Ordinary criminals come and go every day. The bushranger comes once in an age. Nature requires time to produce her titans and these monsters reappear after the lapse of years.
On the face of things, Philippe Mora’s magnum opus Mad Dog Morgan is little more than an “ozploitation” film loosely based on the life of bushranger Daniel Morgan. The film is clearly low budget with violence and nudity plonked in to appeal to an audience craving titillation in the then-new era of relaxed censorship that defined Australian film in the 1970s. Yet, beyond the surface elements is a script that uses the character of Morgan to meditate on the nature of humanity and society.
I’m a mad dog, sir.
The film takes its title, not from history, but from the influences of American Westerns. Yet, it is the perfect moniker for this incarnation of Morgan: a wild man driven insane by desperation and cruelty in a frontier world defined by struggle and oppression. This is not the historical Morgan that appears in the Margaret Carnegie book that inspired the film. This is a folk hero who represents the rebel; the outlaw who lives by his own rules. This is why Mora chose Dennis Hopper for the lead. Hopper had become something of an underground cult figure, an icon of the counter culture, ever since crafting his film Easy Rider. Something about the lawless characters in the film, which concentrates on two bikers on their travels through America at the height of the “free love” era, seemed to be very much in the spirit of outlaws like Morgan. The notion of Morgan as a “mad dog” refers to how he is viewed and treated after his rejection of civilisation and what he feels are unjust laws that protect those who harm others. His robberies are not merely acts of criminality; to his supporters they are rebellion, while to his detractors it is a sign of his mental incompetence and dangerousness.
One example of this is in an incident that plays out in the film almost exactly as it did in reality. Morgan bailed up Thomas Gibson, the superintendent of a station at Burrumbuttock, and forced him at gunpoint to write £500 worth of cheques to be handed out to the staff. This action was intended to humiliate the employer for his miserly treatment of his staff as well as compensate the workers. This was an act of militant socialism, forcing the wealth to be distributed more evenly. Of course, this was an affront to Victorian society, which had no qualms about the exploitation of workers for the financial gain of an employer. Acts like this were proof of Morgan’s dangerousness. He was unpredictable, but more importantly he seemed to have an agenda and authority figures were his targets.
The more I see of man, the more I admire dogs.
“Mad dog” as a label is intended to dehumanise Morgan. It highlights the attitude that his lawlessness made him no more than a feral animal deserving of extermination. The theme of criminals being dehumanised repeats throughout the film, reflected in various characters. There are discussions of the similarities between men and apes and how this could relate to criminality. There is an assertion that Morgan may be some form of gorilla rather than a man. Yet there’s also a sense in all this that the upper classes have a disdain for humanity in all forms, demonstrated particularly in the character of the odious and lugubrious Superintendent Cobham.
All of Morgan’s actions are reactionary in some way, a retaliation for injustices actual and perceived. Yet despite the apparently justified motivation for his depredations he is labelled as sub-human. In comparison we see supposedly respectable, law-abiding people – police, stockmen, miners – attacking and killing others for their race, torturing and strangling prisoners, being uncharitable to the needy and unfair to their employees, even ordering the mutilation of the dead with the infamous directive to remove Morgan’s scrotum for use as a tobacco pouch.
“By all means – off with his head. And don’t forget the scrotum.”
Further to this point, is the fact that the only people who seem to display kindness during the film are the outcasts: bushrangers, tramps and barflies. The dregs of society, it would appear, have more humanity than those who would consider them to be no more than mangy dogs. The only time we see an expression of love in the film is between Morgan and his Aboriginal companion Billy. While there appears to be a homosexual undertone to the relationship between Morgan and Billy, it is representative of the genuine and binding affection that people can share, especially when they are kindred spirits. Billy saved Morgan’s life without any expectations of reward and Morgan in response makes a point of listening to Billy’s story and learning his ways in hunting and survival. Billy gives Morgan the strength and motivation to keep going, reminding him that there is good in the world.
I think my father was white. I think. Because they came to kill my tribe because they took the sheep.
There is also a deep spirituality throughout this tale. We see Billy as something akin to an embodiment of nature at times, living off the land and endowed with knowledge of skills ranging from hunting to medicine. He is a young man whose past is a mystery even to himself. He can’t remember if his father was white but he has memories of being rejected by his tribe. His arrival just in time to bring Morgan back from the brink of death as if in answer to Morgan’s prayers sets him up as something of a guardian angel, appropriately introduced to what sounds like an angelic chorus. There are also curious moments in the film that seem to imply a deep connection to nature such as the slow-motion shot of Billy bathing in the waterfall or the closing moment of Billy making a kookaburra call into the wilderness as if to signal Morgan’s becoming one with the natural world – despite it being implied that Billy had been strangled to death earlier in the film. Combined with the quote from Mainwaring describing the bushranger as nature’s titan, we are given the notion of Morgan being guided by the embodiment of Australia itself to rebel against the colonial establishment. That a “mad dog” could become the champion for a conquered land and its dispossessed people is a very subversive idea.
