper delivers a wholly appropriate wild and larger-than-life portrayal of an increasingly worn-out and unstable fugitive. The police and government authorities are mostly sadistic caricatures, but there’s compensation in their being played by a parade of famous faces (including Bill Hunter and John Hargreaves at an early stage in their film careers).
Frank Thring has a marvellous time as head butcher (“I want his spleen on my desk by sundown”). David Gulpilil plays Morgan’s accomplice and is striking in his freshness. He also played didgeridoo on the soundtrack and performs indigenous Australian songs and dances. A striking avant-garde score from Patrick Flynn provides sharp contrast. It’s hard to believe the same composer had provided an accomplished 1920s period musical backdrop for Caddie earlier the same year.
Cinematographer Mike Molloy shot on the New South Wales-Victoria border in the bush land that was Morgan’s territory. The landscape is familiar yet otherworldly, alternately forbidding and beautiful.The climactic siege sequence is over-extended and limitations in budget and special effects are occasionally apparent. Overall, Mad Dog Morgan holds up well nearly 30 years after it was made.