As the title suggests, the story of legendary Irish-Australian bushranger ‘Mad Dog’ Dan Morgan (a game Dennis Hopper, Irish brogue and all), a failed prospector in Victoria in the mid-1800s, who turns to opium and a life of crime. This eventually lands him a stint in prison under the brutal watch of Bill Hunter’s nasty guard/sergeant. After this, Morgan becomes an infamous outlaw romping and hell-raising the countryside from NSW back to rural Victoria. This brings him to the attention of Superintendents Winch (Michael Pate) and the cold-blooded Cobham (the inimitable Frank Thring), who strategise to bring Morgan to justice. Hunter’s Sgt. Smith is dispatched to take care of the outlaw, with Jack Thompson’s Detective Mainwaring also figuring into things, as it is Mainwaring’s account that the story is based on. David Gulpilil play’s Morgan’s aboriginal companion, Graeme Blundell plays a meek Italian, and a who’s who of 70s Aussie actors turn up throughout (Bruce Spence, John Hargreaves, Reg Evans, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Roger Ward, and a memorably nasty Max Fairchild among them).
Although apparently shit-faced the whole shoot and rather difficult to deal with (there are stories…many of them), Dennis Hopper gives one of his better performances in this 1976 bushranger tale from writer-director Phillippe Mora (who went on to helm the craptastic “Howling II: Stirba, Werewolf Bitch” and the bizarre Aussie follow-up “Howling III: Marsupials”). The fact that Hopper (who got himself deported from Australia not long after shooting wrapped, because he was being pre-“Hoosiers” Dennis Hopper) managed to give a genuinely accomplished (or at the very least, entertaining) performance is really quite mind-boggling. It’s one of the best Aussie films of the 70s, and the one bushranger film you really ought to see.
It’s a tough, ugly bastard of a film that just happens to have stunning scenery, lensed by Mike Molloy (“The Shout”, “The Return of Captain Invincible”, Stephen Frears’ “The Hit”). Morgan’s an interesting character, even if I’m not sure his opium addiction wasn’t merely to cater for Hopper’s perennial hangover and apparently frequent cocaine use at the time. There’s something to be said for the harsh surrounds and circumstances shaping the increasingly vengeful and crazed Morgan into what he was. In that sense, outback/bushland Australia comes across like the Wild West of America. David Gulpilil’s aboriginal character, for instance, reminds one of the ‘good injun’ noble savage character you’d sometimes find in the slightly more thoughtful westerns of the 50s (Morgan himself is hardly a hero, though. Like all bushrangers, he’s a real anti-hero). However, the film isn’t exactly a Western, it just has elements of one. The 1970s version of “Ned Kelly” with Mick Jagger was much more of an attempt at an American Western set in Australia, and it didn’t come off at all. This is definitely very much an Australian film through and through, it works much better by seemingly being more authentic.
There’s some interesting work by the large supporting cast. A scary Bill Hunter gives one of his best-ever performances as a brutal sergeant/jailer, whilst there’s not enough words to do the wonderful Frank Thring justice. He was one of our very best and gets a plum role here. It was also nice to see Hollywood mainstay Michael Pate accept a job back home here, too and he does it well. Jack Thompson is the surprising black mark here, his performance is slightly overripe. I’m just not sure what the hell that was all about. I’m also not sure Alvin Purple (Graeme Blundell) really convinces as an Eye-talian, but the role is small enough not to really matter.
I’m not sure why this one often gets lumped in with the Ozploitation label, there’s nothing exploitation about it, though it’s certainly violent. It’s a dour, serious-minded period drama, though hardly “Picnic at Hanging Rock”. It’s not pointless, arty-farty crap, for one thing. It’s not a great film, but is however, a good film and a still underrated and underseen film. If you only see one bushranger film in your lifetime, make it this one. It’s harsh, violent, yet beautiful and quite well-acted. Easily Mora’s crowning achievement, which is kind of sad, really given how early in his career it was.