Mad Dog Morgan: 'I'm going to cross the river'
Morgan (Dennis Hopper) has been shot while stealing a horse. He is rescued by an outcast Aborigine, Billy (David Gulpilil), who nurses him back to health in the mountains. They decide to seek safety across the border in New South Wales. Summary by Paul Byrnes.
Some very beautiful shots introduce some recurring images – the crossing of the river, with a sense of its cleansing power, leading Morgan into the world of Billy, who teaches him survival skills. Billy’s speech suggests his own unhappy past, the murder of his tribe, and the rape that led to his birth. Bushrangers with black sidekicks are common in Australian cinema. The Proposition is a more recent example.
Mad Dog Morgan synopsis
Daniel Morgan (Dennis Hopper) becomes a bushranger after hard times in prison and the Victorian goldfields. Saved by Billy, an Aboriginal outcast (David Gulpilil), the two men terrorise southern NSW, killing policemen and raiding farms, until the price on Morgan’s head reaches 1,000 pounds. Crossing back into Victoria, Morgan’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, as detective Mainwaring (Jack Thompson) closes in.
Mad Dog Morgan curator's notes
Mad Dog Morgan is in some ways a conventional Australian bushranging film, in other ways not. It romanticises the figure of Australian-born Morgan (who talks with an Irish accent), justifies his crimes by inflicting a series of outrages on him before he goes bad, and treats his death as a tragedy – all familiar from the various versions of Ned Kelly’s story – but it tries to update the conventions, by seeing Morgan as a modern media phenomenon.
The casting of Dennis Hopper – an American actor with an outlaw image himself – underlines that idea. The director Philippe Mora has several of the key players in the story give their accounts directly to camera, as if interviewed for a documentary. A French photographer called Roget (Robyn Ramsay) keeps turning up to document both Morgan’s exploits and the police efforts to hunt him down. Morgan himself practises his bushranging routines and crafts an image for himself. He’s a media celebrity in 1865 Australia.
Whether the character in the film bears much resemblance to the real Morgan is debatable. The film is based on a meticulously researched book (Margaret Carnegie’s Morgan the Bold Bushranger), and many scenes were filmed in the actual locations of the events depicted, but the real Morgan was perhaps a more sadistic and unpredictably violent character. He was one of few bushrangers who generally worked alone – which suggests the David Gulpilil character is largely an invention.
The film makes great use of beautiful locations and Mike Molloy’s cinematography emphasises this natural grandeur, to contrast the depravity of its characters. The state apparatus of jailers, judges, politicians and police are the real villains of the film – as they usually are in any Australian film about bushrangers.
Notes by Paul Byrnes.
Director Philippe Mora comments on Mad Dog Morgan
I had been making the feature documentaries Swastika (1973) and Brother, Can You Spare a Dime (1975) in London and the US when I returned to Australia in 1974 to make Mad Dog (original title). The fact-based book by Margaret Carnegie on which I based the script appealed to me because of its historical accuracy. I wrote the script on a ship voyage from London to Melbourne via Cape Town. A brief stop in apartheid-era Cape Town showed me that the grotesque racism in 1850s Australia was still a virulent force in the world, and convinced me in my own heart I was making something relevant with Mad Dog.
The making of the film was a fantastic experience in the bush, in many of the real locations. The scandalous, outrageous stories surrounding Dennis Hopper and the creation of the film are all mild compared to the actual events. But I took it all in my stride because it was my first ’big’ film and I didn’t know any better, and critically Dennis, in my opinion then and now, was delivering an extraordinary performance of a man in the process of being destroyed by colonial society’s injustices. He made suffering suddenly become flesh, like a Francis Bacon figure in a Sidney Nolan landscape. David Gulpilil was pure magic in front of the camera to my film buff’s eye, and Frank Thring – a long-time favourite of mine – was my perfect incarnation of an antipodean Erich von Stroheim.
