Production company: Motion Picture Productions
Budget: A$450,000 (Oxford Australian Film), jointly funded by private investors and the federal government's film investment body, then recently re-titled the Australian Film Commission. (Hopper's fee was rumoured to be A$50,000). Director Philippe Mora says the film was made very cheaply for $300,000 - "maybe a little bit more" - in his DVD commentary. Mora has also put it at $350,000, and in another version of the story, producer Jeremy Thomas said it was $400,000, and David Stratton in The Last New Wave suggests $475,000. Pick a number. According to Stratton, Hopper's fee for his starring role was $50,000.
Locations: the film was shot entirely on locations related to the original bushranger's territory, around the New South Wales-Victorian border/Riverina district, including scenes in his actual cave hide-out deep in the bush in the Yambla range, and on the property of Margaret Carnegie, who wrote the book on which the film was based. The production base was at Holbrook in the Riverina in New South Wales until the 29th day of the shoot when it was moved to Beechworth in Victoria (see About the movie on this site for more details).
Filmed: shooting began 27th October 1975 for a six week, 6 day week, 36 day shoot and concluded 6th December or the 8th December 1975 (the Cinema Papers production report by Peter Beilby in the June-July 1976 edition manages to cite two alternative end dates on the same page, because the official shoot ended with a dawn scene on December 6th at the Ovens river, but the bulk of the crew had already departed for Sydney and did a day of pick-ups on 8th December).
Australian distributor: B.E.F.
Australian release: the film was screened in the marketplace in Cannes in 1976, but not at the Cannes Film Festival's official screenings.
It premiered at the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals in June 1976, and these screenings were followed by a commercial premiere at the Greater Union Pitt Centre cinemas, Sydney, 9th July 1976. The film was released in New York on 22nd September 1976.
35mm Eastmancolor Panavision
Running time: 102 mins (Oxford Australian film)
DVD time: 1'38"43 (Umbrella edition), 1'38"39 (Avenue One version).
Off air version ABC time: 1'38"43
Box office: poor. The film isn't listed in Film Victoria's report on Australian box office, and the Oxford explains why: Despite the generous support of critics and an active publicity campaign, the film failed to attract the public: a reputation for violence, based on its violent emotions and its occasional bursts of gore, did little to help it.
Despite producer talk of a 120 print release in the United States, and world rights being sold for A$250,000 - in some tellings, A$300,000 - the film also flopped in the USA:
In the U.S.A., too, the film's results were mediocre, despite the prestige of a major New York opening on 22nd September 1976. (Oxford Australian Film)
In his DVD commentary, director Mora claims the film opened on forty screens in the United States, and it is suggested that the box office returned some $100,000 to the producers (David Stratton, The Last New Wave), but it is unlikely that the film ever broke even.
1977 Australian Film Institute Awards:
Nominated, Best Achievement in Directing, sponsored by Village Theatres (Philippe Mora) (Bruce Beresford won for Don's Party)
Nominated, Best Original Music Score (Patrick Flynn) (Peter Best won with The Picture Show Man)
Nominated, Best Performance by a Supporting Actor sponsored by the Directors of the Dendy Cinema Group and Filmways Distributors (Bill Hunter)(John Ewart won for The Picture Show Man)
Best Western Award, International Festival of Westerns, Cannes 1976 (the status of this award, arising from a short-lived side-bar festival, is disputed, especially its relationship to the Cannes Film Festival, and it was sometimes also called in the press of the time the John Ford Memorial Award)
Screened, Melbourne and Sydney Film Festivals 1976
Because it's been treated as public domain in the United States, many poor quality versions of the film have been released into the marketplace.
Even some allegedly official versions have been terrible - for example, Avenue One in region four once produced a version as part of its Director Philippe Mora DVD Collection, but the image was washed out, the print used for the transfer scratched and aged.
Extras were largely easy print-based offerings of biographies and filmographies, and a 23'35" version of David Elfick's 'making of' To Shoot A Mad Dog in relatively rough condition. Editions like this and a Payless region four version are best avoided, even if you find them for a dollar in a charity shop.
In the United States, Troma produced a wretched version, censored and in the wrong format, and then tried to compensate with a two disc edition, which contained as special features, interviews with director Philippe Mora, DOP Mike Molloy and Richard Brennan, a radio interview, deleted scenes, a "locations featurette", still gallery and original theatrical program.
Most of these items can also be found in Umbrella's region four DVD, and it is likely that Troma used the Umbrella print as the basis for its release. As a result, the Umbrella version will probably satisfy region four viewers, still without providing a completely satisfactory image.
At least the image shows signs of some restoration work compared to previous editions, and there are a healthy number of extras, also including the David Elfick 23'36" short about the 'making of' To Shoot A Mad Dog.
Director Philippe Mora provides a commentary, there's a relatively bland 14'22" radio interview with Mora conducted by the Australian Information Service in New York at the time of the film's release in the United States, and a 2008 27'47" interview of Dennis Hopper by Mora, That's Our Mad Dog, as the two remember the filming of the show. After talking about the movie, Mora detours into a discussion of method acting, Hopper as artist, his early career as actor and artist, and his work directing Easy Rider.
There's also a copy of the script in the pdf form, and handily, a copy of the original theatrical program, also in pdf, plus a stills gallery, and trailers.
An essential complement is the report on the filming of Mad Dog Morgan to be found in the documentary Not Quite Hollywood, which summarises neatly many of the Hopper mythologies arising from the shoot.
There is a good review of the Troma two disc edition at Sight and Sound here, which gives fair warning to potential buyers:
A confidant in the DVD industry once told me that the difference between an anamorphic and a non-anamorphic DVD, in terms of actual disc production, is the pushing of a single button – but the cost for pressing that button is $10,000. This explanation makes it all the more difficult to comprehend the special circle of hell that is the DVD with anamorphic menus and featurettes which denies the same favour to the main feature. Such a disc is Troma Retro’s Mad Dog Morgan, a two-disc set which furthermore presents itself as some kind of restoration, containing “graphic violence previously censored in North America”. It’s difficult to ascertain what the film’s restoration might gain in terms of running time, because the transfer was evidently sourced from a 25fps PAL tape master, giving the 102-minute feature a running time of slightly more than 98. Even when viewed on a large-screen monitor, the scope image is small enough to obscure details in scenery and nuances of performance and riddled with moiré and noise; meanwhile the anamorphic clips from the film used for illustrative purposes in the supplements are, though only enlarged, at times a revelation. It’s an insult to the cinematography of Mike Malloy, John Alcott’s camera operator on A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon.
