Bushrangers are a surprisingly rare fixture on the Australian small screen. Since the introduction of television in 1956 for the Melbourne Olympic Games we have had Ben Hall (1975), The Trial of Ned Kelly (1977), The Last Outlaw (1980) and Wild Boys (2011) with bushrangers popping up as generic villains in shows like Five Mile Creek (1983). Yet, the most popular bushranger series was Cash & Company, followed by the spin-off series Tandarra and for a brief shining moment in the 1970s bushrangers were staples of the Australian small-screen. Now, Umbrella Entertainment have released an eight disc box set of both series to delight new fans and stir the nostalgia of old hands.
Cash & Company stars Serge Lazareff and Gus Mercurio as bushrangers Sam Cash and Joe Brady, and Penne Hackforth-Jones as widow and station owner Jessica Johnson. The setting is the goldfields of the 1850s with Cash and Brady on the run from crooked cops, always staying a step ahead of the law and getting involved in all sorts of exciting adventures.
The leads form a brilliant double-act, with Lazareff wonderfully charismatic as straight-man Sam Cash and Mercurio as his sidekick Joe Brady engaging and funny, always ripe for a gag. Penne Hackforth-Jones as the feisty widow Jessica Johnson is a superb female lead, brave and wily with a wicked sense of humour. She more than holds her own bouncing between the bushrangers and their pursuers, willing to get in the thick of things to help the boys out. The dastardly Lieutenant Keogh, portrayed by Bruce Kerr, makes for a great villain in the mould of the Sheriff of Nottingham; snobbish, cunning and methodical with a real nastiness underlying it all. The show itself is a brilliant blend of fun action set pieces and witty humour strung together with great plots that capture the gold rush era and accurately reflect the bushrangers of the period. It is evident that the writers and production team had a love for real bushranging tales and you can find little nods to famous bushrangers, especially through character names like Morgan and McCabe. With such enjoyable and adventurous characters and stories to match it is easy to see why ‘Cash & Company’ attracted such an adoring audience.
Tandarra debuted in place of a second season of Cash & Company as Serge Lazareff had taken his leave of the show in between the seasons. Sam Cash was written out off-screen, the previous season having been left open ended due to Lazareff’s involvement not having been confirmed for a reprise of the character before production ended. Cash was replaced by Gerard Kennedy as Ryler, a bounty hunter who was introduced in the final episode of Cash & Company. Ryler is a rough and tumble action hero type, a stark contrast to the charm and playfulness of Cash. To replace one of the heroes with someone that was meant to be the villain was a bold move, but one that surprisingly pays off. The bushranger angle was also changed, Joe Brady now on the right side of the law and the main characters frequently facing off against dodgy businessmen, extortionists and vicious bushranger gangs. Coming straight from Cash & Company, the change in tone in Tandarra is somewhat jarring, especially as the Celtic and folk elements that formed the score are replaced with a contemporary jazzy 1970s soundtrack full of synth, guitar and bongos. The vibe has shifted from upbeat and fun to being far more serious, the villains being more hard-edged. It is at least as good as Cash & Company, but it is a very different show at the same time. Gerard Kennedy as Ryler, while not being the heart-throb Lazareff was, is a great leading man and once again Penne Hackforth-Jones holds everything together as Jessica Johnson. Mercurio’s Brady seems almost out of place at times with the more serious tone of the show, but fortunately the character is one that transposes well to a more action-oriented interpretation. The writing continues to be excellent in this series and leaves one wondering what would have happened if the series had been able to continue.
It is worth noting that the footage is archival and untouched, meaning that it retains the imperfections on the original film ranging from dust and scratches to the occasional dropped frame. While Umbrella Entertainment have proved themselves where restoration is concerned, the process is arduous and expensive. One day perhaps there will be an affordable way to restore these shows entirely but in the meantime this is more than adequate. The softness of the picture, complete with flecks and scratches, gives the episodes a warmth that enhances the experience and will no doubt tickle the nostalgia of older viewers.
As a viewing experience, this makes for great entertainment for young and old. Older viewers and those well-versed in bushrangers on screen will no doubt get a kick from spotting familiar faces popping up in bit parts. One drawback is the lack of subtitles, so those who are hearing impaired are out of luck this time around. No doubt if it is deemed viable a restored and remastered edition of the two series could manifest down the track with subtitles and maybe even extra features. Until then, this is still an enjoyable and worthwhile set to grab and may end up being the only way to enjoy these fantastic episodes for the foreseeable future.
