Review: Mad Dog Morgan (1976)

Production still from 'Mad Dog Morgan' (1976)

New region 2 DVD release for Mad Dog MorganPhilippe Mora’s bonkers bushranger flick Mad Dog Morgan has gained a new lease on life in recent years, thanks to a restoration by the National Film and Sound Archive’s Kodak/Atlab partnership. That restoration led to a region 4 release by Umbrella Entertainment, a region 1 Tromasterpiece version (possibly using a different transfer source) and, released on September 5, a new region 2 version courtesy of Digital4 Media.

To celebrate the return of Mad Dog Morgan to home cinemas across the UK, here is an updated version of a review previously published on my Screen Addict blog.

Mad Dog Morgan (aka Mad Dog)
d. Philippe Mora / 1976 / Australia / 102 mins
Viewed on: Avenue One (Region 0 – Australian release) DVD

Philippe Mora is a rather intriguing fellow. Born in Paris in 1949 with Marcel Marceau for a Godfather, his family moved to Melbourne (via New York) when he was just a tot, and he grew up in the heart of that city’s fertile artistic community during the 1960s. Whilst his parents – Georges (a German-born art dealer, entrepreneur and all-round renaissance man) and Mirka (a French-born painter, sculptor and mosaicist) – played host to some of the leading lights of Australian art, from the Antipodeans to the Angry Penguins, Mora set out on the path to becoming a fearless artist and exploitation filmmaker from an early age, directing his first film when he was just fifteen.

He left Melbourne in the late ’60s to join the swathes of creative young Australians relocating to London, where he moved into the Pheasantry artists’ colony in Chelsea, engrossed himself in the underground art world, contributed cartoons to Oz magazine and The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics, and generally went about making friends and influencing people. Before long, he’d corralled a bunch of these newfound compadres, expatriates and natives, to aid in the creation of his first feature film, a freewheeling musical called Trouble in Molopolis (1969).

Continuing his life as a visual artist, Mora eventually moved into documentaries, directing two seminal features, Swastika (1973) and Brother, Can You Spare A Dime? (1975), both of which made extensive use of archive and newsreel footage and examined two extremes of mid-century western society, the rule of Nazi Germany and the entertainment of Depression-era USA. By the mid-70s, the magnitude of the Australian film renaissance had began to dawn on the rest of the world, and Mora promptly returned to Australia, establishing the Cinema Papers journal with Peter Beilby and starting work on Mad Dog Morgan.

The tale of Dan ‘Mad Dog’ Morgan had long been a popular element of Australian folklore and he was often considered the ‘bushrangers bushranger’, supposedly inspiring the later exploits of a certain Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly. In many respects, Mora’s film fits neatly within the popular perception of Australian bushrangers, a kind of semi-mythic, Robin Hood brand of folk anti-hero, and yet he doesn’t shy away from showing Morgan up as a rather vile, irrational and contemptible individual who revels in his own nasty reputation. The ‘Mad Dog’ of Mora’s film is, of course, rather infamously portrayed by Dennis Hopper, who sports a genuine ‘Oirish’ accent and method acts his way through ten or so years of Morgan’s life.

The film itself is not bad, per se, but it certainly is patchy. I got the distinct impression that, during writing and pre-production, Mora was torn between throwing caution to the wind and simply capturing the essence of Morgan’s life, and an innate desire to draw extensively upon the skills he had picked up making documentary films in London. As a result, with no archival footage to utilize or newsreels to reference, Mora simply filled in the gaps between what material he did have. Police reports and court proceedings seem to appear verbatim, with Jack Thompson and Frank Thring’s characters delivering their reports direct to camera (which, aside from the surreal genius of the backwards flaming man, is perhaps the most interesting stylistic device in Mora’s relatively limited arsenal). Combine all this with an odd parallel narrative of a French photographer – whose images were clearly used as a key primary source, both visually and thematically – and you get the distinct impression that Mora simply found a bunch of archival materials and went about filling in the gaps. To be fair, it was also partly based on a book by Margaret Carnegie, but I wouldn’t like to vouch for a book that Mora himself has called ‘fact-based’!

It’s not as bad as all that, of course. Mad Dog Morgan hasn’t aged well, sure, but it’s still a nice little piece of historical genre filmmaking and features some delightfully odd minor characters, particularly Frank Thring’s beguilingly evil Superintendent Cobham, who delivers perhaps the film’s best one-liner, shortly after Morgan’s death at the hands of the police: “By all means, off with his head, and don’t forget the scrotum!”

Finally, a parting comment about the DVD which, as people who own the Avenue One region-free Australian version of Mad Dog Morgan will know full well, suffers badly from an appallingly horrible transfer. Although it purports to be ‘digitally remastered from the original negative’, it most certainly aint. It’s almost as if the transfer was taken from a print that had played every fleapit in country NSW before sitting in someone’s attic for a few years. Oh, and either the cinematographer was as drunk as Hopper during the production, or the transfer lab has cut off about 15% of the left hand side of the frame, plus the sound sucks a big one too.

Happily though, there was a restored version released by Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive as part of the Kodak/Atlab Cinema Collection a few years back and was the basis for Umbrella’s Region 4 re-release of Mad Dog Morgan on DVD, which also features a bunch of other extras, old and new. I’m also assuming it’s the basis for the Region 1 Tromasterpiece version in North America, and also, undoubtedly, for a brand new Region 2 edition by 4Digital which was released earlier this month.

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4 comments

  1. This is an excellent summary of a greatly undercooked genre classic – I agree wholeheartedly with your comments regarding the patchiness of it all but there is plenty of odd little moments to justify a late night screening. Thanks a bunch by the way for following our Oz Month – it’s nice to know someone else appreciates the antipodean slant on genre film making enough to dig deeper than the norm!

    1. No probs – enjoying the posts (some of which are reminding me about films I haven’t got around to watching yet!) Stay tuned for a round-up of Aussie films screening as part of Scala Beyond (including your double-bill!) Thanks for reading.

  2. Dear Stephen
    Thank you for this review: not bad, per se, but it certainly is patchy. I really like it anyway!
    Cheers
    Philippe Mora

    1. No problems! Thanks for reading.

      I possibly come over as being a little critical, but I do genuinely love this film. Growing up in country South Australia with a last name like mine, I couldn’t help but romanticise Dan Morgan, and when I first saw your film, I simply didn’t realise Australian films could be like this!

      All the best,
      Steve

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