It's arguable that the best image of the film was broadcast by the ABC in Australia - it seemed more accurate in terms of colour, with better flesh tones, as well as being sharper - but it is likely that the source was the same as that used for the Umbrella DVD - it runs the same length. The screening also carried the ABC bug in the bottom right hand corner, and is therefore useless for visual purists.
For those who prefer to watch a few short clips from a feature film rather than bother with the film itself, the ASO has three clips here.
The film was based on Margaret Carnegie's book Morgan, The Bold Bushranger, a slim 136 page history with plates and maps, first published in Melbourne by Hawthorn Press in 1974, and then in paperback by Arkon paperbacks (Angus and Robertson) in 1975.
Carnegie reportedly spent twelve years researching the text, and according to director Mora, had lived in Morgan country for about thiry years. The result, according to Peter Beilby, carefully untangled the facts from the invention and hearsay and contained often sensational information.
Anybody interested in the real Dan Morgan can find a good short biography at the ADB here.
More details of this book at Trove here.
Carnegie forwarded the book to Mora while he was in London, and he was immediately excited at the prospect of doing a film about Morgan.
According to Mora, he had loved Peter Finch in Robbery Under Arms, and the way it presented Australia on the screen. He had also grown up with Sidney Nolan's Ned Kelly paintings at the artists' retreat at Heidi, having seen them stacked in the corridors as a kid.
Mora thought the Australian anti-hero was a great tradition, and says he was struck by the brutality of the colonial authorities in Carnegie's book and felt some empathy for the criminals suffering from the treatment dished out to them, noting that while they were not especially likeable, it was also true that few became outlaws without first suffering from the lash and prison (it should however be noted that being branded "M" for Malefactor is not part of Morgan's historical record).
Mora wrote the screenplay on a ship sailing back to Australia in 1974. The ship stopped over for a day and a half in Cape Town, at the height of the apartheid era, and Mora found, even within that short time, that the treatment of the blacks was shocking. It prompted him to think of the treatment of Australian Aborigines in the nineteenth century, and after he read in Carnegie about Morgan's use of Aboriginal and half caste boys, he decided to combine them in the one indigenous character of Billy.
Mora himself had only met an Aborigine when painter Albert Namatjira came to one of his father's galleries for an exhibition of his work, and wanted to pay tribute to indigenous people.
Mora noted that even in 1974 when Dennis Hopper or the crew attempted to go into local pubs with Gulpilil for a drink, some would refuse to serve an Aboriginal person. (This led to a number of difficult scenes).
Mora re-wrote the script to allow for examples of David Gulpilil's bushcraft to feature.
What I wanted to get across was the beauty of the environment, the beauty of the landscape, contrasted against the grotesque, often grotesque, human activities, so you have this very mundane or banal violence if you like set against an incredible nature, an incredible, beautiful nature … I guess Billy's character represented that, Billy's character represented the unspoiled Australia and I don't mean that in a glib way at all …
He also decided that he would use the treatment of the Chinese on the goldfields as a motivation for Morgan's madness. He added in Morgan's use of opium and the Chinese massacre, which weren't in the original book, and he saw the Chinese scenes as a way of referencing Sam Peckinpah, in his Straw Dogs and The Wild Bunch mode.
Mora had been affected by The Wild Bunch because it portrayed violence in a way that showed that violence hurt, and he thought the grossness and goriness of some of the violence was more realistic than conventional movie treatments.
Dan Morgan was never called Mad Dog, he was known as Mad Dan, and Mora called his original draft Mad Dog not because it was a nick-name, but because the authorities at the time treated him like a mad dog, mutilated his body, cut off his head, and made a tobacco puch of his testicles.
Mora still prefers the title Mad Dog, but agreed to change it because John Fraser at Greater Union thought the film should be called by the name of somebody.
Bob Ellis and Anne Brooksbank wrote a 142 page film tie-in, with 8 pages of plates, published in Australia by Corgi Books and in the UK by Ealing, which was "based on the film by Philippe Mora" - more details at Trove about this edition here.
(Below: the film tie-in)
Interest in the film has remained extremely high over the years, and in July 2015 Currency Press published a ninety one page monograph on the film by Jake Wilson as part of its Australian Screen Classics series.
The monograph contains much more information about the film than a generalist site like Ozmovies could ever provide, and Wilson writes with a refreshing absence of academic, jargon and with a sense of humour about what surely is one of the more epic and surreal exercises in film-making ever to grace the antipodes.
Wilson even provides an epilogue: In Search of Morgan's Scrotum, but Ozmovies will provide no spoilers and will leave readers to discover his conclusions. (Wilson is a reviewer for Fairfax media, with his work here at time of writing, and he also has a website here, though he had ceased updating it at time of writing).
At time of writing, the book was listed at Currency Press for sale here, and is available through other suppliers.
(Below: the front and rear pages to Jake Wilson's monograph).
(a) Financing and Production:
According to Mora, his father Georges Mora - a well-known art dealer in Melbourne, then married to artist Mirka Mora - helped with financing the picture, and pulled together a number of rich Victorians and family friends to raise the budget. His colleague John Webb helped, as did Margaret Carnegie, who was mother of mining mogul Sir Rod Carnegie.
Mora also identified Victor Smorgon, a wealthy businessman and Lyn Williams, wife of artist Fred Williams, as investors, helping trigger investment by the Australian Film Development Corporation (which became the Australian Film Commission), along with a small amount from John Fraser at Greater Union, thereby ensuring B.E.F. would handle the film locally.
Looking back, producer Jeremy Thomas, who started out as an editor in the UK (his father was director Ralph Thomas) and who left England with director Mora in search of finance for their first drama feature, gave this overview of the production (link no longer working):
The film starred Dennis Hopper, we got Dennis Hopper somehow to be in this film and I think there were something like 120 speaking parts and only 400,000 dollars to make this film which was very much in awe of Sam Peckinpah. We made a Western in Australia. And that film got selected for a side-bar event in Cannes, and a film festival as usual came to my rescue, and rescued me from Australia to come back to Europe. So I moved back to Europe having had the hands on experience of making a film. The budget was made on a piece of paper, just page after page, and that is how the budget was constructed, never having made a film before, and a lot of the people who worked on the film were complete amateurs. I don’t know how it was completed or done because we were very irresponsible, but I think it is a very good way to start with a colleague or friend.