That’s an extinct animal, Morgan, like you.
There is also particular emphasis placed on the gift of a skin. Upon Morgan revealing the reward on his head, dead or alive, Billy hands Morgan the pelt of a thylacine, an animal still alive in the 1860s but for the purposes of artistic expression herein referred to as an “extinct animal”. This skin is a sacred object and an item Morgan keeps close at hand throughout the remainder of the film. No attention is drawn to how Billy came into possession of a thylacine skin despite it being an animal exclusive to Tasmania, but there is a sense that this was some kind of totem object. Indeed, the thylacine becomes Morgan’s totem, representing his doomed existence and the prejudice thrust upon misunderstood creatures. The act of giving the skin to Morgan seems to represent the Aboriginal transferring his dispossession at the hands of the colonists to the renegade colonial who is destined to suffer the same fate. It is symbolic of a shared suffering and indeed Morgan’s connection to Billy reflects this kinship as well.
Do you know how lucky I am to be Dan Morgan?
Beyond this, it is the tale of a man doomed to die a monster’s death but straining to cheat the reaper as long as possible. As the film rolls on Morgan becomes only too aware of the fact that his race is almost run. His return to Victoria is an act of defiance laced with a fatalistic gloom. He knows his chance of surviving is not great and we see the cracks show when he takes supper at a shanty and expresses his regret that he’d never been with a woman and had no idea what to do with one if given the opportunity. This highlights the way his life had been wrenched away from him by the severity of the penal system and the difficulty of frontier life, both on the goldfields and as an outlaw. The outlaw lifestyle, while shown as romantic at times, is hardly a glamourous one here. It is a cursed existence devoid of comfort and necessitating a paranoid temperament as anybody could turn at any moment. Morgan is forced to sleep in caves and eat snakes despite the booty he accumulates from his robberies. He amuses himself by shaving off his moustache to look like Abraham Lincoln and practising what he’ll say and do when bailing people up. He preens himself into the image of a pirate but when the chips are down and he senses that the net is closing around him he grows more wild and bedraggled in his appearance.
I’ve always gotta keep smilin’ – keep smilin’! Always smile because it’s a beautiful day! A beautiful day…
We see Morgan begin to have nightmares where a monstrous incarnation of Smith, the police antagonist Morgan murders in an ambush, leaps out of the water wreathed in flames to seek his revenge. Morgan senses that his sins are catching up with him but is determined to go down swinging. He becomes driven by a vendetta against those that personally wronged him, revenge being his only fuel to keep going. His behaviour becomes more erratic and he tries to drown out the pain of his existence with booze. Eventually he accepts his fate with a mirthless chuckle as he twigs that Peechelba Station is surrounded by police and bounty hunters. He drapes himself in the “sacred skin of an extinct animal” and boldly steps into the open and ignores his imminent doom, instead marvelling at the sunshine and clear skies.
Well, you only go around once they say. I tell you what, that Irish whiskey’s pretty good.
As with many of the schlocky Australian films of the 70s there’s a message under the surface that can be missed by the casual viewer. The world of Mad Dog Morgan is not so separated from our own where those with power and authority look down upon the lower classes, sometimes even to the extent of questioning their humanity; the lower classes, meanwhile, prop up rogues as heroes for their defiance of an authority they feel does not reflect their values and openly holds them in contempt. To these people, Morgan represents something more than he is. He’s either the lowest form of degradation or the highest form of galantry. Yet it’s at the meeting point between law and lawless that we get the most conflict and moral complexity. It demonstrates that the further removed from something we are, the more convinced we are in our righteousness. Morgan is merely a man trying to survive in a remorseless world who becomes a force of nature, shaped by cruelty and hardship into a weapon against the structures of man. He murders the enforcers, burns the chapels of industry and wages war on that most dangerous of mankind’s creations: society. In the end, Morgan is slain but as we see from the reactions of those observing the body afterwards, he has succeeded in forcing the people to reevaluate their adherence to authority. One by one the police turn their backs on the monstrous Cobham as he instructs the doctors to mutilate the corpse for trophies, leaving the doctors stranded between the moral choice and subservience to authority.