The Cash & Company/Tandarra box set is a must-have for bushranger enthusiasts and fans of nostalgic television. Sadly, very few bushranger programmes and films make it to the home market, so this is a fantastic opportunity to get a fun, exciting and entertaining bushranger series that the whole family can enjoy.
If you would like to purchase the box set yourself, you can find it from Umbrella Entertainment here.
The Legend of Ben Hall is an interesting entry in the history of bushranger films for a number of reasons. Chiefly, it is the only standalone theatrical bushranger feature that has put particular emphasis on historical accuracy in every level of production. Yet, it manages to tell the story accurately as well as artfully. While on a surface level the film can be taken as merely a portrayal of an exciting and intriguing part of history, on closer inspection what we see is a dissection of the character of Ben Hall. What emerges upon deeper examination is that the film’s title is the key to understanding what it is truly about: what is the legend of Ben Hall?
Despite what the papers encourage you to imagine, this life you want is not easy. We do this because we have no recourse left.
A key part of the artifice of the film is in the effort to replicate the costumes, weaponry, buildings and so forth of the period. Director Matthew Holmes spent months looking for available locations that were a close match for the arborial, geological and topographical features of Ben Hall Country in 1865. By portraying these things as close to history as possible, the film immediately positions itself in such a way that we understand that we are not being told what to feel and think through interpretation. Rather, we are being asked to immerse ourselves in this world in order to understand it and find the answers to the questions ourselves, without being skewed in a certain way by the director.
Compare this to other bushranger films such as Mad Dog Morgan, Ned Kelly (1970) and its 2003 namesake. These films take liberties with the art design to account for budget and artistic vision. Ned Kelly (2003) is the most notable in this regard. Whereas Mad Dog Morgan tries to be authentic, if somewhat inaccurate in execution, Ned Kelly approaches the same things through the lens of portraying what is artistically relevant, what is symbolic, in order to convey to the audience how to feel. For example, at Glenrowan Ned is dressed in mostly black to symbolise the more serious tone of the events unfolding. His clothes reflect the mood the director is conveying, rather than anything historic – especially given that Ned Kelly wore a very colourful outfit at Glenrowan in actual fact. The Legend of Ben Hall portrays character through costume too, but rather than molding the character through the costume design, the costumes are reflective of how the characters fit into the world they inhabit. Johnny Gilbert’s flashness is shown through his wearing rings and luxurious fabrics like silk and brocade. In comparison, Ben Hall is dressed pragmatically for the rough lifestyle, only allowing a little hint of the larrikin through by wearing sashes and portraying his strong self-interest with a preference for handsomely cut clothing. Jim “Old Man” Gordon is shown wearing clothes that are frayed to the point of barely holding together, reflecting a careless personality that results in the ambush that opens the film. Yet all of what we see these characters decked out in is historically accurate to the styles of the time and place. The historical accuracy enhances the portrayal of character and story rather than artificially conveying an idea.
A unique artistic flourish is how each major act of the film is punctuated with dream sequences that give an insight into Hall’s mindset as well as reminding us of the end that is approaching him. Ben Hall was notoriously aloof in life and while this quiet, contemplative aspect to his character created an air of mystery, it makes it difficult to understand how he thought for a screen narrative. As the dreams evolve through the film, we see an emphasis placed on Jim Taylor, the homewrecker who tore Hall’s family apart (at least in his eyes). Having failed to remove his son Henry from Biddy and Taylor, then failing to follow through on his threat to “put a bullet in [Taylor’s] wicked hide”, Hall becomes tormented by the man who stole his family.
In each successive dream we also see the murky, wraith like figures of troopers getting closer and closer until gun muzzles are thrust in our face, indicating not only Hall’s increasing fear of capture, but also a metatextual foreshadowing of things to come. With the severity of the crimes escalating as events roll on, Hall becomes ever more conscious of the likelihood of fierce reprisal from the police. Each dream acts as the Greek chorus, cementing the themes and preparing the audience for the grim conclusion.
You think you’re innocent in all this? You think you ain’t got no blood on your hands?