The physical shoot was arduous. The grips lugging an arc light up a mountainside looked like a scene from the Second World War. Virtually all of the crew (let’s call it the ‘Class of Mad Dog’) subsequently became legends in their own fields, including John Seale, Brian Bansgrove, Graham Mardell, John Scott and Monte Fieguth. Producer Jeremy Thomas went on to win an Oscar for The Last Emperor (1987). I salute them all. Crews partied hard in those halcyon days, and a line was drawn between those who would drink Old Spice cologne when the beer ran out, and those who would not. For the record, I did not.
One thing I wanted to capture with the same zeal as Thring’s pursuit of Mad Dog, was the science fiction, eye-popping feel of the landscape. These characters from another time were sometimes on another planet. I could not have done that without the fine artistry and skill of DP(Director of Photography) Mike Molloy, fresh from working with photography fanatic Stanley Kubrick. Mike had an arsenal of fantastic optical tricks and, to me, the skies jumped off the screen into your mind. I had long admired Mike, even as a teenager, when he told me scary film stories of shooting newsreel in Vietnam, at my parent’s restaurant, the Balzac.
The finished film immediately polarised audiences in Australia. The nascent film bureaucrats of the day were shocked, even horrified, when they saw the film. It was mentioned to me that Max Fairchild raping Hopper in prison, with Bill Hunter leering, was not their idea of promoting tourism in Australia. My wisecracks that I thought this, in fact, would encourage tourism didn’t help.
They were puzzled, and one apologised to me for previous hostility, when the film got the first US distribution deal for an Australian film at Cannes and opened in 40 cinemas in New York and Los Angeles. The reviews in LA were tremendous (ditto London critics) and I was hired by United Artists to direct a film. This was a breakthrough for myself and Australian directors. Something almost culturally supernatural had happened that year. Four Australian directors – Donald Crombie, Fred Schepisi, Peter Weir and myself – basically unknown to each other, had out of nowhere made four feature films where there was no film industry to speak of. (On our film, cooking a whole sheep was called catering). When those four films – Crombie’s Caddie (1976), Schepisi’s The Devil’s Playground (1976), Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and Mad Dog – each in their own way hitting an international standard, screened at Cannes as a bloc in 1976, Australian movies had suddenly arrived.
Commentators were scratching their heads as to how this happened. Many still are.
Comment by Philippe Mora, writer, director. July 2008.
Disclaimer: Any opinions, advice, statements, views or other information expressed by the creator/s (including in relation to any third-party content they submit to the site) are solely provided by, and the legal responsibility of, the creator/s and not of the National Film and Sound Archive.
This clip starts approximately 24 minutes into the feature.
We see Morgan injured and lying on his back looking up at Billy, the Aboriginal who rescued him. Billy is sitting next to Morgan and is smiling back at him.
Morgan Who are ya? What … what … what be your name?
Billy Billy Ballen.
Billy is holding some hay in his hand and in the other hand he stabs a machete into the ground.
Morgan Good on you, Billy.
Billy smiles back at Morgan and continues to work to get a fire going. He rubs two pieces of wood together whilst Morgan lies there and groans in pain. We then see Billy stoking the fire and Morgan sitting up against the rock.
Morgan I want to cross the river and stay in New South Wales and I don’t want to come back until I’m ready. Will you come with me?
Billy has his eyes closed. He opens them slowly and looks at Morgan.
Billy lifts something off the fire with a stick and nods at Morgan in agreement.
We see Billy and Morgan both on horses riding fast across the river whilst Aboriginal singing is played in the background. A pleasant waterfall is captured along with picturesque rolling hills on a beautiful day. Billy is seen jumping up out of the water at the bottom of the waterfall. He has a big smile on his face. We see a shot of the sun setting. We see Billy playing the didgeridoo whilst Morgan lays down listening to him. Billy stops playing and puts the didgeridoo down.
Morgan Where do you come from boy?
Billy I don’t know really. I think my father was white. I think … because they came to kill my tribe … because they took the sheep.
We see Billy throwing a boomerang and a spear.