It was in 1976 that Philippe Mora released his underappreciated classic, Mad Dog Morgan, starring Dennis Hopper as the once notorious bushranger Daniel Morgan. In many ways, Jake Wilson’s excellent new monograph of the same name, the latest entry into the Australian Screen Classics series from Currency Press, positions Mad Dog Morgan as a fusion of these three men, converged into a singular, jagged, erratic and inspired vision.
For those outside of Australia, it is worth beginning by noting that, even within Australia, Daniel Morgan doesn’t have anything close to the cultural clout of a bushranging legend like Ned Kelly. In fact, it would be fair to say that most Australians have never heard of Morgan, and without Mora’s film, knowledge of the bushranger would now be almost exclusively the reserve of historians. In an attempt to assess the correlation between the man and the movie, Wilson begins his book by assembling a picture of Morgan from what information there is available, presenting us with a fascinating yet incomplete account of a sensitive, unpredictable, and often violent man, preoccupied with his public perception and retrospectively thought of as having suffered from mental health issues. But as Wilson notes, much of the information that we have about Morgan is largely unverifiable and considered closer to myth than historical fact.
It is within this context that Mora set about writing and ultimately directing his own interpretation of Daniel Morgan’s life. In Mora’s film, we are introduced to an already volatile young Irishman, doing his best to strike it rich in the gold fields. A chance encounter in an opium den sees him witness the (very graphic) execution of a friend by law enforcement officials, destabilising his mind and sending him on a long and steady path of crime. When Morgan is eventually captured for an act of robbery, he undergoes a horrific period in prison in which he is brutalised by prison guards and sexually assaulted by his fellow inmates. By the time Morgan is released, he is totally deranged. Soon enough, Morgan is shot in the act of a crime, but saved from death by a young indigenous man (David Gulpilil) who nurses him back to health. Billy is also an outcast from his own tribe (and more importantly from colonial culture), and the two unite as Morgan’s desire for revenge pushes them towards the inevitable tragic outcome. But before they get to the end of the road, Morgan becomes a minor celebrity amongst the disenfranchised peoples of Victoria and New South Wales.
But a simple narrative summary of the film doesn’t capture the hysteria of Hopper’s performance or the generally camp nature of the cast. Nor does it demonstrate the film’s deliberately disjointed editing and narrative flow or its excessive and almost comical levels of violence. There is a kind of historical irreverence to Mad Dog Morgan that shrugs off typical conventions and simple biographical obligations, instead moving towards a humorous yet unsettlingly brutal account of a person, period and place. For myself, the obvious comparison is to Alex Cox’s similarly jarring biopic of William Walker, Walker (1987).
Amongst film buffs, Philippe Mora is often viewed as a director of mediocre horror movies like The Beast Within (1982), Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf (1985) and The Howling III: The Marsupials (1987). In his book, Jake Wilson argues that this fact has prompted many, if not most people to read Mad Dog Morgan as a work of exploitation cinema, rather than as an intelligent meditation on issues of cultural mythology and historical trauma. Such a reading has only been further encouraged by the inclusion of the film in Mark Hartley’s incredibly popular documentary on Australian exploitation cinema (Ozploitation), Not Quite Hollywood (2008). One of the great victories of Wilson’s book is that he provides an account of the film, and the work of Philippe Mora, that redresses such a perspective.
Wilson begins this by providing the reader with a greater context for Mora’s work, detailing his background as a member of a family renowned for their contributions to the Australian arts scene. From early on, Mora had shown a strong but rebellious interest in painting, gravitating towards the irreverent nature of Dadaism and surrealism. Mora it seems, has always been interested in art but not in its pretensions, and has sought to undercut these pretensions with a tendency towards “the low”. According to Wilson, Mora’s tendency towards low-budget horror films can be read not as the result of a lack of ambition or talent, but as a direct and derisive response to the pretensions of high art.
Both of Mora’s parents were European Jews and had felt the impact of the Third Reich. Their stories resonated strongly with Mora, whose film work outside of horror has been largely focused on documenting traumatic historical moments (Swastika, 1974; Brother Can You Spare a Dime, 1975; Three Days in Auschwitz, 2015). For Wilson, Mad Dog Morgan stands at the intersection of two distinct strands within Mora’s career, combining an account of irreconcilable historical trauma (tied to Australian colonialism) with a general sense of the crass and excessive that sits jaggedly on the surface of the text, further emphasising the immutable nature of said trauma.
These days I spend much of my spare time working through issues of historical representation in cinema, so I was greatly relieved to see Wilson tackle such issues from the get-go. Identifying the problematic nature of history on the big screen, combined with the far greater problem of exploring an individual known as much through legends as through historical record, Wilson makes it clear that the two can no longer be separated. For Wilson, the solution is to assume “that conjectures and even fantasies are as meaningful and worthy of preservation as whatever passes for truth.”
And this isn’t only true for the film’s subject, Daniel Morgan. Aficionados of Mad Dog Morgan will be well aware that there are as many legends about Hopper’s time in Australia as there are about Morgan himself. Hopper, whose career had been on a downward slope since directing the poorly received The Last Movie (1971), was suffering from a major substance abuse problem during this period. This was a fact, Wilson tells us, that Mora and his crew had not fully appreciated at the time that they signed him on, which leads Wilson to an account of various legends (some he suggests, are more likely to be true than others) which include but are not limited to:
- Claims by Hopper that he was arrested for drink-driving after being declared legally dead by a police breathalyser. According to Hopper, he was banned from not only driving, but from ever again being a passenger in a car in the Australian state of Victoria.
- A pilgrimage to Morgan’s grave that saw Hopper drink an entire bottle of spirits, pour a second bottle over his tombstone and violate several surrounding graves before driving away in a drunken blur.
- A bizarre incident in which Hopper unreasonably decided he would no longer wear boots midway through a scene, causing “magic boot” continuity issues.
- A story about David Gulpilil going “Walkabout” midway through shooting, causing significant delays. When he returned, Gulpilil told Mora that he had to go and speak to the kookaburras and trees about Hopper. Apparently, they all told him that Dennis Hopper was crazy.
Such stories lies at the crux of Jake Wilson’s outstanding book, which positions Mad Dog Morgan as lying at the intersection of multiple narratives, compiled from the histories, myth, legends and motivations of the key figures involved in the project. But, as you might expect, the book has far more to offer than can be accounted for here.