The character of John Dunn provides a cipher for the audience as he cuts his teeth as a bushranger. More importantly, Dunn provides an important role in challenging Hall throughout and mirroring, to some extent, Hall’s own rise to infamy. Initially Hall tries to discourage Dunn from signing up as a bushranger, having lost many friends to imprisonment and death in the lead up to where we pick up the story. However, it doesn’t take much to convince Hall to accept Dunn. Later, Hall will actually rely on Dunn’s advice to recruit a new gang member in the form of Daniel Ryan, showing the development of the two characters. As Dunn settles in as the “beau ideal of the modern bushranger” he serves to remind Hall of how culpable his actions are. Were it not for Hall’s recklessness in engaging police at Jugiong after they were already retreating, Sergeant Parry would not have been killed; had he listened to Dunn’s fears about police arriving at Collector rather than ignoring them, Constable Nelson would not have been shot; had Hall not allowed his temper to get the better of him at Binda, Christina and Ellen would not have been arrested for assisting them in the burning of Morriss’ store. In the end, Dunn outlives his colleagues but it’s only a matter of time before his own crimes catch up with him.
Dunn also shows the most growth as a character. Whereas Hall and Gilbert have already undergone the growth from becoming bushrangers, we see Dunn go from being naive and unsure of himself to “tipping the velvet” with Peggy Monks, being able to keep a crowd under control on his own and being able to stand up and question Hall’s plans. Perhaps the best indicator of his development is in how he goes from referring to his leader as “Mr. Hall” to “Ben”, showing he gradually reaches equal footing with Hall in the gang.
I am not underestimating this man Sergeant. Out here, this is his world.
The subplot of the film is the police efforts to finally capture the bushrangers. The police pursuit is something akin to a metaphorical hydra; many-headed and nigh on unstoppable, where you can take out one head and two more will take its place. When we begin, Hall narrowly escapes an ambush by a party led by Sergeant Condell. At the end, this same party is doubled with two heads in the form of Condell and Davidson. The relentless Detective Pye acts as something of a free-floating menace, forever nipping at the gang’s heels. Pye is driven by an unquenchable desire to bring Hall and his gang to justice at any cost, demonstrating the desperation that the forces of law and order are experiencing. He will do whatever it takes to get his man, even arresting an entire pub full of people.
Sub-Inspector Davidson is perhaps the most intriguing personality of the pursuers. During a campfire scene it is revealed that he seems to be the only one without some form of acquaintance with Hall – something he is deeply embarrassed by. Davidson soon finds his leadership challenged by the irascible Sergeant Condell and has his orders ignored when police open fire on Hall. His respect for his opponent seems to result in a lack of respect for him from his peers. Davidson has a healthy respect for Hall and this is what motivates him to speak truthfully about what happened to Hall at Billabong Creek. It is also why he doesn’t keep the locket belonging to Hall, recognising it as something of sentimental value and returning it to his fallen foe. Again, this has a Greek tragedy vibe, where the moral lesson appears to be about the importance of respect.
I was right to leave you. Look what you’ve become.
One of the most important motifs is Hall’s locket containing a photograph of Biddy. Photographs in The Legend of Ben Hall provide a window into the past, reminding us of who Ben Hall was before everything fell apart. The carte de visite that opens the film is the very image Hall gives to Henry at the end to remind him who his real father is – not Jim Taylor and not a violent outlaw, but a young squatter filled with optimism, a respectable man worthy of remembering. Similarly, Ben’s locket reminds him of the life he lost. Biddy’s desertion cut deeply and was a key factor in Ben throwing away his respectable life. The locket reminds him of who he was and the life he wishes he had, which gives him motivation to escape Australia and start again. His pursuit of Biddy, it eventuates, is not really for revenge for her leaving with his son as he initially believes. Deep down, Hall realises that there is something in him that drove her away and he needs to figure out what it is and atone for it. He needs to make amends for the wrongs he has committed in the past and he can only do that by making his peace with Biddy.
We ride again, we do so for one purpose: to get enough to skip the country for good.