(b) Dennis Hopper:
Mora considered and/or approached a number of people about the leading role, including Stacey Keach (who turned it down) - according to David Stratton in The Last New Wave, the encounter was a disaster: Keach had firm views about how to play the character ("If I play him he will never apologise," he told Mora) and wouldn't budge.
Mora had been impressed by Martin Sheen in Malick's Badlands, but nothing came of it, and other names, such as Jason Miller, Alan Bates and Malcolm McDowell also drifted in and out of consideration.
Then Mora thought of Dennis Hopper, and so he went off to see the actor at his home in New Mexico, leading to many legendary stories about the encounter and the making of the film (see below). Mora later wondered whether Hopper's reputation might have hindered the filmin the United States - he told David Stratton he and Jeremy Thomas were unaware of the "incredible animosity there is towards Hopper in the film industry in America because of The Last Movie (the film Hopper directed following his successful directorial debut with Easy Rider; The Last Movie turned out to be unreleasable - and very costly). He was really unpopular; we had no idea what we were getting into politically in casting him."
But that reflection came later. Mora thought that Hopper was one of the few who gave the script an intelligent reading and 'got it'. He decided on an Irish accent for the character in full collaboration with Hopper, on the basis that Hopper could do it - records Stratton until Mora and Thomas were heartily sick of it - and anyway deciding that in 1850 there was in any case probably no such thing as an Australian accent, and that Morgan's mother Ann Telford was Irish, with the original name of Quinn. Again according to Mora she was was transported from Liverpool in the 1820s for stealing 14 yards of cloth.
Hopper wanted to wear the full Morgan beard, but Mora was concerned that audiences wouldn't see his face, citing Sam Fuller saying that the human face was the greatest landscape at all.
So he devised a reference to Abraham Lincoln which helped explain why Morgan kept his beard relatively short, so the audience could see his face, only returning to the full length black beard towards the end, ensuring the death scene would match death photographs of the real Morgan.
The stories arising from Dennis Hopper's appearance in the film now border on the mythological and were celebrated in the documentary about Ozploitation films, Not Quite Hollywood.
In no particular order, some of them are:
(i) When Mora and producer Jeremy Thomas went to meet Hopper in a small plane, they saw him standing at the end of the runway with a rifle in his arms, and a pick-up truck full of bullet holes. He told them to stay indoors, after 2am (1am and sunset in other versions of the yarn), especially if they heard shooting. Mora elaborated that story here:
Jeremy Thomas and I came to L.A. and met Martin Sheen, who wanted to do the lead—everyone actually wanted to do it—and Marty would’ve been great. Jason Miller, who’d just done The Exorcist, wanted to do it. So we ring up Dennis Hopper’s agent to see if he was available, and his agent’s head nearly popped through the telephone, like in a Tim Burton movie: “Yeah, he’s available!” So we took this little plane down to New Mexico, in Taos, and we get out of the plane, and there’s Dennis at the end of the runaway, dressed in tattered Levis, holding a rifle, just standing there and I remember thinking ‘That’s our Mad Dog!’ (laughs) So he takes us to his house in this battered old truck, which was riddled with bullet holes. And I said ‘Dennis, what’s with the bullet holes?’ He said “Oh, the Indians have been shooting at me. And that reminds me, you better be in your hotel when the sun goes down, because that’s when the shootings starts. Ha, ha, ha!” I mean it was just out of control in Taos back then: the booze, the guns, just crazy. We were in the one hotel in the center of town, and sure enough, when the sun went down, the shooting started. Dennis was still trying to cut The Last Movie and told us he’d like us to look at the latest version. So he drives us to the local cinema, which he owns, and all it shows is cuts of The Last Movie. (laughs) I found it very interesting, but obviously not commercial by normal standards. So Dennis agrees to do the film, and I mean, he was drinking, but I thought, so what? We were all young and drinking a lot back then, and had a lot more tolerance, not that I’m recommending every film crew should get shitfaced, I’m just saying that it wasn’t that big a deal. We did what we did, and we still got the film done. You know the famous stories about John Ford, that he alternated “wet movies” and “dry movies”?
(ii) Not long after Hopper stepped off the plane in Australia, he was met by Jack Thompson in his hotel. Thompson is alleged by Hopper to have told him that Australia had already had Mick Jagger come down and stuff up a portrait of a legendary bushranger. The last thing the industry needed was for another foreigner to screw up a portrait of another one of our national heroes, and if he wasn't ready to play the part, then he should have a good time, before getting back on the plane and leaving. Philippe Mora later pointed out that in 1850 everyone in Australia was a foreigner - apart from the original inhabitants - but it's not sure if he told Thompson this at the time.
(iii) According to Jeremy Thomas, Hopper was arrested and put in jail within a night of arriving in Sydney.
(iv) Hopper himself acknowledges he was quite mad on the picture - there's no question about it, I was in my cups and wild. Associate producer Richard Brennan said Hopper snorted a lot of cocaine while filming, and started drinking when he woke up in the morning, which was very early, such that he would occasionally collapse in the middle of scenes. According to Brennan, Hopper was 39 when he made the film, and Brennan never believed he'd hit 40.
(v) As a method actor, Hopper liked to drink while performing scenes that required him to act drunk. Because he'd heard Morgan liked OP rum, he developed a taste for 151 OP - the road to hell - and he also liked to drink whisky. In one scene, Mora persuaded him that he didn't need to drink to turn in a performance, and then secretly arranged for real whisky to be put in the bottle. Hopper loved the gesture.
Whatever the production manager and the first AD might have thought, Mora thought the 'rum method' of acting worked and the on-screen results were fantastic, suiting the character.
Mora subscribed to the notion that it was a sign of a bad actor and bad acting when you noticed an actor on the screen faked being drunk - audiences shouldn't notice the acting, but be involved in the story - and he thought Hopper getting drunk in the scenes involving the Macpherson family forced the other actors to display a genuine dislike of the bushranger. Mora noted that Hopper was a technician who cared about matters like continuity, but he did arrange for scenes involving alcohol to be scheduled late in the day, in case the schedule and the performance went south.
