Mad Dog Morgan Review
Australia, 1854. Daniel Morgan (Dennis Hopper), an Irish immigrant during the gold rush, falls foul of the police and is jailed. After six years in a brutal prison, Morgan becomes a notorious bushranger, given the nickname “Mad Dog”. A true story.
Philippe Mora was born in Paris in 1949, but his family emigrated to Australia two years later. He was interested in filmmaking from an early age, and in 1969 set up his first feature, Trouble in Molopolis, a low-budget satirical fantasy filmed in London, using short ends from the shoot of Performance and financial help from Eric Clapton amongst others, with a former mental patient in the lead role and Germaine Greer (who lived at the time in the same building as Mora) and Oz editor Richard Neville in smaller roles. (I’ve not seen it – has it even been shown anywhere since its original release?) In the early 70s, Mora made two documentary features made up of archive footage which were much more successful: Swastika, about the rise of Nazism, and Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?, a portrait of life during the Great Depression in the US. Jeremy Thomas worked as an editor on the latter, and helped Mora set up a film to be filmed in Australia. The result was Mad Dog Morgan, with a screenplay by Mora from Margaret Carnegie’s book about the real-life outlaw. Mike Molloy, up to then a highly-regarded camera operator (Walkabout and A Clockwork Orange amongst others), made his debut as DP, and his Scope camerawork is one of the film’s strong points. Many of the locations are authentic, including the cave where Morgan hides out and first meets Billy (David Gulpilil).
Stacy Keach was the first choice to play Morgan, but he failed to see eye to eye with Mora. Alan Bates and Martin Sheen were also considered. Eventually Mora and Thomas settled on Dennis Hopper. At the time Hopper was virtually persona non grata in Hollywood, any goodwill from the success of Easy Rider dissipated by the expensive failure of The Last Movie. Mad Dog Morgan is perhaps Hopper’s best performance from his “lost decade”. Sporting a creditable Irish accent and considerable physical presence, he holds the film together when pacing and structure falter.
While individual scenes work very well, the film doesn’t really hang together especially well, tending to fall apart into a series of episodes with a stop-start sense of pace. It also doesn’t help that the film’s attitude to its central character is inconsistent. In the opening scene Morgan gets into trouble for defending some Chinese immigrant workers, and later on he expresses his admiration for Abraham Lincoln, even imitating his moustacheless beard. I don’t know how true this was of the real Morgan, but this tends to come over as trying to impose a contemporary (1970s) anti-racist consciousness on times which were no doubt far less enlightened. And at other times Morgan comes over as a violent, probably psychopathic thug, not excused by the fact that some of senior police – especially Superintendant Cobham (Frank Thring) - are just as bad.
The film has a very strong cast, though many of the men are hidden behind heavy beards. (It took me a while to recognise John Hargreaves.) David Gulpilil contributes Aboriginal songs and didgeridoo music to the soundtrack.
Mad Dog Morgan was generally well received critically, but was not a commercial success. The film is fairly violent – especially an early shot showing a man’s head blown away by a gun blast, and a male prison rape – and this was suggested as a reason for the failure. (The same was suggested for the underperformance of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith at the end of the decade.) The (advisory) M rating on this DVD is surprisingly lenient, so parents be warned: the film carried an X certificate on its UK cinema release (under the shorter title of Mad Dog) and was passed as suitable only for over-18s by the BBFC as late as 2003.
Philippe Mora went on to an international directing career, every now and then returning to Australia: Howling III: The Marsupials, The Return of Captain Invincible and Death of a Soldier amongst others. Rather surprisingly, Hopper was not nominated for Best Actor in that year's AFI Awards. (The winner was John Meillon in The Fourth Wish, who defeated amongst others himself in The Picture Show Man.) Bill Hunter was nominated for his supporting role, as was Mora for his directiom, though neither won.
Umbrella's DVD comprises a dual-layered DVD encoded for all regions.
Mad Dog Morgan had been previously released on DVD by Avenue One. That disc, which has the full title on the packaging but the Mad Dog variant on the film itself, has the dubious honour of having the single most appalling transfer I've ever personally witnessed. It's not anamorphic, which is bad enough, and the “digitally remastered from original negative” transfer made me fear for the state of said negative as it was faded, with some noticeable colour bleeding, and very soft with scratches and other damage abounding. And, even worse, the transfer was cropped from 2.35:1 to approximately 2:1. That would be bad enough in itself, except that the cropping is on the left hand side of the frame, which makes the end credits impossible to read. And that's without an ever-present hum on the soundtrack.
Fortunately, the film has been restored, and the Umbrella edition benefits from this. In his commentary, Philippe Mora credits Mike Molloy's use of polarised filters for the sharpness, almost 3D-like, shots of the Australian landscape. The colours are much bolder in this edition, though it is quite soft in places, though that may be down to the use of anamorphic lenses. The transfer is 2.35:1 and widescreen-enhanced. Comparisons follow, Avenue One first, Umbrella second. Notice how the cropping on the Avenue One DVD unbalances Mora and Molloy's composition.
The soundtrack is mono, as the film always has been, and its suitably balanced with dialogue, Patrick Flynn's orchestral score and David Gulpilil's aboriginal songs and didgeridoo playing, and the sound effects. Unfortunately, as is Umbrella's policy, there are no subtitles available.
Philippe Mora gives a detailed commentary, which praises everyone's contributions but is the right side of backslapping. He also debunks many of the stories about working with Dennis Hopper who seems to have been thoroughly professional throughout the shoot – occasionally drunk or high off set, but always delivering when the cameras were rolling.
Some of this can be seen in “To Shoot a Mad Dog” (23:27), a making-of featurette directed by David Elfick, who was active in the film industry as a producer (Newsfront amongst others) and occasional director. Philippe Mora narrates, and Hopper is interviewed. There's also quite a bit of coverage of Grant Page's stunt, which involved him being set on fire and leaping backwards off a cliff into a river, which is seen in reverse in the finished film as a dream sequence. This item was also on the Avenue One DVD, and is presented in 4:3.
For this DVD, Umbrella reunited Mora and Hopper in 2008 and the result is “That's Our Mad Dog” (27:47). The two men chat and discuss Hopper's memories of making the film over thirty years earlier. Their rapport is obvious. This item is shot in very soft-looking video and is widescreen-enhanced.
Next up is a radio interview (14:23) with Mora, done in 1976 on the occasion of the film's US release. It's part of a series called Australia, which “Invites you to meet people of interest”, made by the Australian Information Service in New York. It's not the most in-depth of interviews, with the interviewer (unnamed) rather obviously feeding Mora with questions and assuming no knowledge on the listener's part. Interestingly, Mora mentions a forthcoming project as a SF piece called The Black Hole - which was made in 1979 at Disney by another director.
Film excerpts (7:04) are a series of unrestored clips (in non-anamorphic 2:1), presumably to show how good the restoration is. Also on the disc are a stills gallery and trailers for other Umbrella DVD releases: The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Robbery Under Arms and Jessica.
Also on the disc, as PDF files, are the programme for the film (which uses the Mad Dog title) and Mora's script, which has quite a few differences to the final film.
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