The reappearance of Johnny Gilbert represents a turning point for Ben Hall. These two go back many years and have endured despite the best efforts of the police to take them. Hall needs to find a way out of the country and out of nowhere Gilbert returns to provide him that chance. It is through the actions of Gilbert that Hall begins to truly understand what he has become. As much as he tries to deny it, Hall enjoys the thrill of being a highwayman just as much as Gilbert and Gilbert has no issue reminding him of that. When Sergeant Parry is murdered during the botched highway robbery at Black Springs, Gilbert makes a point of telling Hall “This is who we are. This is what we do.” After the failed escort robbery Hall reveals that the money he has had stashed at Mick Coneley’s could be enough to get them out of New South Wales, much to Gilbert’s and Dunn’s disgust, the pair having by now evolved into desperate men longing for escape. In this moment we can see that Hall’s true desire was never to leave the colony, but that he wanted the glory days of when he and Gilbert were kings of the road back. Hall’s selfish need to be in control, to maintain his dubious distinction of being the most notorious highwayman in Australia, to chase the thrill of bigger and bigger scores, led the three of them down an irreversible path to desperation and destruction, leaving blood and ash in their wake.
I would never have broken your heart the way she did.
The impact of Hall’s selfishness is further driven home when they return to Coneley’s hut. Coneley has become afraid of what will happen to him if people find out that he has been helping the gang, pushing him to secretly provide information to the police to help them capture Hall and company. We also further see how oblivious Hall has been to the feelings of those around him when Mary Ann reveals how upset she was when he married Biddy, highlighting comments made by Gilbert earlier in the film. Ben Hall is his own worst enemy, a man who will throw away happiness and security in pursuit of a thrill, no matter who suffers as a result and will ignore the insight of those with clearer vision if he doesn’t want to believe the truth. Mary Ann’s tender kiss seems to finally make Hall realise the man he has allowed himself to become – a realisation that leaves him shaken.
When we finally reach the conclusion of the story we realise that the journey has been one of self-discovery and redemption. When Hall gifts his son a portrait of himself as a younger man and leaves £500 for him, we see that he has finally shed the selfishness that had led him to abduct Henry then threaten Taylor. He has realised that by making the issue about his own hurt feelings he has ignored the needs of his son. Being a father is more than blood, it’s about putting your child’s needs before yourself. Hall’s reward is an apology from Biddy and a reconciliation but he discovers that even though he has wanted that the whole time, he doesn’t really deserve it and he is ashamed of himself for wanting it. As he rides away from Biddy and Henry, Hall has finally learned his lesson.
Unfortunately for Hall his apotheosis has come too late and the wheel of fate has spun before he even makes it back to Billabong Creek. The ambush on May 5 is the final step on his journey from being Ben Hall the bushranger to being Ben Hall the legend. Thus we return to that original question: what is the legend of Ben Hall?
The legend of Ben Hall is that a man who has fallen from grace into a life of sin can discover the path to redemption. As Sub-Inspector Davidson places Hall’s locket upon his chest the journey to redemption is completed. Hall has atoned for his misdeeds and though his life has ended, his soul has been saved. In contrast, Johnny Gilbert is not afforded the same closure. He is snuffed out suddenly and without mercy, paying the ultimate price for his crimes. Dunn however has his own small journey of atonement that ends on the gallows. This is story about how in the end, our crimes always catch up with us, but we all have the ability to make peace with our past.
Every interpretation of the Kelly story brings with it a host of conflicting perspectives on various points, and each is unique. More recent film depictions have been executed more artfully than the early silent films or even early “talkies”. Whereas the formative depictions of the story were usually morality plays, emphasising the social ramifications of lawlessness, the rise of the understanding of film as an artform changed the approach many directors and writers took. Gregor Jordan’s contribution is no exception. It is not a depiction of a historical figure, rather it’s an interpretation of the cultural figure of Ned Kelly that seeks to explore the idea of a man being shaped and guided by external forces to his doom.
Jordan’s film is crafted from a John Michael McDonagh screenplay based on the Robert Drewe novel Our Sunshine. Just as the book moves away from history for the sake of artistic expression, the film steps away from the history as well as the book both for artistic purposes and marketability (the latter being driven by executives rather than the creative team). This has riled many history buffs who had hoped to see the history brought to life on screen, but this is most definitely not that. It must be highlighted that the film differs drastically from the book in many areas also, thus any interpretation of the film text is not reflective of the source novel, just as much as it is not reflective of history, and must be viewed on its own terms.
He wasn’t such a bad fella. He… he was just a dumb paddy who got picked on his whole life. And that does something to your pride, you know?