(vi) Sometimes the drinking involved more than rum, or so the Mora story-telling goes:
Earlier, woken by yodelling, I'd entered Hopper's room and found him drinking Old Spice aftershave with the ultra-Gonzo end of the crew.
“We ran out of beer,” said effects man Monty Fieguth, guiltily. “Want some?”
“No, I haven't shaved yet,” I said as I closed the door. But I had found my man for a mission.
Every drug dealer, bikie, movie fan and freak in Australia was apparently heading to my set to meet the Easy Rider. I asked Monty to turn every road sign in the opposite direction within a wide radius of us. It worked.
There are probably still freaks driving around trying to find us. (Mora writing on the making of the film for the Sydney Morning Herald, here)
(vii) Unlike Gulpilil, Hopper wasn't a very good horse rider - he was, according to Mora, used to Hollywood horses designed to be ridden by anyone, even the elderly. When confronted by the quarter-horses (Hopper insists on calling them race horses) supplied by Margaret Carnegie to the film, he didn't know how to handle them. As a result, the horses bolted on him several times, pleasing director Mora because he obtained some good footage of Hopper at full stretch on a horse.
(viii) As part of his method madness, Hopper stayed up all night because the script called for him to be asleep in the scene to be filmed the nest day. The theory was that when the crew got to set, they could film him sleeping, but then the schedule was changed.
(ix) After two weeks of filming, David Gulpilil disappeared from the shoot and went "walkabout". According to Mora, the production called the police, who decided the only way to find him was to get in aboriginal trackers. They went to the motel room, then headed into the bush and found him, bringing him back after three days (in some tellings of the story, four days).
When asked why he'd disappeared, and caused such grief to the schedule, Gulpilil said he had to go and ask the kookaburras and the trees about Dennis Hopper. They had advised him that Hopper was crazy, something that Mora said he or Hopper could have told him, and saved him the time. Hopper, who thought Gulpilil wise in the ways of nature and the bush, but at the same time beguiling in his innocence, then shared the same room with Gulpilil for awhile during the shoot.
(x) According to Mora, Frank Thring looked Hopper up and down when he first met him at a social event in a hotel, and in particular he looked at Hopper's crotch area, freaking Hopper out.
In the script (and in real life) the Thring character, Cobham, infamously ordered that Morgan's genitalia be turned into a tobacco pouch. Hopper took this to heart, and decided he couldn't be around Thring, so whenever Thring was around, Hopper would run away. Poor old Frank didn't understand the depths of Dennis's intensity, Mora proposed. Naturally the story has some variations in the telling:
Hopper immediately had an acute fear of Frank Thring who, in the script only, wanted to make a tobacco pouch out of Morgan's scrotum.
Inflamed by Stanislavski, rum, beer and psychedelics, Hopper hid in fear whenever Thring arrived.
The brilliant Thring, ever blasphemous, chardonnay in hand in the bush, was puzzled: “What is the matter with that boy? Doesn't he know I dated Jesus Christ in Hollywood?” Although he didn't use the word dated. (here)
Cobham's family would later object to this scene being in the film, but the historical records seem clear that it actually happened and Mora contended that Cobham was suspended for doing it.
(xi) While Mora wasn't bothered by Hopper's drinking - he thought he delivered a startling performance and the tight schedule was never delayed - the schedule did suffer on one occasion, when Hopper turned up to play a scene without his boots, saying 'fuck the boots man, I'm Mad Dog Morgan, I don't need boots'. The boots were eventually found stuffed into a freezer in the hotel, shoved there by Hopper because they smelled so badly. Mora pointed out that yesterday Mad Dog had his boots on and today it's the same scene, and it's not a film about magic boots.
Another anecdote along the same lines had Hopper declining to bathe because he was Mad Dog Morgan and didn't need to wash, until Mora pointed out that Morgan used to wash in the Murray river and so Hopper plunged in fully clothed.
(xii) Despite talk of his Warner Bros' "marine training" and ability to hit marks, and do the technical bits of acting, operator John Seale proposed Hopper was a difficult subject to film. He'd walk behind the camera, or move off marks, on the basis that the operator had to keep up with him, or forget it, the coverage would be a goner. And in one scene, which was extensively improvised and involved out of control horses and an out of control wind machine and an out of control Hopper, when Mora asked for a take two, Hopper exploded, and the pair had to walk off into the bush to discuss it.
(xiii) According to Mora, which doesn't necessarily make it true, in Morgan's death scene, an elderly actor who was a little blind and a lot deaf, and who explained he was doing it for the money, kept on missing his cue, which was to say "he's dead", when Hopper expired on camera. Eventually the actor suggested that Mora poke him with a stick when he wanted the line spoken, so Mora got a twenty foot long stick (it was a relatively wide shot) and poked the actor.
So Dennis dies, I poke the guy, he's dead, perfect, and then Dennis gets up and he says "Listen man, I've worked with some motherfuckers in my time, I've worked with some real arsehole directors, but I've never worked with an arsehole who pokes actors with a stick. What is that man, what are you doing, we're not puppets, we're not animals ... (as told in Not Quite Hollywood where Mora is more explicit than he is in the DVD commentary talking of "expletives deleted").
(xiv) At the end of the shoot, Hopper went to Morgan's grave, which was in the Chinese part of the cemetery, next to the urinal. He poured a bottle of OP rum over the grave, chug a lugged a fifth of 151 proof rum, allegedly in front of Mora's mother, artist Mirka Mora, then tore up the cemetery, got into the car with a bunch of people, announcing he'd once been a racing car driver, and drove away.
According to Mora, the Victorian police had previously announced that they would get Hopper in the same way they, not the NSW police, had got Morgan.
And so it allegedly came to pass, with the police pulling Hopper up and taking him back to the station for testing. The police advised that the amount of alcohol he had in his body meant that he was clinically dead, the magistrate concurred and sentenced him to be never allowed to drive a car in Victoria. The kicker to the yarn is that he also wouldn't allowed to be even a passenger in a car in Victoria, and that he was going to leave right now. They put him on a plane the next day ...
It was later said that Hopper could remember nothing of the filming, but he does in later interviews say it was one of his great life experiences. He defiantly notes that we weren't over budget, we weren't over schedule, and they got some magic.
