Mad Dog Morgan is a film that is probably more “important” than it is “good,” because it was one of the first Australian films to reach an international audience in the early days of the Australian film industry. It straddles the line between the Ozploitation films that were then just coming out and the early Australian art films of Peter Weir. It also was the first production from film auteur enabler extraordinaire Jeremy Thomas, who has gone on to be one of few producers who are far more concerned in films he wants to see than in what the marketplace is telling him to finance.
In his most debauched mode, Dennis Hopper portrays bushwhacker Daniel Morgan, who is one of Australia’s national folk heroes. The reality, of course, is that Morgan was a monstrous sociopath who left a legacy of death and destruction in his wake. He wasn’t quite as well-known as Ned Kelly, but he was equally ruthless. There was some pushback amongst Aussies for casting an American, However, since other than the Aboriginal Australians, all “Australians” were immigrants and there were actually quite a lot of Americans there, it’s not a major misstep—although Morgan himself was Irish.
The film plays fast and loose with many facts: the opening of Morgan witnessing the slaughter of Chinese workers is completely fictional. David Gulpilil plays Aboriginal tracker Billy, who Morgan befriends in the film; the reality is that Morgan was probably pretty racist towards Aboriginal people and Billy is a fictional character. Morgan’s main antagonist is Superintendent Cobham (Frank Thring), who wants his head on a platter. However, despite clear inaccuracies the film does its very best with what was a shoestring budget under the direction of Philippe Mora.
The production is the stuff of film legend: Hopper agreed to do the film and showed up with just the clothes on his back and his passport. He was professional(ish) when they were shooting, but he was also at the height of drug and alcohol addiction—Hopper drank so much rum one day that his blood-alcohol reading said he should have been clinically dead. He was also arrested and deported (this was after he trashed the gravesite of the real Morgan.) One of the greatest stories was that Gulpilil went walkabout to ask the kookaburras and the trees if Dennis was “crazy,” about which they told him “yes,” of course. And Mora was like, I could’ve told you… hell, Hopper probably could’ve told you that.
Mad Dog Morgan is certainly worth watching, especially as Mora does his best with the limited resources to keep it visually inventive. Hopper’s Irish accent is a little shaky, but I’ve heard worse, and it’s not as bad as his stick-on beard. He actually looks quite a bit like the real Morgan: both Martin Sheen and Jason Miller were interested after Mora’s first choice, Stacy Keach, turned it down, but Hopper was the cheapest and perhaps the best option. It’s not a perfect film by any means, and it drags a little in parts, but it’s very enjoyable, especially Hopper’s gonzo approach to the role and Gulpilil, who was always interesting to watch.
The Blu-Ray from Indicator is absolutely loaded with extras. The disc includes both the 95-minute US/UK theatrical cut and the 103-minute director’s cut. Two commentary tracks featuring Mora—one recorded with critic Jake Wilson more recently in 2019, and the other a solo track from 2009. The other features include an archival 25-minute making-of featurette, a newer interview with Mora, a hilarious film of Mora interviewing Hopper a few years before Hopper’s death, and over an hour of outtakes from the excellent Not Quite Hollywood documentary featuring cast and crew from Mad Dog Morgan. More archival interviews with crew members, which were recorded in 2009; Mora revisiting the shooting locations in 2019 (with optional commentary); Mora’s 2009 intro/outro for the film, and the trailer and image galleries finish off the disc. The release includes an extensive 80-page book with the usual new and archival writing you expect from Indicator, and also a fold-out poster.