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Sunday 26 April 2009

Mad Dog Morgan (1975)

Director: Philippe Mora
Star: Dennis Hopper

It's 1865 and Daniel Morgan is dead. We're told that at the beginning of the film by William Mainwaring of the Victorian Detective Police, this being the Australian state of Victoria. Morgan is an Irishman, one played by Dennis Hopper with a pretty decent accent, which seems surprising, given that we're talking about having an American play an Irishman in Australia, but then again, it's frickin' Dennis Hopper. He's in Oz to pan for gold, but seems to have about as much luck with that as he does with anything else, which is to say he has no luck at all.

After failing in the goldfields, he heads off to smoke opium in what passes for a Chinatown in rural Victoria, but the locals burn the place down. He tries his hand at highway robbery, but a severe judge hands him down a twelve year sentence. After all, as he points out to a friend, he gives out harsh sentences because he needs roads building. So Morgan ends up breaking rocks in prison, where he's raped and branded. He gets paroled but promptly shot as a horse thief. And then comes the first piece of luck he gets in the whole film: lying wounded he's taken in by an Aborigine called Billy who's a bit of an outcast himself.

Billy is something of a good luck charm for him, because with him as a companion and partner, he finds a talent as a highwayman in New South Wales, what the Aussies call a bush ranger. What's more, with Australians unhappy at the British colonial rule of the period, he finds himself in the right place at the right time, becoming something of a folk hero. The price on his head increases but so does the unwillingness of the locals to turn him in, so the cops flounder around. The more floundering, the more Morgan's reputation grows and the more he burns to head back across the Murray to settle scores in Victoria.

This is an interesting film because it plays far more for authenticity than stardom and it breathes Australia. Hopper does a great job as Morgan because he plays it as a character actor not a star. He isn't afraid to look bad in the slightest, and spends the whole film ragged and unkempt and with outrageous facial hair, just as if he'd been living in the bush for years. I wouldn't have put it past him to have done precisely that, especially at this point in his career when Hollywood didn't want much to do with him. He's also the only actor in the film who isn't a native Aussie, the rest of the cast being populated by actors who have very recognisable faces if not names: Bruce Spence, Jack Thompson and Frank Thring among them.

Most obvious is David Gulpilil, the first genuine Aboriginal actor on film and by far the most famous one. This was his first film in five years, following his debut, Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout. As the screen epitome of Aboriginal culture, he'd go on to The Right Stuff, Rabbit-Proof Fence and of course, Crocodile Dundee. What I hadn't realised until now is that his filmography includes a sequel to Blood Surf called Dark Age, which I'll have to track down now, knowing full well right now that it's going to be terrible. He will no doubt be the saving grace of the movie.

Another notable Aussie name is the director, Philippe Mora, who also wrote the screenplay, adapting Margaret Carnegie's book for the screen. He has an outstandingly varied list of films to his credit, but this was his first foray into fiction, though it was admittedly based on a real life character and follows his life far closer than most biopics. The biggest liberty would appear to be the title, being a name he never affected during his life and which interestingly is never mentioned during the film. It's an interesting choice of material for Mora, following a number of highly regarded documentaries, none of which I've seen. I've seen a number of his following films though and many of the actors in this one reappear in those. Obviously Mora was a good man to work for.

It's visually effective, alternating gorgeous long shots of the Australian countryside with closeups of the cast, often very close up. Daniel Morgan isn't the only character to utterly take over the screen, not just by force of personality but literally too, ensuring that we can't possibly focus on anything else during particular scenes. Often the film is as unkempt as Morgan himself and as wild as the landscape, but it's obvious that this was deliberate, the film being part of the golden age of Australian cinema which told very Australian stories in very Australian settings with very Australian actors. Much grittier than something like Picnic at Hanging Rock, released the same year of 1975, this feels utterly Australian.

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