If Mad Dog Morgan (Philippe Mora, 1976) is one of the grubbiest films of the first phase of Australia’s post-1970 feature film revival, it also stands out as one of the most entertaining. And despite its exploration of masculinity in a period setting, it is not beholden to either of the two key strands of Australian cinema in this period: the ocker comedy, and those worthy period-pieces that would come to be lumped together under the faintly pejorative “AFC genre” label. Indeed, the sheer unbeholdenness of Mad Dog Morgan forms a significant part of its appeal, and has ensured its place as a cornerstone of Australia’s entry in the global cult cinema canon, which has latterly come to be dubbed Ozploitation. It is only fitting, then, that the film has been given the Australian Screen Classics (hereafter ASC) treatment. Jake Wilson offers an excellent survey of the many iterations of Mad Dog Morgan, a film “quintessentially Australian yet conscious of its place in world cinema, set in the colonial past yet steeped in the radicalism of the 1970s, horrified yet exultant in its view of violent resistance, and indebted to a wide range of cultural traditions high and low.” (p.2)
Unfettered by contemporary trends, and barely concerned with either national mythology or period exactitude, Mad Dog Morgan thus serves as a fascinating case study for the ongoing ASC project, allowing Wilson the freedom to stray from the book series’ (and Australian cinema’s) sometimes contradictory inclinations toward the parochial and the universal.
Much as I admire the ASC series, there is something inherently “mad” about a series of short monographs devoted to the output of what Tom O’Regan has designated as a “medium-sized English language cinema”.1 Equally, perhaps, it might also be a mark of madness to devote so much time and effort to researching and writing about a “cult” film made in that context 40 years ago. But madness be damned! Wilson’s book is as surprising, entertaining and unpredictable as Mora’s film, and Australian cinema is more than worthy of such serious, thoughtful works of long-form criticism.
Like the best instalments of the ASC series, Wilson’s book is infused with the possibilities, problems, and slippery impracticalities of stories, their layering and their textures. As such, he opens with an admission that could perhaps describe the series as a whole: “This is a book about stories, and about what happens when one story is mapped onto another.” (p.2) Unafraid to muddy the waters, Wilson acknowledges that “while sticking to the facts as far as possible, I’ve assumed that conjectures and even fantasies are as meaningful and worthy of preservation as whatever passes for truth.” (p.3)
In discussing the opening of Mora’s film, Wilson notes that its employment of direct address announces the film as “a self-conscious, modernist work – modernism with an Australian inflection being Mora’s artistic mother tongue.” (p.27) This modernist aesthetic, and Wilson’s subsequent reference to “the comparably Brechtian history films made around the same period by Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet” (p.32) seems entirely apt. By employing direct address within a meandering narrative, with occasional relapses into historically verbatim dialogue within “genuine” landscapes, Mad Dog Morgan emerges as a Sassian confluence of modernism and madness on screen.2
Off-screen, “madness” has long pervaded the legends surrounding the production of Mad Dog Morgan, and although Wilson revels in the mythos, he rightly sets a number of key rumours to question, not least imported lead Dennis Hopper’s supposed brushes with the law. Nevertheless, Wilson’s illustration of the struggles between Mora and the notoriously inebriated star invokes more than a touch of the contemporaneous, famously turbulent Herzog/Kinski partnership. The image of the crew forced to lug gear to a remote cave location in the Yambla Range, Mora and Hopper’s persistent on-set conflict, and Hopper’s almost ethereal screen presence in the eventual film only underscore that sensation.
Much like the Herzog/Kinski collaborations, if “madness” marks the myths surrounding the film’s production, Wilson demonstrates that “doggedness” also played a significant role on Mad Dog Morgan. Amidst fascinating details about why the film looks as it does – “shot in anamorphic Panavision on the grounds that the format would suit the Australian landscape” (p.19) – Wilson notes that Hopper’s inability to stick to his marks was equally responsible for “much of the film [being] in wide shot” (p.21), an anecdote left tantalisingly unvarnished.
Wilson’s approach is itself marked by doggedness. His acute, perceptive reading of the film’s multiple contexts – a crucial aspect found wanting in some ASC titles – leads to an enriched reading that helps to paper over the “cracks” that might open up for the casual and/or global viewers of today. At the same time, however, he also elicits a vibrant, deeply allegorical reading of the film, without overstretching his analogies or forcing his analytical hand.
Wilson makes frequent references to the paintings of Sidney Nolan, perhaps in deference to Mora’s own recent assertion that he had created “Francis Bacon figures in a Sidney Nolan landscape.”3 Indeed, Mad Dog Morgan is riven with references to a sweeping range of Australian art, not least the colonial visions of S.T. Gill, whose compositions accompany the opening credits, setting a wide-angled visual tone that is adhered to, and only occasionally abandoned, throughout the film (pp. 27-28).
Growing up in country South Australia, the paintings of Gill and his ilk held a particular fascination for me. My interest in these visions of landscapes that were foreign yet familiar was matched by an interest in those that inhabited such spaces. As a kid, I distinctly remember flicking through a book about bushrangers in our tiny school library, interrupted by a jolt of excitement at seeing a bushranger that shared my own name. From that moment, Dan Morgan was my favourite. Not even my father’s insistence that members of the Kelly Gang had stayed for a time in the nineteenth-century blacksmith’s cottage in which I was raised was enough to unseat an abiding fascination with a bushranger they dubbed “Mad Dog”. Of course, as Wilson reminds us, Morgan was not Dan Morgan at all, but rather John or Jack Fuller, or perhaps William Moran – his true identity just another mystery for the pile.
Emanating from that fissure between history and truth, Australia’s bushranger legends have always been shaped by the vagaries of hearsay, and the suggestive power of myth. In its own idiosyncratic way, Mad Dog Morgan did justice to that inscrutable bush lore. Forty years later, Jake Wilson’s thoroughly researched, compellingly crafted book has returned the compliment. As a yarn about a yarn about a yarn, Wilson’s book emerges as a perfect encapsulation of the film; a little rough around the edges, but no less bold, vivid, and engrossing.
Jake Wilson, Mad Dog Morgan (Australian Screen Classics) (Sydney: Currency Press/National Film and Sound Archive, 2015).
- Tom O’Regan, Australian National Cinema (London: Routledge, 1996), p.71. ↩
- See Louis A. Sass, Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature, and Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1992.) ↩
- Philippe Mora, “The Shooting of Mad Dog Morgan”, Sydney Morning Herald, January 31, 2010. ↩