Jordan’s Ned is a man with a deeply ingrained sense of injustice and is a passive protagonist. The events in the story that shape his life have nothing to do with the decisions he makes, he merely enacts a pre-conceived narrative. While Ned is brash and prone to explosions of temper his actions have no real effect on the outcome of events. This is most conspicuous in the aftermath of the Fitzpatrick incident when Ned is accused of injuring the constable despite not being present. He seeks an alibi but is denied, locking in his fate. It is then that he goes into hiding and his mother is jailed. Neither Ned’s participation, nor indeed his presence, was required to affect him becoming a bushranger. Even the act of taking Kennedy’s watch at Stringybark Creek plays out without any explanation of the protagonist’s motivation, it is simply part of the pre-conceived narrative.
None of his actions prevent the bad things from happening and nothing he does results in the undoing of the undesirable outcomes. By the end Ned has become resigned to this and when Hare unexpectedly appears and asks for Ned’s sash, he is met merely with a look of weary indifference – nothing Ned could say or do would matter because it would happen anyway.
Of course, there is an easy explanation for this fixation on destiny. This is Ned’s own interpretation of his life being acted out before the audience. This is demonstrated by the voice-over narrating the story throughout. Ned is unable to see how his actions could have resulted in the outcomes that he found himself subject to and thus we are not shown anything that could condemn him. The effect is that Ned is merely following a script and is little more than a puppet of fate. This sense of determinism is the desperate rationalising of events to make sense of a life gone astray.
Ned is thrown in gaol over a suspected stolen horse but we’re never shown anything to contextualise the event other than Ned finding a horse then being assaulted by police. The police are bullies who pick on the Kellys, but again there’s no context given beyond them being Kellys and Irish and the police not liking them for that. This trend for oversimplified cause and effect creates a sense of there being no control over things – they just are. We don’t know why the police at Stringybark Creek are carrying stretchers in the middle of the bush, but this is all it takes to confirm Ned’s belief that he would be gunned down. There’s no suggestion that the police may simply arrest him. All of this indicates Ned twisting the events in his mind to justify the way they turned out in such a manner that he is not at fault.
Further to this is the way that the supporting players are portrayed. This is Ned’s own interpretation of his gang, his family, the police and public, but of course it is all determined by its relationship to himself. Joe Byrne is Ned’s closest friend, but depicted as a womaniser and keenly intelligent, always at Ned’s beck and call. This is in contrast to Ned’s comparative sexual repression, lack of education and his natural leadership. Joe is the yin to Ned’s yang; the Horatio to Ned’s Hamlet, always on hand to confirm Ned’s suspicions or bounce ideas off. Dan Kelly is depicted as an impulsive runt. He is brash and somewhat arrogant but just as devoted to his family as his big brother, despite harbouring ill-feelings towards their deceased father. Ned takes on that paternal role and we see their relationship develop in such a way that Ned becomes something of a sage for Dan, offering wisdom from the school of hard knocks. Steve Hart however is shown as petulant, flaky and mischievous with a cowardly streak. Ned seems to look at him as little more than an inconvenience and is not afraid to belittle him. For all their differences, one thing unites this gang, which is a complete subservience to and admiration of Ned.
Then we see how the various other characters relate to Ned: Julia falls in love with him to the extent of cheating on her husband because he is so much more manly; Kate adores him and sees him as the family’s protector; the police fear Ned while also having a begrudging respect for him; Aaron views Ned with admiration but this soon gives way to fear once he starts helping the police. In essence, the characterisation of the cast is almost entirely derived from how they view Ned, or rather how Ned imagines they view him.
I am a widow’s son, outlawed, and my orders must be obeyed!
This leads us to Ned’s perception of himself. By the way many events play out we see Ned as charming, attractive, playful, witty, tough, commanding and, moreover, popular. Everyone knows who he is wherever he goes, even if they occasionally need their memory jogged at gunpoint. When we see the Jerilderie robbery, Ned’s passion and charisma as he dictates his letter in front of a crowd whips them into a frenzy, chiming in to help him create memorable insults directed towards the police. Whenever Ned speaks people listen and even the police can’t help crack a smile when they think of how devilishly clever and witty he is.
I’ve watched gravel fade. Dust settle into crust. I’ve seen drips of water turn to stone that defied gravity. I’ve turned blood red with cave mud. I’ve been a bloody rock!