Mora's own epitaph for the film might read we broke a lot of rules because we didn't know the rules.
He provided a summary of many of these stories for the Sydney Morning Herald in The Shooting of Mad Dog Morgan, 31 January 2010, and naturally the story became enhanced in the telling:
... I was getting what I believed was magic on film, setting grotesque 19th-century human behaviour against an extraordinary landscape. I created Francis Bacon figures in a Sidney Nolan landscape, with stunts inspired by Jean Cocteau.
Selecting the other key roles was a lot easier for director Mora. He had wanted Gulpilil since seeing him in Walkabout, and he had wanted Frank Thring from day one as Superintendant Cobham, because he thought he resembled Hollywood director and star Erich von Stroheim. He had admired Thring in many of his Hollywood escapades.
It must be said that it's hard not to enjoy a film which ends with Thring's plum voice enunciating his final line:
Frankly I consider Morgan scarcely human. Therefore he is not entitled to the consideration due to other men, however criminal. By all means, off with his head ... and don't forget the scrotum.
The cast is extensive, and it contains almost every Australian male feature film actor of any note in the period, from Jack Thompson to Michael Pate (and Pate's son) to Graeme "Alvin Purple" Blundell, as well as some odd ring-ins, such as TV personality Chuck Faulkner.
(c) Filming on location:
The film was located out of doors for about 80% of the shoot, and the schedule devised by associate producer Richard Brennan relied on clear warm spring weather.
Naturally two weeks before shooting started it began to rain heavily, at the time the heaviest rain ever recorded in the area, and as a result, the local creek in the Holbrook area flooded, rising over 22 feet and washing away virtually the entire set for the film's largest sequence, the massacre of the Chinese on the goldfields. The set was hastily re-built, and luckily the weather improved, meaning that the wet weather cover was thereafter adequate.
In one way, a natural disaster suited the film, with a bushfire happening in the area about a month before filming started, allowing Mora to get some second unit shots and helping the production to fake Morgan moving through a burnt landscape.
(d) Camera tricks:
DOP Mike Molloy had worked as an operator with Stanley Kubrick on several shows, including A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon. Mora had first met him years earlier when he was working as a newsreel cameraman and turned up at Mora's parents restaurant, the Balzac.
Molloy deployed a number of what were at the time novel notions for an Australian film, in particular using polarising filters. Mora wanted a sci fi landscape, with the Australian bush taking on a hyper-real presence.
Night scenes were filmed day for night, and the killing of the Bill Hunter character was done at magic hour.
The cave used was the real one used by Morgan the bushranger, and in silhouette the mouth of the cave looked like the shape of Australia in map form. Molloy insisted that key grip Graeme Mardell and gaffer Brian Bansgrove lug an arc light up to the cave mouth, a considerable feat considering the size of the light and the steepness of the climb.
At the time, Grant Page was the go to man for feature films in Australia for stunts. His most notable stunt was a 75 or 80 foot jump into a pool from a cliff while on fire. Director Mora used the footage in reverse slow motion to evoke bushranger Morgan having a nightmare, claiming that the images were inspired by the films of Jean Cocteau, most notably his two films about Orphée, and his use of slow motion.
However in the initial set-up for the main stunt, things went wrong and Page was burnt on the hand before the gell fire could be put out - because of the difficulty of staging the scene on the cliff edge, the safety crew couldn't get to him on time. (He wasn't wearing any protective asbestos or other fire-resistant suit).
After going to hospital for treatment, three days later Page turned up to do the big jump, and according to reports, he emerged from the water with blood coming out of his ears and nose.
(f) Production trivia:
Max Fairchild, the man who on-screen rapes Dennis Hopper's Morgan when he's in prison, was director Mora's head prefect at the University High School. When Fairchild said that Hopper's bum was the ugliest thing anyone's ever seen, Hopper replied that no one was more pleased to hear it than him.
A University High School prank was also the source for the film joke about a man looking down and thinking the gizzards draped over him and being eaten by a dog are his own.
When Gulpilil killed a snake for the camera, the snake was cooked, and the crew all ate a bit of the snake.
Bill Hunter's character was given a tear tattoo because director Mora had heard that this meant that the wearer had killed someone.
As part of the film's symbolism - which sees Morgan wear the skin of a thylacine to indicate that he too is about to become extinct - a dog was painted like a thylacine, with the aim of filming it to help establish the symbolism.
Instead the dog escaped from the hotel and because the budget and schedule were tight, another dog couldn't be arranged in time. Thereafter for several years there were thylacine sightings in the district ... or so the story goes.
In the DVD commentary, director Mora claims that he'd promised himself there'd be no kangaroos or kookaburras in the flm, something that he claims he now regrets, but in fact Gulpilil does a kookaburra voice imitation in the course of the action.
The re-creation of Gerry Duggan's head, which is blown apart by a shotgun in the opening Chinese massacre scene, was designed and built by Ivan Durrant, who would become a significant Australian artist. (wiki here)
(g) History trivia:
In his DVD commentary, director Mora suggests that the film is around 75% historically accurate, and that he now regrets he didn't take more poetic license. The actual locations were generally accurate, and so was the costuming.
Again according to Mora, he presentation of Morgan as a hero to some locals, protected by them and with a number of 'bush telegraphs' was also accurate, and Morgan was an inspiration for Ned Kelly, who would ride into battle crying 'Long live Dan Morgan'. Ironically, the judge who condemned Morgan, Redmond Barry, also sentenced Ned Kelly to hang.
The French photographer who follows Morgan was based on a real character.
The scenes featuring Morgan being unable to relate to women was a way of intimating an idea of the real man's sexuality. According to Mora, there is no indication he had any relationship with a woman, but he did have a lot of men friends. Mora suggests he didn't have any idea of how to deal with women, a common enough aspect of life in the bush at the time.
The baby that cries in the scene at the Macphersons, which sees Morgan agree to letting a woman go to attend the baby - and which leads to his downfall - is supposed to have been the man who went on to write Waltzing Matilda.
'Banjo' Patterson was related to the Baillieu family, a longstanding Victorian family, and Ian Baillieu was the film's lawyer ... or so the story goes (see Christina waltzes back into history for some support for the story).
The story proposes that the man who shot Morgan and posed next to his body (played by Martin Harris) was the same man who punched Morgan on the goldfields, but there is no evidence for this dramatic flourish.
