Mad Dog Morgan: 'I'm going to cross the river'

Mad Dog Morgan: 'I'm going to cross the river'
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following program may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons
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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.

Teacher's notes

This clip shows the injured Daniel 'Mad Dog’ Morgan (Dennis Hopper) with Billy (David Gulpilil), an Indigenous Australian who has taken the bushranger to the mountains. Morgan asks Billy to travel with him across the border into New South Wales. A series of shots, accompanied by an Indigenous chant, show Morgan and Billy riding along a river, and the landscape through which they are travelling. In a new hideout in a mountain cave, Billy plays the didgeridoo and explains his heritage to Morgan. He is then shown throwing a boomerang and a spear as Morgan watches.

Educational value points

  • The clip depicts the bushranger Daniel Morgan (1830–65), whose reputation for volatile and violent behaviour earned him the nickname 'Mad Dan’, although he was called 'Mad Dog’ in the film. According to the film’s press kit, newspapers of the mid-19th century conducted a sensationalist campaign that depicted Morgan variously as a monster, animal, maniac, mad killer and as 'the most bloodthirsty’ outlaw. The illegitimate son of Irish immigrants, Morgan roamed the area around northern Victoria and the Riverina in the 1860s, progressing from horse theft to murder. A reward was offered for his capture and he was killed in a police ambush near Wangaratta in Victoria, in 1865.

  • The first bushrangers were convicts who, faced with lengthy arduous work and harsh often unjust punishments, became 'bolters’, taking their chances in the bush. They robbed farmers and travellers for food, money, guns and horses. Many of the outlaws who flourished during the gold rushes in the mid-19th century were poor free Irish settlers. While bushrangers were greatly feared, some were also admired for their anti-authoritarianism, mainly by the poorer classes who resented the authoritarian colonial administration.

  • As in Mad Dog Morgan, the outlaw as a doomed antihero has been an enduring source of inspiration for Australian filmmakers. Bushranging films, which pre-date the Hollywood western, were the most popular genre of film in Australia until 1912, when authorities banned them on the grounds that they made a mockery of the police and glorified outlaws. The ban was not lifted until the 1940s. The Australian film revival in the 1970s saw the production of Ned Kelly in 1970 and Mad Dog Morgan in 1976.

  • The film is based on Margaret Carnegie’s book Morgan the Bold Bushranger (1974) and depicts Morgan as a poor Irish victim of a brutal society and an oppressive colonial administration, who is driven, through circumstance, to crime. This romantic view of the bushranger is a popular theme in Australian cinema that stretches back to The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), the first bushranger film.

  • The clip shows US actor Dennis Hopper in the role of Morgan. Hopper is a method actor who brought to the role a reputation for being something of a rebel, acquired through films such as the counterculture Easy Rider (1969), which he directed and starred in, and through his off-screen behaviour. Hopper identified with Morgan’s mockery of convention and authority, but his portrayal of the bushranger as colourful and dangerous with a sometimes self-pitying vulnerability produced mixed reviews. Director Phillippe Mora felt that Hopper gave Morgan a singular 'insanity’ and 'intensity’.

  • Mad Dog Morgan was noteworthy in that it had an Indigenous Australian actor in a central role. Until the 1970s the few roles for Indigenous Australian actors tended to be marginal and to reproduce negative stereotypes. Indigenous Australians were typically characterised as menacing and ignorant, the butt of jokes or as lazy drunks. Gulpilil, who appeared in Walkabout (1971) and Storm Boy (1976), portrayed Billy as self-assured and resourceful.

  • The film was shot entirely on location in Morgan’s own territory around the NSW–Victoria border. The second cave shown in the clip was his actual hide-out in the Yambla Range. In the film, the beauty of the landscape contrasts with, and is a counterpoint to, the degenerate 'civilised’ colonials who pursue Morgan.

  • The clip explores Indigenous Australian identity. Billy suggests that he is the product of the rape of his Indigenous Australian mother by a white man. In the 1800s, atrocities were committed against Indigenous Australians, particularly in retaliation for their encroachment on property given to new settlers. The atrocities were also intended to drive Indigenous Australians off their land. Settlers were generally male and the rape of Indigenous Australian women and girls was not uncommon.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia.


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.

Philippe Mora Writer, Director. July 2008.

Production company:
Motion Picture Productions
Jeremy Thomas
Phillippe Mora
Aboriginal songs and dialogue:
David Gulpilil
Philippe Mora
Based on the book 'Morgan' by:
Margaret Carnegie
Patrick Flynn
Graeme Blundell, Wallace Eaton, David Gulpilil, John Hargreaves, Dennis Hopper, Bill Hunter, Robin Ramsay, Jack Thompson, Frank Thring

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.
Morgan Billy!?
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.