The film’s extremely gloomy, desaturated palette echoes the increasingly burdened state of mind of Ned. As the film is framed as Ned telling his own story, naturally the atmosphere is reflective of Ned’s own feelings, embodying his essence. The flatness and sparseness of the locations is also indicative of Ned’s emotional connections to the places we visit in the story. While in reality the Kellys lived near the foot of a large, smooth hill dotted with trees and covered in grass, albeit prone to drought, when we see the homestead in the film it juts out of the grey, flat and boggy landscape as if plonked in the middle of nowhere and looks more like his ancestral home, Ireland, than Australia. Ned does not really imagine the surroundings, his only focus is what the house represents – his family. To Ned, it’s his mother and siblings that matter, not the place they live in. Ned is very focused on family and the pain and loss he feels relating to his mother’s imprisonment is signified by a shot of Ellen in her cell, alone and surrounded by darkness except for a patch of light coming from the cell window. His memories of his family are generally bleak bar one: the memory of the day he received his green sash.
Ah, what did Da call me? That’s right. He called me Sunshine.
Here we see his parents beaming with pride, the sun shining brightly upon young Ned as he receives his reward for saving a life, surrounded by people that cheer for him. This is Ned’s “happy place”, the memory he clings to that proves he really is a good person. This is why the reveal of the sash after his capture is so important. It shows how beneath the armour, his outlaw facade, he still clings to this sash as a symbol of something pure and virtuous inside him. The only other time we really see the sunshine and the beauty of the landscape is between Ned’s return home and the Fitzpatrick incident then the gang’s emergence from the fire-decimated landscape. Colour and sunshine and the beauty of nature symbolise hope and optimism. His time working on the Cooks’ station is a happy time as it seems things could be improving for the Kellys, and it serves to drive home how bleak things become afterwards.
They said I’d lost what it meant to be human, maybe never had it in the first place, but wasn’t this about protecting the ones I loved? The ones who gave me food, and shelter, even the clothes on me back? And therefore wasn’t it now a war?
Perhaps the most disturbing sequence in the film involves the gang, starving and dying of thirst, slaughtering their horses to drink the blood. This is immediately following a huge bushfire that the police cause leaving the gang stranded and struggling to survive. The horses are slaughtered in the dark of night and the gang look like wild men, deranged and filthy. The desperation of their situation is written on their faces in mud, soot and blood. This nightmare is a representation of Ned’s feelings during the height of his outlawry. He is ashamed of what he has become and is desperate to reform his image and so ventures to the only person he can think of that could help him – the only woman who has ever shown him romantic love – Julia Cook. Julia reminds Ned of who he really is and this motivates his crazy scheme at Glenrowan.
They say the trouble with the Irish is that they rely too much on dreams and not enough on gunpowder. Whereas the English were shy on dreams, as usual, but had plenty of the other. Now we had both.
Ned never states definitively what the plan is for Glenrowan. We are given allusions that it’s something big and important as the gang create armour, gather weapons and then re-emerge with clean clothes and haircuts. The town of Glenrowan becomes the base of operations, though what Ned hopes to achieve here is never made clear. Ned gives a speech about how he and his gang are at war with the British Empire and even the London Times. Ned has emerged from the chrysalis of desperation as a revolutionary, a freedom fighter. The bizarre mix of people in the inn represents what Ned sees as the common people, the ones who are victimised by the corruption in the power structure. Yet, they are also reflective of the nature of the social and political dimension Ned’s situation has taken on: little more than a bizarre circus. The caged lion that paces and hollers outside is a symbol of Ned’s warrior spirit; ironic and subversive in that the lion is usually the symbol of England, the culture Ned is so opposed to. When the gang emerge in their armour they are chivalrous knights, protecting the downtrodden from the oppression of police and the political construction they represent. We see the ruthlessness of the police as they gun down innocent civilians as they try to escape from the inn. The gang respond by emerging from the shadows like steel automatons and casually decimate the front line of the police despite the fact that it is pitch black, raining and they are wearing helmets that restrict their vision. The gang avenge those who have been struck down by the cruelty of the police before being forced to head back inside. This is where Ned decides to make his last stand.