Mora claims that the rest of the staging of Morgan's death is accurate, that he knew he was about to be killed, that his time was up, and that he didn't go out shooting, as he might have in a Hollywood version of the story.
Mora cut out a scene featuring Queen Victoria in London hearing about Mad Dan.
He also cut one scene with Frank Thring as Edward Booth, a famous American actor, doing Shakespeare, as it was too obviously Frank Thring.
A scene which showed Morgan going to the races, disguised as a squatter and sitting next to the magistrate in the film wasn't filmed for budgetary reasons.
A scene was also allegedly shot where a young Ned Kelly looks at a waxwork of Morgan, but wasn't used in the cut.
The reaction to the film was mixed, and box office was disappointing. The reaction amongst the new breed of film bureaucrats to the violence in the film was also predictable, as Mora noted:
The finished film immediately polarised audiences in Australia. The nascent film bureaucrats of the day were shocked, even horrified, when they saw the film. It was mentioned to me that Max Fairchild raping Hopper in prison, with Bill Hunter leering, was not their idea of promoting tourism in Australia. My wisecracks that I thought this, in fact, would encourage tourism didn’t help. (here)
The Chinese massacre also didn't help, but even so, Jeremy Thomas was a solid film producer hustler already at the age of twenty seven, and he talked up Mad Dog Morgan.
For example, in The Sydney Morning Herald of July 8 1976, he announced distribution deals all over the place, and boasted to the Australian press of how the film had won the Best Western Award at the International Festival of Westerns in Cannes, managing to conflate a minor festival screening with the Cannes Film Festival.
The alleged award led to some controversy at the time. Helen Frizell in her Herald review made a number of criticisms of the film's historical accuracy - the presence of didgeridoos down south when they were a northern tribal device particularly irked her ("ludicrous") and she awarded the film the Order of the Didgeridoo.
She also criticised the publicity for conflating the John Western Film Award in Cannes with the Cannes Film Festival, with only Schepisi's The Devil's Playground gaining an official screening that year (in the director's fortnight).
This led director Philippe Mora to pen a letter to the editor:
Mad Dog Morgan won the John Ford Trophy at the First International Festival of Westerns held at Cannes between June 29 and July 6. This festival, which shall be an annual event, was held as part of the bicentennial celebrations between France and the United States under the patronage of President Giscard D'Estaing.
This festival is separate from the Cannes Film Festival.
It is purely a western festival, as its name clearly suggests, and scores of films were entered from around the world. At the festival the distinguished French critic Henri Chapier (Quotidien de Paris) described Mad Dog Morgan as "one of the most original westerns ever made."
In view of the factual inaccuracy regarding the above festival in Helen Frizell's review, you are giving the public the erroneous impression that we have been advertising "misleadingly." This is not correct and, of course, highly unfair to us. I would greatly appreciate it if this matter could be mentioned in your columns. I look forward to receiving the Order of the Didgeridoo.
Philippe Mora, Motion Picture Productions, Sydney.
Frizell responded by saying she hadn't been talking about misleading advertising, but about misleading publicity. The conflation and confusion surrounding this award continues to this day in such sources as the Imdb.
David Stratton in his 1980 survey of the 1970s Australian revival, The Last New Wave, provided a summary of the film's commerical woes:
The film's box office response was disappointing. Mora is not sure how much it grossed in Australia, but the producers had (by the end of 1979) received only about $100,000 from the distributors as their precentage of the box office. Mora feels the main problem was the way the film was promoted by Greater Union. "They did an abysmal job," he says. "I think they hated the film, I blame myself because I had no experience in marketing a film like this. But, although I think they handled it badly, opening it a the wrong time, without trailers, without stills, without posters - all of which happened to Mad Dog Mortan, still if the film had been one the public wanted to see they'd have sought it out. The public wasn't very interested either."
As for international prospects:
Matters might have been easier for Mora if Mad Dog Morgan had been more successful, but the problems were compounded by an American sale at Cannes in 1976 to Cinema Shares: on paper it was an excellent deal,w ith a $300,000 guaranteed advance, but very little of the money was actually forthcoming. Strangely enough, the AFC declined to help Mora deal with Cinema Shares, although the commission had been a major investor in the film.
According to Stratton, Mora had three more features he wanted to do - one was Newsfront, later directed in 1978 by Phillip Noyce, and a new version of the Marcus Clarke novel For the Term of His Natural Life (with art critic Robert Hughes as writer) and a science fiction story, The Black Hole (later used as a title by Disney, but not connected).
Instead, says Stratton, "... He had not beenparticularly happy in the year he had been home. He had encountered indifference and even hostility in the local film community, where the general attitude seemed to be: Why have you come back?" Regretfully, he says: "I wouldn't say there was much co-operation from my peers at all.
Mora then settled in LA in 1979 to make a compilation documentary with Sandy Lieberson, The Times They Are A-Changing.
There is little evidence that during his lifetime Morgan was known as Mad Dog. He was known as Down-the-River Jack, and as Mad Dan Morgan, and as Billy the native (a title given to David Gulpilil in the film). When he was first arrested for highway robbery in Castlemaine, he even called himself John Smith.
For more details on the history of Morgan see his biography at the ADB here:
Morgan was often nervous and his moods could swing rapidly from an almost courtly treatment of prisoners to threats, rage and violence—hence his sobriquet, 'Mad Dan'. Although he was sometimes assisted by companions during his hold-ups, accomplices differed from robbery to robbery and he often worked alone. An imposing man, over 5 ft 10 ins (178 cm) in height, Morgan had dark hair worn in ringlets, a full, dark beard, hazel eyes and a long, hooked nose which some claimed made him look like a ferocious bird of prey.
The film contains a number of historical errors, some designed for dramatic purposes and some probably arising from the vexed filming conditions.
The film does however gain credibility by opening with a string of images featuring the work of S. T. Gill, an English-born artist active in Australia capturing life in the bush and on the goldfields. He died in 1880 and was buried in a pauper's grave, but later his portraits would come to symbolise nineteenth century Australia. (Gill has a wiki here and an ADB biography here). It also links the film to director Philippe Mora's family interest in the arts, and suggests the sort of Australian landscape imagery DOP Molloy and director Mora would celebrate in the film.