Whereas in history Ned’s last stand occurred as he returned to the inn from behind police lines, in this interpretation it is portrayed as Ned venturing out to fight the police single-handedly to create enough of a distraction for the captives to escape. The last stand now becomes a noble and selfless act whereby Ned saves the surviving captives at the cost of his own freedom and, in effect, his life. Naturally without Ned to lead them, the rest of the gang end up dead and the scene of what should have been Ned’s greatest victory goes up in flames. Ned wanders through the bizarre, alien landscape with its camels and pelting rain, only to collapse metres behind the police. The dead lion signifies the death of Ned’s spirit. He realises that he was never destined to succeed and when he regains consciousness again he fires on the police and is quickly taken down. His survival beyond this maiming seems to add insult to injury as he lies gasping under the weight of his armour, the very thing that saved his life from gunfire now little more than an embodiment of his crushing defeat resulting in a demeaning death at the end of a rope.
Such is life.
This is perhaps one of the most unusual interpretations yet of the Kelly story, as it is in essence a warped portrayal played out in the memories of a doomed man. The inaccuracies become the artifice that demonstrates the unreliable nature of a narrator assured of the notion that his life was predetermined and all of his actions, no matter how nefarious or altruistic, were incapable of altering the course of his destiny. Everyone is in awe of the protagonist either through fear or respect as he does a marionette dance from one happenstance to another. This is the story of a man shaped by external forces to become the most hunted man in the British Empire and destined to die an ignominious death as a young man fighting a war he cannot possibly win. There is no real moral lesson to this story, merely the depressing realisation that life rarely turns out the way we want it to.
Very few bushranger films are as deserving of the high definition restoration as Philippe Mora’s Mad Dog Morgan, and once again Umbrella Entertainment demonstrate just why what they do is so remarkable with this superb new release.
The menu is simple and easy to navigate, popping up over a backdrop of a montage of scenes from the film so that right from the get-go we see how much better this looks than the previous releases. Umbrella don’t usually go for elaborate menus and nothing here breaks that mold. It’s simple and effective and whets the appetite for the coming attraction.
The restoration of the feature is sublime. The work that the restoration team have put into preparing this for a 4K upgrade have absolutely outdone themselves. The contrast in the picture is bold, the colours vibrant and the details clearer than they’ve ever been seen before. The footage has been cleaned up so there’s no dust specs or scratches to remind the viewer that the vision is taken from 40+ year old film stock. In this process a lot of shots have been stabilised. This is most noticeable in the intro with its cavalcade of S.T. Gill illustrations, as well as the closing shot of Morgan’s corpse replicating a Carte de Visite. To see these once jumpy images rendered properly static, as they were always meant to be, is beautiful in itself, but it really is indicative of the attention given to crafting the best possible iteration of Mad Dog Morgan.
The film itself is the director’s cut, which has been the standard for quite some time and much superior to the sanitised Troma edit that was screened in the United States. Throughout, we have Detective Mainwaring’s interjections to signify each chapter of the story. It is a twisted tale of cruelty, revenge and how mistreatment can drive men to madness. Director Mora’s vision of a film that authentically captures the look and feel of the Gold Rush comes through clearly and viscerally. Dennis Hopper’s performance as Morgan is brilliant, the actor making himself the absolute embodiment of the “mad dog”. Some viewers may struggle to get beyond the more schlocky aspects of production, owing to it being a low budget film at the time of production, but to the dedicated viewer it really pays off. This is a film with layers that reveals new things with repeat viewings.
The special features on the disc include the features from the previous Umbrella DVD release, which were already fantastic, but include a swag of new interviews, commentaries and a documentary comparing the filming locations now to how they were in the film. The photography in this new documentary is absolutely gorgeous and not only highlights the beauty of the locations used in the film, but also drives home that the movie was filmed in Morgan country. The commentary track from Philippe Mora is well worth hearing too as he explains his decisions for choosing the locations and his reflections on the shoot. For aficianados of Australian film this is a must-have for your collection.
This new release demonstrates just how lucky we are that a company like Umbrella exists to release these classic, often obscure, films and series to the home viewing audience, as well as restoring landmark films so that future generations can see them at their best. The Blu-ray of Mad Dog Morgan is absolutely splendid and is an absolute score for film buffs and fans of the film. If you haven’t seen the film before then there has never been a better time to see it than now. Definitely check it out and see why it is one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite films.
Mad Dog Morgan is available from retailers and online. The DVD is still available as well.
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 opusMad 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.