5. Philippe Mora:
At the time of directing Mad Dog Morgan, Mora was 26. Born in 1949, the son of artist Mirka Mora and art dealer George Mora, the Mora family was a part of the Heidi push (see the Heide Museum of Modern Art).
At La Trobe University, Philippe helped found the magazine Cinema Papers with Peter Beilby, then, encouraged by his parents to paint, he went to England, contributing to the satirical magazine Oz.
David Stratton in The Last New Wave provides a detailed account of Mora's provocative early years:
Mora came from from a very different background from most Australian filmmakers. He was born in Paris in 1949, and two years later his parents moved to Melbourne where his father, Georges, opened an art gallery. From an early age, Mora became fascinated by film, and at the age of eighteen he and a friend, Peter Beilby, published the first issue of a roneoed film magazine, Cinema Papers (the name being inspired by the French Cahiers du Cinema), in which they stated their manifesto loud and clear. "Local (film) production (is) uninspired, barely existent, pathetic. The Commonwealth Film Unit does not rate, nor do pseudo underground films. Local television pampers the idiotic mind. Let us hope - a hopeless hope - it is not indicative of the state of Australian consciousness. You Can't See Round Corners is devoid of wit, intelligence, form, humanism, meaning and sensitivity. Homicide is not worth a blink. Hunter is an hour long ad for toilet paper. The maxim that 'one cannot get money' is the excuse for mediocrity. Local criticism: uninspired, uninvolved, pathetic. Film criticism in the Australian, the Bulletin, the nation and the University Film Group Bulletins is mostly plagiaristic or sycophantic but always astonishingly devoid of sensitivity and intelligence. There is no one conscious, perceptive or dynamic in ideas. The writing is not worth reading (except perhaps, Sydney Cinema Journal, which we acknowledge).'
These fighting words were not those of armchair pundits; Mora and Beilby not only loved watching films, they went out and made them, using an 8mm camera. One of these efforts was a version of West Side Story, filmed in Melbourne's back streets, with Beilby in the George Chakiris role and Mora in the Russ Tamblyn role. Laer Mora graduated to 16mm and also started a film society at La Trobe University (Cinema Papers started life as the film society's magazine). After completing his studies he decided he wanted to become professionally involved in film and late in 1967 he departed for London where he lived with Martin Sharp in the same buildingn as Germaine Greer and other wellknown Australian expatriates.
While in the UK, Mora made a feature length tribute/musical satire dedicated to the gangster genre, Trouble in Molopolis, co-written with Peter Smalley, which saw Robert Stigwood part with a £1,000 to help top up the miniscule £6,000 budget, the first time the future mogul became involved with film.
Stratton provides a sympathetic account of the making of this "smell of an oily rag" exercise, while noting that few people actually saw the finished mix of in-jokes, Brechtian asides, corny musical numbers and wildly different styles of acting (or non-acting)...
Mora's next step was to interest Peter Sellers in playing Hitler in The Phantom versus the Red Reich, thereby meeting Sandy Lieberson, one time Sellers' agent as well as a film producer, and when the feature fell through, the pair did a documentary about Nazis directed by Lutz Becker, the 1973 The Double-Headed Eagle.
This in turn led to Mora's breakout feature length documentary, Swastika, a compilation of film footage used to examine Hitler's secret private life (the discovery of colour footage of Hitler in intimate moments contributed to the film's success).
This was followed by Brother Can You Spare a Dime?, another compilation documentary about the American depression, which saw him work with his close friend Jeremy Thomas, then working as an editor (Thomas would later go on to head Hanway, which would much later become involved in Australian features such as Rabbit Proof Fence).
After the commercial failure of Mad Dog Morgan, Mora made several other attempts to mount films locally, including a science fiction story The Black Hole (Disney later used this title, but there is no connection). Mora also says he interested art critric Robert Hughes in writing another adaptation of For the Term of His Natural Life, but couldn't raise any interest in another re-make of the story, and instead Hughes went on to write The Fatal Shore. Mora also hoped to make Newsfront, which was directed by Phillip Noyce in 1978.
During the 10BA days, Mora made a number of flawed feature films locally - in 1982 The Return of Captain Invincible, followed by Death of a Soldier, and a cult item which did little for his future career, Howling 111 The Marsupials - but it did signal that Mora would then do most of his B-grade pulp work in the United States. Few of his later films matched the crazed, if slightly incoherent and confused intensity of his first dramatic feature.
6. Indigenous Issues and Music:
The use of the didgeridoo, which has regional significance, caused some controversy, with Sydney Morning Herald critic Helen Frizell awarding the film the Order of the Didgeridoo on 13th July 1976:
After seeing Mad Dog Morgan at the Sydney Film Festival (I was asked not to review it until the time of its commercial release), I said it deserved the Order of the Didgeridoo. Explanation of this comes now.
The film introduces a part-Aboriginal, Billy (David Gulpilil), who becomes Morgan's companion. In their hide-outs around the Riverina, Billy teaches bush survival techniques to Morgan, and plays a few tunes on the didgeridoo as well. The sound is magnificent - but it would never have been heard in those regions.
Draw a straight line across Australia from Broome (WA) to Ingham (Queensland). Only north of that line did the didgeridoo sound. Thus, the playing of the didgeridoo in the Riverina is ludicrous.
This wasn't a major concern for Mora - a bigger concern for him and for Gulpilil was that some of the dances and songs performed by him for the film were tribal and were not meant to be heard by outsiders (the same issue that Gulpilil faced in Walkabout).
Mora thought that the works offered the film a "fantastic authenticity", part of the same brief he gave composer Patrick Flynn to use the authentic music of the time.
Flynn used Irish colonial and bush music, and Mora thought the combination of classical music and didgeridoo served to illustrate the conflict between the so-called primitive and the so-called civilised, though he suggested it was hard to say who was primitive and who was civilised.
Mora's vote was for proposing that the authorities' Darwinian, faux scientific, eugenics-driven mutilation of Morgan was in fact far less civilised and probably much more dangerous than the bushranger himself.
7. Copyright notice:
The end titles of the film contained an unfortunate error, with the Roman numerals used in the copyright notice giving the nonsensical date of MCMDXXVI, with D for 500 used instead of L for 50.
Some translate this as meaning the copyright year is 2426, but properly that should be MMCDXXVI.
What was intended was MCMLXXVI, or 1976. In any case, the copyright notice was meaningless and after the film's failure in the marketplace, like so many other government-funded films in the early revival, the film drifted into an ownership netherworld, without any active ongoing marketing or assertion of the rights.
As a result, the film was treated as public domain in the United States, with many poor editions derived from sources many steps removed from the original negative circulating in the marketplace.
The production report in Cinema Papers, June-July 1976, provides the following details of the shoot (in the original there is a photograph for each day):
Day 1: Monday, October 27, 1975, bush near Holbrook NSW, weather fine, 22 set ups
Day 2: Tuesday, October 28, granite outcrops near Walla Walla, fine, 18 set ups.
Day 3: Wednesday, October 29, abandoned bluestone quarry near Culcairn, fine, 27 set ups.
Day 4: Thursday, October 30, Benambra State Forest, NSW, rain and sun, 19 set ups.
Day 5: Friday, October 31, Benambra State Forest, NSW, rain and sun, 19 set ups.
Day 6: Saturday, November 1, Brae Springs Staton near Walla Walla, NSW, fine, 14 set ups (this location involved 4-wheel drives moving for three miles across rocky outcrops to a saddle of solid granite which commanded a breath-taking view of the valley below. Shooting was delayed by intermittent cloud cover).
Day 7: Monday, November 3, Jirrima Station, near Gerogery, NSW, rain, 13 set ups. Continuous rain on the Sunday turned this farming location into a quagmire, and three of the unit's 4 wheel drives became bogged. A tractor was called in to carry the camera crew's crane. It had to be winched out.
Day 8: Tuesday, November 4, Piney Ranges near Walbundrie, NSW, overcast, 11 set ups.
Day 9: Wednesday, November 5th, Jirrima Station, near Gerogery, NSW, rain and sun, 18 set ups, in which actor David Mitchell bites the dust after an encounter with Dan Morgan.
Day 10: Thursday, November 6th, Walla Walla Swamp near Walla Walla, NSW, showers, 16 set ups, featuring a difficult tracking shot of galloping horsemen.
Day 11: Friday, November 7th, Kiradeen stock reserve near Culcairn, NSW, fine, 14 set ups, in which Morgan's character encounters Graeme Blundell.
Day 12: Saturday, November 8th, Kiradeen stock reserve near Culcairn, NSW, fine, 15 set ups, scene involving Max Fairchild in a dying rage was later cut.
Day 13: Monday, November 10th, abandoned pub Cookardinia, NSW, hot, 12 set ups.
Day 14: Tuesday, November 11th, abandoned barn and stables near Cookardinia, NSW, hot, 13 set ups. A fire accidentally starts during an action scene, and the roof is re-strawed by the art department.
Day 15: Wednesday, November 12th, Corabobola Station, near Culcairn, NSW, hot, 13 set ups. Opening shot of the film at a two acre set for an 1850s goldfield.
Day 16: Thursday November 13th Corabobola Station, hot, 10 set ups. In the opium den, Gerry Duggan's head, created by Ivan Durrant, is blasted apart by special effects.
Day 17: Friday November 14th, Carabobola Station hot, 20 set ups, filming in the opium den continues.
Day 18: Saturday, November 15th, Flaxvale Station near Goonbarganam, NSW, hot, 20 set ups.
Day 19: Monday, November 17th, Urangeline Station, near Bidgeemia, NSW, hot 10 set ups. Blazing haystacks.
Day 20: Tuesday, November 18th, Urangeline Station, hot, 16 set ups, pigs feature in the shoot.
Day 21: Wednesday, November 19th Jindera Museum, Jindera, NSW, fine 8 set ups.
Day 22: Thursday, November 20th, Jindera Museum, Jindera NSW, fine 8 set ups.
Day 23: Friday, November 21st Yarra Yarra Station, near Holbrook NSW, hot 15 set ups.
Day 24: Saturday, November 22nd, Yarra Yarra Station, hot, 18 set ups.
Day 25: Monday, November 24th, Morgan's Cave, Yambla Range, near Gerogery, NSW, hot, 20 set ups. Sunday was used by the crew to move equipment by four wheel drive, and then by miles by foot into the rugged foothills of the Yambla range. They camped overnight, and then were joined by the rest of the crew on the Monday morning. It took two hours to get in and four to get out, leaving only a few hours for filming.
Day 26: Tuesday, November 25th, Woolpack Inn Museum, Holbrook, NSW. fine, 16 set ups. Filming Queen Victoria (Maggie Blinco) and Prince Albert (Tony Hawkins) in Queen Victoria's boudoir, mocked up in a set in the museum's Victorian bedroom display. The scene was dropped in the cut.
Day 27: Wednesday, November 26th, Shed, Holbrook, NSW, fine, 18 set ups, featuring a series of time transition shots.
Day 28: Thursday, November 27th, Piney Ranges near Walbundrie, NSW, fine 22 set ups DOP Molloy arrives on set with a broken hand after a motor cycle accident.
Day 29: Friday, November 28th, Woolshed Falls near Beechworth, Victoria, fine, 6 set ups.
Day 30: Saturday, November 29th, Woolshed Falls, hot, 12 set ups. Stunt day for Grant page and Dennis Hopper.
Day 31: Monday, December 1st, bush near Stanley, Victoria, fine, 8 set ups. Grant Page gets knocked off horse in tree branch stunt.
Day 32: Tuesday, December 2nd, Gunpowder magazine near Beechworth Victoria, rain and cloud, 16 set ups, scene dropped in final cut.
Day 33: Wednesday, December 3rd, Courth House Beechworth, Victoria, rain, 14 setups, Frank Thring and the gang in court.
Day 34: Thursday, December 4th, Court House, Beechworth, Victoria, fine, 18 set ups, the court house scenes contnue.
Day 35: Friday, December 5th, Woolshed Falls, fine, 17 set ups, more exploding flesh as a .39 calibre bullet is fired point blank into an Ivan Durrant model's hand.
Day 36: Saturday, December 6th Ovens River, Whorouly, Victoria, rain, 4 set ups. The bulk of the crew had left on Friday to do a day's pick-ups in Sydney on the Monday. A skeleton crew rose at 3 am to shoot the final scene, a dawn river crossing.
Day 37: Monday, December 8th, day of pick-ups in Sydney, NSW.